Colder temperatures are upon us! What a great time to get outdoors! Less bugs, less heat, great time to sit by a fire and to settle down for a good night's sleep in a sleeping bag, tent or a primitive shelter you have built. Many of us are hunting already, everything from turkey, squirrel, rabbit or deer. But it is also a great time to tan some deer hides. I tan deerhides year round but it is much more pleasant to do them when it is cold. Less bugs, although those yellow jackets are a great help fleshing my hide! Cooler temperatures are also more pleasant for what is sometimes a labor intensive activity. I have bark tanned and even tried a kit or two early on but by far my favorite type of hide tanning for mammals is braintan. In this issue I want to help get you started and hopefully hooked on this method of hide tanning. The Braintan method of tanning buckskin produces a beautiful, supple, garment quality hide. Done properly it produces a hide with the feel of flannel that seems to be sturdier and more flexible than many of the chemical methods. It is also the most economical method of producing a tanned hide. Braintan was probably the method used most by the Native Americans, although other methods were used by them, such as burying the hide with oak bark and letting the tannic acids tan the hide or letting it soak in an old stump full of rainwater rich in tannic acids. Bark tanning can take as long as six months. A mammal hide can be braintanned in one day, depending on climatological conditions and experience. There are also accounts of hides being soaked from one container of clean water to another until the glues or ground matter in the hide was released. This is called ‘washing’ a hide. Basically, I think it is correct to say that is basically what you are doing when you tan a hide. You are preserving it from decay by removing the ‘glues’ from the hide that would cause it to rot if not removed. Then, you further treat it to be a soft, durable, useful material that will stand up to whatever elements it may be exposed to.
This text describes, in brief, step by step, how to tan a mammal hide, using the braintan method, with emphasis on dry scrape and tanning a deer hide, hair-off, in a square frame or rack. Also discussed in the text are the wet scrape method, tanning a hide with hair on (large and small mammals), and the smoking before braining method used by Northwestern North American Coastal primitive people. I will also deal briefly with tanning a reptile hide, like a snake. This text will discuss the use of modern and primitive (survival) tools. I recommend that you try dry scrape with modern tools first for the simple reason, I believe, that it will give you a chance to learn more about a hide. It gives you a chance to study it thoroughly and will help your understanding more when you attempt other methods of braintan. The rack or frame may be used for fleshing, scraping, drying and breaking. There are other methods, such as, using a fleshing beam or staking it to the ground. You may wish to try other methods. Find the one that works best for you. I also recommend if one is serious about learning the braintan method it would be wise to be shown by someone, like myself, who can teach it to you. There are three books I would recommend though: Braintan Buckskin by John McPherson, Wet Scrape Braintanned Buckskin—A Practical Guide to Home Tanning and Use by Steve Edholm and Tamara Wilder and Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs.
Hair Off, Braintanning A Deer Hide
PREPARING THE HIDE:
You will need the following items to get started braintanning a deer hide (See illustration): paring knife or small sheath knife, a frame large enough to hold the hide you wish to tan, a fleshing tool (or you may use the scraping tool for fleshing and scraping), a scraping tool, 200 feet of 1/8 inch cotton covered nylon cord, a medium to coarse whetstone, a pound of brains (deer brains work fine if you have them, but frozen pork brains work just as well and are very inexpensive) and a smoker (see illustration and text for ideas on constructing a smoker or use a smokehouse of some type.). I have to interject here though. For fleshing a hide a bone tool works best for me (For illustration look in article.)
The best hides for tanning are hides that have been pulled off a deer rather than a knife used. The reason being that knives can leave score marks in the hide. These score marks will be a problem as they can weaken the hide and tear out during the stretching process. So, if you get your hides from a source other than your own kill (other hunters or meat processors) choose hides that have a minimum of score marks or have been pulled.
Be sure and store your hides properly also if you don’t have time to get to them right away. The best option is freezing it. Be sure to roll up the hide hair to hair or flesh to flesh in case you want to do one with hair on later. If you don’t have a freezer you will need to at least flesh it and let it dry (rawhide it). See instructions on fleshing below. Some meat processors that save hides also pile them in a barn layered with a mixture of saw dust and salt. This mixture will preserve a hide for short periods of time but freezing or rawhiding them is best.
Let hide soak at least overnight or longer. This will help the hair slip faster. It can be done without soaking if you are using the dry scrape method but it is easier if you let it soak. It also helps to mix some wood ash in the water. Indians would weigh hides down in icy creeks with rocks until all hair slipped. I have used creeks before. It works pretty well. Little crayfish come along and dine on the flesh and help you get some of the flesh off too. Keeping it completely submerged in a creek helps keep larger animals from smelling the hide and dragging it off. Beware. This can happen. Even if you have it in a barrel at home, make sure you put a lid on your barrel. Dogs will turn over your barrel and drag your hide away. Also change the water in your barrel everyday (twice a day if it is hot) if you are going to let it soak 2-3 days so bacteria doesn’t build up and decay your hide, plus it will keep down on the smell. Believe me, I didn’t change the water once and after a couple of days that hide looked like swiss cheese!
