By Ben Bowers
on 10.15.12
Photo by Eric Yang

Ah, the meat cleaver. Bucking the tapered and svelte designs of traditional blades, these husky boys of the knife world were developed for one singular purpose — to serve as the machete of the kitchen. Their fatter, squared-off business ends bring added weight and toughness to the task of dismembering, leveraging sheer momentum to breeze through the thick meat, bones and cartilage of animals and clumsy cooks alike. A blunt instrument by design, the cleaver’s blade actually becomes brittle when sharpened to a razor’s edge, reducing its lifespan and effectiveness. While using other knives effectively requires some schooling, if you’ve used a hammer before, you know how to wield a cleaver. It’s the reason why they’re so capable, and also so dangerous.

A tiny hole in the blade, meant for hanging the knife on butcher’s belts and hooks, typically distinguishes the meat-hacking variety from the lighter vegetable and Chinese cleavers (the latter is essentially the chef knife of the eastern world and a different beast altogether). The real fail-safe when shopping around, though, boils down to weight and feel — the heavier the cleaver, the better.

Speaking of shopping for cleavers, keep reading after the jump to find our advice for buying a big chophuna of your own.

Take Note:
Not Just For Mauling

It’s made for butchering, but other parts of the cleaver can be put to good use around the kitchen as well.

• Use the blunter top edge to pound and tenderize meat.

• Turn the blade on its side to smash garlic and ginger.

• Use the broad, flat edge to transfer food from cutting board to a pan.

• The flat end of the handle substitutes nicely for a pestle.

Truth be told, restaurant supply stores should be your first stop when buying a cleaver. These stores cater to clients who view knives as functional tools, not status symbols; they’re unlikely to stock expensive designer blades that will tempt your inner yuppie. Cleavers in particular are meant to be used and abused, and since sharpness isn’t a primary concern, any model packing a hefty feel in the hand and a nice wooden handle should suffice. Since restaurant supply stores are typically off the beaten path compared to their polished, holiday-cheer-wreaking chain store counterparts, we decided to pay a visit to JB Prince. The long-standing restaurant supplier is hidden away in the 11th floor of a typical New York office building and serves professional cooking crews throughout the island of Manhattan. More importantly though, JB Prince conveniently sells all of their wares online and ships anywhere in the U.S. We picked three of their cleavers at a range of prices for testing. You’ll find our thoughts on each blade’s pros and cons below.

Messermeister Four Seasons 6-inch Heavy Meat Clever

Nickname: Stumper

Messermeister is a family-owned German knife company that offers a wide range of blades to fit any price point. This budget model packs a decent amount of weight (2 lbs) for the money, with an enveloped tang handle that wraps snugly into the hand. Unfortunately, the lightweight plastic grip itself seems fragile and distributes the lion’s share of the cleaver’s weight towards the front of the blade, resulting in an highly imbalanced feel. It should still do just fine as a basic chopping work horse for those few times you need to portion a full rack of ribs. While Messermeister sells the blade directly for a pricey $75, you can find it at JB Prince and other retailers for under $50. At the latter price point, it’s a great affordable option for the occasional chef.

Buy Now: $47

F. Dick Restaurant 7-inch Restaurant Cleaver

Nickname: D’Boner

Bobbitt jokes aside, Friedrich Dick is a German knife maker founded 1778 in Esslingen, Germany, that specializes in butcher’s knives and tools. While the brand is hugely popular among German butchers and European chefs in general (and used in 9 out of 10 culinary schools worldwide, no less), the brand’s reach has been limited in the U.S. Still, it just takes one hoist to know that the 7-inch restaurant cleaver means business. The full-tang riveted poly handle comfortably fits in even the largest of hands (though it lacks an ergonomic shaping) and serves as an excellent counterweight to the beastly hand-forged stainless steel blade. You’ll pay for the upgrade to restaurant-quality chops in this case, but for the avid home butcher, the added mass will pay for itself in hacking time saved.

Buy Now: $78

Global 6 1/2-inch Meat Cleaver

Nickname: Excowliber

There’s no denying the sexified looks of Global knives. Made using one-piece construction techniques that are derived from traditional Japanese sword crafting, their Cromova stainless steel blades and dimpled handles are a designer cook’s dream. In our eyes, it’s almost too pretty a thing to pound on raw meat. That doesn’t mean it isn’t up to the task though. For the price, it’s overkill — especially given our earlier speech above about the purpose of cleavers — so we recommend it only to those who insist their butchering tools match the rest of their cutlery.

Buy Now: $149