It’s true that you could butcher a whole animal with nothing more than a good, sharp knife, but it’d be an unpleasant task. When we began butchering, there were a few supplies we decided to invest in to make the job bearable, and over the years, we’ve added to our collection so as to be able to better deal with butchering of different animals.
It’s deer gun hunting here in Wisconsin this week, and we’ve got meat to process! Aaron shot his second deer ever, the first for us for the season. It’s not our first time butchering deer, so we didn’t need to add any new supplies to our collection, but we did pick up a few new items before we butchered the pigs.
The one thing that I really appreciated having for working on the venison this year were the lug bins we bought for pig butchering! We were working with my brother-in-law to process the deer he got, and I was able to grind all of the meat into a lug bin while Scott and my brother-in-law worked on the butchering. They were able to keep their meat off the table and also separate from each other.
There are supplies that are used no matter the animal, but then there are some that are primarily used for things like poultry and some for larger animals like deer or pigs or cows. I’ll notate which supplies are used for what. None of these items are absolutely necessary, but I share with you because it’s helped us.
Before I get into tools that we’ve used for butchering, I’d like to point out a few other things you may find helpful before you begin butchering. There are a lot of great teaching resources out there for butchering, but I’ve got to say, I think the best resource if you have access to it is somebody who knows the ropes. Most of the butchering we’ve done, we had to do based off of videos watched and books read, but Scott was able to observe the skinning and taking apart of a deer before we ever did our first.
There are a lot of great websites for learning how to butcher. The websites for all of the companies that specialize in hunting and butchering supplies (like LEM or Real Tree) that have plenty of tips and tricks. Justin Rhodes has Abundance Plus with videos that show the process in great detail. He and many others have great videos on different butchering procedures on YouTube, but Plus has some more graphic content that highlights the detail.
We purchased Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering by Adam Danforth. We purchased this book shortly after buying the pigs. It was recommended through some website, though I forget which. It has been an invaluable resource to us, and if you ARE on a budget, trying to get started on butchering, I’d recommend that you splurge on this book.
As the name implies, the book is very comprehensive. I am very happy with the details of all aspects of butchering covered in the book. He covers everything from start to finish. It’s a great resource for a home butcher. It doesn’t cover deer or cattle, but I know deer are similar in process to the goat and pigs.
The main knife used in butchering is a boning knife. It’s the only knife I’ve ever used on a deer or poultry. It wasn’t until we decided to butcher pigs that we got out some other knives. We picked up a cheap cleaver from Walmart before the big butchering day, and while I didn’t use it much, it was helpful for cutting chops. We used a rubber mallet to pound the cleaver through the bone in the chops.
The breaking knife was nice for cutting bigger cuts of meat. It has the longest blade of the knives, and I was able to cut through big cuts without “sawing”.
We currently rely on store-bought sharpeners. We had a honing rod, but it disappeared, and now that I understand how it works better, I would like to get a replacement ASAP. The honing rod helps keep the blade straight, which can cut down on how often the blade needs sharpening as well as how much sharpening needs to be done. We had 3, but I could only tell you where 2 of them are. One is built into the guard for the cleaver we purchased this year, and the other is a handle-type sharpener.
Ideally, I’d like to learn how to properly use a sharpening stone, but so far, I have yet to really grasp this method. I think I’ll need to have somebody show me the proper technique, because I just haven’t gotten it yet. So for now, I use the handle-type sharpener. We have another small one that you grip with your fingertips while pushing into the tabletop, but it doesn’t work as well as the other one. The other one has a handle that you grasp with your whole hand, and then you push the whole thing down onto the table using the same grip hand. You could use it without the pressure applied to the table, but I feel like it gives you more stability.
Hooks, Hangers, and More
Depending on the animal being butchered, there are some tools that are really helpful for the job. For butchering poultry, we like using the kill cones. Gambrels are nice for hanging large animals like pigs. Flesh hooks or meat hooks are helpful for pulling and lifting big pieces of meat.
For any poultry we’ve done, we’ve used kill cones. This allows you to hang the poultry upside down, keeping their wings constricted as they are bled out. Scott has tried the hatchet method, and it just wasn’t very clean or effective, and we found we preferred hanging.
