For an all-purpose cutting utensil, nothing beats a Chinese cleaver. Every part of the knife is put to use. The sharp edge of the blade is used for cutting, while the blunter top edge is used to pound and tenderize meat. Turned on its side, the cleaver is an excellent tool for smashing garlic and ginger. You can even use it to transfer food from cutting board to wok. An added bonus is that the flat end of the handle nicely substitutes for a pestle.
It's All in the BladeTraditionally, cleavers blades were made of carbon steel. The problem is that carbon steel is highly susceptible to rust. Also, they tend to add a metallic taste to the food. Today, even well known cookbook authors such as Martin Yan and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recommend blades that are stainless steel, or a combination of carbon and stainless steel.
Cleaver or Knife?Just because a Chinese cleaver looks like a western butcher's cleaver doesn't mean you can use it to chop bones. Heavier cleavers are designed for this. However, the primary function of lighter cleavers - often called a Chinese Chef's Knife - is slicing meat and vegetables. Chopping bones with these lighter cleavers can ruin the blade. If you're uncertain which type of cleaver you have, check with the store where you purchased it.
Choosing a CleaverAsk two experts to name their favorite cleaver and you will get two different answers. Like ice cream flavors, choosing a cleaver is a very personal decision. The most important thing is to find one that is well made. Dexter, Martin Yan and J.A. Henckels are all good brand names.
Your comfort level is also important. The cleaver should feel solid, but not too heavy. If your arms feel strained when holding the cleaver, try another. Preparing dinner shouldn't be hard work!
Sharpening a CleaverA cleaver blade should be sharpened regularly. A dull knife forces you to exert more pressure, which can lead to unpleasant accidents.
There are several ways to sharpen a cleaver. One of my cooking instructors swore by a smooth piece of sandstone she picked up during an afternoon stroll nearly twenty years ago. However, a more popular option is to use a sharpening steel. Sharpening steels don't actually remove metal - instead they realign the blade edge at a molecular level.