How to process an Elk
You hunted hard, found the elk, made the perfect shot, now the work begins.
Processing an elk begins right after the kill. For the best tasting meat you will want to get your animal cooled down as soon as possible. This begins with the removal of the entrails or "gutting". If you plan to save the heart and liver or other organ meat, this is the time to put them in a plastic bag and set them aside.
After your animal is gutted it should be transported to camp or home and hung up. A gambrel designed to hold the hind legs apart is good for this. Your elk should be skinned as soon as you get it hung. This will help it finish cooling and help prevent any gamey taste. Make sure and prop open the rib cage with a stick so air can circulate. In warm weather you can put bags of ice in the chest cavity to speed up the cooling. You should remove all four legs beyond the knee while you are skinning.
You will notice that the meat is now covered with several loose hairs from the hide. The way to get rid of them is to take a propane torch and lightly go over the whole animal and singe off all the stray hairs. This works very well and will keep them out of your food.
When you are done skinning you will want to cut out the tenderloins that are next to the backbone inside the abdominal cavity. There is one on either side of the backbone, A few inches long and a couple inches around, all depending on the size of your elk. Don't forget to take your heart and liver and put them in a bucket of water to soak overnight, then cut and package them the next day. A tradition in my neck of the woods it to slice up the heart the next morning, fry it and serve it with scrambled eggs.
The elk should hang for a couple days to age. Aging is actually the start of decomposition but this will give you a better flavor and more tender meat. You should age longer in cooler weather and shorter in warm weather. Some people are just as happy butchering their elk right away. I have done it both ways and usually cut it up the Saturday following my kill (unless the weather is very warm) because that's most convenient.
When your elk is aged to perfection it is time to start the butchering process. It is best to have everything you need at hand so that you can complete what you are doing without having to run off and locate something. You will need at least one knife, a sharpener, a cutting board, plastic wrap, freezer paper and tape, a marker, a cooler for hamburger, a grinder if you plan to make your own burger and if you can get them a couple of helpers. If you have helpers it is best that each person has one job to do. Youngsters do well cleaning bones for hamburger and the ladies are good packaging since more than likely they will be using the end product. The knife I use is called a "boning knife" it has worked well for me for years, and I use it in all parts of the butchering process.
The first step is to remove the backstraps from your elk. These are located on either side of the backbone from the neck all the way down to the hind quarters. Take your knife and cut in right next to the backbone, you will be able to feel how deep to go because you will start to hit bone when you get deep enough. Make a cut from the neck to the hind quarters on each side of the backbone as deep as you can. Next take your hand and feel away from the backbone, you should be able to tell where the ribs start to be bone instead of covered with meat. Slide your knife in at a right angle to your first cut and cut along on top of the rib bone until you have cut the backstrap free.
You should have a piece of meat that is roughly triangle in shape and about three feet long. This is filet mignon or loin, the best meat on your elk. Take it over to your cutting board and remove the hard dried surface of the meat that was next to the skin. Then slice across the grain (always cut across the grain of meat) of your backstrap making small juicy steaks. The pieces left over that are too small for steak can be made into fondue or stir-fry.
Decide how many people you want to serve with each package of meat and then separate it into appropriate sized piles. Take each pile and wrap it with plastic wrap, this will protect it from freezer burn much longer than freezer paper alone and is well worth the extra effort. Then wrap with freezer paper and tape it closed. Write on it with your marker what it is and the date then put it in the freezer.
After you have both backstraps packaged you will want to start on a front shoulder. Take the knee joint in your hand and use your knife to start cutting the thin muscle and membrane around the front shoulder while pulling it away from the carcass. The shoulder should come away into your hand with minimal fuss.
Take the shoulder to your cutting board and start separating out muscle groups. Cut them free and trim off membrane and tendons. When you are done you should have a few cleaned up muscles and a large chunk of bone with a lot of meat scraps on it. The bone can be set aside for later clean up or given to the person who will trim all the meat off for hamburger. Now it is entirely up to you how to proceed. You must decide if you want mostly steak, mostly roast or all hamburger. If you decide on all hamburger just toss all the muscles into the cooler to be ground up.
If you want some roasts pick out a couple of the muscles that look about the right size and wrap them up labeled "roast". For steaks you take the largest muscles and cut them across the grain just like the backstraps and wrap them in your serving size packages. Make sure and label them "steaks front shoulder" so you will know in the future if you like the quality of the front shoulder meat for steak. Repeat the process with the other front shoulder.
When both front shoulders are done it is time to move on to the hind quarters. These are heavy so you may need help when you cut them free. After you have a hind quarter free proceed just like the front shoulder in cutting and cleaning up muscles. The hind quarters have the high quality meat. Many people make roasts from the front and steak from the rear.
After you have your steak cut and packaged it's time to clean up the bones for hamburger. All of your clean scrap meat should have gone into a cooler while you were cutting. The bones and carcass will yield a lot of hamburger. If you have a grinder you can start grinding the meat up right away. Some prefer to add beef suet to the mix so it will be moister when you cook it. We no longer add anything and just grind the meat straight. You can also take it to a butcher and have them custom grind it into burger or sausage.
There are many other things you can do with your elk depending on your tastes. You can make ribs or sweetbreads or even haggis. It all depends on how much time and research you want to spend learning how.