Editor's note: Video in the player above contains images of raw venison. Viewer discretion advised.
WAYNESVILLE, Ohio -- Twelve hunting enthusiasts journeyed over the (Little Miami) river and through the woods (down a steep, snowy hill) Wednesday night with a dozen different reasons to learn how to can and smoke venison.
“I haven’t hunted, fished, picked berries or anything in over 20 years. I just came to eat!” said Joe Keaton of Dayton.
His wish came true at a free venison-canning workshop hosted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Division of Wildlife at the Spring Valley Shooting Range.
John Green of Dayton said he lost all his deer meat this summer when a freezer failed, a common bond among several of the participants. Others like Heather Sabin of Centerville were looking for new recipes and canning techniques.
Marilyn Kramer, from just down the road in Spring Valley, said she had canned venison before and just wanted to see if she’d done it right.
Venison boasts half the fat of beef and additional protein and iron, according to the Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database, making it a great addition to dishes like the venison queso dip and barbecue venison sliders that workshop attendees snacked on.
Chris Mangen, an outdoor skills specialist with the Division of Wildlife, said growing interest in “foodie” culture and natural, free-range food and the desire to recruit and retain hunters in the Buckeye state inspired him to organize the first pressure-canning workshop in 2015 and then repeat it this month. He said convenience is his No. 1 reason for canning his own venison.
“I’m still basically a college student,” Mangen said. “When I come home from work, I didn’t think about it the night before to get some meat out of the freezer half the time, so I like to walk in the door, grab a can of meat, and it’s ready to rock. Throw it in the pan, and I’m eating in five minutes.”
Canned venison means Mangen can grab 10 jars of meat to take on a camping trip without the need for ice and bulky coolers taking up extra space. Another benefit is how long canned meat stays safe to eat.
“You hear stories of people eating canned military stuff from WWII,” said Justin Walters, a fish biologist for the Division of Wildlife. “It just might not taste as fresh, but as far as getting sick, as long as it’s sealed, it’s good pretty much forever.”
Not just a rural sport
The more rural Adams, Brown, Clermont and Highland counties unsurprisingly see a much larger deer harvest each year, but hundreds of deer are harvested each year within Hamilton County.
Since 2007, the Cincinnati Park Board has opened portions of 10 city parks to bow hunters to protect Hamilton County’s ecological diversity from the damage that overpopulations of deer can cause while snacking in the Queen City’s wooded areas.
“If we do nothing, we stand the chance of really changing our forest composition,” said Jim Godby, who heads up Cincinnati’s deer management program. “We’ve noticed a loss of wildflowers in California Woods and some other parks. We’re trying to increase diversity in park woodlands so that saplings and seedlings stand a chance.”
California Woods had more than five times the Division of Wildlife-recommended population of 15 to 20 deer per square mile, as estimated by the Park Board’s aerial infrared surveys. Mount Airy Forest, Ault Park and others are also significantly overpopulated, Godby said.
Deer don’t just pose a danger just to Cincinnati’s wildflowers. Drivers reported 527 deer-related crashes in Hamilton County in 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Unlike their country brethren who get hunted, Godby said death for urban deer is frequently not instantaneous.
“The urban deer is killed by automobiles or by trying to jump a fence and getting impaled,” Godby said. “Apply the perspective of those forms of death as compared to bow hunting. In my opinion, bow hunting is much more humane than being hit by a car, having your legs broken and possibly surviving that to be dragged around and eaten by coyotes.”
The Parks Board has studied everything from contraception to sterilization to inaction and settled on bow hunting as the most efficient, economical method of limiting the deer population. Even though Godby said bow hunting is historically a very safe sport, he realizes it’s a balancing act to have hunters out controlling the deer population while ensuring hikers can enjoy the fall color or fresh snowfalls.
“We kind of vet these hunters. We let them know, ‘Hey, you’re working in an urban park. Even though our parks are closed for this, you’re going to encounter hikers and dogwalkers, and you need to be aware of this,’“ Godby said.
The 157 hunters approved to hunt in parks like Alms Park, Stanbery Park and the Magrish Riverlands Preserve have all completed a state-approved safety course and must respect buffer zones around roads, buildings and property lines. In addition, the Parks Board posts bright red signs at trailheads to alert hikers when areas are closed during bow hunting season, which lasts from Sept. 24 to Feb. 5, 2017. Check the maps at the website here.
