Expensive cleavers are a waste of money


I love many things about chef J.Kenji Lopez-Alt, not least his fantastic name, but today I'm enamored of his take on the cleaver. A cleaver is both metaphorically and literally a blunt instrument, he writes at Serious Eats:

...avoid expensive Japanese or German cleavers, period. If they sell it at Williams-Sonoma, you don't want it. 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.
There's more, and it's all a breath of fresh air. I particularly like Lopez-Alt's brisk shredding of the $160 Shen Kun Onion Meat Cleaver, which he figures costs about $145 too much: Please. Unless you need a simultaneously pretty and menacing tool to perform ritual sacrifices with, it has no business anywhere near a real kitchen. His final recommendation is the very unsexy General Purpose Cleaver Knife with Wood Handle from Dexter-Russell. At $40 it's more than twice as pricey as Lopez-Alt's all-time favorite cleaver, which he picked up for $15 at a restaurant supply store in Boston. But the Dexter-Russell will do the job, he writes, and more -- it will deliver "a lifetime of joyful chicken-hacking."


  1. “a lifetime of joyful chicken-hacking” sounds wonderfully fulfilling

    tough on the chickens though….

    1. My initial thought kinda went along the same lines: “…best Collector’s Edition box set bonus item EVER.”

  2. if you’re the typical type of chef that uses a cleaver for cleaving, that this is totally 100% true. However, if you’re the crazy type of (usually chinese) chef that almost exclusively uses a cleaver for everything from mincing to butchering, an expensive model is probably justified.

  3. Felt the same way reading Anthony Bourdain’s take on knives in Kitchen Confidential. Says most people only need one (okay, maybe two) good, inexpensive knives.

  4. Depends on how you use it, obviously. If your long-lost daughter shows up and digs rocks with it, Zarg is going to be pissed.

  5. This goes for most kitchen knives. None of the professional chefs I know use Henckles, Wusthof or Shun knives in their workplaces. As long as it is relatively descent quality steel (so that it keeps an edge), and kept sharpened and honed regularly, it’s fine.

    1. As I understand it, ownership of knives in many professional kitchens is a rather loose concept. If it’s just going to get swiped, you want the minimum serviceable tool to contribute to the pool of knives floating around the kitchen. Any less than that, you might have to use it and hate it, any more than that, you probably won’t get to use it.

      A hobbyist who doesn’t have to share can shoot a little higher into the range of diminishing returns.

    2. Yes…”in their workplace”. And I mostly agree on Butcher knives; their purpose is to hack bones. A fine edge is not as advantageous as on other knives.

      But, do yourself a favor. Go find a reputable store and get a good Chef’s knife. (And a real sharpening steel to straighten the edge)

      It’s funny – I never used to care much about knives. Chicago Cutlery served me well. Then I wound up buying a set of Kershaws. Wow. Night and day. While my technique wasn’t perfect, it became a whole lot easier to cook. I started cooking more.

      Then I bought a refurb’d Wusthof kitchen knife. The difference between it and the Kershaw was like the difference between the Kershaw and the Chicago Cutlery. Even more fluid, even easier, even more effective, even more fun.

      I bought two Kai Shun knives from Woot a few months ago. They are to the Wusthof what the Wusthof was to the Kershaw. My wife won’t cook without them anymore, and the only reason I don’t use them exclusively is because I want to hand-wash them and keep them out of the dishwasher. But it’s effortless. I swear you can see light bend and hear the dust being cut in half. I _love_ cooking now. Yes, perfect technique makes a huge difference. But for those of us who don’t cook dozens of meals a day, a better knife helps considerably.

      So – do yourself a favor. Go find a reputable store (be careful online – lots of counterfeits), plunk down the cash, and get a good Chef’s knife. Spend under $100.

      1. Actually, I have an excellent knife but it is not Wusthof. It’s Danish steel and it cost me significantly less than $100. Keeps a fantastic edge. I also have a sharpener and honing steel.

  6. He briefly makes an important distinction though. Meat / bone cleavers should be heavy and cheap, because they are used to cut through bone and it doesn’t matter much if they get nicked. Chinese cleavers, while similarly shaped, are used more like a traditional chef’s knife (ever seen Yan Can Cook?), and should be thin and sharp. I haven’t seen the Shun cleaver in person, but I suspect it falls into that second category of cleavers.

    1. Which is why I buy those chinese cleavers at Chinese grocery markets for like 20 bucks.

      Or rather, I should say I bought mine there 7 years ago, and it’s still in great shape.

