Minneapolis cooking classes teach how to field-dress a deer

A review of this and other gems from Community Education

Inside a shop classroom, Swendsen carved the primal cuts on a plastic-topped table. The tenderloins, he explained, are best removed from the interior of the rib cage as the animal is field-dressed, so they retain moisture. He cut out two small lumps of meat shaped almost like railroad spikes. "These pieces eat like candy," he said of venison's most prized bits, as he offered a few cooking suggestions.

The backstraps are long tubes of meat that run along the length of the deer's spine. Though they look like a beef or pork tenderloin, the backstraps are the venison equivalent of a rib eye or New York strip. To remove the backstraps, Swendsen ran his knife along the bumpy bones, as if he were rasping a güiro. "Find the bone, follow the bone," Swendsen repeated at least a dozen times. He showed us how removing the silverskin from a muscle is similar to filleting a fish: Set the piece skin-side down, put your knife blade parallel to the table, and slice away from yourself. A few times, Swendsen absentmindedly wiped a blood-smeared hand on the side of his jeans the same way a professor might clean off a chalk-dusted palm.

Swendsen's demonstration deer weighed about 100 pounds live, and from it Swendsen removed about 40 pounds of meat, all of which was very lean, with really no marbling. After he brought the second half of the carcass inside, Swendsen cut out the sirloin tip—the animal's third most desirable cut, which is shaped like a squat, plump football—and explained how to turn it into solid-muscle jerky. "Bring this to your buddies and you'll be a rock star," he said. "It's a sweet piece of meat."

Admittedly, I didn't pay the closest attention to Swendsen's lecture: I figured I was about as likely to be removing a deer's sirloin tip "football" as tossing a pigskin to a NFL receiver. But sure enough, a few weeks later, I found my newfound skills put to the test as I stood in a friend's garage and called out instructions from my Deer Dummy booklet as he hung his kill from the rafters.

After peeling off the hide, we brought the carcass into the house in sections and each set to work on a piece. I held the rib cage and slipped my knife along each side of the spine, repeating Swendsen's mantra about running the blade across the bone. With one final slice, I removed my first backstrap, a thick ropey muscle as big as my forearm. This would be dinner, thanks, in part, to Community Ed.

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