For pigs, we used the gambrel, hooked to the hind legs. This worked incredibly well. The pigs were hung from the bucket of our tractor, and I can’t tell you what a game-changer this was for us in the butchering of a large animal.
Hanging deer has never been a pleasant task, but it was much easier with the tractor. We’ve always hung deer from the head as it makes for the easiest skinning process, but we did try hanging one from it’s back legs, and Scott said it caused a few extra problems for them. So for that, you need some kind of chain or rope for hanging if you don’t want to do a gambrel.
A tractor with a bucket is obviously not necessary (though it is incredibly helpful). We’ve used a variety of different pullies and ropes to hang deer in the past. What we did this year was just much easier with the bucket. We do have a pulley system that can be used, but it’s always been a struggle.
Meat hooks and rib separators are not necessary, but are helpful. Scott has always held the ribcage of the deer open with a stick or a block of wood to help the carcass cool and air out. The one thing that we don’t have but really should get is meat hooks. We’ve seen many butchers use these, and for certain jobs, this would make things much easier. I was disappointed that Fleet Farm didn’t carry any, but I’m sure we can find them elsewhere.
It would have been so much easier to move big cuts of the pig and deer around if I had one or more of these. I think it would have also helped us with gutting the pigs, as one person had to pry open the belly while the other person tried to release the guts. When we were bringing sections of the pigs into the house for butchering it would have been MUCH easier to carry a heavy portion of the pig if I’d had meat hooks to firmly grab onto the meat with. We came pretty close to dropping a big piece of pig onto the steps coming into the house!
Scalding, Scraping, Plucking, and Skinning
What you do to the exterior of the animal is going to depend partly on the animal, and partly on your personal preferences and skills.
Poultry will generally be plucked and not skinned, unless you are cutting the bird into parts (drumsticks, breasts, ect.) and want skinless meat. Pigs can be scraped, and the skin cooked and eaten, but most other animals (to my knowledge) will be skinned, and the skin/fur can be turned into leather or hides.
If you plan to pluck or scrape, you’ll need a way to scald the animal after death. This will have to be prepared before any killing happens, as you want to be working quickly on this step after death. There’s a sweet-spot for scalding to help release hairs and feathers. To scaled, most people find a giant pot, big enough to dunk a whole chicken or turkey into, or for a pig, they may use something larger, such as a 55 gal. drum, and the animal may need to be dunked twice (top and bottom). Although, this can be accomplished in other ways such as dumping scalding water onto the animal.
Scalding is not strictly necessary for plucking, but it is helpful, as is having a tiny bit of soap in the water to help release the oils and help the feathers release from the skin.
We decided before actually getting chickens to invest in a chicken plucker, and have not regretted it since. Some friends of ours raised chickens for meat for the first time and decided to butcher themselves. The father of one of the friends was very much of the opinion of “You don’t need a plucker, just do it by hand!” But after they had a miserable time plucking just a few, they decided to borrow our plucker, and boy, did their experience change. The father of the one friend was absolutely stunned at how fast the plucker works and agreed that it was much easier to do it that way!
In order to scrape, people use a variety of tools, but from what I’ve heard, the bells are the best for the job. There are also fleshing knives, but that’s for making hides, and removes any meat and tissue from hides that will be tanned, and to my knowledge, people don’t use them for scraping hair.
Skinning can be done solely with a knife, but for animals like deer, and even on the pigs, a skinning tool is incredibly helpful. It works like a tongs, but it has little spikes on the surface to really grip the skin, and then you pull down hard on the skin to pull it away from the muscle.
Overall, we use some large plastic cutting boards, and we use the counter or table in the house, or some plastic folding tables for outside at butchering time. We picked up a second cutting board this year before pig butchering so that we could have two people butchering at once. I’ve got some wooden cutting boards, but they’re not nearly big enough for this kind of job. We just used them both to butcher some deer, and I was grateful to have both.
There are drawbacks to the plastic cutting boards. Namely that they can get pretty badly scratched (like for sawing ribs). If we had a butcherblock counter or just a butcher block cutting board, we could refinish the surface.
