STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Harvesting your own wild game, like growing your own vegetables, may be resourceful and gratifying, but it’s work, nonetheless.
Longtime hunter Andy Holland, who calls himself “an experienced amateur,” says the job is done when the meat is wrapped, labeled and stacked in the freezer, ready for his family and friends to cook and enjoy.
For Holland, who is the big game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, hunting is a labor of love. (Full disclosure: He also is husband to Beth Holland, the Durango Herald’s food editor.) He shows passion and respect for all phases of the game – from the fair chase, to the careful field dressing to the time-consuming preparation that is essential to butchering.
The scrubbed-clean cutting surface in his compact kitchen is clutter-free, except for a knife sharpener, boning knife and a beef-butchering chart that details the anatomy of a cow’s hind quarters. When it comes to butchering game at home, beef comes close to elk.
Wild-game processing is an annual ritual for Holland, who learned from his father, Tom Holland. Because game processing happens only once a year, the younger Holland reviews and weighs every decision in the process, from how the elk is dressed in the field to how it should land in the skillet.
He has done this for 28 years, but says he is continually honing his skills with the goal of preserving as much quality meat as possible.
“My father taking me (hunting) at a young age and instilling the passion – that’s why I’m so hooked on it today,” Holland said.
He was only 7 years old and probably more work than help to his father on his inaugural hunt of white-tail deer in Montana, Holland said.
Holland recalls as a child the first time he helped his father butcher game at the family’s kitchen table:
“I used a plastic knife,” he said.
His mom, Brenda, often labeled and wrapped the steaks and roasts, but his sisters, who also were introduced to hunting, never fully developed the interest.
“They usually dodged the duty,” Holland said.
Hunters who do not do their own processing can expect to spend “on average $300” to have an elk readied for the freezer, packaged into steaks, roasts and burgers, said Kevin Schuchart, owner of Pagosa Springs’ The Buck Stops Here, a professional meat-processing business.
Schuchart processes around 650 elk each year, generally servicing hunters who travel to the area more so than locals. Meat can be made into sausage or jerky, too, and be can shipped across the country, but these costs are above the 85-cents-a-pound hanging carcass weight for regular cuts, he said.
Processing game at home is “totally doable” and inviting friends to help “knits the tribe a little closer,” Holland said.
Recently, Holland invited his Colorado Parks and Wildlife colleague and novice hunter Leigh Gillette to help him process the hind quarters of an elk he shot in November. Gillette watched intently as Holland removed silver skin, fat and tendons from the red meat.
“There’s not one exact way to do things,” he said. “You experiment with how long to age the meat ... You refine your skills with experience.”
“I can adapt how I butcher to the tenderness of the animal,” Holland said, pointing to the hindquarters of the 5-year-old cow that had been aging for a week in Holland’s garage.
He said he expected this elk to be tender and tasty.
Like Holland, Gillette said she wants control over the entire hunting and butchering process from field to plate, whenever possible.
“You know where each piece of meat has been,” Gillette said. “(Home meat processing) is the opposite of what you see at the giant meat processing plants. Plus, you have some choice. You can cut steaks as thick as you want, so you are able to match your cooking technique.”
Holland continued to teach the curious few who were gathered in his kitchen. He pointed out the difference between top and bottom round. He showed the group how to cut against the grain, swiftly severing long, thin, muscle fiber bundles to make uniform-sized chops.
Gillette tasted the tooth-tender steaks, lightly seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, then pan-fried in olive oil and butter – the reward for helping wrap and label the game.
Two-inch thick chunks of bottom round became roasts. Leaving them intact as roasts allows for the flexibility of later cutting them into smaller chunks for stew or steaks.
The steaks and burger are the first to be plucked from the freezer, because that is what his family prefers. Holland still is learning how to prepare the less-tender cuts of roast, he said.
Little goes to waste, but Holland recognizes that trimming out the trash and tossing the tough bands of fibrous, connective tissue makes sense. There is little fat in elk, yet some scrap is shared with Holland’s dogs, who also get an occasional long bone as a treat for not being underfoot.
Elk burgers need fat for flavor, so Holland adds organic beef fat from Sunnyside Meats to what will be packaged as hamburger. Ten to 14 percent fat makes for a juicy burger, Holland has learned from years of experimenting.
Elk sausage needs pork and seasonings added to it. A family meat grinder, passed back and forth from father to son, sits close to the kitchen sink and does its job as Holland feeds chunks of meat multiple times through the blades to get the ground meat consistency he prefers.
“It’s humbling to kill something, and it’s a little sad,” he said. “But some of that sadness goes away and is replaced by the excitement that comes with getting down to business ... breaking the animal down into parts that can be shared with family and friends.”