I have had lots of people ask about aging a deer. They typically want to know how to age venison and why I do it, along with many other questions. So, I figured it was about time I wrote an article on the subject and hopefully I can cover everyone questions.
First thing is first, some people have a hard time believing that aging a deer is a good thing–they think I am letting the deer rot and find it gross. I have even heard some call it a controlled rot or controlled decomposition. I can assure you if done properly the deer does not rot or spoil in any way.
Rotting is when bacteria takes over and eats away at the deer. The stench of a decaying deer will be evident. When a deer is aged properly natural enzymes, not bacteria, break down sinew, membranes, and other connective tissues (collagen) and tenderize the meat and this also removes the gaminess of the deer.
You must keep the deer in a cool place with the required temperature in order to keep bacteria away. The temp has to be above freezing and no warmer than 40 degrees–between 34-37 degrees is perfect. There are different ways of keeping the deer cool and we’ll get to that, but first I had to cover the rotting deer question.
I’ve also heard, “I don’t have time for aging.” and my favorite, “It’s not worth it. It’s going to taste the same no matter what you do to it.” It really doesn’t take a lot of hands-on time and it’s so worth it. The meat does have a different taste and tenderness I promise.
I’ve also heard, “Aging dries out the meat, so why would I want to do that?” Not all aging methods are the same. Dry aging venison does tend to dry the outer layer of meat, especially if you age the deer for an extended amount of time. The dried meat has to be trimmed away, but wet aging never dries out the meat.
And finally the big question, “Why should I age my venison?” Aging venison makes it very tender. So tender that you’ll notice a huge difference. Plus, the flavor is much better. So, my question is, why wouldn’t you age your venison? If you’ve never aged venison, I beg you please try it–just once and see if you like it better.
Ok, now that we got that out of the way let’s talk about the different methods of aging venison.
Wet Aging Venison:
There are two different methods to wet aging venison, and it doesn’t matter which method you choose because both will produce the same delicious venison. They both are extremely easy.
Wet aging venison basically consists of letting packaged venison sit in its own juices while the natural enzymes break down creating a tender, less gamey, oftentimes sweeter meat. This is how most store-bought beef and other meats are aged.
Wet Aging (after freezing):
First, of course, you will need to skin and quarter the deer. Rinse all of the meat well, dry, and proceed to debone, separate the muscle groups, slice steaks, make ground burger, etc… Then vacuum seal and freeze immediately. The aging process in this method doesn’t happen until you remove the meat from the freezer.
When you’re ready to eat some venison, remove it from the freezer, let it thaw and sit in the refrigerator for 7-14 days, depending on the age of the deer–the older the deer the longer aging time. Younger deer will be fine with 7 days. After aging, use the venison as you normally would.
Wet Aging (before freezing):
The next method is basically the same as above, but the aging is done before freezing. The venison is deboned and the muscle groups are separated and then vacuum sealed and kept in a refrigerator for 7-14 days. Then the venison is removed from the vacuum bags, and processed as desired (steaks, etc…). Then it’s vacuum sealed and frozen. When ready to eat, thaw and fix as desired.
Dry Aging Venison:
With dry aging, the natural enzymes break down the same as with wet aging, but it also purges moisture from the muscles, creating a more meaty flavor–a more bold taste. Don’t get the wrong idea–it’s not going to cause a more gamey taste, but a more defined beefy taste…I know it’s not beef, but that’s the best way I can explain it. You’ll have a tender, less gamey, bold tasting meat.
Dry aging can be done in a walk-in cooler, a spare refrigerator, outdoors or in a cooler (ice chest). You will want to field dress the deer as you normally do and some like to remove the tenderloins aka sweet meat before aging as well. For some reason, they tend to dry out too much and honestly they are the best cut of meat and in my opinion, they don’t really need aging.
Some like to remove the hide before aging, but this causes a very thick outer layer of dried out meat and fungus (not rot, but fungus like a well-aged cheese). This layer has to be cut away. You’ll be wasting some meat. I enjoy venison too much to waste any of it, so to avoid that you can leave the hide on. The choice is yours–experiment and judge for yourself.
Some like to dry age venison for up to 4 weeks, which is perfect for beef, but venison is not beef. Venison doesn’t have the fat and connective tissue like beef and doesn’t really need to be aged that long. Personally, I would dry age a young deer for no longer than 7 days and older deer for up to 14 days.
Keep in mind, the older the deer, the tougher and that’s why it needs longer aging time.
