In most butchers’ shops 80% of the fresh meat sold is cut and 20% is minced, retail butcher Allan Bennett estimates. Bacon and cooked meats are the main meats sliced, of course.
Bennett, whose shop is in Codsall, West Midlands, says: “There are loads of machines on the market that will slice whatever you want to slice — at whatever thickness you want to slice and at whatever speed you want to slice.”
Simon Howie, who owns shops in Perth and Auchterarder in Scotland, agrees, adding: “It is difficult to find a bad one, and the prices are good — such is the price competition. We’re probably paying the same now as we were 20 years ago. You can get a good one for £1,500.”
Howie uses a semi-automatic bacon slicer to give individuality to his bacon slicing compared to pre-sliced bacon. “We find slicing their own bacon to be sold in packs is quite a good thing for the guys — they can then mix it up a bit and pack it how they like to see it packed, rather than buying it pre-packed the way that someone else has done it.
“We slice and pack in the back of the shop, rather than in front of the customer, doing maybe 50 or 100 packs a time to put in the cabinet. It’s a half-way house between the pre-packed, pre-sliced, bought-in bacon versus the old-fashioned method of putting the bacon on a slicer and slicing it to order. In this modern day, people cannot be bothered to stand about waiting for it to be sliced. We can have a customer in and out of the door in five minutes with a £20 spend, rather than have them wait 10 to 15 minutes while we slice or dice something, or de-bone it. It’s pretty much all ‘grab and go’-type product. We’re not talking ready meals nor stuff that is packed the day before, but even items like mince that are as fresh as you can imagine.
“We still slice our cooked meats just in time, because with the volume we sell, it is so difficult to keep the bloom on the product once it is pre-sliced, unless you gas-flush it and spend 25p a pack on it.”
Meat slicers come in all shapes, sizes and prices — from the very simple manual machine that has an electrically driven knife with a meat table pushed by hand to fully automatic models that stack each slice in a pre-programmed pattern.
Modern slicers seem a long way from the very traditional slicers manually driven by rotating the flywheel by hand to drive the knife and meat table. Many butchers will remember their grandfathers using these highly polished red Volano machines, but the advent of pre-sliced bacon bought in from a specialist supplier has made them increasingly less popular until recently, when there has been a revival of interest in them as window-dressing, according to Roger Lathbury, marketing manager of South Coast Systems (SCS). “While still useful for the dedicated butcher who cures his own bacon, the Volano red flywheel slicer has become more of a showpiece than a working machine for some businesses, which now buy it just to place in their window. It is used to present the business as ‘traditional with old-fashioned values’.” SCS offers two Sure Slice branded Volano slicers — one with a choice of 300mm, 3650mm and 370mm knife sizes, and a second heavier-duty model.
Meat slicers are usually specified by their knife size. “This dictates the maximum size of meat product that can be sliced with a particular machine,” says Lathbury. “The smallest slicer usually has a 220mm knife, working from 250mm through 300mm, 330mm and 350mm up to 370mm. The most common knife size used in the UK is the 300mm.”
UK manual slicers are usually ‘gravity-fed’, with the meat table and knife set at a 30– to 45-degree angle, allowing the unsliced meat to literally slide by force of gravity down to the knife for slicing. Straight feed machines are more popular on the Continent, Lathbury says. “It’s arguable which is better. For some very specific meat products, such as Parma ham, straight feed or even Volano slicers are the best bet, but for general use, both gravity and straight-feed machines perform well.” SCS offers three Sure Slice gravity feed slicers — economy, mid-range and professional.
Although slicers are probably most used in butchers’ shops for slicing bacon and cooked meats, they can also be used to slice many boneless beef, pork and lamb cuts with precision if the volume of trade justifies it. One such machine is the German-manufactured MHS PCE 70 E, supplied by Manchester firm Superior Food Machinery (SFM). Suitable for slicing a range of meats, it comes with a new programmable control panel that displays the full product name and other information. SFM joint managing director James Garner says: “The MHS panel allows the operator to control the blade speed and slice thickness. A slice accuracy to 0.1mm delivers consistent product thickness every time, while its servo-drive system makes it very low maintenance, and it is easy to clean. It is also possible to change the thickness of the first and last slice to give an improvement in yield. If a conveyor option is fitted, its speed can be controlled while slicing, as can the distance between operator positions.”
Simon Howie estimates that mince approaches 20% of sales in his shops. “We’ve got a very good trade in steaks, roasts, bacons, sausages chickens and so on. It’s more likely that the 50% market share of meat sales that mince is said to have is because of the volume turned over by supermarkets, where it is a commodity product like potatoes and milk. Mince is still an important part of the independent trade, though and, as long as a butcher buys a mincer on reputation rather than just price, he or she will struggle to go wrong. If you know the company name, you can be pretty sure it will be good enough kit.”
