Whether you’re grating a bit of Parmesan as the final fillip on a plate of perfectly cooked pasta or a blizzard of Cheddar to hold together a casserole, the tool you use makes a tremendous difference in the effort expended and the quality of the finished product.
My ideal grater would have the following attributes: it would grate evenly and relatively effortlessly across its entire perforated surface; it wouldn’t pose a danger to my knuckles; it would be easy to clean; and it would work well for all kinds of foods, from cheeses and chocolate to whole nutmeg and cinnamon, to garlic and fresh ginger. If you find one that does all that, let me know. Systematically testing a battery of graters, I came to the conclusion that no single tool is capable of grating all kinds of foods well. That said, I looked for those that matched my other criteria best.
For a workhorse, choose a tower grater
For grating large amounts of cheese in the kitchen—or if I need to grate potatoes or carrots— I turn to a tower grater. (Occasionally, I’ll use the grater disk on my food processor, but only if I’m grating a copious amount; otherwise, the cleanup isn’t worth it.)
Sometimes called a box grater, a tower grater is traditionally a slightly tapered pyramid, though some now come with five and six sides, and my favorite has only three. Each side has a different size grating surface. It usually has an open bottom and a handle on top, though some new designs feature removable bases, allowing you to collect the cheese inside the grater tower and then move it to your bowl, where you can dump it out in one fell swoop. Though I find tower graters too bulky to use at the table, I like the fact that they let me run a large hunk of cheese up and down the sides. A good tower grater should feel solidly constructed, with rigid sides and a base that won’t easily slide out from under you. If it feels uncomfortable or unwieldy, you won’t want to use it even if it has the best grating surface.
A grater with a comfy, innovative handle beats out traditionally shaped tower graters. Although new doesn’t always mean improved, I really like the fresh approach Progressive International has taken with one of its tower graters. Called the Pro Grip Ultra, it’s a tripod style with small, medium, and large holes. What’s really nifty about it is its rubber-ball handle, which feels much better in your hand than the traditional bar-style handle. It also boasts no-skid rubber pads on the corners of its base. Although seemingly less sharp to the touch than others, this one grates chocolate and hard cheese well. Just don’t try to grate fresh garlic or ginger, even on its finest side, since these moist foods tend to get stuck on the grater’s perforations. Another potential drawback may be that without a handle for hanging, it’s a little bulky to store. If you like a handle, Progressive also makes a more traditionally styled tower grater, as does Cuisipro, whose six-sided version is shown at right. Oxo Good Grips, which spearheaded the movement toward ergonomic, rubber-handled kitchen tools, makes a two-sided grater that can stand on its rubber base like a tower grater or be fastened securely over a bowl—a nice touch.
Washboard styles clean easily and store well
If a box grater is simply too bulky for you, you may prefer a classic, hand-held grater, what I call the washboard style. When choosing a washboard grater, look for one with a comfortable handle and ample surface area. The teeth should be sharp, but not so obvious that the grater will pose a danger in a kitchen drawer. In fact, many of the graters I like best don’t feel very sharp to the touch yet grate better than those with angry-looking perforations.
The washboard-style grater by Leifheit has rubber-capped feet to keep it in place while grating with it on a flat surface. Not dangerously sharp, this grater has two perforated surfaces, one coarse and one medium fine, and a slicer blade placed at an angle between the other two surfaces. The blade, when used properly from the reverse side of the grater, comes in handy, not only for slicing cucumbers, but also when you want to produce long shards or flakes of cheese or chocolate.
Kuhn Rikon’s novel take on the washboard-style grater looks stylish even at the dinner table and feels great in the hand. Eleven inches from the top of its handle to the base of its rectangular grating surface, this one has the benefit of two-sided use. One side is composed of plain circles that produce delicate flakes of grated cheese. Four faint notches around each perforation on the other side produce smaller bits of cheese. Although designed to serve the dual purpose of cheese and chocolate grater, I found this one less useful when I wanted long shards of chocolate to decorate a mousse, cake, or latte. But thanks to its simple flat design, it aces the ease-of-cleaning test, doesn’t pose a threat to skin or nails, and, as a bonus, stores easily.
The rasp is a category unto itself. Because it’s hand-held and a single plane, rasp-style graters which burst onto the cooking scene a few years ago, can be classified in the washboard category. But the razor-sharp yet safe-feeling surface of the rasp is so unique that this grater stands on its own. I absolutely love this tool, which you’ll most often see marketed as the Microplane, for grating citrus zest. It also works well for fresh ginger and garlic, a task at which most graters fail. I do use it for chocolate and hard cheese, but only when I want a very finely textured result.
Rotary graters are not just for restaurants
Rotary graters are good hand-held options and are great at the table. The cheese or chocolate goes into a hopper, and a handle presses the food down against a perforated drum, which is turned by a crank (I’m talking about a mechanical device here, not the person doing the grating). Composed of a few pieces, a good rotary grater should assemble easily and intuitively and feel comfortable in your hand. Some models even allow assembly for righties or lefties. Ideally, a rotary grater would come with more than one cylinder to grate different sizes.
Rotary graters can grate only small amounts at a time, and they don’t generally grate items other than cheese or chocolate. You also should be prepared to exert some pressure on the handle to keep the food well seated against the grating surface. But rotary graters are attractive and comfortable, making them great for using at the table. Best of all, the cylinder directs where the cheese falls—on your plate and not on the placemat.
Zyliss’s plastic rotary grater is comfortable and easy to assemble. But if you want to have the flexibility of several sizes of grated flakes, you’ll need to shell out a few extra bucks for an auxiliary cylinder with a coarse grating surface, which is also better suited to softer cheese. Don’t even try a softer cheese with the standard cylinder. (Truth be told, softer cheeses tend to gum up most styles of grater; try freezing these kinds of cheese for about 30 minutes before grating to maximize the grater’s efficiency, and use a large hole.)
Rotary graters also come in stainless-steel models, including the Moulinex Mouli and the Cuisipro rotary grater. The stiffer material can give you more leverage against the cheese compared to the slightly more flexible plastic of the Zyliss.
Skip true box graters altogether
Not to be confused with a tower grater, these are actual boxes, often made of wood, sometimes plastic, topped by a stainless-steel washboard-style grater. Some models are quite attractive and may lure you into thinking you need one on your counter. But there are a few things I don’t like about these: The box just gives you something else to clean, and its storage application is beside the point for most things you want to grate, cheese and potatoes, for example, which should be used soon after grating for best results.
What to do? Buy two
As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t found the single perfect grater. If I could choose only one from among those I tested, I’d go with the Pro Grip Ultra. But since buying a grater won’t break the bank—most cost between $7 and $20—and won’t use up too much storage space, you might consider buying two. Choose depending on your grating goals: a Microplane for its light, fluffy results and its superior zesting ability, perhaps, or a rotary grater fro use at the table.
My testing did not include every grater out there. The brands and styles I’ve recommended are among the most readily available from kitchen stores and Web sites.