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?
What To Look For in a Meat Cleaver
Meat cleavers are meant for heavy work—they’re not going to stay in pristine condition, so this one tool purchase where you can skip the flash and save some cash. Look for a securely fastened handle (we like three rivets for strength) and a blade length of 7” or 8”. Carbon steel is an excellent material thanks to its durability and affordability—just be sure to care for it properly.
We also recommend avoiding Japanese-style cleavers, since they aren't really cleavers and are used for chopping vegetables. Ditto for German-style meat cleavers. 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.
Despite its name and appearance, lightweight Chinese cleavers, like the Chinese Chef's Cleaver ($45.95), 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.
Our Favorite Meat Cleaver
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.
What is a meat cleaver?
Meat cleavers are knives with large, thick, rectangular blades. They resemble small hatchets, and are purpose-built for hacking through meat and bone.
What’s the best way to store a meat cleaver?
As with every knife in your arsenal, a meat cleaver should be washed by hand (avoid the dishwasher!) and put away completely dry. Store it on a magnetic strip, in a knife block, or lying flat in a drawer.
How can you sharpen a meat cleaver?
Unless you have a whetstone and are confident in your honing skills, it’s probably best to take your meat cleaver to a professional for sharpening. Fortunately, the large blade of a cleaver is easy to bring back to a fine edge—and meat cleavers generally do not need to be as precise as a multipurpose chef’s knife.