Let me begin by saying: I’ve been cutting meat for personal use long before I have been a professional butcher. The further you go down the culinary rabbit hole the more likely you are to eventually try your hand at it. There are definite benefits- but seldom are they the benefits you’d expect. You’ll see what I’m saying in a minute.
Pro: First thing that instantly comes to mind is the classic line “if you want something done right do it yourself.” When it comes skilled trades like meat cutting- it should be “only do it yourself if you’d rather not pay someone else to screw it up.” By that I mean: you are going to screw up, but if you’re doing something custom or experimental- the professional might screw it up too (sometimes due to your poor explanation of what you want). If the job is simple and you feel like your local butcher is the type to charge labor for the smallest thing, by all means, grab the knife. Want to trim the fat on that brisket a bit? Grab the knife. Split that boneless pork shoulder into two portions? Grab the knife.
Cons: Cost vs. Value. Many people (especially home chefs who blog about food) like to say that it’s way cheaper to cut your steaks or roasts or what have you. These people are overlooking a MAJOR aspect of pricing: the cutting test. A cutting test is a calculation a professional meat cutter does to determine how much he has to charge to make a profit. He weighs the meat, writes down the weight, cuts the meat, trims it, and then weighs the cut and trimmed meat. With the help of his calculator, he determines what percentage of the uncut product he lost to trimming. He then takes that number and adds it to the percentage he uses as his base profit margin.
For example: 25% waste+30% desired margin equals 55%. If he bought the meat for $5 a pound, he now has to multiply $5 times 155% to determine how much per pound he must charge the customer for the end product.
With all of that said, he bought that meat at a distribution price point. If he got it from his distributor at $5/lbs, chances are you’d pay the 30% margin more than that at say Sam’s Club or another bulk retailer. After all, is said and done, (if you are good at it) you are going to trim it the same way the meat cutter did, and so you’re going to lose the same 25% in value. Now you’ve met the same 55% he charged on top of the purchased product, you have dishes to do, and you probably didn’t do as good of a job. Nothing personal, but you probably didn’t practice cutting meat for 4000 hours to prepare.
Pro: If you have a grinder, you can grind meat fresh whenever you feel like making burgers. You can always drive down to a butcher or grocery store you trust and get it ground fresh for you, but you will pay a little more for gas and whatever they charge profit. You see, when grinding beef, there are cuts you can buy to grind that don’t require trim loss before the grind.
Con: You need to buy equipment. For example: to grind meat, you need to buy a grinder. Let me tell you- you get what you pay for. A grinder that isn’t totally frustrating for light duty is going to cost you a minimum of $150 if you go for the motorized grinder (the only way go if you value your joints). By light duty- I mean 8 pounds or less per batch. Any more than that and you’ll begin to require more power and a higher capacity that verges on commercial equipment. ‘Nuff said. Same song different verse: you can forget about cutting a porterhouse at home unless you have a food grade bandsaw at your disposal.
Pro: You’ll know exactly what you are buying. You can walk into the local Sam’s Club and pick out beef strip loin, and it will have the packing companies name and the USDA grade right on the package. Many grocery store meat departments can’t or won’t tell you what the USDA Grade of their beef is, or what farm it was raised on, or what company packed it. And to an extent- it’s not their fault sometimes. All of that information can change batch to batch in cutting, because they buy it by the case at an agreed upon price level. If one brand has a surplus of X piece of beef, it’s going to cheaper than the other brand. Stores like the one I’m employed by (natural food stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, etc…) are often loyal to one brand or another, and only sell one USDA grade, but those types of places aren’t for everyone.
Con: You probably don’t know what knife to use, or how to sharpen it. Again, you don’t have 4000 hours on the job. It’s not your fault. I’m in a giving mood, so I will bust a myth or two about knives for meat cutting.
1.) “the style of knife doesn’t matter if you have a steady hand”. This one is complete misinformation. Knives that are made for meat have a completely different balance and feel than those made as general purpose knives. There are few things as cringeworthy as seeing someone try to cut a portion of beef into steaks with a small santoku style blade. You need the right tool for the job. Grab yourself a set of Victorinox meat cutting knives and be done with it. Read up on each style in the set.
2.) “sharpening knives is quick and easy” the only people who say this are either doing it very wrong or have equipment that is going to stunt the life of their blade. Motorized sharpeners (literally all of them) remove a significant amount of material per sharpening session. They are fast but don’t expect to get more than ten sharpenings before your knife is down to a knitting needle. They only time professionals see these as an acceptable option is when they are down to the wire and need their knife sharp right away, meaning they have 4 hours of work to fit in their last work hour. Buy yourself a water sharpening stone with a minimum length of 8 inches, a stone leveler, a honing steel (not a sharpener), and google how to use it all. The internet is your friend. Once you learn the initial patience the skill requires, you will probably find zen-like peace when you have your blade on the stone. If you want to get efficient, buy the cheapest boning knife you can find on Amazon, dull the hell out of it (scraping on a steel truck bed rail works pretty good), and sharpen away. You’ll get a feel for the proper angle, and you won’t risk ruining a beautiful knife.
Pro: Like me, you might decide that you love cutting meat so much that you should learn to do it professionally. Fair warning- it’s a labor of love. The median salary for a meat manager in a grocery store is in the mid to upper $40k range, and that’s the highest paying position. Opening your own business is a viable option- but it’s a lot like the restaurant business in that most shops fail quickly and fantastically.
To recap: cheap isn’t cheap after all the work is done, but it might be worth it for other reasons if you have the patience.
Thanks to guest contributor Christopher Ward for this article.