For an all-purpose cutting utensil, nothing beats a Chinese cleaver. Every part of the knife is put to use, and it is quite versatile when it comes to cutting, slicing and chopping. The sharp edge of the blade is used for cutting, while the blunter top edge is used to pound and tenderize meat. Turned on its side, the cleaver is an excellent tool for smashing garlic and ginger. You can even use it to transfer food from cutting board to wok.
An added bonus is that the flat end of the handle nicely substitutes for a pestle. But before you run out (or click your mouse) and buy a Chinese cleaver, there are a few things to keep in mind.
It's All About the Metal
Traditionally, cleaver blades were made of carbon steel. Unfortunately, carbon steel is highly susceptible to rust. It also tends to add a metallic taste to the food. Today, even well-known cookbook authors such as Martin Yan and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recommend blades that are stainless steel, or a combination of carbon and stainless steel. Luckily, there are many Chinese cleavers with stainless steel blades available.
Appearance isn't Everything
Just because a Chinese cleaver looks like a butcher's cleaver doesn't mean you can use it to chop bones. Heavier cleavers are designed for this, but the primary function of lighter cleavers--often called Chinese Chef's Knives--is slicing meat and vegetables.
Chopping bones with these lighter cleavers can ruin the blade. If you're uncertain which type of cleaver you have, check with the store where you purchased it.
Choosing a Cleaver for Comfort
Ask two experts to name their favorite cleaver and you will get two different answers. Like ice cream flavors, choosing a cleaver is a very personal decision.
Your comfort level is also important. The cleaver should feel solid, but not too heavy. If your arms feel strained when holding the cleaver, try another. Preparing dinner shouldn't be strenuous on your muscles!
Sharpening a Cleaver
A cleaver blade should be sharpened regularly. A dull knife forces you to exert more pressure, which can lead to unpleasant accidents. There are several ways to sharpen a cleaver, a sharpening steel being the most popular option. A sharpening steel--also called honing steel or sharpening stick--is a thin steel rod with a handle. It doesn't actually remove metal but instead realigns the blade edge at a molecular level. To sharpen a cleaver, you hold the sharpening steel vertically (handle up), keeping it stationary, and slide the knife blade along the steel, moving away from you, repeating five to 10 times.
Caring for a Cleaver
The important thing to keep in mind when it comes to cleaning and storing the cleaver is protecting the blade. Cleavers should be stored in a proper knife block where there is less risk of damage. As for cleaning, for best results wash the cleaver by hand in warm, soapy water.
And don't forget to dry thoroughly--even stainless steel isn't completely rustproof. Also be sure to clean the blade immediately after working with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes.