Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tools and Tips: Graters

Grating Planes and Discs


If you search for the term "grater" on Amazon, you will discover a nearly endless parade of designs for the humble textured surface used in kitchens everywhere. Hand-graters, box graters and combo-graters. Single-purpose and "universal" graters. Plastic, metal and plastic/metal graters. Fine, medium, coarse, extra-coarse, ribbon and star graters. Cheap, pricey and everything in-between.

Yet for something so simple and straight-forward - a tool for shredding - there's an awful lot of fuss. Why all the complication? Why the endless parade of designs? Beyond coarseness and price, does it really matter which grater you pick?

After six years and multiple busted graters along the way, I think it does matter.

Growing up, the only grater my mom owned was a cheap 4-sided box grater. And that thing never broke. I'm pretty sure she still owns it and hauls it out every time she needs to grate a carrot or a block of cheese. Yet for all its steadiness and durability, that thing was dreadfully uncomfortable to use. The handle dug into your palm, causing your entire arm to ache after a minute or two of use. And have you ever tried to zest a lemon on the "star" surface of a box grater? What a horrible, horrible mess! And it's nearly impossible to grate spices. And chocolate - well, the best you can manage is a pile of chipped flakes.

If you're relying on an old box grater, you may realize what I am now convinced of: One size doesn't fill all needs - you need different graters for different tasks. And I believe there are three types everyone should own:
  • Extra-coarse grater: Perfect for medium to soft cheeses (e.g. cheddar, colby and mozzarella) and for all other coarse-grating needs (like carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beets, etc)

    Microplane Extra Coarse Grater
     
  • Fine grater: Perfect for zesting citrus and grating whole spices or fresh ginger

    Microplane Fine Grater Zester
     
  • Ribbon grater: Ideal for shaving chocolate and hard cheeses (such as parmesan)

    Ribbon Grater

Yet not all graters are created equal. I've used a variety of graters with varying levels of satisfaction and annoyance and here's what I look for in any grater before making a purchase:

  • All metal construction: Some go-getter at some company at some fateful date decided to marry plastic and metal in a dreadful union of a metal grating surface with a plastic housing. It's a TERRIBLE idea: the metal can withstand the stresses of repeated pressure and movement from grating, but the brittle plastic cracks under the pressure. The flexing metal eventually destroys the plastic and you're left with a busted grater. No matter how reputable the brand or ingenious the design or eye-catching the concept, do NOT buy these plastic/metal abominations. Period. Go with a simple all-metal design instead.

    Cracked Plastic on Microplane Box Grater
     
  • Super-sharp: The sharper the grating surface, the easier the task of grating. Before buying, very lightly press your finger against the grating surfaceIf - if it doesn't feel sharp to the pad of your finger, look for something with a sharper surface. I'm a big fan of Microplane, but there may be other equally sharp graters available.

    Microplane Extra Coarse Grater
     
  • Broad, flat surface: There's nothing worse than trying to grate on a narrow piece of metal - you constantly have to reposition whatever you're grating to avoid slipping off the grating surface. So look for broad, flat graters with lot of surface area to move against.
     
  • Rubber feet or edges: It's hard to hit a moving target - and it can be dangerous to try when it involves rows of super-sharp teeth aimed at your hand. Rubber feet or a rubber-wrapped edge help to keep graters from sliding or bouncing as you grate across the surface. Personally, this is a must-have for me and I wouldn't buy a grater without this feature.

Your search for the perfect grater may eventually lead you to the same conclusion I reached: It's nearly impossible to find a box grater that incorporates all these elements. After a dreadful experience with the plastic/metal Microplane box grater, I gave up entirely and now rely primarily on individual hand graters. If you're still searching for the holy grail of box graters, here are a few things I'd avoid:

  • Uncomfortable handle design: The majority of box grater handles feature a thin strip of flattened metal attached to opposite sides of the box - which is about as comfortable against your palm as a back of knife. Instead, look for contoured handles overlaid with rubber that feel natural in your palm.
     
  • Catch tray/bin: This is a personal thing, I know. But I hate catch trays because they're never big enough to actually be helpful! And it's just one more thing to clean. Personally, I'd rather grate onto my cutting board and wipe off the stray strands left behind at the end rather than fussing about with attaching, emptying and cleaning a catch bin.
     
  • Universal graters: The "universal" grater baffles me. How in blazes does clustering three or four different graters onto a single surface make for a useful grater? It's nearly impossible to use any of the surfaces without involving the others. Unless you take painfully tiny precision strokes. I just don't get it.

Grating Planes and Discs

Having reached this point, if you're feeling quite overwhelmed by all the do's and don't of something as simple as a grater, permit me to distill all this down: 1) buy super-sharp, 2) all-metal graters with 3) rubber feet, 4) comfortable handle and 5) broad, flat grating surface. That's it.



11 comments:

  1. Yep. I agree. No plastic, gotta be sharp, and those rubber feet really help. I need to buy a box grater. I have a flat one, but the box grater is one of those items that are timeless. I've never used a ribbon grater, but now I need one. Ha

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  2. Kayle (The Cooking Actress)January 29, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    I just got that microplane box grater, I really need to get a flat one now, mainly for Parmesan cheese!

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  3. Really good post. I have one of those 4-sides graters, and really only use it a few times a year when I want a coarse grate but what I'm doing is so small I can't justify using the food processor. Most of the time I use my Microplane. It grates very finely, but I rather like that.

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  4. I think the "no plastic" is the most important part of a good grater, for sure. I used have a cheap box grater, but eventually ditched it because the hand grip was so uncomfortable :/ And the ribbon grater is nice because you can also grate in both directions...

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  5. I still sometimes use the ribbon grater side of my Microplane box grater for Parmesan, which works fairly well I think... I hope you have better success the the Microplane box than I did - the handles eventually broke off and the plastic continues to crack...

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  6. I actually don't think my food processor does a very good job at grating and I only use it when I'm grating a lot of cheese or carrots or potatoes. Otherwise, I stick with a hand or box grater...

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  7. Well now, this is a grate (great) post! I owned a cookware store for almost a decade and I think Cuisipro make my favourite!

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  8. I'm glad you enjoyed, Liz! I've never used a Cuisipro before - it looks similar in design to Microplane and looks like it checks all the boxes for me ;)

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  9. Thanks JW. I've been relying on my old box grater for years, but do find it annoying and have been wondering if I should try some single graters instead.

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  10. Growing up for 20 years, a cheap box grater was all I had and it worked just fine ;) But I do find that some things like spices and citrus and chocolate are easier to work with when using finer blades...

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  11. Interesting post Mark. It's good to read someone else's opinion about graters. I have to agree with the super sharp. I HATE dull graters. I have to admit that I'm a box grater fan and wouldn't give mine up for all of the tea in China. :) However, I do have one of those great micrograters for the really fine stuff.

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