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November/December 2017

Meat Cleavers

Traditional meat cleavers are built like medieval weapons. Could we find one fit for modern life?

How We Tested

Historically, the meat cleaver was a brutish tool. Designed to hew through bone and sinew with a single well-placed cut, the traditional meat cleaver derived its chopping power more from blunt force than from razor-sharp precision and required some strength and experience to be wielded successfully. These days, even professional butchers don’t use cleavers; for hacking through ribs and other dense bones, the three prominent Boston-area butcher shops we consulted (Savenor’s, T.F. Kinnealey & Co., and M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats) instead use handsaws or band saws, which cut more cleanly and with far less effort.

If butchers don’t need these archaic knives, do home cooks? For most people, the answer is no. That’s because there are relatively few tasks for which a cleaver is a better choice than a chef’s knife. But for those few tasks, there’s no more perfect tool. A cleaver can be considered an abuse knife—its heft and size make it ideal for jobs that might otherwise damage or wear down your chef’s knife, allowing you to chop through whole chickens, whole lobsters, or large squashes with impunity. If you make a lot of stock, for example, a cleaver is a solid investment, as it allows you to expose more of the bone and meat to the water for better flavor extraction. Once you have a cleaver, you might find it handy for other tasks, too: mincing raw meat, crushing garlic, bruising lemon grass, cracking open coconuts, and chopping cooked bone-in meat into bite-size pieces. The flat of the blade can even be used like a bench scraper to scoop up chopped items or to flatten and tenderize cutlets.

With these functions in mind, we set out to determine the best meat cleaver for home use, buying 13 cleavers priced from $10.67 and $179.95, including our former winner, the Global G-12 Meat Cleaver. These knives ran the gamut from heavy, ax-shaped Western-style cleavers to models that more closely resembled Chinese cleavers—lighter-weight knives with thinner, more rectangular blades—to hybrid styles that combined attributes from both. We used them to break down butternut squashes, hack up raw chicken legs and wings for stock, and chop whole roast ducks for serving. Cooks with different hand sizes, dominant hands, and levels of butchering experience took the knives for a test drive, and we also had two professional butchers examine and use them.

Medium-Weight Meat Cleavers Were Best

Preferences emerged early on in our testing. While all the knives were capable of making neat cuts through the chicken parts, a host of factors made certain models easier and more comfortable to use. The cooks and butchers agreed: The more traditional Western-style cleavers were overkill for the tasks we asked of them. These heavy models clocked in at more than a pound—a weight that conferred power but fatigued many testers’ arms during extended use. Moreover, the bulk of the weight was concentrated in these cleavers’ blades. In theory, this intentional imbalance naturally encourages the knife to fall forward and down when chopping; in practice, we found that this made the knives unwieldy and hard to aim or control, leading to uneven, less presentation-worthy slices of roast duck.

Slightly lighter, more evenly balanced cleavers required less practice to use competently, as they came closer to mimicking the familiar feel of our chef’s knives. The cleavers couldn’t be featherweight, though; while easy to maneuver, 10- or 11-ounce knives required more effort to drive through the chicken bones. Cleavers that weighed 14 to 15 ounces were just right: They provided enough force to chop meat and squash but were still light enough to direct effortlessly, allowing us to hit the exact spot we wanted every time.

Differences in Blade Design

Blade design was also critical. For starters, we preferred blades that were between 6.75 and 7.25 inches long. Shorter blades felt stumpy and toy-like, incapable of bisecting wide butternut squash bulbs with a single cut; longer blades did a good job of handling squash but felt ungainly with smaller chicken parts. Blades that were at least 3 inches tall helped guide the knife straight down through bigger items such as the butternut squash and duck and provided larger surface areas for scooping up chopped food. And we had a small preference for slightly curved blades rather than straight-edged ones; the curved blades allow users to rock back and forth to finish cuts that haven’t been delivered with enough force to get through the food.

Most important, however, were the thickness and edge angle of the blades. No two factors did more to explain each cleaver’s durability and perceived sharpness. In general, we disliked more traditional cleaver blades that were thick from spine to edge and were sharpened to an angle of more than 20 degrees on each side. These characteristics were designed to give the blades extra power and longevity; the more metal behind the edge, the stronger and less vulnerable to dulling or chipping it will be. Indeed, these knives seemed impervious to damage, surviving testing with no obvious dents or dings. Unfortunately, the characteristics that made the blades strong also made them less enjoyable to use; while a quick touch made it clear that the edges were plenty sharp, they rarely felt that way in action. Those thick, wedge-shaped blades effectively muscled their way through food, cracking and tearing butternut squash instead of slicing through it in a controlled, even manner.

