A rasp-style grater is an ideal tool for when you want a very fine texture of an ingredient like a citrus zest but it also has other less-obvious uses like smoothing off the edges of cakes. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Stacy Zarin Goldberg
I'm a big fan of the humble rasp-style grater. This little powerhouse is indeed grater - greater! - than the sum of its parts (sorry/not sorry). It's a go-to in my kitchen, as well as the Food Lab, where we have two often in use at the same time.

The tool is synonymous with Microplane, the brand most of us think of when it comes to rasp-style graters. As the story goes, the company's kitchen grater came into being when a Canadian housewife in the '90s commandeered her husband's woodworking tool to zest an orange. Innovation!

How can you make the most of this hand-held wonder in your cooking? Read on.

What it is

A rasp-style grater (also sometimes referred to as a zester) is a long, skinny tool. Attached to the handle is a blade covered in tiny U-shaped teeth. Imagine your box grater but on a much smaller scale. It's beautiful in its simplicity and utility, really. Plus, they're pretty affordable.

The obvious stuff to use it on. It's an ideal tool for when you want a very fine texture of an ingredient. I use mine the most for citrus zest. After that, I favour it for grating ginger, frozen for extra ease. You can grate garlic, too. It is pretty much the only tool you'll want to pull out for freshly grated nutmeg (or cinnamon). Create easy, elegant garnishes for dishes with a feathery pile of grated Parmesan or chocolate.

The less obvious stuff

I've picked up a lot of tips from pastry chefs, but one of my favourites comes from Tiffany MacIsaac of Washington, D.C.'s Buttercream Bakeshop, who clued us in that a rasp-style grater is ideal for smoothing off the edges of cakes. 

You know how sometimes you get a thin lip where the batter baked crispier against the pan? Grab your grater and get sawing (gently). Microplane endorses a similar concept for getting rid of burned parts of toast or cookies. 

And here's one the company suggested that I never would have thought of: Shave down wine corks so they can fit back in the bottle. If you happen to have salt-cured egg yolks on hand, grate away. Want to add some heat to a dish? A little grated chilli pepper will do the trick.

How to use it

Decide how to use it based on comfort and what you're grating. When zesting citrus, I like to hold the fruit in one hand and grate with the teeth facing up so that the zest collects in the channel and I can see how much I've gotten. Other times, I will grate directly into a bowl or onto the food, as with cheese. 

For citrus, I usually move the grater over top of the food. For nutmeg or chunks of cheese, I like to move the food and keep the grater stationary. Do what feels natural and safe. 

One thing to keep in mind regardless of how you work it is the direction you grate in. The teeth do their job when the food comes across them against the grain so that they can grip and grate the food. America's Test Kitchen suggests not pressing down on the blade as you swipe back for another pass. 

Applying pressure that way can flatten the teeth and make them less effective. Microplane says if the grater produces more of a wet paste, it may be time for a replacement. Eventually, the teeth can be dulled (and not resharpened).

Be safe 

A rasp-style grater is not quite so scary as say, a mandoline, but you should still use caution. First, know when to stop grating. You are not going to get every last bit of ginger or nutmeg. Stop while you're ahead, keeping your fingertips well clear of the blade. 

For extra safety, you can wear a cut-resistant glove. To avoid a different type of injury (and to keep the teeth sharp), always store the grater in the protective case it came in. 

If your case has been lost or never existed, consider keeping the grater in a place where an errant hand can't get cut. Or fashion your own sheath, even if it's just a dish-towel secured with rubber bands.

Caring for it

I have found it's easier to clean a rasp-style grater as soon as you're done using it. Trying to pry dried-up ginger fibre out of the teeth? No, thanks. Often tapping out any excess food and a quick wash under running water is all you need. 

Use a brush to loosen any food that may be stuck in the blade. As with knives, dry immediately. 

Avoid soaking. Microplane says its zesters are top-rack dishwasher safe, although ATK points out that the blade can be dulled by being knocked around. 

Honestly, I'd rather not be reaching into a dishwasher with a sharp tool inside, and I'd prefer to save the precious space for other things that are more annoying to clean in the sink.

The Washington Post