I Bought a Cleaver. In Fact, I Bought Two!

Emboldened by a cleaver buying guide in the book, “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” I set off to Chinatown on Friday afternoon with the intent to buy a cleaver.

As a teenager, I worked a handful of sweaty kitchen jobs where I was taught proper knife skills and somehow, through the experience of chopping a hell of a lot of produce, developed an interest and appreciation for kitchen knives. Twenty plus years later and I find that I genuinely enjoy chopping vegetables and herbs, and as long as I am not slogging my way through a pile of teary onions, I can chop and chop all day long. It’s a meditation in motion.

I have always wanted a cleaver, but it was intimidation that kept me from getting one. What does one look for in a cleaver? Do I need to spend a lot of money? I did not want to to buy a cheapo cleaver because I worried that it would be useless and a waste of money. And I didn’t want to buy an expensive cleaver because I wasn’t sure if I would like chopping with one in the first place. Henckels makes a nice cleaver, but $75 is a lot of money to spend based on a flight of fancy.

In “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” author Charles Phan writes that there are different cleavers for different purposes. Big, hulking cleavers are used to chop through bones, while delicate, light-weight cleavers with a thin blade and rounded tip are used to chop vegetables and fruit. He prefers carbon steel over stainless, but says that it rusts more easily and is harder to maintain. Ultimately, what made me take the plunge was his assertion that an expensive, fancy cleaver is unnecessary, especially if you’re buying a bone cleaver. They’re just going to get bashed around anyway so you shouldn’t bother spending more than $20. I started out wanting a a vegetable cleaver that I could use day-to-day, but when I set eyes upon the spread of mangled cleavers in the book, I kind of had to have a bone cleaver, too. In fact, just give me all of your cleavers. You know how I am about rusty metal and wooden things… I may never need to chop with it, but it could easily earn back its cost as an intruder deterrent!

Long story short, I hovered over the cleaver selection at Tap Phong for what must have been 30 minutes, deliberating over the different styles and holding them in my hand, pretending to chop nothing. Don’t be afraid fellow patrons. It’s just me, a suspicious stranger wielding sharp and scary knives in the aisle of a busy restaurant supply store for an uncomfortably long period of time.

Finally, having Googled an assortment of brand names that yielded websites and reviews not written in English, I finally decided upon one very large, very scary, $20 carbon steel bone cleaver. I worried that the vegetable cleavers would be too cheaply made and I didn’t want to blow $8-20 just to find out. At the front counter I asked if they had any other vegetable cleavers for sale as all of the brand name knives are displayed behind the counter. The woman at the counter said they had the Henckels knife, “…but you don’t need that” and instead asked an older woman to come over and suggest the knife she liked best. I was surprised when she came back with the cheapest knife of the lot, only $7.99. I told her that I wanted something to chop vegetables and fruits and she said this one was great.

Three days have passed. I have not had a chance to try out the bone knife, but it does look very nice on its shelf. UPDATE: Later today I tested it out on the bones of a whole chicken that I had roasted over the weekend. I wanted t use what remained to make a lunchtime soup. As predicted, the cleaver was great. A little bit scary and heavy, but the weight is necessary for it to do its job. It’s a powerful tool. I’m starting to think that this book and a cleaver would make a really excellent holiday gift for someone who loves to cook and is especially interested in Asian food.

I have used the vegetable cleaver exclusively over the last three days. I did a lot of cooking and a lot of chopping over the weekend and I love it! It is light-weight and sharp. I have had no trouble getting that rocking motion going and managed to slice up a pile of shallots like nobody’s business. It feels natural and comfortable in my hand. It did a great job in finely chopping and making a chiffonade of fresh herbs. I like that I was able to scoop up a whole pile in one motion using the side of the cleaver. I can’t say how well an $8 cleaver will hold up over the long term, but given the cost, I don’t expect it to perform miracles. Now that I know how much I enjoy chopping with a cleaver I will likely invest in a brand name knife that will last for a lifetime once the cheap brand has had its day. Until then, it is working out surprisingly well!

Do you chop with a cleaver? Which do you like best?

ps. I will write again about the book later this week.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

Subscribe to get weekly updates from Gayla

7 thoughts on “I Bought a Cleaver. In Fact, I Bought Two!

  1. I use a chop chop knife i bought in chinatown, its not a cleaver if it feels good in your hand and weighted properly buy it. Also buy a knife sharpener

  2. I chop with a cleaver that is all stainless steel. The blade and the handle are all one piece of metal. It was given to me as a gift by my landlord when I moved out of the apartment he had rented to me for several years. At the time, I thought it was a strange parting gift to give someone. It is so big and intimidating that it stayed in its box for years before I got up the guts to put it through its paces. Turns out, I love it! I don’t use it all the time, because it’s still a bit scary to me, but when I have some serious chopping to do, it makes short work of it. It’s actually one of my favorite gifts anybody has given me!

    • I very nearly bought one like that at the store, but the woman helping me said it was for meat — it was heavier and slightly more substantial than the veg cleaver (bottom knife in the pics above). I decided it wasn’t wise to buy three cleavers at once when I had not tried even one yet! I think I will get one of these eventually.

  3. I think I chop with a cleaver. It’s a Japanese vegetable knife with a nice balanced weight, they recommended it for veggies and meat, not bones. It’s carbon steel, so keeping it dry and clean is more work than I’m used to. Also, I think I need to learn how to keep my knives sharp, since I cant go back to having dull knives again. I love the wide blade for picking up all the chopped veggies in one swoop.

  4. My favourite cleavers are the same ones as the bottom one in your picture. Same brand, same size, they do everything and last for years (I bought my first one five or six years ago, I think; I don’t remember which one (of several) that was now but it’s still being used), and they’re cheap enough that I feel no qualms about running them through my dishwasher. They do everything. My (chef) partner prefers the feel of his chef’s knife (which he has had for years and will probably outlive us if taken care of correctly), and prefers to use smaller knives for some jobs, but the fact that we feel comfortable running the cleavers through the dishwasher means that those are the knives that get used the most.

    Ease of cleaning trumps awesome feel, apparently.

    We sharpen them when they need it, but that’s about as often as the good knives need sharpening if we’re using the good knives and not the cleavers.

  5. Thanks for this post! I enjoy chopping vegetables but I didn’t realize that I don’t have the right tools for it. My friend says she needs a sous-chef for the chopping of vegetables because if we are really going to be healthy we need to eat a lot of veggies!

    I am going to buy a cleaver and I will also need to learn about sharpening it. My knives are very dull. I think in the future I will enjoy cooking a lot more with the proper tools. Thanks again!

  6. Is the bottom a Kiwi knife??? If so, you’re right, they don’t last forever, but are really great all purpose choppers. I think I’m now on number 3.

Comments are closed.