On the other end of the spectrum were the Chinese-style cleavers. Their blades were very thin and were sharpened to more acute angles of 15 to 17 degrees. As a result of their thinness and smaller edge angles, these blades felt keen, agile, and precise in our hands. But they were also less durable, their edges collecting tiny but visible chips during testing. While this might be a deal breaker in a chef’s knife, we didn’t mind a few minor dings in our cleavers—they’re practically inevitable when you’re chopping through hard bone.

Still, we’d prefer a blade that could take a reasonable amount of abuse. The cleavers we liked best struck a happy medium between the power and durability of the thick Western models and the precision and agility of the thinner Chinese-style models. Our top models had fairly thick spines that gave the knives enough heft and downward force to chop easily through skin and bone but still felt sharp and highly nimble, thanks to blades that were otherwise moderately thin and ground to acute 15- to 17-degree angles.

Examining Cleaver Handles

Handle design also informed our preferences. We liked longer handles of at least 4.75 inches; shorter ones didn’t leave quite enough room for large-handed testers to grasp. And we preferred handles that were neither so thick that small-handed testers had a hard time keeping their fingers around them nor so narrow that other testers felt they had to clench them tightly to control them: A circumference of 3.25 inches was about right for most people. We also liked handles that eschewed ergonomic bumps or prominent bolsters, as these limited the cleavers’ affordance (the variety of grips we could use). And we generally preferred handles that were made with wood or rubbery plastics, which helped us keep our grip on the cleavers—an important consideration when combining big knives with slippery raw meat. (Contrary to popular belief, wood harbors no more bacteria than any other material, as long as it’s carefully cleaned with hot water and soap.) That said, both wood handles and more conventional plastic handles sometimes loosened or even cracked during use—a tendency that diminished their durability.

The Best Meat Cleavers for Home Cooks

In the end, our favorite knife was the Shun Classic Meat Cleaver ($149.00)—a nearly flawless synthesis of strength, sharpness, durability, and maneuverability. Its 15 ounces delivered just the right amount of clout and were distributed so perfectly between the blade and the handle that the knife seemed to fall through the food of its own accord. Its handle, made from a wood/plastic composite known as pakkawood, was long, straight, and comfortable to grip (if occasionally a little slicker than we’d like). Best of all, its 7-inch-long, 3.1-inch-tall, gently curved blade was fairly thick at the spine—providing good downward force—yet both tough and ultrathin at the edge, which was finished at a razor-sharp 17-degree angle. This cleaver effortlessly chopped everything we put in front of it. And while it is quite pricey, it is built to last; it breezed through our testing with minimal wear. If you think you’d use a cleaver often, this is the knife to buy. Elegant and powerful, this meat cleaver is an advanced instrument very far indeed from the battle axes of the past.

If you think you’d use a cleaver only a few times a year, however, there are a number of good—and less expensive—options. Lightweight and thin-bladed, the four cleavers that earned our Recommended designation are all sharp, agile, and easy to maneuver, making quick, clean work of chopping chicken, duck, and butternut squash. But because they’re lighter and thinner, they tend to be a bit less durable. Our Best Buy, the Lamson Products 7.25” Walnut Handle Meat Cleaver ($59.95), was the favorite cleaver of several testers—some even preferred it to our winner because of its extra-long, tall blade, which made it particularly easy to navigate through big butternut squashes and whole ducks. It was simply a little less durable and less well-made than our winner. Its thin blade sustained a bit more wear and tear, and its wooden handle sat a little loosely on the rivets that bound it to the tang (the bar of metal that runs the length of the handle), rattling in place while we chopped. Although this lapse in quality is far from ideal, we don’t think it’s necessarily a deal breaker. To address our concerns over the knife’s longevity, we used it to hack through an additional 20 pounds of chicken, and we’re pleased to say that it remained intact and performed well even after this extended use. Most of our testers declared that they’d be willing to sacrifice a little durability for this cleaver’s stellar performance and significantly lower cost—especially since they were unlikely to use it regularly, limiting the damage it would absorb. For occasional users, we think this is an excellent choice.

Methodology

We tested 13 cleavers priced from $10.67 to $179.95, chopping through raw chicken parts, butternut squashes, and whole roast ducks. We had professional butchers and test cooks of different hand sizes, dominant hands, and levels of butchering experience examine and use them. Cleavers were evaluated on their ease of use, blade and handle design, and durability. All models were purchased online, and they appear in order of preference.

Performance: We rated each cleaver on how easily and neatly it chopped through raw chicken wings and leg quarters, a whole roast duck, and a butternut squash.

Ease of Use: We rated each cleaver on how easy it was to maneuver—how heavy it was and how well balanced.

Blade: We rated each cleaver on the design of its blade, characterized by its height, curvature, angle, and thickness at spine and edge.

Handle: We rated each cleaver on the design of its handle, as determined by its length, width, affordance, and grippiness.

Durability: We rated each cleaver on how well it withstood damage (chipping or dulling of the blade and cracking or loosening of the handle).

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.