To Butcher a Cow


We’re moving on in our series on preserving meats — this time to beef.

There are some important differences in this process compared to pork but both start with the butchering of the animals with axes.

Big Cuts with Interesting Names

We know that colonial butchers always used axes.Beef_Butchering_Cuts

Ax marks were found on the bones our archeologists have recovered throughout the historic area.

We also know from the bones and the butchering charts of the period that 18th-century beef cuts were much larger than the modern ones.

They also had some interesting names like mouse buttock and leg of mutton.

The reason there different processes in curing beef and pork is primarily because of the molecular structures of the tissues.

But both processes start the same way: Raw meat is packed with a mixture of salt, a little brown sugar and a tiny amount of saltpeter.

Pass the Salt


The meat is then packed in to salt tubs and allowed to dry for about three weeks.

Because beef tissue holds more moisture than pork does, the beef will soon be taking out of the dry salt and put into brine.


The brine is made by boiling water and adding salt until it can float an egg.

This very salty liquid makes it difficult of bacteria to grow and protects the meat from spoiling.

The beef is then backed into barrels with the brine and it can be left there until it is soaked and cooked.

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12 Responses to “To Butcher a Cow”

  1. July 5th, 2014

    Nancy says:

    I have some country hams that are about 8 to 12 years old. Are they any good?

  2. July 8th, 2014

    Frank Clark says:

    ABSOLUTELY! They can be fine at that age. You may even have mold growing on the outside but that is fine. The real test is your nose, after scrubbing them clean in warm water, smell the hams carefully. You should smell smoke and meat and perhaps a bit of must but clean smells. If the is a powerful rotten type smell you may have a problem, but in most cases if it was stored in a dark cool place a 8 year old ham should be fine. Some say Virginia Hams don’t even reach peak flavor until 5 years, I do not know this for sure because I don’t have the patience to wait that long before eating them! Remember to soak the hams in lots of fresh water for at least 3 days prior to eating them and simmer them slowly for about 20 minutes a pound. The more often you change the water the better!

  3. July 9th, 2014

    James says:

    Excellent and informative!!! Was the Colonial Butcher a position that one would start as an apprentice at a young age, or was this a job that every Father and Son would have performed during that era?

    • July 23rd, 2014

      Frank Clark says:

      Well, both James. It often depended on where they were. If you were in a big city butchering would be a trade that was learned by an apprenticeship and was highly regulated by the government. you scales needed to be approved and various other regulations met to be commercial butcher. In rural areas butchering hogs was a skill passed down in the family and learned at home. In both cases practice makes perfect. The more we butcher the faster and more precise we get.

  4. July 15th, 2014

    Christine Hansley says:

    Hi Frank,

    Would you please put up the 18th century butchering charts for the various meats the colonials ate. And also tell us who ate what parts. Did the house eat all parts or were certain parts for the house vs. the slaves?

    Thanks as always for the education.

    Stay cool as best you can,

  5. July 23rd, 2014

    Frank Clark says:

    Hi Cristine, I do not have a digital version of the chart to post right now let me see if I can dig that up. The question about who ate what cuts is complicated. First it is important to understand that they were big organ eaters in this time. The very wealthy did not reject cuts like tongue or heart off hand. There are lots of recipes for organs of ALL types in the gentry cookbooks. Today we tend to think of these as lesser cuts and refuse to eat them. In many cases the heads of red meat animals were actually more expensive than the body cuts. As for the Slaves they ate what the master gave them to eat or they were aloud to raise themselves. Many masters fed the slaves salted meat rather than fresh, a peck of corn and a pound of salt pork were fairly standard rations. There may have been occasions when slaves were given fresh meat but it was probably rare.

    • July 23rd, 2014

      Christine Hansley says:

      Hi Frank,
      Thanks for the info.

      You’re right about not eating many of the organs today. My mother was a great cook, but organs were not on the menu. She did not use the giblets to make turkey gravy either. My Mother-in-law was a real farm girl and used or purchased organs. After the first time when she served liver with me at the table, she never served it again. No, I did not make a spectacle, but let’s just say I didn’t eat much that evening. The only organ my husband would eat as kid was liver and only if there were tons of onions. He never told his mother he didn’t like the liver, just the onions. So she thought it would be a nice meal. Strange thing though, I eat liver sausage. Go figure.

  6. September 5th, 2014

    Brian says:

    Is this the same process for making the “salt beef” of naval lore? Stories told suggest it was hard as a rock, but if it is stored in a brine wouldn’t the stored meat remain soft?

  7. September 9th, 2014

    Frank says:

    Hi Brian, It is pretty much the same process. the difference is the result of preparing it for shipping. If you were going to ship or store the salted meat for long periods they would take the beef out of brine and hang it in the smoke house for a few days to dry it further then would pack it in a barrel with wood ash or straw or sometimes salt, it was much easier to transport that way then in brine.
    The archeologists tell us that close to 70 percent of the animal bone mater they recovered at the Anderson Armory was beef. I think that it was more than likely salted. Anderson worked for the state of Virginia and was supplied some food for his workers by them. I think it likely that they would send him the same thing they sent the solders he was repairing weapons for.
    Actually the beef we have done has been pretty tasty if it is properly treated before cooking. This is done by soaking it in plenty of fresh water for at least 24 hours before cooking it. You have to expect that on a ship where fresh water was very limited the cooks would not be able to soak it before cooking hence the rock hard beef described by many sailors.

  8. October 23rd, 2014

    Justin says:

    Do you have a picture or describe an 18th century axe that was used for butchering? Was this common to have a seperate axe just for butchering? Great article!

    • November 12th, 2014

      Historic Foodways says:

      We have copied our ax from the French encyclopedia by Diderot. This was the subject of some debate with the blacksmiths who made the axe for us because we could not find any good prints of English meat axes so we went with the French style even though it might not have been as popular in Virginia. (We’ve added an image to the bottom of the main post.)

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