“A sharp knife is a safe knife.” It’s a truism oft-repeated among cooks and bartenders alike. Barkeeps know they can slice more citrus, faster, with a properly sharpened blade. Chefs know that they can keep pace in the kitchen with less fear of injury; sharp knives behave more predictably. Even the finest knives will dull with regular use, but periodic sharpening will restore a blade’s keen edge.
Why bother? Because a dull knife requires greater force, tears at food, tires the hand and increases the odds of cutting yourself.
The great thing about knife sharpening is that it’s well within the home cook’s reach. Once you understand the distinction between honing and sharpening, and between the different types of blades, you’re on your way. Let us help sharpen your skills in this arena. (Yes, we had to go there.)
The Tools and Techniques
First things first: A sharpening, or more accurately honing steel maintains a knife blade’s edge, while a knife sharpener creates an entirely new edge, which should then be maintained with the steel.
A honing steel maintains a knife’s sharp edge by “trueing” it: literally smoothing and realigning the worn carbon steel (and microscopic “teeth”) on the knife’s edge. If you like, before each use, hone a knife’s entire cutting edge on a steel: Hold the blade at a 20-degree angle to the steel’s shaft, then draw the knife lightly in one smooth motion from the heel of the blade to the tip. Repeat five or six times on each side of the blade, alternating with each stroke for an even edge. Keep the number of strokes equal for both sides.
A whetstone is a better idea for those of us who run a little clumsy. The block itself stays on the counter; you wet it, you run your knife against it until it’s sharp, and the whole thing gets a little messy, but it works wonderfully and feels somewhat old-timey!
Sure, you can chase The Knife Guy around your neighborhood or farmer’s market every few weeks. (They don’t have a jingle like the ice cream truck, though!) Or you can just invest in your knives, your crudité, and your time: Buy a beautiful knife sharpener, and sharpen Asian or Western blades (more on those below) in minutes. It’s as simple as pulling the knife towards you (very carefully!) through the correct slot on the electric machine. They emerge sharper than factory-made, so caution! There’s a sharpener at every price point, but the best ones use actual diamonds to achieve an incredible blade.
Here’s where things get wonderfully dorky: Your knife likely has a 15-degree or 20-degree blade. Traditionally, Eastern knives such as Santoku blades fell into the former category, and Western knives into the latter, but as markets have expanded, there’s crossover. As you investigate how to best sharpern your knife, you’ll want to know how thick your blade is, so check the fine print on the manufacturer’s website. A good electric sharpener can readily handle either. (To fall down a finely diced rabbit hole of the technical knowhow, go here!)
Treat your knives as you would grandma’s silver: very carefully, and never put one in a dishwasher! The intense heat and radical temperature changes will likely dull the knife blade and cause the handle to deteriorate. After each use, wash knives by hand in warm soapy water, then rinse and thoroughly dry using a soft towel. Never leave them to soak, and avoid using abrasive cleaners or scrubbing pads. And FYI, because the 20 degree edge has more metal supporting the edge than a 15 degree edge, it resists dulling (the edge folding over on itself) longer. But a great sharpener will enhance the durability of the 15 degree edge significantly. Try to avoid storing knives in a drawer, which will dull them faster. Put them on a magnetic strip or in a block, far from little hands. (If you must use a drawer, be sure to get guards!)