The essence of a kitchen knife is to slice, dice, and mince. While there are specific knives for each function, one knife does all three. The Chinese cleaver is a multi-purpose knife indispensable in a professional or home kitchen.
The Chinese cleaver features a broad blade and a large flat edge. The broad blade allows the knife to accommodate larger cuts, such as slicing through meats and vegetables more efficiently by increasing the blade’s surface area. The flat edge makes it possible to chop, mince, and dice ingredients with surgical precision.
This article will provide you with some background information on the Chinese cleaver, discuss its features and uses, give some care suggestions, and offer tips for storage.
What is a Chinese cleaver?
The Chinese cleaver is a large, rectangular-shaped knife with a broad blade and a large flat edge. In most cases, it’s ideal for cutting through bones. However, the knife is versatile enough to be used for almost any application involving chopped, minced, or sliced ingredients.
The Chinese cleaver is also known as cai dao or vegetable cleaver. They feature stainless steel or carbon steel blades and wooden or plastic handles. It remains a requisite tool for any Chinese kitchen, with most Asian markets in the U.S. carrying at least a few models in stock.
The blade length of Chinese cleavers can range from 180mm to 220mm. The weight may vary depending on the intended use and style of the knife. The weight varies from 300g to a massive 900g.
Home cooks will most likely gravitate towards a heavier cleaver with a strong spine for heavy-duty grinding, chopping, and splitting bones. In contrast, a professional cook may prefer a lightweight model with the flexibility to perform light cutting.
The popularity of the Chinese cleaver isn’t limited to Asian countries like China and Korea. Its unique design and multi-purpose applications continue to draw chefs from all corners of the world into their markets.
Parts of Chinese cleavers
Every part of the Chinese cleaver is integral to its use. While some features are more important than others, each part serves a specific purpose and must be crafted to the highest standard for the tool to function as intended.
Below are some of the essential parts of a Chinese cleaver:
The heart of the knife is its steel blade. The width, thickness, and shape of the blade are the most critical factors that come into play when determining how you will use it. Stainless steel is still the preferred choice for knives because it is easy to sharpen and resists rust.
The handle is where the magic happens. The most common materials for handles are wood and plastic, each offering its perks. Wood provides a durable, comfortable grip that is aesthetically pleasing.
The pakkawood handle, in particular, is extremely strong and resistant to moisture. Plastic is also strong and provides a non-slip finish.
The spine is the thickest part of the blade, starting from the handle and tapering to its tip. Cleavers intended for heavy use feature a heavier spine. The spine can be thick from top to bottom, from heel to tip, or a blend of both.
The point is where the spine and cutting edge meet. The point can be blunt or tapered, depending on its intended use. A Chinese cleaver with a sharp point is ideal for detail work like mincing and slicing, while a blunt end works well for heavy-duty chopping and cutting through bones.
Key features of Chinese cleavers
When looking for a Chinese cleaver, keep an eye out for these key features:
Material of design
The ideal material is stainless steel, which provides the best balance between durability and ease of maintenance. Modern cleavers may have a blend of strong alloys to offer optimal sharpness, durability, and ease of maintenance. The material used may also feature high carbon content for added durability and ease of sharpening.
Weight and length
Weight and length vary depending on the intended use. The length of the cleaver will vary between 180mm and 220mm. The weight should be heavy enough for heavy-duty chopping but light enough to allow easy maneuverability. Ideally, the Chinese cleaver should weigh about 300g to 900g.
The shape of the blade
The typical Chinese cleaver is a narrow blade with a thick spine and minimal curvature. They appear rectangular, with their straight edges tapering to a sharp point. The backside of the blade varies from flat to slightly hollow ground. Knife enthusiasts may also want to explore the double-beveled versions of the Chinese cleaver.
Angle of the edge
The traditional Chinese cleaver has an edge that slopes gently from the spine to the cutting edge. Chefs sharpen the edges at an angle of 11 to 14 degrees. Some knives may be ground straight from heel to tip or have a double-beveled edge sharpened from both sides of the blade.
Uses of a Chinese cleaver
As a general rule, the Chinese cleaver is a multi-purpose kitchen tool ideal for just about any cutting job. However, not all Chinese cleavers are the same, and different shapes of blades work well for varied applications. The thickness of the blades is what makes all the difference between functions.
Below are some of the uses of a Chinese cleaver:
The thinner the blade, the better it slices. Chinese cleavers with an exceedingly thin point are ideal for slicing meat and vegetables. The slicers aren’t as long as choppers but feature an exceptionally sharp tip. They have an appearance like that of the nakiri knife from Japan.
Slicers are ideal for cutting vegetables and thin meats, mincing herbs, pairing, and peeling. They are also used for specialized Japanese sushi cuts and stir-frying. The thin blade makes the knife perfect for those who want clean cuts without tearing or crushing.
Chopping with a Chinese cleaver is perhaps the easiest. The wide blade makes it simple to handle, and its ability to cut through bones makes it great for tougher meats like duck, ribs, and chicken. Chinese chopper knives feature slightly thicker blades than slicers.
They aren’t thick like cleavers but are slightly wider instead. Their blades are also somewhat longer, at times as long as those of a French chef knife. They can chop through joints and bones, vegetables, and herbs.