Now, assuming you have the hide off the deer and you have split it down its belly and have the hide layed out flat, flesh side up, use a sharp paring knife or small sheath knife (Folding knives are not recommended for this operation they may fold on you and cut you) punch holes about 3” apart and ¾” from edge of hide all around perimeter of hide. Holes should be cut parallel to edge of hide not perpendicular. This lessens the chances of holes tearing out when strung up in the rack. You can cut the tail off or carefully split the tail section and take your time removing the bone from the tail otherwise you will pull tip of tail right off.....
DUTCH OVEN COOKING
Maybe my most favorite thing to do around a campfire is cook, well, second to eating! I can show you lots of ways to cook without any modern utensils but I do love my cast iron dutch ovens!
The first consideration is buying the right kind of dutch oven. I'm not talking about brand, I will leave that up to you. I am talking about the style. If you are going to cook on a fire get one that has a concave lid and legs on the bottom. This is important because you need to put hot coals on the top and the bottom when baking.
Next is seasoning it properly. Even a brand new pot should be scrubbed thoroughly to get off any factory protective coating. Scrub it good, this will be the last time you scrub it if you take good care of it. Then heat it up to around 300 degrees F in a hot oven or you can use the campfire. Once it is good and hot rub oil into it. Some chefs recommend duck fat but really any vegetable or animal oil will do. Don't just rub it on, rub it in. Do this several times inside and out. Then let it cool and then coat it again while it is cool. Now it is ready for cooking!
When you cook you hardly ever use the flames of a fire. They are too hot and too inconsistent in temperature. Say you are dangling a bird like a chicken by the fire. If you put it too close to the flames you will burn the outside and still have uncooked meat in the middle.You want to use good hardwood coals. Hardwood is important. Soft woods can burn down to a useless ash, hardwood makes longer lasting coals that are more consistent in heat. If I am doing some serious campfire cooking I build two fires side by side. I let one burn down to coals and use the coals as needed while keeping the other fire burning producing more coals. After I have used most of the coals in the first fire I build it back up by flipping the second fire, moving it carefully to where the first fire was and then I use the bed of coals from the second fire. I do this as often as I need to.
It is a good idea to know how hot the fire or coals are that you wish to cook on. Lynn Hopkins, an expert dutch oven cook, came up with this method for determining the temperature of the fire or coals. Try holding your hand about three inches above the spot you intend on cooking over. Count how long it takes for you to move your hand because it is too hot, in one second counts. Now, look at the table below to find the approximate temperature of the fire or coals based on your count:
||250-350 Degrees F (120-175C)
||350-400 Degrees F (175-200C)
||400-450 Degrees F (200-230C)
|1 or less
||45-500 Degrees F (230-260C)
When using any cooking method keep normal cooking times in mind and the temperatures you are working with based on the chart above. You should also check the item you are cooking frequently and turn it regularly.
When cooking with a dutch oven preheat it by the fire turning it frequently. Drag out a bed of hot coals with a shovel and make a cooking surface where you will be cooking. Prepare that recipe you are going to cook whether it is a goo ol' peach cobbler or homemade biscuits or whatever you like and put it in your pot. Now put the lid on and use a hook to move it to the cooking surface you have created. Place coals on top, that's why you need a concave lid. It is important you place more coals on the top than on the bottom.
Monitor what you are cooking by glancing inside now and then. If it looks like the bottom of your food is overcooking remove it from the cooking surface but leave the coals on top. You can even place another dutch oven on top of the one you are using and have a nice tower of cooking going on.
So try it out. Everything tastes better when cooked outdoors. I am sure there are some expert dutch oven cooks out there that could add to what I have written and maybe even do it some different ways. It is a learning process as all things are but this is my basic way of doing it. And just to get you started here is one of my favorite recipes, peach cobbler. When anyone camps with me the first thing they ask is 'Are you gonna cook peach cobbler?' This is simple and tasty. Enjoy!
RAVEN'S PEACH COBBLER
1 cup self rising flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 stick butter
Fruit of your choice (peaches, blackberries, fresh fruit, etc.)
Preheat dutch oven and place whole stick of butter in pot to melt. While that is going on, in a separate bowl, mix flour, sugar and milk. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Pour batter right on top of melted butter. Don't stir it, just pour on top of it. Scatter fruit around on top of the mixture. Again don't stir just place on top. Close lid and let it cook. Usually takes less than half an hour. Feeds about 6. You can also double the recipe for more people or seconds!