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How to Use a Meat Cleaver

If you’ve only seen meat cleavers being brandished in cartoons or kung fu movies, they can seem a bit intimidating. But they’re actually not all that hard to use—as long as you do so correctly.
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Published Oct. 5, 2017.

1. Set up your cutting board

You don’t need to have a butcher block, but your board should be sturdy and unwarped and it should sit stably on your counter. You don’t want it to slide around while you’re operating heavy cutlery. (We like to use a wet dish towel or a gripper mat underneath the board to ensure that it stays glued to the counter.)

2. Choose your plan of attack

Depending on the type of food and what you’re trying to do with it, you’ll want to use the cleaver in different ways. It’s not always best to hack; sometimes it makes more sense to use the knife’s weight and leverage to carefully slice or split food open instead. For example, if you’re halving a whole roast duck, you can use the cleaver as you would a chef’s knife, employing a pinch grip and using a slight rocking motion to lever through the food.

In addition to chopping, the cleaver’s weight makes it a versatile tool for slicing through dense foods.

Chopping poultry or meat, however, is a different matter. Put the poultry or meat you want to chop on the cutting board. If it’s a relatively long shape, such as a rib or a backbone, you can stabilize the end with your nondominant hand. Otherwise, make sure your hand is well out of chopping range. You might even want to keep this hand behind your back so you’re not tempted to put it in harm’s way.

3. When chopping poultry or meat, use a power grip on the cleaver

Wrap your fingers around the handle as if you were shaking hands with it. For added power and guidance, you can put your thumb on the spine of the knife—a tip we learned from Michael Dulock, one of the butchers we consulted for our review of meat cleavers—though this requires a little extra hand strength.

4. Get ready, then cut

There’s no need to wind up and make a big, dramatic hacking gesture with your arm. Instead, let the weight of the cleaver do much of the work for you. The chopping motion itself should come from your wrist. Raise your arm slightly from the elbow and then bring it down on the food, using your wrist to direct the knife and apply force. Dulock recommends trying to hit the food with the top third of the blade so that you can summon extra lever power if you don’t make it all the way through.

If you’re using a wood cutting board with a one-way grain, make sure to cut perpendicular to or at a slight angle to the grain—otherwise you risk splitting the cutting board when you chop.

When chopping, allow your wrist to pivot and transfer the momentum from the cleaver’s heavy blade.

5. Slice through a second time, if needed

It may take a little practice to gauge just how much force you need to supplement the cleaver’s weight. Hopefully, you’ve applied just the right amount to split the food with a clean cut, but it’s fine if you need to slice through the last remaining bits of meat or poultry. If the cleaver gets stuck halfway through the bone, place your nondominant hand on the spine of the knife and apply pressure to drive the knife downward and finish the cut. You can try to hack through the same spot twice, but it’s difficult to land on the exact target again, so you may end up with mangled meat.

If the cleaved food is small enough, you can now use the flat of the cleaver to lift it off the cutting board and into your stock pot or other cooking vessel. Just make sure not to drag the edge of the blade against the board, as this can dull it.

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