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Veteran Carlisle butcher shares venison tips

Bob Frye
| Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, 5:30 p.m.
Venison sausage is best if it has “pops of fat” in it, according to one expert butcher and meat processor.
Venison sausage is best if it has “pops of fat” in it, according to one expert butcher and meat processor.

Rick Fetrow likes everything about hunting.

The Carlisle man enjoys buying a rifle and sighting it in. He enjoys exploring the outdoors. He enjoys the camaraderie of hanging out with friends.

But he likes most of all what comes last.

“The ending part is making your own (meat) products at home. It's the fun part in my opinion,” he said.

He must have liked his work, then. A retired butcher, and now chairman of Pennsylvania's Hunters Sharing the Harvest program, he made hundreds of thousands of pounds of things like bologna in his career.

It pays, then, to listen when he doles out advice. And when it comes to bologna and sausage, he's got plenty.

With bologna, he starts out by combining lean venison with the fattiest ground beef he can buy, something that's maybe 27 percent fat.

“I want a little bit of fat in my bologna. But I don't want to use fat from the kidney areas, the pelvic area. We don't want any suet going into our bologna,” Fetrow said.

“That fat is very firm and doesn't melt down.”

He mixes nine parts venison to every one part ground meat. He'll run that through his grinder twice, to get a fine grind, then mix in his seasonings. Next, he mixes in cure, a mix of sodium nitrate and salt.

That's critical for safety's sake, he said. Using cure prevents botulism or food poisoning.

It's not necessary to use a lot — a teaspoon's worth will take care of 10 pounds of meat — but it's absolutely necessary, he stressed.

“Any time you're going to put something in your smokehouse, any time you're going to put something in your dehydrator, you need to use cure,” Fetrow said.

When the bologna is ready to stuff in to a casing, there are two kinds to choose from: fibrous and muslin.

Fibrous casing isn't digestible. It's man-made and serves really to give the bologna form. You peel it off to eat the meat inside, Fetrow said.

Muslin casing is made from an inexpensive cloth. It's not edible, either, but Fetrow prefers it for one reason.

“It's no better than fibrous casing, but it looks kind of old fashioned, which I think is kind of cool,” he said.

Whatever casing he chooses, he seals it on one end with butcher's twine, then fills it on the other using a sausage stuffer. He packs the casing as tightly as possible without breaking it.

Then, it's into the smoker.

How long it has to hang or sit in there depends on temperature. The idea is to smoke the bologna at between 100 and 140 degrees, for anywhere from four to eight hours. Experimenting is the only way to determine the details, he said.

The goal is to leave it in only long enough to flavor it.

“You want to smoke the product. You don't want to cook it,” Fetrow said.

Not yet, anyway. That's the next step.

When the bologna is flavored, he turns the smoker up to 180 to 200 degrees and lets it ride a while longer.

“I'm going to do that until the internal temperature of the bologna gets to 160 degrees,” Fetrow said.

That's when it's done. He'll pull it out, let it rest for 30 minutes, then put it in the refrigerator until he's ready to eat it.

When it comes to sausage, Fetrow offers one warning.

Store-bought sausage may seem OK now, he said. It won't once you've made your own.

Unlike the sausage in your grocery, which is routinely over-processed, homemade venison sausage is richer, with a better texture and mouth feel, he said.

“When we make sausage, we want to see pops of fat in there. So when we cook it and bite into it, we get that burst of fat in our mouth,” Fetrow said. “That's what we're looking for with a good quality sausage.”

To get there requires mixing venison with the fattiest pork you can get. Think fatty bacon or jowl, he said. Add that to venison, so that it makes up about 20 percent of the mixture, Fetrow said.

Grind that and the venison together, sending it through the grinder just once. You want a coarse grind, Fetrow said.

Add seasonings after — not before — it's passed through the grinder, to avoid seasoning your equipment.

What to do with it next depends on how you plan to use it. It can be frozen immediately, to be browned later in casseroles and the like. It can be formed into patties, for sandwiches or breakfast. Or it can be made into links.

If you go that last route, Fetrow uses collagen casings. They're made of processed animal parts, often skin. They're meant to be consumed.

Hog intestine casings are made from pig intestines that have been flushed and cleaned. They're what he prefers.

“When I bite into it, the skin is strong enough to have a snap,” he said.

If you're going to use it, though, one extra step is required. He rinses the casings with cold water, puts it in a cup of cold water, then sticks his fingers inside to open it like a funnel. More cold water goes inside.

Only after he allows that water back out does he stuff the casing. It helps to keep it from tearing during the stuffing process, he said.

“Just by putting that water in here, it's going to lubricate the inside of the casing,” he said.

One last thing remains.

Vacuum-sealing freshly stuffed sausage can make the meat pop through the casing.

To keep that from happening, Fetrow recommends putting the fresh sausage in a plastic bag, then placing it in the freezer overnight, with the bag unsealed. The sausage won't get freezer burnt in that little bit of time, he said. But it will harden enough that it can vacuum-sealed.

After that, it's all over but the eating.

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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