In selecting kitchen knives for use, it is easy to forget about meat cleavers. Unless you max out their use, they may only come out occasionally when prepping meals that involve meats with thick bones and ligaments.
However, the meat cleaver is more versatile than its name may imply. It is a large knife, usually rectangular, with an overall design perfect for its core function and others. The blade is thicker, differentiating it from a vegetable cleaver and cutting through tough material.
There is no standard size for the meat cleavers, which is excellent for people with different arm reaches. It also comes with a straight edge, and as such, it is not meant for a rocking motion instead working well for an up-and-down motion. The material for a meat cleaver is often stainless steel to prevent corrosion from the acids in meat.
What is a meat cleaver used for?
A meat cleaver is one of the most versatile knives in the kitchen. Its design and attributes lend themselves useful in several uses, including these ones;
The obvious cleaver function is sectioning meat. The meat cleaver is the best tool you can have when you are sectioning meat from bones. Its thick blade means it can easily cut through bones and handle most of the heavy-duty tasks that thick meat usually requires. You can cut thicker meat pieces in your desired shapes or trim them for use with smaller knives.
It also saves you from tiring since its weight adds to the cutting force, and you can use your other free hand to press through the meat. With this knife in the kitchen, you can buy larger chunks of meat at sale prices and to the sectioning from home. It is also a handy tool when you want to trim fat and skin portions.
Poultry is usually softer meat, but it still has bones, mature fowls, or bigger poultry like the turkey will have tougher meat and thicker joints. A meat cleaver will not have a problem as the large and sharp blade will cut through the thick points and help you easily section your poultry. Whether splitting the ribs or cutting through the joints, it's all easy work for a cleaver. Better yet, you can use the flat side to tenderize and flatten thighs and cutlets.
A meat cleaver can also help scale fish, especially the large kind since it has a large surface area. You will, however, need some finesse to manoeuvre this process. Hold the knife at a grip that offers you more control and have your free hand hold the fish’s head. Then place the blade on the fish at a slight angle and run in it across the length of the fish and back severally until you have descaled the fish.
Vegetable and spice preparation
Beyond the different kinds of meats, you can use the meat cleaver in several aspects of vegetable preparation. First, you can use it for chopping and slicing vegetables, especially the hard ones. The technique is different, requiring you to lift your knife from the board every time, and you cut in a downward motion.
You can also use the knife for crushing ingredients, especially ginger and garlic. This option can be convenient when prepping larger amounts as it is faster than cutting them into small pieces. Place the ingredients on a chopping board and place the wide flat side of the knife on top with the cutting edge facing away. Use your free hand to hit the top of the blade for the crushing action. Be careful to hit towards the spine of the blunt side to avoid any cut accidents.
Finally, you can use the meat cleaver as a transfer surface to carry ingredients from the chopping board to the cooking dish on the stove or another prep dish. Simply place the knife horizontally next to the prepared ingredients with the cutting side away from you and at a slight angle. Then proceed to slide the knife under the ingredients while your free hand pushes the items on the wider part of the knife and scoop them up.
How do I choose the best meat cleaver?
Like any other kind of knife, there are many cleavers in the market differing in quality, suitability to your needs and designs. It helps to have a couple of metrics you will use to evaluate the best meat cleaver. Consider the following factors;
1. Blade design
There are three main options when it comes to blade design. You have the western style with blades shaped like a wedge or thin tapered Chinese cleavers. The third option is a blend between the two extremes of thick and thin.
A thin blade will wear out faster, and it is susceptible to breaking if you use it on giant bones. On the other hand, thick wedge-shaped blades often feel dull and drag when cutting, which tears and smashes fleshy meat instead of a clean cut. A blend between these two approaches makes for a great meat cleaver suited for various roles.
2. The material of the blade
The best material for a cleaver blade is stainless steel. Since you will not be needing highly sharp edges, the advantages offered by high carbon do not count for a lot here. Instead, its brittle nature and ease of corrosion mean such blades will likely break or stain. Stainless steel is resistant to rust, corrosive acids, and stains. It is also hard enough to sustain repeated use and heavy-duty work without chipping. Stainless steel is also easy to clean and wash in any water.
3. The handle of the cleaver
The handle of the cleaver plays a crucial role in your comfort and efficiency when using the knife. The handle's material shape and features influence many things, from safety to easing of use. For example, if the handle has rigid plastic or wood, they tend to loosen up and crack easily. If it does not have a non-slip handle, it will be slippery and can cause accidents.
For better balance, you want hollow handles as they offer more control and they are light. The size is also important since if it is too short, you will struggle with grip. For further comfort, look for an ergonomic handle that preferably has a finger guard and non-slip grip. On the other hand, avoid riveted handles and anything that is hard to clean.
4. Thickness and size of the blade
The blade size affects its dexterity and efficiency. Usually, the size of meat you are preparing will determine the size of the cleaver to use. A shorter blade is efficient for small meats, cartilages and bones, while large meats will call for larger cleavers. However, if the blade is too short, it is likely to get stuck in the meat and bones, while too long a blade will affect the accuracy and add clumsiness.
5. The sharpness of the cutting edge and retention ability
While a cleaver will not have the sharpness of a chef knife due to its thick blade, it still should be sharp enough to have clean cuts. You also want a cutting edge that retains its sharpness for a long period to prevent wasting time with frequent sharpening, which also east away at the blade.
It helps if the steel blade is tapered to mitigate buckling, chipping, and rolling. The cutting edge should also not be brittle as that can chip easily. You have the option of choosing a V-shaped blade or a slightly curved one like the Chinese cleaver, which works well when finishing meat chops on bones.
