Those beautiful steaks and chops at the grocery store meat counter started out as whole animals. While some butchers work in slaughterhouses and processing plants, most butchers work in grocery stores and independent shops, receiving meat from slaughterhouses and processing plants and turning it into delectable cuts for shoppers to take home, cook, and enjoy. Meat lovers may wonder how to become a professional butcher.
It may come as a surprise to learn that there is no standardized educational requirement or certification necessary to become a butcher, other than to have a high school diploma. Most meat cutters learn on the job through apprenticeships. However, butchers need specialized knowledge about how to cut and store meat, fish, and poultry safely. Certificate programs in meat science, meat processing, food safety, or similar studies are good credentials to obtain for prospective butchers.
When a side of beef or another animal arrives at the grocery store or butcher shop, the meat cutter must know how to inspect it to ensure freshness. Butchers must also understand how to store meats safely and at what temperature to keep them to ensure freshness and safety. They must understand the anatomy of the animal they receive in order to cut it down into recognizable and attractive portions.
Butchers spend their days standing up, working in cold temperatures, and handling dangerous equipment like knives, saws, and cleavers. More than a few butchers have lost fingers in a moment of inattention. Meat cutters must maintain a sanitary environment and comply with all local health and safety regulations. Improperly stored meat or aged meat that a butcher hasn’t trimmed correctly to slice off mold and bacteria can make people sick and shut down a butcher counter until the health department is satisfied that sanitation procedures are adequate for public safety.
As interest in a wider variety of meats grows to include game like venison, elk, or bison, as well as more exotic meats like alligator, butchers must learn the anatomy of a broad range of animal and fish species.
Many customers call on butchers to explain the differences between various cuts of meat—for example, which is more tender, how to cook different cuts, and what types of meat are best for stews.
In addition to slicing, weighing, and packaging cuts of meat, butchers also make sausages and ground meats for burgers or meatloaf. As such, in addition to all the cutting equipment that butchers learn to use, they must also know how to operate and troubleshoot meat grinding machines.
If you’re fascinated by the meat counter, and you love to grill, braise, or roast beef, pork, lamb, game, poultry, and fish, the best way to turn your happy hobby into a career as a professional butcher is to seek an apprenticeship or internship. As long-time butchers approach retirement, they may welcome interested newcomers and enjoy passing on their skills. Learning business management skills through college coursework is a plus for any budding butcher who may one day want to open their own shop featuring artisan sausages, specialty aged meats, or exotic cuts of game.