      Other knives I usually get from restaurant supply stores.

      From the asian markets I have a sashimi and veggie cleaver. From the RS shops I have a mezzaluna, a chef’s knife, a small chef’s knife, a bread knife and a paring knife. All tastefully (and intimidatingly) displayed on magnetic strips in my kitchen.

      I don’t know who spends the money on frou-frou knifes. And the celeb knives just suck . . . I actually bought the new giada dilaurentiis chef knife when my old one separated from its handle (shoulda bought full tang . . . ) and it had a crack and rust on it after only a couple days of use.

  7. In my dream kitchen (I say dream because I didn’t buy the dream-like Global knife I currently use), the most expensive single knife-item would be the sharpener. Do all the heavy lifting with that $25 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, an equivalent bread knife, paring knife (or two), and a restaurant supply cleaver and you’re set for blades, all told no more than $120 max.

    But every blade needs to be sharpened, and I have a lot of love for the SpyderCo sharpener touted on BoingBoing a couple years ago, still $75. A knife steel to keep your edges honest, and you’re pretty much set.

    I get disgusted when I see someone with a $200 Shun knife that’s dull and no steel or sharpener in sight. Seems like money down the drain at best, and a likely missing fingertip at worst.

  8. Victorinox makes an excellent chef’s knife that’s available for $29.54 on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000638D32

    Out of 455 customer reviews, 378 people give it 5 stars. Only 21 people give it 3 stars or fewer. That’s impressive for anything, let alone an inexpensive chef’s knife.

  9. $40 for the Dexter still seems like too much. A Chinese market will have an assortment of cleavers for less and without having to find a restaurant supply store. Years ago, I bought a Chinese cleaver and another similarly shaped cleaver but with a much thinner blade. Both are still going strong, except the thin bladed one has a lot of dents.

    1. If your “thin cleaver” has dents, you’re probably using it for the wrong purpose. Maybe it’s a Chinese chef’s knife? If so, it’s big and rectangular like a cleaver, but it’s NOT a cleaver – it’s for vegetables and boneless meat. Great for fast chopping even tall stuff without ever catching your knuckle on the top edge, and great at scooping huge loads into the pot. But hit a bone and ruin the edge. Use an actual cleaver on bone.

  10. All my knives are mismatched ones you buy at the supermarket for $5 or less. I run them through the electric combo knife sharpener/can opener once a week or month and throw them out when they start to frustrate me. From what I’ve read, that’s pretty much how it works in restaurant kitchens as well. Paying good money for tools makes sense, but only for tools you don’t need to sharpen on a regular basis. I’ve probably spent $40 on kitchen knives in the last 8 years.

  11. I got an expensive cleaver for my wedding which I never use, but my favorite for Asian cooking is the $7 with a welded on steel handle from a Chinese market.

  12. Quite right. I’ve got a carbon steel Chicago Cutlery cleaver that’s at least 20 years old. Gets very sharp, but more importantly is sturdy and HEAVY. Mostly I use it to hack up chicken carcasses for the stock pot. Just have to make sure to dry it well or it rusts…

    Also have a cheap Chinese Cleaver which is good for general chopping and scooping, but the lack of weight and only partial tang limit its Conan the Chef capabilities.

    And yes, the SpyderCo Sharpmaker is a great little sharpener.

  13. As the article points out, there is a difference between a cleaver and a Chinese chef’s knife. They cast a similar shadow, but the first one is at least double the weight.

    The original cleaver might be better called a kitchen-axe. It’s not super sharp but when you want to cleave the chicken in half, cutting through the bones, use one of these. The cutting edge is really thick so that it won’t chip on impact.

  14. Trog know squishy people make tiny knife. Knife sharp but no hold edge. Knife no need be sharp if knife heavy! Trog knife cost less fancy sharp knife.

  15. The kitchen I work in (as well as my own kitchen) runs on cheap knives picked up at Asian knick-knack and grocery stores. Not only do most professionals put too much daily mileage on knives to waste money on something high end, they also worry about their knives walking away … which happens almost daily, both purposefully and unintentionally.

    Also, that’s a handsome cleaver, the platonic ideal, even. Very nice typeface on the brand name.

  16. i have a cleaver from the 1800s and that thing is a monster. Granted, it hangs on my wall and not in my kitchen, but if i wanted to pull it down and chop up some dinner, it would work like a charm.

