Enter a professional kitchen and you’ll be treated to many discoveries about the equipment they use; some good, some not. One of the shocks to the system that you’ll find behind the swinging doors at the restaurants of the world, is: when it comes to meat cleavers, most chefs grab for the simpler, less flashy implements. On their rack, they’ll have sleek black Wüsthof handles alongside a few Henckels paring knives, but when it comes to the cleaver: hunk of metal stuck in wood. They’re meant for hacking, and that’s rough, ugly work done by rough, ugly tools.
Since we know that not everyone has a professional kitchen at home, we’re going to give you a few options in every price range that can match aesthetics and function. We’ll also give you choices that will need to be kept in a drawer, but make swinging so fun you’ll be getting carcasses for chopping. Really, the only meat cleavers we omitted were those so terrible they turned meat cutting into a chore. The rest are among the 7 best meat cleavers.
Traditional S5198 Chinese Chef’s Knife
Pro: 500 lbs. pull-tested
Con: Only intended for small to medium bones at most
Behind the Curtain: The name on the knife is Traditional, but the truth is that Dexter Russel is behind the design. It’s a high carbon blade that is equally good for use as a vegetable knife as for dropping it onto the block with a vengeance. You get your pick of high-carbon blades, either the stain-free version or the classic. Each one is individually ground and honed, rather than done en masse, causing uneven edges among the blades. Compression rivets hold the fine ¾-inch walnut handle on tight for no play on impact. The wood grip goes with everything but the most ultra-modern kitchen, but add a black lacquer to the handle and this will make itself at home there as well.
Dexter-Russell S5288 Heavy-Duty
Most for the Money: Dexter Russell is a knife brand you know if you’re in the professional cooking industry. Their knives are good, but their cleavers are incredible. Home grown and made in the USA, there’s very little flash here, but it’s backed up by testimonials from the big names in kitchen warfare, where death, or just unemployment comes for the weakest links. Comfortable and designed to destroy bone, hack through meat, and chop up the toughest joints in the business, vegans beware, this is strictly for putting a lot of power behind a blow. Brass rivets hold the blade tang and rosewood handle together for a stylish, if rustic appearance. It’s going to help make the sausage, no doubt.
J. A. Henckels International Classic
Pro: Hot drop forged
Con: Not good for heavy bones
Back to Basics: Since cleavers are such brutish objects, designed to do necessary work, there’s no reason you need to step outside of a very basic body to get everything you need. More than able to go through everything from fish vertebrae up to pork and beyond. It’s a stubby fella, built more for home work than cooking for the masses, but capable of doing either. This hits the absolute center of the bell curve when it comes to cleavers of all kinds. It has the broadest appeal and the greatest amount of utility, along with a standard price that’s what you would expect from a workman’s brand like Henckels.
Messermeister Four Seasons Heavy
Pro: Cuts through all bone
Con: Make a mistake, lose fingers
Making Weight: For as short as it is, we expected something lighter, but this is true industrial-grade. It isn’t sparkly and fun, but it looks fine laying out with its classic head shape and sturdy stainless through and through. The small size is to spread the force of your swing out over a smaller area, for harder, deeper cuts through femurs, rather than to make it sing through your fingers. Expect a heavy impact when you land. Capable of going from the commercial kitchen to the home, it’s got a comfortable balance and the added girth at the pommel is appreciated for weight, and for keeping this beast in your fist when you whip it through the air. It might be little, but it sure ain’t petite.
Pro: High-impact blade
Con: No bolster
A Gentleman’s Blade: Using the standard style of a meat cleaver, Wüsthof again brings a sense of artistry to the mundane task of chopping, and the simple cleaver as an instrument. The handle is a full tang with triple rivets keeping the scales in place and a body that enlarges rapidly out to give you a solid face for both cutting and manipulating smaller foods. Rather than being ground by hand, these are laser-cut, giving you micrometer precision on the blade that you can feel with each movement. The steel is a high carbon that holds an edge for an extended period of time, meaning it will be with you through many fowl days.
Pro: Traditional square head
The Full Tang: Metal handles have traditionally caused problems, but Global has found a way to make ergonomic comfort, excellent grip, and full-tang construction that you can see benchmarks against which to measure the competition. Besides their smart, wood-free answer to design, the craftsmanship at Global is exacting. Each G-12 cleaver’s blade is ground by hand at a 15 degree angle. Burrs are worked out by a real person, not a machine. Agile thanks to the reduced size, the G-12 helps smaller users, Benihana chefs, and those with arthritis by keeping the chopping size and weight down. It’s more finesse than force, and more bevel than brawn, but it’s excellent for all but the biggest bones.
Shun Ken Onion
Pro: VG-10 steel
Con: Lacks weight necessary for heavy work
Onion Knight: Ken Onion is known to those even casually associated with the knife industry as the genius behind one of the best EDC knives ever made, The Blur. We knew Mr. Onion wasn’t a one trick pony, but to see what he does when allowed to devise a cleaver is truly a testament to quality. Odd and ergonomic, the shape is facile using 33 layered Damascus detailing. Though about average in length, the way the handle is shaped gives a greater sense of control and direction than you’ll get from those with the more standard wood-chunk handle. Made in Japan, it’s more for beheading fish and adding sophistication to your decor, not going through a side of beef in seconds.