The Butcher’s Toolkit

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Last week we talked about the books every good butcher or meat-enthusiast should have on their shelves.  This week it’s all about the tools you need to really make a go of some meat fabrication.  It may be a bit late for the christmas gift giving season at this point, but maybe you’d be buying for someone for whom a nice set of butcher knives would make a romantic Valentine’s day gift.  If that’s the case, you’ve got yourself a winner.  Either way, you’ve read the books, now it’s time to grab the gear and get going.

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Beautiful, handmade knives. You probably don’t need these.

Knives
As soon as people find out I’m a butcher one of two things happens.  Either they begin to edge away slowly, looking around for anyone else to talk to, or they ask me about my knives.  Everyone loves cool knives these days, and people with these expensive implements love to talk about them.  But really for the kind of work that butchers do, high-end knives don’t make a ton of sense.  Hard forged steel is more difficult to sharpen (something I do daily, sometimes twice) and the beating that our knives undergo usually means a brand new knife, whether it costs $20 or $200, has about a one-year lifespan.

Probably the best possible knives made for butchers are Fibrox handled knives by Victorinox.  Coming in cheap ($30!) but also strong and able to maintain an edge, these guys are the workhorses of not just professional butcher shops but also many big name kitchens.  The steel these are made out of (x50CrMov15 for all you knife pendants out there) strikes a great balance between the really cheap material of lesser knives, and the harder-to-work forged steel of higher priced knives.

Lots of butchers, myself included, end up with a bunch of knives for specific purposes.  If you’re just looking to get started you can do most anything with just two: a 6-inch for smaller breaking and an 8-inch for the big stuff and for cleaning muscles smoothly.  Plenty of people will tell you that you don’t really need a cleaver.  Which is certainly true, in the sense that you don’t really need a chainsaw or a big truck – but they do serve a purpose and are definitely fun to have around.

Tri-stone
So you’ve got your knives; now it’s time to keep them nice and sharp.  A butcher using their knives heavily will need to touch them up on the stone at least every other day.  I like to sharpen mine in the morning before a day of heavy cutting (although I frequently forget and pay the price in fatigued forearms from exerting extra pressure to  cut through meat).  A tri-stone comes in handy because it has different levels of grit on the stones:  Coarse for when you’ve really screwed something up on your knife and you need to grind it down; Medium for most general sharpening; and fine for polishing an edge razor sharp (or when you want to look busy).

Armor
Josh always tells the story of the time he was breaking beef alone in the shop when his knife slipped and he stabbed himself in the chest, close to his heart.  It was a deep cut, and from that day forward everyone who cut at Fleisher’s had to wear armor when they were cutting.  A chainmail apron protects most of the vital organs from cuts and stabs, and looks 100% badass while doing it.  Fun fact: Niroflex, the company that makes most of the armor that butchers wear, also makes chainmail armor for renaissance festivals and reenactments.

Band Aids
Look, no one wants to talk about it, but it’s going to happen.  No matter how great your knife skills are, no matter how focused you may be – one day you’ll cut yourself.  It’s usually never that bad, but you want to be prepared with bandages on hand so you can get right back into whatever meaty project you’re working on.  In this case, not just any band-aid will do.  After years of “research” I’ve settled on what is unequivocally the best possible bandage on the market.  The flexible fabric allows you a great range of motion once you’ve patched yourself up, and dries out quickly after getting wet.

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0 Replies to “The Butcher’s Toolkit

  1. On your last point, I would have to add one thing. Simple bandaids fall off very easily. Not a good thing to have happen in a meat room. Most first aid tapes are simply not sticky enough to hold for any length of time. I always carry electrical tape with me. It’s cheap, very sturdy, easily washable on the outside, and holds together well. My coworkers have also adopted this concept.

    1. Good point; most of the time when we have a long day of cutting ahead at work we’ll wrap duct tape or electrical around the bandaid, plus keep it covered with a glove to make sure it can’t come off.

      For a while we had HACCP compliant bandages which were blue and contained a little bit of metal so they’d show up on a scan of ground beef, but they were uncomfortable as hell and also overkill since the plant didn’t have a metal detector.

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