  17. Spyderco sharpeners are good, but there’s something fun about owning a good sharpening stone, or set of stones, and doing it yourself.

    Also, owning a few real hand made knife from a little shop in Kyoto Japan is worth it, even if it’s pretty expensive. They cut like nothing else in the world. If I could get a set of them, I would

  18. The best knife is the one that fits you. If it’s the right weight and balance for you to handle comfortably for long periods of time, and you take care to keep it very sharp, it doesn’t matter how cheap or fancy your knife is. I’ve been using the same carbon steel Sabatier chef’s knife for 30 years; I spent my entire first paycheck on it. But my favorite cleaver is the one I got at the Chinese market for $6 – and we’re all very happy together. (Note that, as others have mentioned, a meat cleaver is an entirely different proposition from a Chinese cleaver. Chinese cleavers are used analogously to chef’s knives; a meat cleaver is just for hacking.)

  19. Uh, bullshit. no, no no. while it’s true that you don’t need to spend top dollar on a knife, his take on a cleaver “not needing a razor sharp edge” is complete bullshit, bullshit that will probably lead to him cutting a finger off, or worse, someone taking his advice and cutting their fingers off. I’ve been a line cook now for about five years, and I wouldn’t use a dull cleaver–it HAS to be razor sharp, because it’s going through bone. if it’s not, you either have to hack at it, which results in a messy cut, or it rolls off, and cuts your fingers(off the bone). Don’t take this guy’s advice, make sure your cleavers are just as sharp as your chef’s knives.

  20. One of the many things that infuriates me about many high end cleavers is that they are entirely lacking in what I think is a cleaver essential, namely a thick, weighty back. Many weigh hardly more than a 6 inch butcher’s knife. When attacking a thick animal joint, I want that added weight to slam the blade, dull or sharp, merrily through in a single stroke!

  21. I have a Dexter, and I only paid twenty bucks for it, new… Of course that was nearly thirty years ago.

    I gave away my good chef’s knife, because I hardly ever used it. I’m used to that damn cleaver.

    The only really good kitchen knife I own is a 1 1/2″ paring knife. Hard to find them that short. But it’s a wonder. It is the cutlery equivalent of a miata. It turns on a dime.

  22. If you’re a professional sushi / sashimi chef, the incredibly expensive hand-forged rusts-so-quickly-it’s-incredible knives are a must-have, because the difference of a few molecules on the blade edge makes a difference in the texture and flavour of the fish. If it’s gonna get cooked, Ginsu it!

  23. I used to have a huge cleaver I could cut bread with. It was so big I could line up four and cut them in one chop.

  24. I’m another $20 Asian market cleaver owner. It has never let me down. And I have never even thought about buying a stupidly expensive one not was I even aware that there was a trend for buying such things. Such is the downside of living outside the rat race…

    Having said that, I disagree with Anthony Bourdain (mentioned by pencilbox #5) on knives more generally – but only just. Apart from the cleaver, I have a perfectly balanced Japanese vegetable knife, another Japanese fish knife and a small general purpose knife (all kept very sharp). I use them all.

  25. I beg to differ on the Ken Onion knife, FWIW.

    My wife bought it for me for christmas, as I needed a cleaver, and we use all Shun knives.

    I thought it looked very silly, and not at all what I wanted in a cleaver, and took it back to the store. But the more I tried other cleavers and held them and worked with them, etc., the more I kept picking up the Ken Onion.

    I ended up following my instinct and keeping it, and I love it. To each their own, but I had to mention that I am a serious chef, doing real work, and absolutely loving the (admittedly strange) Ken Onion cleaver.

  26. OMG, I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS but the following is an actual letter that I personally sent to the Zwilling company, along with my cleaver blade broken from handle at the hilt. For the longest time I kept a photo of it for just this opportuntiy and %#@$!**!!deleted it less than a month ago.

    Att: Consumer Service
    171 Saw Mill River Road
    Hawthorne, New York 10532

    June 1, 2010
    To whom it may concern,

    I purchased the cleaver enclosed in this envelope within the last five years. However, I have very rarely needed to use it. When used, it is almost always used for the purpose of cutting up chicken and other common meats. It has never been used for any other purpose than that for which it was intended. Imagine my surprise the last time I went to cleave a chicken breast in half only to have the entire blade section of the cleaver break off from its handle and spin towards my face. Needless to say, the blade never made contact that day with flesh other than that of the avian species. Were this not the case, this letter would not be from me but rather a professional who would require a retainer.

