One of the first things I learned in a professional kitchen was to keep my personal Microplane secret and safe. While there was always some kind of shredder around, the Microplane is the coveted king of the graters. These incredible tools make quick work at zesting, grating, and mincing garlic, and when someone found out that you had one, you could be sure they would scour your knife bag to use it.
So what’s the deal with this specialized grater? Is it really that much better than a good old-fashioned box grater? I picked up the best-selling Microplane 40020 Classic Zester/Grater ($10.45 on Amazon) and put it through the ringer to see how it competed against a regular old cheese grater.
The Microplane wasn’t originally designed to be used in the kitchen–it was created as shaping tool for woodworking. I’m sure somewhere along the line, someone used the rasp to grate hard cheese or zest citrus, and the tool quickly became a kitchen staple.
The long, skinny Microplane features a flat, stainless-steel rod fitted into an ergonomic handle. Razor-sharp ridges have been cut into the steel using chemicals, a process that ensures the surface won’t dull quickly. It doesn’t take much pressure to use one of these. Hold the handle in one hand and gently press the citrus against the grater’s ridges. Slide the fruit along the tool’s surface and voila—pillowy, wispy pieces of zest pile up on the cutting board.
This tool is pretty easy to store, too. Its small profile doesn't take up much room, and it comes with a plastic handle to cover the very sharp blades. This is handy in preventing cuts as you feel around in a crowded gadget drawer.
Before the Microplane, the box grater was the most popular way to grate anything and everything. I have pretty fond memories of watching my mom grate blocks of cheese on one of these bad boys! The shredder is designed for sturdiness, steadily sitting on the cutting board as you grate products of all sizes using swift, downward motions. The grated food conveniently falls inside the box, minimizing your mess and reducing cleanup.
The four sides of a traditional box grater feature large holes for grating softer cheeses and vegetables, medium-sized holes for hard cheeses like Parmesan, and tiny holes for creating citrus zest or mincing garlic and ginger.
Sadly, the box grater’s product turned out, well, sad. The stamped metal thorns were rough to work with and reduced gentle-skinned citrus into a dense and weak pile of zest that contained a lot of pith (the bitter, white part in between the citrus fruit’s exterior and its flesh). Cheese grated on the medium-sized holes clumped into a pile on the cutting board. On all the tests, a lot of the product clung the rough sides of the box grater and I couldn't get it out, so I didn’t get as much yield as I'd like.
In comparison, the razor-sharp ridges of the Microplane gently and precisely grated the citrus, giving me a large, fluffy pile of zest. Almost none of it clung to the underside, and the little that did came off with a quick tap against a bowl. In the end, I got almost five times as much product using the Microplane! The grated cheese yielded more than the box grater (all while using less from the cheese block), and chocolate turned into beautiful strands without melting into a gooey mess.
Looking at the results, this really wasn’t even a contest—across all categories, the Microplane is the superior grater of the two. If you never knew you needed one, you might find yourself hooked at first try, never again able to live without one. This tool makes it easy for flavors to pop with a little fresh grated lemon zest, and you'll find you buy less Parmesan cheese as the blocks will last significantly longer.
In addition to citrus zest and cheese, the Microplane makes quick work at grating ginger or garlic (instead of mincing them). I also like it for seasoning soups and sauces with hard spices like nutmeg or cinnamon, or shaving a bit of delicate chocolate on top of desserts for a stunning garnish. In a pinch, you can also grate butter to make it more spreadable on toast (I always forget to pull it out of the fridge in time to come to room temp!).