Cincinnati Parks isn’t alone in trying to limit deer numbers. Great Parks of Hamilton County has operated a bow-hunting program in its parks since 2003, and some municipalities organize their own efforts (Indian Hill hunters harvested 152 deer in 2015).
Nine tips for pressure-canning venison
“For the folks who consider themselves to be foodies, this is as local as it can get,” Godby said of urban hunting. “They are harvesting deer right here in Cincinnati, processing it themselves and providing food for their family and friends.”
Back at the Spring Valley Shooting Range near Waynesville, Walters led the three women and nine men in attendance at Wednesday night’s workshop through each step of the pressure-canning process to preserve their venison. Donning aprons and latex gloves, the workshop participants made quick work of five recently harvested deer quarters, slicing them into one-inch cubes and stuffing them into 14 quart-size jars within the hour.
Here are the top nine tips they shared for pressure-canning venison:
1. Tag it: Clermont County Wildlife Officer Gus Kiebel said it’s illegal to possess any deer or deer part without the tag, an 18-digit number instead of traditional metal tags (which were done away with about eight years ago).
2. Find a good pressure canner: Yard sales and estate sales are a great place to look, even if a canner has a broken part. Walters recommends checking the lip to make sure the seal isn’t dry or cracked, but says other parts can be cheaply replaced from stores or online. Any county extension office will check pressure cookers to certify their safety.
3. Jar quality matters: Walters and his wife found this out the hard way.
“All of a sudden we hear a big boom and it looks like Old Faithful. So, we blew the top of the canner off,” Walters said. “The Chinese jar broke, and the food got stuck in every one of the escape ports, and the canner just overpressurized.”
Walters called out Wal-Mart’s Chinese-made Mainstays brand for being more poorly made than well-known brands he recommended like Ball and Kerr. Check for cracks and chips before using any jar.
4. Pack it tight: Using a long spatula, workshop participants poked out air bubbles and jammed in venison as tightly as possible, leaving about a half-inch of space at the top. Wipe off the lip of each jar as remaining meat or debris could prevent a tight seal.
5. Use a jar rack: “It just keeps the jars off the bottom so they don’t get that really hot, direct heat off the bottom of the canner,” Walters said. “My grandma said you should have that in there, so I’ve always made sure it’s in there. And it keeps them from rattling a bunch.”
They recommended filling water about three-fourths of the way up the side of the jars since a surprising amount of water will boil off. Another tip is to use uniformly sized jars (either pints or quarts) so they finish at the same time.
6. 240 degrees for 90 minutes at 10 to 15 pounds of pressure: That’s your recipe for canning success with quart-size jars. Mangen recommends heating pressure cookers outdoors on a campstove for safety purposes if possible. Other factors can come into play, like one time when they were demonstrating canning near the windy Ohio River and noticed the canner was up to 20 pounds of pressure.
“You want to see two people move really quickly trying to get the heat down on the canner? Our issue was that the wind would fluctuate and get it going fast and way too hot,” said Kathy Garza-Behr, the division’s wildlife communications specialist.
7. Be patient: You already waited 90 minutes for the canner to eliminate any molds, yeasts and bacteria on the venison. Don’t blow it now.
“Do not at any point – I don’t care if you’ve got a wedding to get to – depressurize that canner fast to get the pressure out quick and cool everything down quick,” Mangen said.
This could cause a range of issues from making the canner explode to preventing a proper seal from forming.
8. Get that ring off: After the jars have cooled, slip that ring off the jar so it doesn’t rust on through time. Press on the lid to check that it doesn’t bounce up and down – if it moves, that means it didn’t seal. In that case, Walters said you don’t need to throw away the venison inside. Just eat it within a few days' time.
9. Dispose of waste properly: Rumpke will take butchered deer carcasses, but don’t dump them on state parks, wildlife areas or dead-end roads.
“It’s litter is what it is,” Kiebel said. “If I catch you, you’re going to get a litter ticket guaranteed out of it. You can do it on your own property, or if a farmer doesn’t care … but make sure you’re getting rid of (deer carcasses) in the right way.”
The Ohio Division of Wildlife offers a handful of free workshops through the year, covering topics ranging from kayak fishing, wildlife habitats, deer field dressing and hunting basics, Garza-Behr said. Keep an eye on their website here for upcoming events.