Walk-in Cooler Dry Aging:
Using a walk-in cooler (commercial or homemade) will provide constant temp and humidity control and will allow you to leave the deer hanging for as long as you like. If you use this method, you’ll need to have air circulation from a small fan of some sort, but make sure it’s not directly blowing on the meat.
It’s important to make sure the thermostat and humidity gauges are working properly and make adjustments as needed. The temp has to be above freezing and no warmer than 40 degrees and the humidity level between 75-85%. To increase the humidity, pour salt in a small bowl and add water–just enough to saturate.
When done aging, trim the dried out / fungus layer (if any) from the venison and process the meat as you wish–making steaks, roasts, burger, sausage, etc…
Refrigerator Dry Aging:
You can dry age a deer in an extra refrigerator that doesn’t have anything else inside. Skin, and quarter the deer and lay all of the pieces inside without touching. I recommend a refrigerator that has wire racks–not glass. This way, the entire piece can get adequate air flow.
If you don’t have access to a refrigerator that has racks, you can buy small tubs or a cookie sheet and stainless steel wire cooling racks for baking and insert the racks inside the tubs or cookie sheets, place the venison quarters on the rack and then place it in the refrigerator.
You can also take out all but the top rack of the refrigerator and place the backstraps, tenderloins or any other small pieces you have on the top rack and then tie the four quarters to the bottom of the rack with a zip tie making sure they are not touching. Sometimes the deer is too tall to hang in this manner, so just lay them flat as mentioned before.
Since dry aging does cause drying out of the meat and waste, I personally would recommend aging for maybe 5-7 days only. This will age the deer, but reduces the amount of venison you’ll lose due to cutting away dried out meat. With dry aging, the longer the process, the more waste.
When done aging, process the venison as you wish.
Outdoor Dry Aging:
This is hanging the deer in a building or garage. You could also hang it in the shade outdoors, but it has to be a constantly shaded area. With the outdoor method, temp and humidity regulation will be a huge concern. Keep in mind, you’ll have no influence whatsoever, especially if left hanging outside. In a building or garage you could place humidifiers, heaters, fans, etc…whatever the temperature calls for to help regulate it, but you will definitely have to keep a very close eye on things.
Also, you’ll have a concern about keeping creatures away. You can always use game bags or cheesecloth to keep bugs off, but if left hanging outside what about a hungry coyote, opossum, mice, etc.. To me, this is just too much stress, so personally I’ll never try this method. I feel it is a worthy mention and had to include it because someone else might be interested.
Cooler Dry Aging:
The cooler dry aging method is very popular and is the method I favor. Perhaps it’s because it is one of the easiest ways to age venison, especially here in the South where the temps are pretty high during bow season.
First, skin and quarter the deer and clean thoroughly. Then make sure the cooler has a drain plug. You’ll need to drain the melted ice and blood from the cooler daily, if not more in warmer temps.
Then add a layer of ice to the cooler. Some like to bag the venison in unscented trash bags, so the ice and water don’t touch the venison. Then add the shoulders and cover with a layer of ice. Then add the hams and some ice and finally add the backstraps and tenderloins if you wish (some don’t age these cuts) and cover completely with ice.
If the cooler is not big enough for the whole deer that’s ok. Use as many as you need, just make sure all of the meat is covered in ice and all the coolers have drain plugs.
Next, so that the venison isn’t sitting in a cooler of water, open the drain and prop up the other side of the cooler up so that the excess water and blood can drain properly. You can leave the cooler in a garage or building, but you’ll need to make sure the drainage has somewhere to go besides the floor. It’s best if you can put the cooler outside in the shade and on a hill.
Constant drainage will keep the meat fairly dry. It’s important to keep checking the ice and add more as needed. 5-7 days of aging is plenty long enough with this method.
When done aging, remove venison piece by piece until all is processed and packaged. I like to put the shoulders on the bottom, so I can save them for last. The shoulders, in my opinion, are the toughest cut of venison, so if they are aged an extra day or two it will only help.
So, there you have it–how to age venison and why I feel you should. I hope I’ve answered all of your questions. If I left anything out, please feel free to contact me and I’ll do my best to answer.
Please note, this post is an information guide in hopes to answer all of the questions I’ve been asked over social media, email, and/or in person. I am in no way saying you HAVE to age your venison or that you have to age it in any particular way. People all over the country age their venison and it seems we all do it a little different and there’s nothing wrong with that.
My goal with this post is simply to encourage my readers to consider aging their venison by sharing as much information as I can about the different methods of aging–how they do it and if they do it is their choice.
How do you age your venison?