How the Professional Butchering and Meat Processing Techniques I Learned
Can Make You a Better Wild Game Processor at Home
When I tell people I used to be a professional butcher and fishmonger, I tend to get a lot of questions. I always get asked about processing, such as: “What knives do you use?” and “How do you package your meat?” We all want to process our own animals, whether it's just breaking down a deer, grinding burgers, packaging roasts, or making sausage. Processing a white-tailed deer at home is not exactly like working in a commercial meat and seafood market. However, I learned some helpful techniques during my time there that can be applied to processing at home. Here are some of my favorite gear and tips for processing after a hunt.
A High-Quality Knife
I started using my hunting knife, and whatever kitchen knife was handy and somewhat sharp, but once I used a high-quality knife, it was a game changer. When I got trained in the meat and seafood market, the store gave me a set of Victorinox Fibrox handled knives. This set included a 5” boning knife, 7” fillet knife, and 10” cimeter knife. These knives seem to be the standard for most processing operations. They are reasonably priced, with this setup costing under $135. I like these knives because they are stainless steel, so the cleanup and care are straightforward. Also, the Fibrox handles are sanitizer/cleaner safe (meaning you can use bleach) and are very durable and comfortable in hand. If you do a lot of processing at home, these are great entry-level processing knives. You can find other versions of the Victorinox knives at Allied Kenco Sales or Walton’s.
My interest in butchering led me down the knife rabbit hole all the way to Japan. More care is involved, but Japanese knives are superior to anything else. My Japanese butchering knife setup consists of a few different knives. My go-to is a Gyuto-style knife, which means “Cow Sword” I use the 5.5” Shizu Hamono Yuri. The drop-tip blade allows a better vision of what I am cutting. This is the perfect knife for separating muscle groups and trimming up cuts. The 6” Honesuki made by Fujimoto Nashiji, or any traditional Honesuki, is a must for butchering. The thicker spine allows for more force to be applied to cut through ligaments and joints. This knife works great for cutting the joints on shanks and breaking down quarters. The last Japanese butcher knife you should add is a Sujihiki which translates to “flesh slicer” and is made for slicing meat without tearing the muscle. I like the 11” Masakage Mizu Sujihiki because it’s great for slicing up a backstrap or roast into steaks. These knives are an investment, so if you are a knife geek and do a lot of cooking and processing, this is the route. Some more entry-level Japanese butcher knives exist, like the Torijo Color line. If you want more info on Japanese knives and other options, you can find everything you need at Knifewear.
When it comes to sharpening, I recommend starting with a sharpener that guides the angle for you, like something from Worksharp, but you can get by with a honing rod and a whetstone. I like a ceramic honing rod, but a steel rod will work too; remember, the rod doesn’t sharpen the blade; it keeps the cutting edge straight. For stones, a 1000/6000 combo stone is a tremendous all-around stone, and I like this one from King. You can always add coarser or finer stones to your repertoire.
Lugs, Tubs, Bowls & Trays
When processing an animal, you need to be able to sort what you are processing and have a place to keep all your meat and trim. I use a combination of meat lugs, tubs, bowls, and trays while processing. Meat lugs are a must for any processing. We would use upwards of sixteen of the large lugs at the meat market where I worked, and we used them for everything. You can find these lugs online or at any outdoor store.
I like to use the LEM lugs with the drain trays in the bottom. During the butchering process, I want to put all of my trim in one lug with a drain tray and let the myoglobin (the red-colored liquid you see coming from the meat) drain or “weep” out of the meat. I’ll place this lug in a refrigerator for 24-36 hrs. before I grind it. Another lug that I have started to utilize is the LEM Mini Lug. I like to have a few of these out, ready to put more minor cuts in, like tenderloins or steaks. An essential addition to your lugs is lids, and make sure you get the snap-on lids. The lids will keep your meat from drying out and getting dirty, and it helps keeps flies off of your meat. If you can’t get lids for your lugs, you can always use plastic wrap to cover them. Another item I use every time I’m processing is large stainless steel bowls. I prefer the 14”, and this can serve any purpose, from a “bone bucket” to holding your trim. The main thing here is that you need to keep your meat organized and have the ability to store it in your fridge or freezer.
Grinders, Sealers & Stuffers
I have used many grinders, from small compact kitchen grinders to massive industrial grinders that hold hundreds of pounds. A good grinder can be an investment, but this is an area where the motto: buy once, cry once needs to be utilized. I have a LEM #12 BigBite grinder, and if you eat a lot of burgers, I highly recommend a #12 size grinder. One way to get the most out of your grinder is using multiple plates, and you find them all at Walton’s. I like to vacuum seal all of my cuts and even my burger. Removing contact between the meat and air allows for a longer storage life in your freezer. You can find vac sealers at a pretty reasonable price but don’t slump on the bag quality! The 2ply 3mm bags from Walton’s are my go-to for everything. A sausage stuffer isn’t necessary, but if you want to get into the sausage-making game, you might want to invest in it. You can get a small hand crank 3lb stuffer to a massive 30lb electronically programmed stuffer. I use the 11lb Weston stuffer, which tackles everything from 50 lbs. of German smoked sausage to 8 lbs. of English bangers. Like high-quality knives, really good processing equipment is an investment. Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up. Hot Tip: Become friends with someone with the equipment and borrow theirs!
Cutting Boards & Tables
One thing I miss about cutting in a meat market is the cutting tables. Heavy duty 6ft long stainless steel tables with huge poly-cutting boards. I don’t have one of those now, but what I have found helpful is a heavy-duty folding table. The top works as a poly-cutting board, and you can use any food-safe cleaner on it. If you don’t have room for a table, get a nice poly cutting board from Allied Kenco, or get fancy and grab a Larchwood Carving Board from Knifewear. If you go the table route, get you some bed/table risers to get that cutting surface up high enough that you are not bending over the entire time. Save your back for packing out wild game out of the backcountry!
The Little Things
It’s easy to list all the knives and equipment you need, but sometimes it’s the little things you forget about. So here are some essentials I like to have handy. A few rolls of paper towels and even some food-safe sanitizer wipes. You may not like to wear gloves, but I got in a habit of wearing food-safe gloves in the market, so I continue to wear them now. The plus to this is that my hands stay clean if I need to pause the Hal Herring Podcast & Blast episode that I’m listening to. An apron is always nice; I’ve used Grundéns PVC apron but prefer the Neptune bibs now. I also recommend getting the book Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game. This book breaks down primal cuts and is a good entry-level book for butchering and processing on your own.
Processing in a professional meat and seafood market will always look different than at home, but you are still breaking down that animal and processing it into food that will feed your family and friends. I hope this article helps you whether you are just starting out or just looking for new information about processing. The great thing about Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is that we care about the food aspect of hunting and fishing and the importance of sharing those experiences. It could be giving your neighbor some breakfast sausage you made from a wild pig or trying a new wild game over a campout, but it’s an essential aspect of being a hunter & angler.
Remember BHA Members get discounts at Walton’s, Weston, and Work Sharp, where you can get all your butchering and processing needs.