The Ultimate Guide to Butcher Knives – Types, Uses, and What to Look For

A butcher knife is a category of knives used for cutting and dressing meat. Many knives fall into this category, such as the traditional butcher knife, boning knife, meat cleaver, skinning knife, and more. They usually have blades between 2.5 to 12 inches in length, with narrow or wide blades. Some variations like boning knives or slicing knives are flexible to produce thin slices. You can use these knives for deboning meat, splitting bones, skinning game, filleting fish, breaking down carcasses, and more.

Types of Butcher Knives

Butcher’s knife is a category that contains a variety of knives with different shapes and sizes. Each of these knives can complete specific tasks, as explained here.

1. Traditional Butcher’s Knife

Traditional butcher knives have wide blades (8″) and curved points. These knives are sturdy and heavy, providing plenty of resistance to pressure.

The purpose of this knife is to butcher and cut chunks of meat without chipping or breaking risks. Other uses include splitting, skinning, trimming, and slicing animals while camping or hunting.

2. Boning Knife

A boning knife is a butcher knife variation designed to debone, skin, and slice meat. This knife can be stiff or flexible with straight or curved blade shapes for precision cutting. It has a smaller (6-8 inches), sharper, and thinner blade, allowing you to remove ligaments and connective tissue.

Additionally, the boning knife can slice and dice small steaks to cut delicate portions. If you only need a single butcher knife, this is the one you should get.

Flexible knives with curved edges are precision tools for their ability to cut around intricate bone shapes of fish and poultry. On the other hand, flat-edged boning knives are better for sectioning deep cuts of meat in beef, venison, or pork.

3. Carving Knife

A carving knife is similar to a chef’s knife, but the blade is longer (9-11″) and more slender. They also have scalloped edges and rounded tips. Granton edge allows the blade to slice through any meat without getting stuck. The narrow design of the carving knife allows you to cut thin and uniform slices with minimal resistance. Use it for poultry and large roasts.

4. Slicing Knife

Slicing knives are similar to carving knives. They share long (12”) and thin blades with round or pointed tips. However, the slicing knife blade is more flexible. It’s better for cutting thinner roast slices.

Alternatively, you can use this knife for carving and slicing chicken, turkey, venison, prime rib, beef, and more.

Professional butchers also use ham slicers. These large machines process meat, sausage, cheese, and other products faster. Additionally, the slices are uniform and require less effort than a knife.

5. Meat Cleaver

Meat cleavers have diverse blade shapes but usually resemble a small hatchet with a rectangular design. The blade is broad with a flat tip and measures between 7 to 8 inches.

Primarily, you should use a meat cleaver for cutting large meat pieces and splitting up bones. The cleaver also works well with a mallet for butchering beef bones or splitting hogs. Since it has a resistant cutting edge, you can hack and chop without chips or dents. Using this knife doesn’t depend on precision or delicacy. Instead, it heavily relies on force.

6. Steak knife

Steak knives have small (4-7″) and slim blades. They have serrated or straight cutting edges, each suitable for specific needs.

For instance, a serrated steak knife can produce faster cuts with less effort. On the other hand, straight steak knives make smoother slices while preserving the meat juices.

7. Skinning Knife

As the name states, the purpose of skinning knives is to skin game. The blade is usually short (2.5-4.5”) and wide, with a curved belly. This shape allows the knife to get in-between thick layers to make precise cuts. Plus, the tip is often blunt to prevent puncturing guts and making a mess.

8. Breaking Knife

A breaking knife is 7 to 10 inches long. It has a slightly curved blade, which is narrower and thinner than the usual butcher knife. This shape provides more flexibility to cut through skin, cartilage, and small bones with ease. Use the breaking knife for cutting large cuts of meat, trimming excess fat, and removing silver skin or sinew. Consider this knife for portioning large cuts of meat like roasts or steaks or to break down carcasses before using the butcher knife.

9. Cimeter Knife

Cimeter knives have long blades, often measuring 10 inches in length. They’re wider than breaking knives and have more weight. As a result, this knife can turn large meat pieces into smaller steaks. You can also use it for portioning large steaks like ribeye or New York strips. Include this knife in your repertoire if you section subprimals, chuck rolls, or strip loins regularly.