Mincers function in very similar ways, regardless of the brand. The unprocessed meat is fed by hand from the meat pan or tray into the mincing head. The mincing head or barrel contains a ‘worm’ that rotates, transporting the unprocessed meat to a knife that is rotating against a plate, where it is cut by a scissors-like action. Different-sized plates determine how finely the meat is minced. Some mincers use more than one knife or plate. Holes are machined into the plates and the size of the holes varies in each plate, from a diameter of 2.5mm for very fine mince, to 10mm for very coarse. After the knife cuts the meat, it is forced through the holes in the stationary plate, and out in a continuous ‘spaghetti’ shape.
The UK uses the Enterprise mincing system, consisting of a single plate and knife. Meat is usually processed twice, often using a coarse plate (for example 8mm) first, followed by a 2.5mm or 4mm for the second run. On the Continent, some countries use the UNGER system, consisting of two plates (1/2 UNGER) or even three (full UNGER) and one (double-sided) knife, or two knives. Usually the meat is only processed once. Both systems have their fans.
Lathbury says that, when buying a mincer, a butcher should either specify the size (diameter) of the mincing plate or the throughput required. Standard sizes include a 70mm diameter plate machine, known as a type 12, an 84mm (32) and 94mm (42). Throughput is measured in kilograms per hour, with a typical type 32 mincer producing between 300kg and 500kg of mince per hour. “This is a calculation measuring the volume of the mincer head, multiplied by the speed of the worm, so the volume of mince actually produced is an approximate, assumed amount.”
Buyers should look at the quality of the mincing head and barrel, and its components, along with the motor and gearbox, Lathbury says. Larger mincers require more powerful motors and gearboxes. A 230V 50Hz, phase-one, type 32 mincer will usually be driven by a 3HP motor.
The Sure Range series of mincers vary in size and materials used, ranging through economy, mid-range and professional, with several sizes of machine available in each category. Manual, semi-automatic and automatic burger attachments can be added to shape the mince as it is produced. Butchers with a good sausage and burger trade may save time with a machine that not only minces meat but mixes it with other ingredients — a so-called mixer grinder. SFM supplies the Kolbe MWK 32, a premium small mixer grinder designed for the butcher producing sausage and burger meat. Garner says: “It’s a mincer, but it also does the mixing of batches between 20lb and 60lb, which can be of great benefit to the butcher.
Butchers nowadays are realising that mixing sausages is not just about getting the right ingredients, it’s about the quality of the mixing as well. The Kolbe is a real labour-saver that helps produce a technically good sausage. Mass-produced sausage tends to be blended more. A butcher can produce a much better-textured sausage in lower volumes using a mixer-grinder and piston-filler rather than a bowl chopper. Adjustable plates allow a variety of textures, from smooth to coarse, to be easily achieved.”
Requiring less than a metre of floor space the Kolbe can be used in places where there is only a single-phase power supply. “The lack of a machine that works with a single-phase power supply has prevented a lot of UK butchers from buying a mixer-grinder in the past,” says Garner. “Three-phase power is too expensive for many butchers to have fitted. This can often restrict butchers to machines that are underpowered for the job and can cause reliability issues. On the Continent, three-phase power is more common, so most manufacturers don’t offer a single-phase option, as it is only really needed in the UK. The Kolbe solves the problem.”
Cutting has evolved in many forms over the years and has changed in terms of meat presentation, says Simon Howie. Whole muscle seam butchery is now a big thing, he says. “Dicing is one form of cutting, but most butchers’ businesses will hand-dice rather than use a dicing machine, unless it has a super trade.”
For retail butchers with a very large volume of trade, there are a diverse range of cutting machines on the market, including choppers and dicers, that carry out a variety of tasks. But if frozen meat needs to be cut, then a bone saw is required. Bone saws are one of the few groups of machines capable of handling deep-frozen products by sawing with the serrated teeth of the blade, known as a band, rather than by slicing. The total length of the band has a direct correlation with the maximum size of meat product that can be cut — and this is what defines models.
The size of the product that can be cut, known as capacity, is also governed by the access area around the band, allowing a certain height and width on which to place the meat. Smaller machines, such as a table-top model with a 1,475mm band, will cut small products, such as small racks of ribs. Larger machines, generally 2,400mm and above, can cut bigger items, such as whole pork sides for chops. SCS offers a number of Sure Range bone saws of stainless steel construction, varying in size from a table-top 1,650mm model to a floor-standing 3,100mm machine.
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