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What does a Butcher do?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

A butcher is, at the most basic level, someone who prepares meat for sale. He or she may specialize in different parts of the process of turning a carcass into saleable meat, and some may even handle every step of the process.

The first line of a butcher's job is selecting a carcass. Depending on the situation, it can be important to look for tainted meat, meat with a good consistency, and meat which has few defects. Most modern butchers don’t actually undertake this part of the process, as they receive their carcasses from trusted suppliers who have already culled the bodies, but historically it was expected that they would have a good eye for an overall carcass.

A butcher may prepare sausage.
A butcher may prepare sausage.

The next step is selecting a side or quarter of the carcass, and then choosing where primary cuts will be made. Usually, this is for an eye towards how to waste the least amount of meat, but for some higher grades, the priority may be on only taking the best parts of the carcass, and leaving the rest for someone else to use.

Once a side or quarter has been selected, the butcher then cuts the carcass into its primary cuts. This is probably the most dangerous part of the job, and their equipment reflects this. Most wear fairly sturdy armor among their stomach, usually made of chain mail or plate, although some modern butchers use Kevlar®, as well as gloves made of the same materials. Depending on the size of the carcass, he or she may either use hand tools or large tools such as band saws to make the primary cuts. The cuts are then often boned and trimmed down.

A butcher uses sharp tools to prepare specific cuts of meat.
A butcher uses sharp tools to prepare specific cuts of meat.

A butcher may also have the job of making sausage. Traditionally, sausage was intended as a vessel for using the parts of a carcass left over after making the primary cuts. The leavings were mixed with salt and other spices, and put into intestinal casings. Modern sausage may use leavings, but it may also use actual minced cuts of meat. Different casings are also used, and there are a wide range of styles and spices that it can be made out of. For this reason, sausage making is no longer just an easy side job, and someone who makes sausage is often a specialist.

Sliced frozen meat.
Sliced frozen meat.

After making the cuts, the butcher is also responsible for choosing the best cuts to present to customers on a given day, and interacting with them daily. He or she will likely cut the primary cuts into smaller pieces as customers request them, and may give advice as to the best meats and cuts for a certain purpose, and may even give advice as to how to prepare the cuts.

This meat expert may also be in charge of the everyday business of running a shop. This can include buying supplies, handling taxes, choosing distributors, and other things that may not seem to have a great deal to do with butchery.

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Discussion Comments


@matthewc23 - I totally agree. Like the article talks about, a butcher can also give you advice on what cuts to use for different things. I am fortunate to have a chain grocery store that still recognizes the importance of having real butchers working there.

There are still lots of specialty butchers around, though. Where I used to live, there was a lot of deer hunting, so venison butchers were very common. I love venison, but don't know anyone that hunts. Most hunters will take all of the meat from their animals, but if you contact a venison butcher, he might be able to put you in contact with someone with extra meat who will sell.

I also have a Muslim friend who visits a Halal butcher for all of his meat. Basically, they process meat according to Islamic law. There are also kosher butchers who produce meat according to Jewish tradition.

If you look around, you can still usually find "old-fashioned" butchers somewhere. Luckily, I live in a bigger city, so there are a few of them. You are right, though, you can get such higher quality meat and special cuts from a real butcher.

Since I do a lot of cooking, I like to make my own stock. To do that, you need a lot of scrap bones like cow knuckles. That's something that you'll never find in a store, but if I stop by or call up my butcher and ask him for them, he'll save me a few, and I'll pick them up the next day.

The best part of having a real butcher for me is that you can negotiate prices with them. Since they're running their own business, they are often willing to cut a deal on your weekly meat purchases.


@jmc88 - You are probably right. I always think it would be great to have butcher shops around still. Where I live, the only place you can buy meat is at the big chain grocery store. It's not to say that they don't have good meat. They actually have a pretty large selection given the size of my town, but there's nothing special. Besides that, I always question how much of the meat is actually cut in the store and how much comes in on a truck.

I would love to be able to have a butcher making special types of sausage or someone who could possibly set you up with special pieces of meat for a certain recipe you're working on.

At the same time, having a real butcher should inherently improve the quality of the meat, because they want to keep their job and be appreciated. Someone who's unloading packages off of a truck can't be held responsible for the quality.


Interesting article. I have never stopped to think about all of the different steps that are involved in being a butcher. I kind of just assumed that they learned where all the cuts of meat came from and went to town with saws and stuff.

Like the article mentions, though, I think it would be a lot harder to be a butcher in the past than today. Before, butchers were one of the most important people in town. Since you didn't have refrigerated trucks to send pre-cut meat across the country, every town needed at least one good butcher.

I doubt in the past that there were classes teaching people how to butcher animals. I am betting most butcher shops were passed down from generation to generation with fathers teaching their sons the trade.

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    • A butcher may prepare sausage.
      By: aboikis
      A butcher may prepare sausage.
    • A butcher uses sharp tools to prepare specific cuts of meat.
      By: BlueSkyImages
      A butcher uses sharp tools to prepare specific cuts of meat.
    • Sliced frozen meat.
      Sliced frozen meat.
    • Kevlar® fabric, which is used to make protective gear for butchers.
      Kevlar® fabric, which is used to make protective gear for butchers.
    • Different cuts of pork.
      By: Eric Isselée
      Different cuts of pork.