What Kind of Knives Do Butchers Use?

Butchers use skinning knives, traditional butcher knives, meat cleavers, breaking knives, and carving knives. Additionally, they use steak knives, boning knives, and fillet knives to create smooth cuts of meat. Lastly, butchers also use utility knife, and paring knife.

Uses of Butcher Knives

You can use different butcher knives for the following tasks:

  • Skinning game. The thinner profile of a skinning knife slices between the skin and meat seamlessly. This allows you to remove the skin without damaging anything edible.
  • Breaking down carcasses. The sturdiness of a stiff butcher knife can section chicken wings, legs, and joints. Use the butcher knife to break down poultry, turkey, lamb, and pork, to name a few.
  • Cutting large chunks of meats like venison or beef into steaks. Steak knives slice bigger meat into smaller and thinner layers for easier consumption. Additionally, you can use butcher’s knives with a sharper cutting edge for trimming raw meat, connective tissue, ligaments, and more.
  • Removing bones from the meat. Different cuts of meat may still have some bones, which you can remove with a boning knife. If you fillet fish, you can also use the point of a thin butcher knife to remove Y bones.
  • Splitting up bones. Hefty meat cleavers will split bones with ease. The thicker blade can cut through skin, meat, and bones using momentum and a slightly dull cutting edge.
  • Cutting meat close to fish bones to make fillets. Boning knives are good filleting knives. These butcher knives have slight flexibility that adapts well to the backbones and rib cages of fish. Use these knives to separate the meat from the bones without wasting anything.
  • Slicing cheese, butter, and dough. Use the finer and narrower butcher knives to slice cheese or scoop some butter. A butcher knife with a pointy tip can also make shapes out of dough for cookies.
  • Cutting bread. Other purposes for a serrated butcher knife include cutting bread. This is not as good as a proper bread knife, but it still gets the job done.
  • Chopping vegetables and fruits. Butcher knives also make for decent vegetable knives. The thinner and smaller blades are gentle enough to peel skin and slice produce like onions into uniform halves.

What Should You Look for in a Butcher Knife?

The following are the essential features that make good butcher knives.

1. Intended Use

Consider why you need a butcher knife before buying one. After all, a butcher knife isn’t a single, unique knife. Many knives used for cutting and dressing meat qualify as butcher knives. These can be small, large, narrow, wide, flexible, and stiff. Each one is suitable for specific tasks. If you need to split up bones, you need a cleaver instead of a steak knife. Removing bones from chicken and fish requires a small and flexible boning knife instead.

If you only need a single butcher knife, your better option is the boning knife. This knife can do most butchering tasks that the chef knife can’t do. Use it for dressing meat, deboning chicken, or even filleting fish. Study the purpose of each butcher knife, and choose the one more suitable for you.

2. Well Balanced Knife

A well-balanced knife provides more control over the task at hand. This is essential when you need precision to cut around bones, skin hide, remove fat, etc.

One thing to consider is whether the knife has a full tang. Knives with this build usually give you excellent control of the blade. The knife feels heavy, but not uncomfortable. You can also tell the position of the tip and cutting edge at all times.

Ideally, you should evaluate the knife’s balance in person. Hold them before buying to check that the weight feels right. Buying heavier knives may cause wrist fatigue.

3. Blade Material

High carbon stainless steel is the optimal blade material for a butcher knife. This steel is strong and can hold an edge for a long time. Knives with high carbon stainless steel will chop through thick pieces of meat without breaking or chipping risks. Plus, the stainless steel properties protect the blade from exposure to blood and moisture.

Knives made with high carbon stainless steel can put up with almost any task. However, you must also consider rigidness. For instance, you will need thicker steel to chop through dense meat or split up bones. Other knives like boning knives benefit from thinner blades instead.

4. Size

Most butcher knives are available in sizes of 6 to 14 inches in length. Nonetheless, the size often dictates the purpose of the knife. Smaller knives are better for precision work on poultry and chicken, whereas larger knives work better with venison and beef. You will need a small knife to cut around the bones and a bigger knife if you prefer fast work with long swipes.

