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)
- Fine grater: Perfect for zesting citrus and grating whole spices or fresh ginger
- Ribbon grater: Ideal for shaving chocolate and hard cheeses (such as parmesan)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.