    It has not been my experience with my other Henckel knives to have their fine German engineering compromised to this extent. It is my hope that your company in its estimable examination will see fit to replace my “Professional S Friodur Ice Hardened Cleaver” with another not having the propensity for metal shearing that might cause it to break into flying blood letting projectiles.

    I hope that this letter is not too verbose. I felt that it was better than my first letter which contained other than the description of the knife, the following one word sentence, “Really?”. Although, I am quite sure you would have been able to discern my intent, I did not want to leave anything to the imagination.

    Very Sincerely Yours,
    Your Humble Consumer,

    within 4 weeks I received a replacement cleaver, that of course, to this day, I shudder to use.

    Yes, y’all, I know I need a real job!

    1. Henkel’s knives (if from Germany) are made from stamped parts. In other words, they are made up of different pieces that are welded together. Even if they appear to have a full tang you can see the seamline where they attached the handle to the blade just above the bolster.

  27. there’s such a big difference between the uses of the chinese style cleaver and the european style cleaver that i have a hard time believing this isnt some sort of weird troll..

    i’ve been cooking professionally for ten years, and ive used both types in many different variations/brands/colors etcblabla. both styles have their place (when sharp!) as far as versatility id almost take a chinese cleaver over the german or french style chef knife, the big dexter has no chance in that arena..

    -do you need to smash things in half with aplomb, while drinking quail’s blood after service on a saturday night? with the chieftans blasting?
    dexter. henckels. wusthof. that no-name scary thing in your crazy uncle’s attic.

    -do you need to prep a salad line, several meats, and clean 14 chickens? while scaring coworkers with your arm shaving skills? with the chieftans blasting?
    CCK. shun. moritaka. sugimoto. takeda.

    to be honest youll have to pry my gyuto from my cold dead hands.. but the chinese cleaver certainly has it’s place.

  28. I have a couple of knives with ceramic blades I bought for under $20 each at Harbor Freight Tools. They glide through just about any meat or veggies, and are wicked sharp. Ceramic blades hold their edges a long time, but they’re somewhat fragile, so I also have an inexpensive cleaver and $4 santuko I got in the kitchen section at Target for tougher jobs. Between these four knives, we do about 95% of our cooking. If you’ve never used a ceramic blade, try one – I love them like my children.

  29. That’s “Shun Ken Onion”, not “Shen Kun Onion”. Shun is the manufacturer; Ken Onion is the designer.

  30. I’ve use one primary knife since college, an 8 inch Chef’s knife. My girlfriend at the time in 1989 paid $90, I think, at Hoffritz which was really private labeling knives made by Henkel.

    That knife is well balanced and sharpens nicely with a steel or ceramic sharpening stones.

    I loved it so much, that I threw down some ungodly amount on a Henkel meat cleaver that I never use. I tried again with what they call a vegetable cleaver I also don’t use.

    I look forward to buying a Chinese cleaver in the market. Arcadia, here I come.

  31. I got a laugh from the specific dig at the knife that has shown up in my RSS feed (from Woot) more than once in the past few months.

  32. Dexter, huh? And a low-cost, everyday blade. What are the chances of that? If you get one, you must follow The Code. And don’t tell Deb.

  33. The original article *does* note the difference between Chinese and western cleavers, and is explicitly limited to the latter.

    I’d note, though, that as I paid less than $10 for my Chinese cleaver from a random shop in Oakland’s Chinatown, I wouldn’t mind getting another to abuse. It’s still heftier than any of my chef’s knives, and has maintained a wicked sharp edge even after being raised in anger against several young coconuts.

    And if you’re looking for a blunt instrument, you can get those cheap, too. Honestly, if you’ve got no particular reason to be wielding a knife at line-cook or chef speeds, you don’t need to have a precision instrument. Generations of grandmas from all sorts of cultures have worked with crappy steel, either sharpening or honing it themselves constantly, or (gasp, shudder) working with dull(er) knives.

    It’s a craft, not a science, and (usually) not a religious rite. There’s going to be a wide variation in what works for any individual home cook.

  34. Williams Sonoma used to have a Wustof cleaver for $20 that was full tang and almost 1/2 inch in thickness. It was not sharp but a serious cleaving contender…

  35. Thank you for this great mention of Dexter-Russell. You certainly make great points about how cleavers are for the toughest of the tough jobs. We are honored to provide a life-time of chicken-hacking. We recently designed a set of knives for Arthritis sufferers called DuoGlide. We hope you’ll check them out.

Comments are closed.