Cutting up food into uniform sizes is one of the most important skills to master in Chinese cooking. With a versatile Chinese cleaver and some practice, it's easier than you think! A Chinese cleaver looks like a Western meat cleaver but it does not mean all Chinese cleavers can be used to chop bones.
Chinese cleavers come in three weights: Heavy, medium and light. Light weight cleavers, also known as Chinese chef knife, have narrow blades and are used primarily for lighter tasks e.g. dicing, peeling, mincing, cutting, slicing, and shredding. The most popular size, medium in weight, is about 4-inches in height, 10-inches in blade width and has a thicker blade. It's an all-purpose knife really. Apart from capable of what a light-weight cleaver can do but on tougher ingredients, this all-round implement can be used for crushing ingredients using its sides. The weight is sufficiently heavy for the use of blunt edge to pound and tenderize meat. You can even use it to scoop up food. It doesn't end there; the end of the handle can be used to grind spices just like a pestle! For mincing stuffing, two such knives in a pair of skilled hands, you can cut meat or vegetables into wafer thin pieces, double quick, of course, without losing any of their juices as you would do in a mincing machine. Lastly, heavy-weight cleavers have the thickest blades and are generally used to hack through bones and chop the toughest of ingredients.
Chinese cleavers are available in various types of steel - carbon steel, stainless steel and high-carbon stainless steel. The problem with a carbon steel cleaver is that it is highly susceptible to rust. Also, they will discolor acidic foods like tomatoes and onions. The advantages are it's easy to sharpen, and cheap. Whereas for stainless steel, although it doesn't rust easily (yes, stainless steel rusts too!), it gets blunt quickly and is difficult to sharpen. One is unlikely to find a stainless steel heavy-duty cleaver because the material will be too heavy for comfort and expensive too. A high-carbon stainless steel is the best. They will not discolor food and stays sharp for a longer time.
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When purchasing a Chinese cleaver, besides the type of weight and material, the balance of the knife and the comfort of the handle as you hold it are equally important too. It should feel solid but not too heavy and causes strain after a while of chopping motion.
To prolong the life of your cleavers, store them in a proper knife rack where there is less risk of damage. As for cleaning, wash the cleaver in warm, soapy water and dry thoroughly. Clean the blade immediately after working with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes and onions. If the handle is wood, avoid soaking it in water or it will break apart faster.
||A cleaver blade should be sharpened regularly. A dull knife forces you to exert more pressure, which can lead to unpleasant accidents . To sharpen a cleaver, hold the blade with both hands at about a 20-degree angle over a whetstone. Sharpen the entire length of blade in a circular motion. Alternately, a sharpening steel can be used but personally, I prefer a whetstone. Whetstones are available in any Oriental grocery stores.
A Chinese cleaver is an implement indispensable in the Chinese kitchen, but you do not have to have one in order to create an authentic Chinese touch, a really sharp knife will do just as well for a novice. But you'll not regret having one in your kitchen.