Despite their reputation for danger, cheese graters are some of the most versatile pieces of kitchen equipment. Besides the obvious task of grating hard cheeses, they can process hard spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. They can also turn fruit peels into flavorful zest. Not all graters work alike, so it is important to understand the different types before shopping.
One of the most common varieties of cheese grater is called a box grater. This is the vaguely cowbell-shaped device found in most kitchens for decades. Each side of a box grater has a different blade arrangement, from a long horizontal slicer to the knuckle-busting shredder and finally to the coarse and fine graters for hard cheeses and spices. These box graters are held firmly over a clean, dry surface while the user scrapes the cheese or spice against one of the sides. The grated product is usually contained inside the box until ready for transfer. Box graters do a fair job for most cheeses, but they can get clogged over time and accidental scrapes and cuts are common.
If storability is an important feature, then a mandolin cheese grater may suit you better than its bulkier box grater cousin. A mandolin has one flat panel with a variety of grating blades and slicers. One advantage mandolin graters have is portability — cheeses can be grated directly over a sauce pan, for example. A major drawback with mandolins is a lack of sturdiness. Some users find it difficult to keep them steady with one hand while grating cheeses with the other. One slip can lead to injury.
An improvement over the mandolin cheese grater is called a plane grater. These are commonly carried by waiters in authentic Italian restaurants. Plane graters resemble files or rasps, with a comfortable handle and a semi-circular grating surface. The user holds the grater in his or her weaker hand and a hard block of cheese in the other. The idea is to scrape the cheese across the blades of the grater and allow flakes of cheese to fall into the food. Most users of plane cheese graters protect their fingers by wrapping a clean kitchen towel around the cheese.
For a more efficient and safer cheese grating experience, many chefs choose rotary cheese graters. Rotary graters may be manual or electric, but both work on the same principle. A hard block of cheese, such as parmesan, asiago or romano, is placed into a small chamber on the outside of the grater and pressed against a circular grating blade. A hinged handle keeps the cheese securely positioned as the user either manually turns a side-mounted handle or activates an electric motor. The blade rotates around the outside of a hollow area, allowing the grated cheese to fall into the middle. The cheese shavings can then be sprinkled over food or added to a dish as it cooks.