Butchery techniques: now & then

As consumer demands on meat have evolved, so has the offer on display in butchers’ shops. Line Elise Svanevik tracks the differences between the early butchers’ outlets and the modern-day independent butchery retailer

Butchery techniques have evolved over the years, with one of the main emerging trends being smaller cuts that are easy and quick to cook. Demands from customers have contributed to these changes and technology, such as refrigerating and freezing, has improved the displays in shops. Additionally, traceability has become increasingly important for both the butcher and consumer.

Smaller cuts

Traditionally, butchers used to sell whole carcases, which provided a larger range of beef cuts when the carcase was broken down. These days, due to demand and changing shopping behaviours, butchers are buying and selling smaller cuts of meat to cope with customer needs. This is due to the fact that consumers today demand food to be fresher, easier to cook and faster – with the gradual demise of the housewife contributing to the demand for quicker food. Whereas previously, customers would buy a large chunk of meat to take home and keep for some time, nowadays, consumers buy smaller cuts more frequently. This so-called “boxed meat” allows the customer to request certain parts of meat, without having to buy an entire piece of the carcase.

Bpex’s butchery and product development manager Keith Fisher confirms the trend towards smaller cuts. He says: “Once upon a time, the average British family all sat down to eat on a Sunday. In those days, people would buy larger joints for the whole family, so that they could enjoy a whole meal together. Now, there are a lot of singles, divorcees and students living on their own, so smaller cuts of meat are in demand. People who live on their own don’t need to buy these large pieces of meat.”

Butcher Malcolm Pyne has been in the business for nearly 30 years. He says: “My father was a butcher and he used to say that when he had a hindquarter, he put the knife into it five times, so there would be five lumps of meat. These days, we have that same quarter of beef and we cut it 200 times.”

Pyne explains that the average British household spends less per head on food than 30 years ago, comparative to their income. “They’re looking for smaller portions and therefore cuts have to match customer needs,” he adds.

When it comes to specifically cutting the meat, Fisher says: “Traditionally you make straight cuts through joints, so the ends are parallel. This is because cutting a steak that is two centimetres thick will result in the same thickness when getting to the end of the meat.”

Fisher stresses the importance of knowing how to break down a carcase properly. He claims that in order to learn the art of butchery, it is important to understand the bone structure of the carcase, how many ribs it has, and so on.

“When we cut through a traditional rump of beef, we have three muscles which are all tender. However, some are more tender than others. If you have a scale from one to 10 of tenderness, there can be one on the scale of six, one on the scale of eight and one on the scale of 10 – all in one beef rump. When cooking a piece of meat, what we’ve done over the years in this country is develop alternative cutting techniques, so we maximise the use of individual muscles. Nowadays, I would cut it so that rather than having one piece of meat on one bit of carcase, I would use the other bit of muscle too,” he said.

As butchery has evolved over the years, cuts in Britain were produced in relation to the bone structure in the carcase. “We are now much more knowledgeable about tenderness and what muscles do, which is why we have gone back to remove individual muscles over the past 20-30 years,” says Fisher. He claims that instead of taking a group of muscles and presenting them as being for either cooking, stewing or grilling, “we now take out individual muscles and say which ones are for each specific method of cooking”.

Furthermore, due to health concerns, many customers are requesting leaner meat. New methods and techniques have therefore been developed over the past 20 years to cope with these demands, and to reduce the fat levels of the carcase and cuts.


Demands from consumers have contributed a great deal to the changes that have been made over the years. Bpex has continued to research demands to follow with the trends, and has therefore previously looked at research and spoken to consumers about their needs. “Something we found that they want is meat that is easy to handle, easy to cook and easy to eat.”

These days, as people have busy schedules and less time to spend in the kitchen, cuts that cook quickly are more desirable. However, there is a price to pay for fast-cooked meat. “What we now pay for is convenience and if we’ve got a piece of meat that will cook within four to six minutes, we pay a high per-kilo price for it. It is all time-conscious, and if you buy yourself slow-cooking brisket or braising meat, then you pay considerably less because it needs considerably longer cooking,” says Fisher.

Fisher further explains why the popularity of the products is also heavily determined by price. “A cut will only achieve the cost that it is being charged if people want it enough,” says Fisher. The popularity is further determined by the length and difficulty of cooking the meat, which results in faster cooked cuts becoming more popular, equalling a rise in price.

