Published November 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
It won't replace your all-purpose Western chef's knife, but if you chop a lot of vegetables, this may be your new go-to knife.
What the heck is a vegetable cleaver? Rectangular vegetable cleavers, which are traditional in Asia, have a straighter edge that, unlike curving Western-style knives, stays in contact with food as you cut and chop, ostensibly streamlining vegetable prep. Unlike meat cleavers, which have thick, heavy blades and a blunter edge for hacking through bone, vegetable cleavers have thin blades that taper gently to a honed edge, for cleanly slicing vegetables and other, more delicate boneless foods.
There are two basic types of vegetable cleaver. Chinese-style vegetable cleavers (also known as Chinese chef’s knives) look like meat cleavers but are more slender and versatile: besides chopping vegetables and fruits, they’re also used for slicing boneless meats and mincing and crushing aromatics, and they can serve as a broad surface for scooping and transferring chopped food from cutting board to bowl or pan. Japanese-style vegetable cleavers (available either as double-bevel nakiri or single-bevel usuba) are shorter, resemble a squared-off santoku, and are primarily used for cutting vegetables. (According to experts in the field, santoku knives likely evolved from vegetable cleavers.)
We chose seven knives—three Chinese cleavers, three nakiri, and one usuba, priced from $30 to $190—and used them to dice onions, mince parsley, slice potatoes, and quarter butternut squash. Most sliced beautifully. Taller, heavier Chinese cleavers were easier to guide through large vegetables, and we found that their heft did most of the work. But they were too unwieldy for some testers, who preferred smaller, lighter Japanese blades.
None of the cleavers were completely square; all had a bit of a curve toward the tip of the knife, some more than others. Our least favorite Chinese-style cleaver had almost no curve, and its tip dug into the cutting board when mincing parsley, leaving splinters in our food and gashes in the board. Blades with too much curve needed a lot of rocking to cut fully through potatoes. Our favorites had moderate curves. We also found little difference between the double-edged nakiri and the single-edged usuba until we tried cutting butternut squash, when the single-edged blade pulled to one side, making it difficult to control. In fact, nakiri cleavers are preferable for cutting straight slices, while usubas are more specialized, intended for extremely thin vegetable slices and requiring some skill to use correctly.
Blade width turned out to be the most important factor. Slimmer blades glided effortlessly through food; thicker blades with a more pronounced, V-shaped taper from spine to cutting edge worked like a wedge, tearing instead of slicing. At the spine, our blades ranged from less than 2 millimeters thick to more than 3 millimeters thick. Those with the thickest spine turned out to be the worst performers.
Our favorite, weighing less than 5 ounces, with a 1.9-millimeter spine, was light, sharp, and nimble, making vegetable work a breeze. Does the vegetable cleaver replace your all-purpose Western chef’s knife? Not necessarily, but it’s a pleasure if you chop a lot of vegetables.