Never in a million years would I have imagined I would be standing there. But there I was, in the middle of the little butcher’s shop amidst the machines – the buzzing and clacking of saws and knifework, friendly banter of conversation and the litany of earthy and gamey smells filling the air.
My experience of just under six months as a butcher’s apprentice was truly a unique and eye-opening experience and was my first real experience with meat processing. As the apprentice, most of my work involved the cleaning detail: cleaning the offal or discarded internal organs out of the mobile slaughter truck and preparing them for pickup by the renderer (renderers, according to the EPA, are meat rendering plants that process animal byproduct materials for the production of tallow, grease and high-protein meat and bone meal).
I also kept the shop cleaned throughout the day and helped to clean the machines at the end of the business day. I assisted with smaller-scale projects like filling sausage casings.
Large animal butcher work is seasonal, largely, for smaller shops – I wouldn’t return the following autumn and would move on to other job opportunities. But I learned so much.
A lot of that would carry over – my parents, farmers themselves, would lean more and more into self-sustainability as the years progressed and would begin to put more and more of their own meat up. Last year, they processed some of that meat for the first time and cut, sealed and froze some of their own beef rather than having a third-party processor do it for them. Oh, the stories one could tell! Still, it’s very satisfying to be able to say you put away your own meat and will be able to feed your family from the fruits of your labor for the rest of the year (or more!).
The most important takeaway of all that is it’s accessible for anyone – you just have to approach the process safely.
Some rudimentary reading should include brushing up on the various cuts of meat, which will obviously vary depending on what you are planning to process. This article from the beef Checkoff is a great umbrella approach to beef cuts – and there are several other great diagrams and references sheets available through various associations like the American Angus Association.
This article from New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension has a great cuts diagram for venison (and coincidentally, a very comprehensive outline of the butchering process as well). As with beef, there are several other solid diagrams and reference sheets available through other associations and advocacy groups. The process is similar for any animal you might be processing. Having a basic knowledge of the cuts available from that animal allows you to approach the process with a plan and ensures no meat is wasted.
Ethical killing of the animal is the first concern – especially for processing beef. Follow local gun usage regulations and best safety practices. Aim for the center point of the animal’s skull, ensuring the process is quick and painless. If we are discussing venison or other game, it was most likely procured during a hunting trip and this conversation is not necessary (although conversations about best gun safety practices is important).
What tools or equipment will you need? The answer to that question depends on the level of involvement you would like to pursue and what kind of investment you would like to make. It’s important to view this process as just that – an investment. It can be overwhelming to look at a list of potential tools and equipment like this, but you are investing in tools with a long lifespan (if cared for appropriately) which will allow you the agency and freedom to process your own meat for a long time.
This article courtesy of Oregon State University Cooperative Extension contains a fairly comprehensive list of equipment that is useful (and in some cases necessary) for at-home meat processing. It’s important to invest in a good set of boning and skinning knives. If you are going to be processing frequently, you can also invest in an electric saw. Larger floor models and hand-held corded models are available. The price tag can seem exorbitant, but if you shop for a discount, you can occasionally find a really good deal – and remember: investment. If you care for this equipment, it will serve you well for a long time.
We would be remiss if we didn’t touch on sanitation. Good sanitation throughout the process is paramount. Protect any surfaces as much as possible. (We have used taped-down tablecloth liners in the past to ensure a protective barrier on any work surface and easy throw away/cleanup). Disinfect frequently. Make sure all of your tools are cleaned regularly – at the least in very hot, soapy water, but some type of cleaning solution is wise as well.
The MSU article on venison processing below contains an easy DIY bleach solution. Always make sure you’re following best practices and referencing bottle instructions when working with any chemicals. Don’t forget good protective gear for yourself as well – aprons, gloves, goggles even, if necessary. Safety first, safety always.
We won’t park on the physical butchering process itself – as an exhaustive resource could fill a small book. I will defer to the experts here:
Home Slaughtering and Processing of Beef (University of Missouri Extension)
How to Field Dress, Butcher…Venison (Michigan State University Extension)
It is important to observe proper refrigeration/chilling procedures to inhibit bacterial growth. If you do not have the proper facilities to do so, it’s best to process and package the meat as soon as possible.
The last component of the process is packaging and freezing. There are several different options (many noted in the articles above). My parents have employed a household model vacuum sealer for any meat processing. As with most of the equipment mentioned, it might be a little bit of an investment, but you will get lots of traffic out of the machine – it can also be used to preserve vegetables and other foodstuffs.
No matter how you package the meat cuts, it’s important that you label succinctly and clearly: what the cut is, what date was it packaged/frozen and the included portion/size.
We haven’t really touched on ground hamburger, venison or sausage – but the process is largely the same. You can rent or purchase a grinder unit – or you can outsource that part of the project to a family member or neighbor who has the equipment to process it for you.
And just like that, we’ve taken ourselves from point A to point B in the home-butchering process. It can seem overwhelming – and it is a little bit of an investment of time and finances – but the dividends are personally gratifying and liberating as you are allowed to have total input over the meat your family consumes from barnyard to freezer.
by Andy Haman