A versatile knife reduces the need to have several knives at the prep station, which can be a hazard. You want a meat cleaver that can cut through the meat but still help with vegetable preparation especially slicing large vegetables and chopping fruits. It should also have a broad backside to help with crushing spies. You also want it to be sharp enough for mincing the tiny ingredients without smashing them.
The size of the blade, both height and length, often influence the weight of a meat cleaver. A heavier cleaver will cut through all kinds of meat and bones save for stuff that calls for a bone saw which is rare in the kitchen.
However, the weight must match with the user as a heavy knife on someone who is not as strong will be tiring. On the other hand, while light knives offer more when manoeuvring, they require more effort to cut through larger and medium-sized bones and hard cartilage.
Meat cleavers with 8-inch blades are the heaviest in the market, about 2.5 pounds. You want something weighing approximately 1-1.5 pounds to balance precision and cutting power.
Like with any other item, your budget will determine which meat cleaver you choose. The cost of knives depends on the material, craftsmanship and exclusivity. A professional chef may be looking for specific qualities a particular series/model has, while a cooking enthusiast will want comfort and reliability more.
Costs range from about $50 to higher than $500 for the premium models.
How to use a meat cleaver
To get the most from a meat cleaver and make your work easier and safer, use the following tips when working with meat cleavers.
Prepare your cutting board.
Because of the force involved, you want to have a sturdy chopping board, and it should not have warped as this would affect cutting angles. Get a wet towel underneath the board to prevent it from moving around.
Choose a cutting method.
Not every meal of food will require hacking or chopping. In some cases, it is much easier and better to use the knife’s leverage and weight for splitting and slicing. For example, if you want to cut a whole roasted duck in two, it is better to use the cleaver as you would a chef knife. Employ the pincher grip and use a slight rocking motion to cut through the duck.
Chopping regular meat and poultry, however, calls for a power grip. You hold the knife's handle as you would when shaking hands and if you want extra power and direction, press your thumb on the cleaver’s spine. If the food is too long, you want to stabilize it with the non-dominant hand but be careful to put it at a reasonable distance from the chopping action.
Make the cut
If you are going for a chopping motion, you should not make an excessive effort in hacking motions. Instead, use the cleaver's weight to do much of the work. The chopping motion should originate from your wrist, so only raise your arm from the elbow and let the wrist provide the force and direction. When cutting, aim to use the upper third section of the knife so that if you do not make a clean cut-through, you can lever the blade through to complete the cut.
Avoid hacking for a second time since it is almost impossible to cut the same place, and you will end up with mangled meat. There are two solutions here. First, if possible, you can slice through the remaining part. And if not, you should place the freehand on the spine of the cleaver and apply pressure to complete the cut.
Difference between a meat cleaver and a vegetable cleaver
Meat cleavers and vegetable cleavers like the Nakiri or the Chinese cleaver are similar in shape, they do not have the same function, and fortunately, it is easy to tell them apart by their differences. Their main differences are;
Size and weight
You can tell a meat cleaver from either a Chinese cleaver or a Nakiri from its size. A vegetable cleaver is ideally 5 inches long, but a meat cleaver starts from 6 inches and goes up to 8 inches. It is also heftier from the handle to the blade because it uses its weight to generate more power.
The meat cleaver's blade is thicker than a vegetable cleaver to offer higher durability and strength when cutting through dense meat and bones. Vegetable cleavers need thin blades to reach highly sharp edges, and they do not get to cut through thick material.
A vegetable cleaver needs to be extra sharp to offer precision and make easy work of vegetable slicing and mincing. It does not have weight on its side to provide extra cutting force, and often its cuts have to match presentation. On the other hand, a meat cleaver does not need that additional degree of sharpness.
Vegetable cleavers are for prepping vegetables and peeling fruits. The Chinese cleaver can at times function as a chef knife as it has a thicker blade than the Nakiri and other exclusive vegetable cleavers. A Meat cleaver, on the other hand, is more versatile and will only fail on the items that require utmost precision and dexterity.
Tips for caring for a meat cleaver
Taking care of a meat cleaver follows much of the same protocol as other kitchen knives. First, you want to ensure you protect it from chipping when using it. For meat cleavers, this means avoiding over-sharpening them as this will eat away at their thickness which helps cut through bone without breaking.
Secondly, the chopping board should be soft on the cutting edge. Never chop meat on a plain countertop. The force you are generating is high, and when the knife cuts through the food, it will meet a hard surface that can bend or chip its edge.
As for sharpening, the angle will differ from most of your other cutting knives, so you will be going for a 20-to-30-degree angle. How often you sharpen it will depend on how frequently you use it in the kitchen and the workload. Often regularly honing the knife will suffice.
When it comes to cleaning, the best approach is cleaning the knife once you finish the meal preparation. However, if you have chopped any acidic ingredient, then you should wash it immediately to prevent the corrosive action of the chemicals. It is also advisable to hand wash your cleaver even if it is dishwasher friendly to prevent it from chipping or blunting from the constant clanking and rubbing.
Also, do not leave your meat cleaver in the kitchen sink mixing with other utensils or soaked with detergents or oils and stains from other foods. It will increase the risk of staining, corrosion, and rusting.
Finally, you want to store your knife in a cool and dry place. After washing, do not leave the meat cleaver to dry on its own but instead, use a dry cloth to wipe out any water. You can store it in a fitting knife block, hang it on a magnetic board or on a wall hook using its hole. Do not store the knife with other utensils in a drawer.
Where to buy the best meat cleavers
If you are looking for the best place to buy a meat cleaver, look no further than House of Knives. We stock all kinds of knives and knives’ accessories from the best brands globally.
You can pick from our vast collection of meat cleavers and even Chinese cleavers if you want something with high dexterity.
Shop now and enjoy a seamless shopping experience!