One of my favorite knives is my heavy-duty, two-pound, full-tang, 8-inch-bladed behemoth of a cleaver that I got for $15 at a recently closed restaurant supply store in Boston's Chinatown. I use it nearly daily for taking apart chickens, hacking through animal bones, mincing beef or pork for hand-chopped burgers or dumplings, cleaving hearty vegetables, and trying to look really badass in the mirror (it's not so good at that particular function).
But what if you don't have a $15 awesome-o cleaver in your arsenal already? What options are out there for you?
Well, first things first: avoid expensive Japanese or German cleavers, period. If they sell it at Williams-Sonoma, you don't want it. A cleaver is meant to be only for the toughest of the tough jobs, and will get beat up. It doesn't require the razor sharp edge-maintaining abilities of expensive German or Japanese steel, so there's no sense in paying over-the-odds prices for one when cheaper models are just as serviceable.
The only reason to consider buying the Wusthöf cleaver ($79.95) is if your knife collection absolutely must have matching handles. And the Shun Ken Onion Meat Cleaver ($159.95)? Please. Unless you need a simultaneously pretty and menacing tool to perform ritual sacrifices with, it has no business anywhere near a real kitchen.
Despite its name and appearance, lightweight Chinese cleavers, like the Chinese Chef's Cleaver ($45.95) pictured on the right are not actually cleavers in the Western chef's sense of the word. Rather than heavy duty chopping work, they are in fact the Chinese chef's version of an extremely versatile chef's knife. The carbon steel blades can be sharpened for precise knife work, the flat can be used for pounding and mashing aromatics like garlic and ginger, the rounded handle is used as a pestle for grinding spices, the blunt back edge is used for tenderizing meat, and the wide flat blade makes it ideal for transferring chopped ingredients from cutting board to wok. Unfortunately, it also requires a completely different skill set than Western Knives, which is beyond the scope of this article.
If you want one of these puppies, you probably already know it. For those of you looking for a real bone-splitting cleaver, move along.
Aside from the $15 model I found at the now-defunct supply store, the best cleaver I've been able to locate on the internet is the thankfully inexpensive 7" General Purpose Cleaver Knife with Wood Handle from Dexter-Russel ($39.98). It's certainly not the sharpest looking tool in the shed, but it's handsome enough in a utilitarian way. The hefty blade is made of high carbon steel and has a full tang securely fastened to the wood handle with three rivets—an absolute necessity to provide the cleaver with the heft and strength it needs to provide you with a lifetime of joyful chicken-hacking.
If you have a restaurant supply store nearby (particularly a Chinese one, where they are very fond of cleavers), I suggest you take a swing by to look. Otherwise, the Dexter-Russell is a perfectly serviceable and reasonably priced option.
Editor's Note: Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt drops by with a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can follow him as The Food Lab on Facebook or on Twitter for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. —The Mgmt.