Choppers are lightweight, perfect for quick chopping jobs that require finesse and control. Depending on the design material, you can use them to cut through thin poultry bones, seafood or fish bones, and even small ribs. However, manufacturers recommend against chopping through larger bones.
Chinese cleaver knives allow you to crush garlic cloves, ginger, and other ingredients. To crush garlic and other ingredients, place them on a chopping board, and hold the cleaver with the flat side facing over the garlic. Place the fingers of your free hand over the back of the blade to help control it, and strike down on the garlic with medium pressure.
Transferring cut pieces
The wide blade allows you to transfer cut pieces from board to pan or pot easily. You can use the knife’s body to scoop up ingredients, and its sharp tip serves as a carving tool for many foods.
Chinese cleaver vs. meat cleaver vs. Nakiri
The table below compares the Chinese cleaver, meat cleaver, and Nakiri.
|Chinese cleaver||Features a broad blade with a rectangular shape and a sharp tip. It has a thick spine and minimal to no curvature. The knife may also be double-beveled and sharpened at an 11-14 degrees angle on each side||The Chinese cleaver is versatile, and it can slice, chop, dice, and mince|
|Meat cleaver||The meat cleaver features a rectangular blade with a thick spine. It is rather heavy. Sharpening is at an angle of 50 degrees for a single bevel or 25 degrees for a double-bevel edge.||The meat cleaver is best for chopping through bone, tough meats, and other foods with a hard outer layer.|
|Nakiri||It features a symmetrical design and a straight edge sharpened from both sides at an angle of 10-15 degrees per side.||The Nakiri knife is ideal for chopping veggies, slicing, dicing, and mincing.|
How to use a Chinese cleaver
Handling a Chinese cleaver is a challenging task at first, but after a few tries, it becomes second nature. Before using the knife, familiarize yourself with its size and weight. Once you know its capabilities and limitations, you will handle it without difficulties.
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Follow these steps to use the Chinese cleaver safely and efficiently:
- Place the ingredients on a cutting board and hold the cleaver with the flat side facing over the ingredients.
- Put your free hand on top of the blade to help control it, and press down. Use medium pressure to crush the ingredients.
- Hold the Chinese cleaver handle with a firm grip horizontally with the ingredients on the cutting board but at a slight angle.
- Slide the knife’s sharp edge into the ingredients, and use the other hand to help scoop up the ingredients. Ensure that you keep your fingers out of the way of the knife blade.
- Place the ingredients in their designated pot, pan, or bowl and repeat the steps as needed.
Chopping and slicing
- Place your ingredients on the cutting board and hold the cleaver with the blade horizontally over the ingredients.
- Your free hand should hold the ingredients for more control. Using light pressure, slice the ingredients with a slight sawing motion.
- The size of the chopped ingredients depends on how much you want them to shrink. The recipe may indicate a specific chop, but feel free to adjust it according to your liking.
- Place the ingredients on the cutting board, grip the knife handle with your dominant hand, and place your palm on the knife’s spine for added stability.
- Lift the cleaver with the tip still intact on the cutting board and bring it down with force to mince the ingredients into pieces that are as small as you want. Repeat the movements with the pivot still intact until you achieve the desired consistency.
How to care for a Chinese cleaver
Anything of value needs love and attention to last a lifetime. The same goes for your Chinese cleaver. With proper care, your knife can help you create wonderful meals for years to come.
How to sharpen/hone
The best way to sharpen a Chinese cleaver is to use a whetstone.
- Choose the right whetstone for your knife. A coarse whetstone is ideal for repairing damaged knives, while a fine whetstone is best for sharpening high-quality blades.
- Soak the whetstone in water for about 10 minutes before use. Soaking helps get rid of air bubbles that may impede your sharpening efforts.
- Prepare your working area. Spread an old wet towel on a flat surface and place the whetstone on top.
- Give the handle a firm grip with your dominant handle. Hold the knife against the whetstone at an 11-14 degrees angle for a double-bevel edge.
- Push the knife away from you firmly against the whetstone until it reaches the tip. Pull up and repeat the movements until you achieve a consistent sharpness.
- Repeat step five on the other side of the blade to achieve a symmetrical sharpness.
Honing involves a consistent back and forth movement. You can hone your Chinese cleaver daily to maintain its sharpness. The right way to hone a knife is to use a steel rod or a fine-grit whetstone.
How to clean a Chinese cleaver
After use, cleaning your knife prolongs its lifespan and helps prevent stains and rust buildup.
- To clean a Chinese cleaver, wash it under a running tap while holding the blade away from you. Hot water is ideal.
- Use a sponge to clean the blade, but avoid using a harsh scrubbing motion that can damage its cutting edge.
- Rinse the knife under warm, clear water and pat dry with a clean cloth.
- Air dry the knife on a rack with the blade facing down or dry it using a dry cloth.
How to store a Chinese cleaver
The right place to store your Chinese cleaver is a knife block. Proper knife storage prevents accidents and injuries, and accidental damage to the blade. If you don’t have a knife block, store it in a cabinet or drawer, but ensure it’s covered with a protective sheath.
FAQs on Chinese cleavers
Chinese cleavers are designed to provide professional-grade cutting with optimal control. Their high carbon steel or stainless steel blades can glide through veggies and meats, and some brands come with wood handles that stay firm even when wet. Their design also ensures precision as you cut, and proper care can keep them in excellent condition to last for years.
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