However, plastic cutting boards can be bleached for clean up, they are light-weight compared to wooden cutting boards, and they have a thin profile, which means if you’re working with a big piece of meat and they don’t fit completely on the cutting board, it’s not hanging off and pulling like it would on a thicker cutting board.
If you’re using a cutting board, a tip to keep it from sliding around while you cut is to stick a damp washcloth underneath it. I do this when rolling out pizza crust on a pizza pan, too. I can put a lot of pressure on the surface I’m working, and the cutting board (or pan) won’t budge.
We mainly use the kitchen counter or dining room table for the bigger butchering jobs, like pigs and deer. For chickens, we use our plastic folding tables, and everything is butchered directly on the table. I do bring out a plastic cutting board though, just in case I need to part one of the birds for packaging. The plastic folding table is also light-weight and easy to move around the yard, so it’s not a big deal to bring it out on butchering day. Plus, it can be sprayed down and bleached, and they’re fairly sturdy. We had a half a pig (about 150# of meat and bone) on one of the tables without issue.
Ideally, we’d end up with a butcherblock table or counter somewhere, or we’d get ahold of some stainless steel tables. Whenever we’re finally able to build a summer kitchen, I’d like to get some stainless steel tables for butchering and food processing.
Sometimes, piecing an animal is pretty tricky, and you need more than a knife to do the job. We finally bought a bone saw for Scott for his birthday this year, and we used it for the first time butchering pigs. We ended up using a Sawzall this year, too, and that was incredibly speedy.
If I were to be doing all the butchering myself, I probably would have stuck with the bone saw, but I don’t really care what’s used so long as the job gets done. Sawing without electricity is tough work! However, an electric saw can easily get away on you, and you could very quickly cut into cuts of meat that you would have liked to have kept in tact. We used a new blade, just for butchering.
We also picked up extra blades for the bone saw, and we used the bone saw for cutting the ribs on the pigs and for making a few other cuts. I love using a Sawzall, but they can jump around a lot as you’re making your initial cuts, and since we were cutting indoors, the bone saw seemed more controlled and therefore safer.
Lug bins are absolutely not necessary for butchering. But they are incredibly helpful, especially for larger animals, and I was so glad to have them this year. These bins are just big plastic totes that have a cover that does not snap into place. They’re intended to be used to hold meat and other animal parts; for instance, lard, organs, or grinding meat.
If I could have only gotten one, I still would have been happy! Just having one big bin to grind the meat into is very helpful. I made quite a mess of grinding in the past, and the big bin helped keep everything better contained. I’d use all of my bowls before, but then you have dishes to wash, and you’ve got meals to prepare, and you need the right containers for preparing the meal. I also used them to carry meat up and down the stairs to the freezer, and I was able to carry a pork ham leg into the house without being quite so worried about dropping the meat because I had a better grip on the bin. Had I had a poor grip, that meat would have landed on the steps outside the house!
I can’t say what the best meat grinder on the market is, but we’ve got a really nice, heavy-duty LEM grinder. We were able to purchase it second-hand, gently used from a friend. At first I was a little disappointed that Scott wanted to buy a meat grinder, thinking we’d never use it. And then he shot a deer and decided to process it here at home. That changed everything, and I was thrilled that he’d purchased the grinder.
I know there are some manual grinders on the market, but honestly, this is one thing where I’m willing to take the financial hit and just go with electric. I’ve heard a lot of negative things about grinders that are attachments to things like mixers, but I can’t verify how good or bad they are. I’ve just been very pleased with the one we have.
Sausage-making equipment is not strictly necessary for butchering, however, if you’re raising larger livestock for your own meat, it’s probably not a bad investment. A sausage-stuffer would allow you to make your own sausages, hot dogs, and brats. Funny, I never saw myself making our own brats. In middle school, we had to take a quarter of Agriculture Class, and we made bratwursts. I thought it was kind of neat, but I figured that’d be the one and only time I ever made my own sausage! If I listed off the things I thought “I’ll never….” to you, you’d get a good laugh at where my life has ended up!
