When you think about the types of knives chefs fetishize (and pay crazy amounts of money for), you think of sleek German and Japanese chef’s knives that mince vegetables at racehorse speed or carve meat like it’s butter.
A cleaver is not that. A cleaver is something else entirely, for hacking and butchering serious cuts and breaking right through bone. The best cleavers are cheap, utilitarian, and straightforward. It’s a hatchet, a weapon.
Which is why my ex-boyfriend said he felt a little nervous carrying the Dexter-Russell cleaver he was about to gift me on the subway a few years ago. The relationship was ill-fated, but the cleaver lives on happily in my kitchen drawer. (Last night I watched the Sopranos episode where young Tony watches his dad chop off the butcher’s pinkie with his own meat cleaver. My ex made a brave move, giving me a cleaver right before he dumped me.)
I use my cleaver only for good, though, and I use it often. I love the heft of the hardwood handle in my hand and its seven-inch high-carbon-steel blade. The cleaver is designed for whacking through behemoth sides of meat (though I do that rarely). Mostly, I use it to hack up the leftover carcass of a roast chicken or turkey to make stock, or to turn gigantic short ribs into reasonably sized short ribs that fit in my pan for braising. Its comparatively blunt blade easily pulverizes garlic and ginger and handily chops batches of carrots, potatoes, and root vegetables; the blade’s surface area allows me to then transfer cuts from cutting board to pot or pan. I use the blunt edge to tenderize chicken breasts and have even found a function for the handle: It’s how I thwack pecans or walnuts before baking them into cookies (pro tip: use a Ziploc bag or parchment paper to avoid a nutty mess).
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