Safe preservation of venison begins in the field. A special concern with venison is chronic wasting disease. Harvest only healthy-looking deer. Avoid eating the eyes, brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils or lymph nodes of any deer. Care must be taken to avoid contamination of the meat while dressing, handling and transporting it. Field-dress the deer as soon as possible and quickly cool the carcass to 35 to 40 F. Transport the carcass to a processing facility as soon as possible and keep it cool during transport. Practice cleanliness: wash your hands, knife and cutting boards frequently with warm, soapy water.
Many people enjoy canned meats, including venison, because the processing breaks down the muscle tissue, making it very tender. The directions for canning venison also apply to beef, veal, lamb, pork or bear. All meats are low-acid foods and must be processed in a pressure-canner at the proper pressure and for the proper time. Boiling water-bath processing, even for an extended period of time, never gets above 212 F and will not provide enough heat to destroy bacterial spores that can cause illness. The temperature in a pressure canner needs to be 240 F to destroy botulism spores. This is reached at 10 pounds pressure in a weighted-gauge canner and 11 pounds pressure in a dial-gauge canner at altitudes of 1,000 feet or below.
After slaughter, keep all meat at 40 F or lower until you are ready to can it. If you must keep it longer than a few days, freeze it. Trim meat of gristle and bruised spots. Remove as much fat as possible before canning, because fat left on the meat will melt and climb the sides of the jar during processing. If this fat comes into contact with the sealing edge of the lid, the jar may not seal. Wiping the lip of the jar with a clean paper towel dipped in vinegar helps to remove fat from the sealing surface.
Venison can be packed into jars hot or raw as strips, cubes or chunks. Hot packing is preferred as the quality of the meat is better. Strong-flavored game should be soaked for one hour in a brine made from 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water. Rinse brined meat. Cut into 1-inch-wide strips, cubes or chunks. To hot pack the meat, pre-cook it to the rare stage by roasting, stewing or browning in a small amount of fat. Pack hot meat loosely into hot jars leaving 1 inch of headspace. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt per pint if desired. (Salt may be added for flavor, but is not necessary for the safety of the product.) Fill prepared jars with boiling meat juices, broth, water or tomato juice. If using broth, discard any fat that might have accumulated when cooking the meat. Tomato juice is especially desirable for masking the strong flavor of venison. A slice of onion may be added for flavor. Remove air bubbles and seal. To use the raw pack method, add 1/2 teaspoon salt to each pint jar, if desired. Pack raw meat into hot jars, leaving 1 inch of headspace. Do not add any liquid in the raw pack. The meat will form its own liquid as it cooks in the pressure canner. When it is processed, raw-packed meat will not be totally covered by liquid and will have a greater headspace than when it was packed in the jar.
Process hot-packed or raw-packed meat as follows: pints for 75 minutes and quarts for 90 minutes at altitudes up the 1,000 feet; process in a dial-gauge pressure canner at 11 pounds pressure or in a weighted-gauge canner at 10 pounds pressure. Make adjustments for higher altitudes. In a dial-gauge canner at altitudes between 2,001 and 4,000 feet, use 12 pounds; between 4,001 and 6,000 feet, use 13 pounds; between 6,001 and 8,000 feet, use 14 pounds. In a weighted-gauge canner at altitudes above 1,000 feet use 15 pounds pressure.
Ground venison may be canned, although freezing gives a higher quality product. A ratio of one part high quality pork fat to three or four parts of venison improves moistness. Shape the ground meat into patties or balls, and cook until lightly browned. It may also be sautéed as crumbles. Remove excess fat. Sausage should be seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper rather than with sage, which causes a bitter off-flavor when canned. Sausage that is in a casing should be cut into 3- or 4-inch links. Pack hot meat loosely into hot jars, cover with liquid, and process the same as for meat strips or chunks.
Two publications about venison are available from Penn State Extension. Look for “Proper Care and Handling of Venison from Field to Table” and “Proper Processing of Wild Game and Fish." Or, ask if they are available at your local Extension office.
If you have food preservation questions, a home economist is available to answer questions on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., by calling 717-394-6851 or writing Penn State Extension, Lancaster County, 1383 Arcadia Road, Room 140, Lancaster, PA 17601.