Your workspace also affects the size of the knife that you should get. If you work outdoors, small knives are portable and more comfortable to carry. Home cooks may also need small butcher knives if their kitchen has limited space and the cutting board is small. On the other hand, consider the larger knives if you have a spacious area to use them. These are also beneficial if you work at restaurants as a professional.

5. Handle

Butcher knives have diverse handles made with wood, plastic, rubber, or steel. Wooden handles are good looking, but require plenty of maintenance. Leaving this material unattended may produce odor or cracks. Steel handles also look good and are easier to maintain. However, steel made handles can feel slippery sometimes. Plastic and rubber are comfortable handle materials, and cleaning them is a breeze.

Regardless of which one you prefer, make sure the knife has an ergonomic and textured handle. This design will help you to grab the butcher knife firmly to avoid slips.

6. Single Knife or Set?

Buy a set of butcher knives if you cut and dress meat frequently. The knives will allow you to complete every part of the process with minimal effort. You will have the proper tools to skin, gut, and cut large or small game. A set of knives is also a must-have for professional work.

If you’re a home cook, you may only need a couple of these knives. You can use a larger meat cleaver to split bones, and a smaller boning knife to debone the meat. Keep in mind that kitchen knives are often expensive. Don’t spend excessive money on cutlery that you won’t use.

Japanese Butcher Knife vs Traditional Butcher Knife

Japanese knife makers use different techniques to make butcher knives. For example, they forge knives by hand. Carbon steel is mostly used to make Japanese knives. Carbon steel is thinner and makes the knives lighter. Japanese knives usually don’t have a bolster and feature a taller blade profile.

Tang Construction

Japanese butcher knives usually have a partial tang. This means that the steel of the blade runs halfway through the handle, making the knives heavier. Therefore, the knife balance may feel strange when you use it for the first time.

Traditional butcher knives have a full tang. As a result, the weight feels distributed from the handle to the blade. The knives are easier to hold and you get used to the weight quickly.

Steel Hardness

The carbon steel material used in Japanese butcher knives is harder. It can hold an edge for a longer time and requires less maintenance. This is a benefit if you don’t want to sharpen the knife regularly.

A traditional butcher knife often features stainless steel. Therefore, the edge isn’t as durable as the Japanese steel. You have to sharpen these knives more frequently to ensure they can slice through meat with low effort.

Types of Japanese Knives Used for Butchering

Honesuki, Hankotsu, and Deba are traditional Japanese butchering knives. But you will find a variety of Japanese knives for butchering tasks. These are some of the most common and their applications:

Honesuki: This knife is between 4 to 6 inches long. The Honesuki can separate the meat from the bone. It’s ideal for breaking down chickens.

Hankotsu: This Japanese knife is 5 to 7 inches long. Primarily, butchers use the Hankotsu for breaking and deboning hanging carcasses of livestock.

Deba: This knife has a thick spine and a blade length of 6 to 12 inches. The knife’s blade is good for filleting fish.

Yanagiba: The Yanagiba is narrow and long to slice fish in a single slicing motion. It usually measures between 8 to 14 inches.

Gyuto: The Gyuto knife is the Japanese equivalent of the Western chef’s knife. The blade is between 7 to 12 inches long. This knife is a general-purpose knife, but it’s particularly good at cutting beef blocks apart.

Sujihiki: The size of the Sujihiki is 8 to 14 inches long. Use this knife to remove sinew and fat from meat and slice meat. Other applications for this knife are skinning, filleting, and slicing fish.

Which One Should You Buy?

Japanese knives are a fancy luxury. They can produce thinner slices with more delicate cuts, but this is barely noticeable if you’re not a professional chef. Hence, consider buying a Japanese butcher knife if you value finesse work and can afford the time to maintain it. Home cooks looking for entry-level butcher knives will benefit more from traditional knives. The prices of traditional butcher knives are lower, and they’re more accessible than Japanese made cutlery.

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About Tom Hammaker

Tom Hammaker is a freelance copywriter with a specialty in advertorial blog posts. He’s worked with small local business owners and taken on larger projects with clients like Proctor and Gamble. He wrote his first direct marketing piece when he was a jobless teenager back in high school. It was a flyer for a landscaping business he was trying to start. The result? The mailing absolutely BOMBED! When he is not working, he's either out on the water fishing or playing golf. You can find him here on LinkedIn or his personal website

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