“We’ve become the new housewife,” says Pyne. “Years ago, the housewife would have cooked a meal throughout the day, ready for when the husband came home from work. But it’s not like that any more,” he explains. “People want to come home from their day’s work and they want to be satisfied quickly. This is why we try to do 85-90% of the job for the working person – not for the working man.”

Pyne claims the optimum cooking time for meat is matched with the cooking time for potatoes and vegetables, which would be around 15 or 30 minutes. He further claims that: “There has been a renaissance of the use of the butcher, from traditional slow-cooking cuts to offal. I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and 1990s preparing barbecue meat when it became very fashionable. Customers back then would come in and they would want the most expensive cuts. But, with the recession, we are finding a good cross-section of economical cuts to point cuts. In the last decade, there have been many point cuts, fast-cooking cuts, and so on.”
Despite the recession, Fisher claims: “People can afford to pay higher prices for cuts now than they could back in the 1940s and 1950s. They couldn’t afford those cuts back then and therefore they had to rely on slower-cooked meats that were cheaper.”

Layout and displays

In the mid-1990s, there used to be around 22,000 butchers shops, a number which fell to 6,553 in 2010. With the recent horsemeat scandal, the footfall in butcher’s shops has in some cases increased dramatically.
Despite the falling number of butcher’s shops, which is a result of customers seeking convenience over quality by going to supermarkets, Pyne says: “There have been huge changes in the food industry. Food is very prominent on television, in the newspapers and with all the trendy restaurants that have appeared it has become part of people’s lifestyles.”

Commenting on the drastic decline in butcher’s shops across the country over the years, Pyne explains it simply. “Those butchers that have stuck in their ways and haven’t embraced a modern, clean look, those who haven’t paid their staff enough and so on, they won’t survive.”

Pyne believes the modern butcher needs to focus on the demands from the customer “from service, to quality and the craftsmanship”. He adds: “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t look at different flavours or the latest range of techniques, for example. I’ll sit my shop man down and he’ll go through it all with our shop team afterwards. You’ve got to go forwards all the time.

“If you asked me if I’d be interested in making salami in the 1980s, I would’ve laughed at you. But now we’ve got equipment coming in to start making it, because we know it’s what the customer wants. These things make the business go forward and, as a butcher, you’ve got to make your business stand out and make it customer-oriented.”

Along with techniques, demand and supply, the layout of butcher shops has naturally evolved. Previously, there would be whole carcases on display in the shop, with animal heads in the shop windows, and there would be no refrigeration of the meat. The shops would merely be aired, which could be seen as a health hazard these days. “At one point, butchers’ shops were built with open railings and windows, so that fresh air could circulate within them. However, air conditioning and freezing means the meat can keep longer on displays,” says Fisher.

Speaking of a previous trend of displaying whole carcases, Fisher claims this has been discontinued due to several factors. “One reason is that the area that keeps the carcase is refrigerated and the other is that, these days, many butchers’ shops are breaking them down into smaller pieces.”

He believes there are far more good independent retail shops out there, and that these shops have “reverted back to old traditional ways” in the way that they produce sausages or bacon.


Fisher further claims another big difference is the traceability aspect of butchers’ shops. He says: “There is a lot more closeness to the countryside. Many butchers now have farmer friends, and they will go out of their way to find out where the animals come from.

One of the major threats for butchers that has emerged over the years has been supermarkets entering the food chain. However, because of butchers’ expertise knowledge which is not available in supermarkets, they still remain vitally important to the food chain.

Pyne stresses: “It has to be the total experience, which starts with the smile from behind the counter. What you’re selling is what you’re selling – don’t fall into the trap of the supermarket. We went through a decade of people saying, ‘We can’t compete with the supermarkets’. But you can look left and right and see what Sainsbury’s is doing,” he says.

“You have got to do things the opposite of the multiples, learn from them, learn their techniques, their presentation, the overall experience, such as the smells from their kitchens, to make your business stand out.”

Another change over time has been the move from butcher to retailer. Previously, the butcher would own a slaughterhouse and acted as retailer, meat and livestock buyer and commissioner. Nowadays, the butcher merely retails the meat and buys it from farms and slaughterhouses.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, butchers’ shops experienced a large boost in sales, as consumers became increasingly concerned with traceability, which they believed was more prevalent in butchers’ shops, than supermarkets. Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) did a survey of 300 members of the Scotch Butchers’ Club, which revealed that 92% of UK butchers’ shops had experienced an increase in customers in the wake of the scandal. The members surveyed also revealed that 95% of customers were more interested in sourcing and traceability of meat than prior to the horsemeat scandal.


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