Cleavers are rugged, rectangular-bladed knives that are most commonly used for quickly chopping through bone in large cuts of meat. Although the term “meat cleaver” has come to be used almost universally in reference to the knife, they are also used for quickly chopping up large fruits and vegetables (such as squash or various melons) that would otherwise be unwieldy with regular kitchen knives. The broad side of the knife also makes it ideal for crushing ingredients like garlic or ginger during food preparation, and the blunt, flat edge on the back of the blade can sometimes be used to tenderize meats in the absence of a traditional meat tenderizer. But despite some of its more versatile uses, the cleaver is designed to do one thing better than any other hand tool: break large, difficult pieces of food into smaller, more manageable pieces of food.
Hacking through bone (and dense vegetables) requires a significant amount of force and momentum. Along with the meat tenderizer, the cleaver is the only common kitchen tool designed to be swung like a hammer, making it one of the few knives tough enough to survive repeated trips to the butcher block. The edge of the large, rectangular blade is offset far away from the handle, allowing for increased force transmission into the blade during each swing and preventing the user from knocking his or her hands against the table or cutting board while chopping. Cleaver blades are also wider and heavier than other knives to assist in generating the momentum required to cut through large pieces of food in one quick chop.
Because cleavers are used more like a wedge than a precision slicing tool, their edges do not need to be kept particularly sharp. In fact, most cleaver blades will be relatively blunt compared to most knives. Although a cutting edge should be maintained, the edge should be more like that of an axe or a hatchet, rather than that of a carefully honed chef’s knife. An overly sharpened cleaver will be at a higher risk of chipping or bending, as a razor-sharp edge will be more likely to buckle or yield under the impact of being forcefully swung into the surface below your food. For further reliability, cleaver blades are usually made from softer metals than many other types of standard cutlery. While this may seem counterintuitive, harder metals do not absorb impact forces very well, and are much more likely to fracture with repeated use. This is important to keep in mind when shopping for a new cleaver: knives that tout ultra high-quality “hardened” steel may seem appealing at first, but they may not last as long if used on a regular basis.
One common point of confusion to avoid when shopping for cleavers is the difference between Chinese chef’s knives and meat cleavers. While Chinese chef’s knives may sometimes be referred to as cleavers, they are cleavers in appearance only. While the broad, rectangular blade of a Chinese chef’s knife may look a lot like that of a standard cleaver, they are not designed to be used for heavy chopping. Many Chinese chef’s knives are made of high quality carbon steel that is designed to hold a sharp edge—the possible detriments of which we discussed above—and their handles are generally not intended to withstand the shock of frequent, heavy-impact chopping. While a Chinese chef’s knife may still make a great addition to your kitchen tool kit, it is not necessarily an ideal choice for use as an everyday meat cleaver unless specifically noted as such.
Once you’ve determined that you need a new cleaver for your kitchen, it may feel natural to go out and find the fanciest, most expensive one that you can find. Any chef will agree that unreliable or low-quality knives can be dangerous in any situation—especially when those knives will be spending most of their time being forcefully swung through the air. But while you certainly don’t want to set your cleaver budget too low, you don’t want to go too far overboard, either. You definitely do want a high quality item that will last, but remember that your cleavers will be one of the most “abused” tools in your kitchen. Even tools (like cleavers) that are specially designed to be slammed against things over and over again are bound to break or wear out after repeated use, and you don’t want an unnecessarily high price tag every time you find yourself needing to replace your blade. Most mid-price cleavers will get the job done just as well as their top-shelf counterparts, and won’t come with a hefty replacement cost once you’ve finally chopped away its usefulness.
Cleavers are a must in many foodservice establishments, especially in butcher shops and restaurants that cut their own meats. But even if the cleaver’s usefulness is not immediately apparent in your operation, most kitchens can (and will) find a multitude of uses for a sturdy, dependable cleaver. Keeping one of these unique blades on hand in your residential or commercial kitchen is a great way to make quick work of those large or pesky ingredients that would otherwise stump your conventional cutlery.
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