No one wants to eat rotten meat.
On the flip side, no one wants to chew on shoe leather, either.
So to avoid those two extremes, the question successful deer hunters face shortly after putting away their rifle or crossbow is: How long should I hang my deer before cutting it up?
The answer to that question is definitive: It depends.
On average, five to seven days is the ideal length of time to hang your deer.
This length of time will allow the meat time to cool, move past rigor mortis, and collagen to begin to break down.
This will result in meat that is both tender and flavorful. But there are several factors that will affect this equation.
Why Do You Hang A Newly Killed Deer?
The purpose of hanging a dressed deer is to allow the carcass to cool and the meat to age, increasing both tenderness and flavor.
Soon after the death, the deer will go into rigor mortis, where the muscles will contract and stiffen. This period can last from 12 to 24 hours and is the absolute worst time to butcher your deer.
If you cut up and freeze the meat before the rigor mortis phase completes you will end up steak that is slightly more tender than belt leather.
After the muscles loosen from rigor mortis, natural enzymes will begin to slowly break down the collagen between the long muscle cells of the meat.
More collagen means tougher meat. Young animals have less collagen in their muscles, which is why they are more tender than older deer.
Extending the hang time on older animals will give more time for the enzymes to do their work, and roll back some of the toughness that comes with age.
What Temperature Is Right For Hanging A Deer?
Temperature plays a huge role in where and how long you should hang your deer.
There is a temperature sweet spot where it is warm enough to keep the meat from freezing, but still cold enough to inhibit bacteria growth. The range of 34-37 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
If you go much colder than 34 you will freeze the meat and wreck the tenderness.
Where I live in Maine the temps can vary significantly during deer season from year to year, and frequently we have snow on the ground and below freezing weather at night.
When that happens hanging the deer in your barn or garage can be enough to shield it from the cold while it ages.
As the temperature moves up towards 40 degrees things change. On the plus side, the collagen breaks down faster, shortening the required hang time.
But if the temperature gets too warm – say above 45 – you risk the possibility of spoilage if it hangs too long.
By the upper 40’s your best bet is to let it hang for 24 hours to get past rigor mortis and then process it for the freezer.
It is important to note that we are talking about the meat temperature – not just the temperature of the air around it.
Using a meat thermometer (preferably digital) is a good way to monitor things if you are hanging your deer for longer periods.
If you hunt deer in a warmer climate – say one of the southern states – then hanging the meat outside won’t be an option at all.
The best-case scenario then is to have access to a walk-in cooler where you can control the temperature and age the meat properly.
Since most of us don’t have that a spare fridge can work if you quarter the animal.
When that isn’t a possibility the other alternative is to skin the deer at the same time as you dress it, cut the meat off the bones, and store them in a cooler to age it that way.
How Does Deer Hang Time Vary By Age?
If you shot a yearling buck or a doe – congratulations, you are in for some good eating.
These animals are typically the most tender and don’t require a long hang time. Just keep them hanging for 2-4 days to get past the rigor mortis stage, and then have them processed.
A buck that has moved into middle age – say 2 to 4 years old – will be better if you can let it hang anywhere from 5-8 days.
This will give the enzymes plenty of time to work at dissolving that collagen and tenderizing your meat. Again, that is 5 to 8 days in the ideal temperature range.
Deer older than that will benefit from an extended hang. There is nothing wrong with hanging an older deer for 10-12 days, assuming you can control the temperature.
A proper hang can make an older deer as tender as a young one, and give it a more flavorful taste.
Should You Hang Your Deer Head-Up Or Down?
The majority of hunters will field dress their deer where it falls (hence the name “field dress”) without hanging the deer.
That isn’t the easiest way to do it – when the deer is suspended head up while dressed gravity is a great help in getting the innards out.
But the ease of cleaning it while hanging is usually weighed against dragging out a deer filled with guts, and comes out the loser almost every time.
Most hunters will put up with a little extra digging around in a chest cavity to save their back.
But when it comes to hanging the deer to cool and age the meat, head down may be the better option.
Everyone knows that heat rises, and a heads-up deer has a natural cavity to catch that heat. That can pose a problem, especially if you are dealing with warmer than ideal temps.
Hanging the animal by its hind legs puts the wide-open end at the top for a faster cool.
Skinning the deer will also accelerate the cooling process, as removing the outer layer makes it easier for the heat to escape.
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