While we do have a dedicated sausage stuffer, it’s not strictly necessary. Our meat grinder has the ability to stuff sausage, and you can get attachments for things like a Kitchen Aid mixer, or use a jerky gun. But, if you do want to make sausage, you’ll still need casings, seasonings, and potentially, preservatives.
There are a few different types of casings, and you’ll have to decide what you like best for your projects. I’ve said it before, but even though we didn’t save the intestines from our pigs this year, it doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. In fact, after shopping for casings recently, I suddenly became a lot more interested in saving our own. In fact, I think it’s pretty brilliant that people use intestines for stuffing with ground meat, and that they’d use caul fat to wrap roasts!
Spices and seasonings are going to be entirely up to you and your personal preferences. We’ve been working to grow our own spices for things like this, and I grew all the sage I needed for our sausage-making this year. If you’re going to be butchering your own meat, you might want to buy certain types or cuts of meat while the animals are growing so you can test recipes in advance. Maybe pick up some ground pork and test out sausage spice mixes so you don’t have to waste time on trials when you’re packaging your meat.
Salt is the primary preservative used in sausages. Depending on the type of sausage you are making, some call for salts with nitrates or saltpeter. This is something I’ll look into more in the future as we get more comfortable with the process and venture into dry curing.
String is one other item you may need for tying or hanging sausages. Depending on the type of casing used, you may want rings for clamping off the casings.
Freezing, Drying, Canning, and More
I covered this aspect pretty well in another post, so I won’t get into great detail here. But if you are going to be raising meat for use, you should have a plan for storing that meat. Be it freezing, drying, canning, or some other method of preservation, you’ll need to make sure you’ve done your research ahead of time and get any necessary supplies before butchering day arrives. You don’t want to have to stop mid-project to go buy a chest freezer or to get packaging!
How you store your meat is entirely up to you, and you may decide that you’d like to store it multiple ways, like we do. Our primary methods of storing meat this year are freezing and canning. In the future, I’d like to try drying/smoking our own meats (other than basic jerky), and I’d like to play around with salt-curing, too.
If freezing, you’ll need to decide if you’ll be using vacuum seal bags, plastic wrap and freezer paper, zip lock bags, or shrink wrap bags like the packaging you get your turkey in at the store. Keeping meat wrapped or packaged will prevent the meat from getting strange textures or damage from frost, and it will help prevent contamination of flavors or other things in the freezer.
For dried meats, you might need anything from your oven to a dehydrator or a refrigerator to a smoke house. It really depends on what you want to make. Salt-preserved meats like salt pork don’t require much. You’ll need cuts of meat, lots of salt, some hot water, and an appropriate vessel for storing the meat.
Keeping it Simple
Special tools aren’t necessary, but sometimes it can make a job feel hopelessly difficult to be working without them. For example, being able to sharpen knives throughout the butchering process will save your sanity and keep you safe. Find out what you’d need at the bare minimum to keep the work from being miserable and at least start there. For the record, I DON’T recommend trying to start with only a knife! If the job is awful because you’re working with the wrong supplies, you may never want to attempt butchering again, and that’d be too bad. It’s a rewarding process!
Don’t let my lengthy list of tools keep you from thinking that the cost of entering into butchering is too high. There were certain pricier things we purchased the first time we did any butchering, but really, if we would have just had knives, bags, and a bit pot of water, we could have butchered the chickens just fine. A grinder isn’t necessary, nor is a sausage stuffer, a big plucker, or a vacuum sealer. Some of the things I listed help make the process easier, others provide variety in product.
We’re not professional butchers, and we only began butchering about 5 or 6 years ago, so we’ve got lots to learn still, but hopefully, this provides a good overview and gives a good starting point. Some of these supplies would make for good gifts for the right person in your life, too. Scott gave me a sausage stuffer a few years ago, and I’m looking forward to using it for years to come. Aaron bought Scott a bone saw for his birthday, and we got good use out of it this year. Giving knives as a gift may be controversial to some, but working with a half-way decent knife is an absolute game changer, and the recipient will be thankful for how much easier it makes the job.
Let me know if you think I missed anything, and leave your comments and questions below!
Love and Blessings~ Danielle