The basics of butchery

Meat is one of the most costly items within any foodservice operation, but also one of the most potentially profitable. Depending upon the local market rates for food and labor, in-house fabrication may be less expensive than buying prefabricated cuts.

Chefs with the means to do so often prefer to perform many fabrication tasks in-house to control portion size and to be sure that the quality of each portion is the same each time–important considerations when it comes to an establishment’s reputation.

Basic butchery: tools and equipment

In ancient times, stone tools were used to eviscerate an animal and then divide it into its primal cuts. As humans evolved, they developed metal tools to do these tasks. Today, we find tools in the meat industry that enable tasks to be done rapidly and with minimal waste. The list of equipment available and all of their intended uses is too extensive to list here; therefore, only the more basic equipment used for simple butchery is included.


What knives do you need to fabricate meat? There are many available knives and some of them are for specific cutting techniques.

Meat fabrication knives:

  1. Boning knife: Available in lengths from five to six inches and a variety of flexes, from completely stiff to very flexible. For general meat cutting, a semi-flexible, six-inch boning knife will perform well. There are straight and angled blades available. The handle of a boning knife needs to fit the user’s hand properly and some texture on the handle may be helpful to reduce slippage. Different boning knives are suggested for a variety of tasks; for instance, boning a pork loin requires a knife with some flex to be able to flatten out while boning and increase the surface area. If boning a straight-line bone, such as a shank or femur, a non-flexible or stiff boning knife will be more stable.
  2. Scimitar: Available in lengths from 10 to 16 inches. This non-flexing knife is curved to allow for smooth trimming of large meat cuts and portion cutting of steaks, cutlets, stew or cubes. Due to its curved edge, it is not typically used for mincing or chopping.
  3. Chef’s knife: A non-flexible, eight- to 10-inch knife can be used for trimming large cuts, portion cutting, mincing and chopping. However, it can be a little cumbersome due to its width.
  4. Slicer: A 12-inch knife that is available in flexible, semi-flexible or stiff models. It is thinner than the chef’s knife and, unlike the scimitar, has a straight edge. It is good for trimming large cuts and portion cutting.
  5. Clam knife: A clam knife may come in handy when frenching racks of lamb or veal. It is used to scrape the membranes off the bones.

Meat cleaver

Cleavers are available in a variety of weights and sizes. A meat cleaver is used primarily for cutting chops and needs to be relatively heavy to break through chine bones. A meat cleaver can only be used on a butcher block so as not to damage other cutting boards. The butcher block has a natural grain that absorbs the shock of the cleaver. A small cleaver may be used to help fabricate poultry or cooked bone-in roasts.


Cutting through bone structure can be a challenge and demands nearly as much accuracy as a knife. A quality handsaw can greatly increase the options available to the butcher. Be sure the saw is intended for food use.

Band saw

A band saw, although expensive, enables the fabrication of an enormous variety of cuts, such as bone-in steaks, chops, various bone-in roasts, osso buco, stews and bones for soup. Extreme caution must be used when operating a band saw. Proper cleaning and maintenance is necessary.

Meat grinder

A grinder has a wide range of uses, including in-house burgers, sausages, and forcemeats. Meat grinders are available in a variety of sizes and power ranges. However, rather than buy a separate machine, grinding attachments for other kitchen machinery, such as a mixer or chopper, are an inexpensive alternative. Larger tabletop or floor models offer more horsepower and decrease time required to grind larger quantities.

Basic meat safety

Meat is highly susceptible to pathogens because it has a high water content. Great care must be taken when handling meat products. The risk of contracting or spreading a food-borne illness must be taken very seriously. Salmonella, E-coli, staphylococcus areoles, campylobacter and listeria are examples of serious food-borne illnesses that can affect any consumer, especially young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Basic guidelines implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety and Inspection Service will help to ensure safety.


For fresh red meat, the ideal storage temperature is 28° to 32°F / 22° to 0°C. Most large meat processors will hold products in this range for up to a week before shipping. Items will hold for six weeks in a vacuum bag (slightly less for bone-in items). In a typical restaurant walk-in cooler at 32° to 41°F / 0° to 5°C, vacuum-packed items will last around two weeks. Storage times will depend on the original pack date on the label. Most meats will be around one to two weeks old upon receipt. If no pack date is visible, the customer should look for excessive purge or meat juices left in the bag. Large cuts of meat exposed or opened will last about three to four days before exterior spoilage begins. Portion cuts last about two to three days. Fresh meats should be laid out or wrapped in meat paper that wicks away moisture and prevents oxidation. Other methods may be to wrap meat in cheesecloth or rub with vegetable oil. Poultry items last three to five days when topped with ice or stored in modified atmospheric packaging. Be sure ice is drained properly and does not contaminate floors or other shelves.

Correct procedures should be followed when purchasing and receiving meat items. Any delivery trucks should be checked for cleanliness and proper temperature (below 45°F / 7°C).  Creating a basic checklist ensures product is received and recorded correctly. Avoid leaving meat items out on loading docks or wherever temperatures are above safe holding temperatures. When meats are brought into the walk-in cooler, be sure to rotate stock and check pack dates. Throw out boxes and packaging that may be harboring pests.

Sharpening steels and stones

Sharpening and honing your knife will make it more accurate and reduce the amount of mis-cuts and injuries. A sharp knife is easily maintained with the proper stone and steel. Stones come in various degrees of grit. The higher the grit number, the finer the stone. A typical coarse grit for knives would be 600 and a fine grit 1000. Usually, a knife would be sharpened on the coarse grit first and finished on the fine grit to polish the edge. Some knives made from very hard steel can be sharpened with a higher grit, such as 3000 to 6000. A softer, inexpensive knife would not be able to reap the rewards of these very fine grits.

Some stones are intended for use with mineral or honing oil and others are used with water. Never sharpen a knife on a dry stone. Metal flakes will build up in the stone and render it ineffective. A sharpening steel is used to hone or correct the knife’s edge by sliding the edge of the knife down each side of the steel. It is not a replacement for the stone, and if an edge is lost, it needs to be sharpened, not steeled.

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