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Sharpening Your Knives

I have a culinary confession to make: I cannot shave with my chef's knife. My paring knife won't take the hair off my arm. And my santoku is not a cure for five o'clock shadow. I make this "confession" because to a certain set, sharpening and honing a kitchen knife is like a religion. And a knife that is not razor-sharp is the mark of a heretic.

Two questions come up all the time: Where can I take my knives to be professionally sharpened? And, what knife sharpening system should I buy?

My own knives are sharp, but not razor sharp. I do not have them professionally sharpened. I take care of them myself, simply and cheaply. And yet they slice tomatoes fine, dice potatoes accurately, butcher meat efficiently and fabricate chickens effortlessly.

Unless you have a specific need for razor sharp knives, seriously dislike doing it yourself or just have cash to burn, having your knives professionally sharpened is a waste of time and money. And an expensive sharpener especially some of the Rube Goldberg-esque devices out there is an unnecessary item.

First, a note - a sharp knife is important. It's a popular adage that I believe is true: a dull knife is more dangerous that a sharp one. A sharp knife does what you want, cuts what you want; a dull knife will slip and wind up cutting you.

But that said, does a knife need to be razor sharp? Does it need to be sharpened daily? Is the true test of your knife skills whether or not you can remove the hair off your arm? The answer is "no," for the vast majority of us. It may make sense for a commercial kitchen to send out it's knives for professional sharpening, but for the home cook I see little need. It can be done at home, and without the need for overly expensive and complicated devices (like this one here)

What you need are two items: a "steel" and a "stone." That's it. And while you can always find a way to pay fantastically high prices for basic items, it just isn't necessary. A basic search online shows plenty of sharpening stones and honing steels available for under $20 each.

Simply put, the sharpening stone is what gives your knife it's edge. It removes small amounts of steel to put that edge in place. You will not be using a stone very often. As you use your knife, that fine edge will actually bend to one side. The honing steel straightens that edge, making the blade efficient once more. The steel you will use much more frequently.

To hone your knife: After you have used a sharp blade for a while, you will feel that it is starting to lose some of it's edge. This is natural and doesn't mean you've done a thing wrong, only that repeated use and perhaps a hard cutting board has had an affect on the blade. It needs to be honed, to straighten the edge of the blade.

Take the steel in one hand and the knife in the other. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but you want to run your knife's blade against the steel and towards yourself, as if you are shaving thin strips off the steel. The proper angle is something you will come to sense after a while; about 18 degrees is the technical answer but with practice you will learn to feel it. Start with the blade more parallel to the steel and gradually increase the angle.

When you begin to feel the blade really bite against the steel, you've gone to far. Narrow the angle a bit, and you should be there. Run the blade along both sides of the steel, a few times each side.

I find myself honing my knife every few days, but not every day. Professional cooks may hone their knives every few hours, but they're cooking for dozens or hundreds of people; most of us cook in much smaller volumes.

To sharpen your knife: Sharpening your knife involves drawing the blade against a stone to actually create an edge. Most inexpensive stones have two sides, one more coarse than the other; a nicer sharpening stone may actually have three sides to it, giving a more gradual decrease in coarseness.

In reality, if you care for your knives and keep them in good shape I find that I only use the finest side of my sharpening stone. I don't let my knives get so dull that I need the more coarse side. But if you buy a dull, inexpensive knife it may require more work to put the edge in place. The process is the same.

Begin by putting the stone on a solid foundation. I often use a damp kitchen towel. Stones need to be oiled, so the blade moves slowly and so that the edge you create is uniform. The general wisdom is not to use a cooking oil because the organic fats in it can break down and become rancid, stinking up your sharpening stone. While that's good advice, I use olive oil and simply wipe it off when I'm done. My knives stay sharp and they don't seem to smell, but use whatever you prefer.

I use a two-handed grip as seen in the pictures. Not because I need to apply a lot of pressure, but because keeping the knife level is key. You want all portions of the knife blade to pass across the stone with the same angle. Again, about 18 degrees is the technical answer more than that and your blade can become blunted; less than that and you create a very thin and unstable edge. Ultimately, it's about practice and getting a feel for the process.

To draw the knife across the stone, I rotate my torso as much as I move my hands. Your hands/arms will certainly move some, but by guiding the blade with your body as well you will help to keep the knife level.

Run the blade across the stone a few times on each side, test for sharpness, and repeat as needed. It will take some practice, but the payoff of a sharp knife is worth it.

Some tips:

Practice. If you're nervous about sharpening good knives on your own, start with that clunker of a chefs knife that we all have tucked in the kitchen drawer. Most kitchens I've been in have plenty of cheap, bad knives lying around. Start with these, odds are you can't make them much duller.

Take care of your knives. Don't simply toss them into a drawer where they can bang around with other metal utensils and become dull or chipped. A magnetic knife strip can keep them safe, or a wooden knife block (though I find these take up too much counter space and tend to be unnecessarily expensive). If you're going to keep your knives in a drawer, invest in some plastic blade guards. They cost about $3 and will go a long way towards keeping your blades in good condition.
Use the right cutting board. Doing any sort of cutting on a hard surface - glass or metal, like countertops or inset butcher blocks - is a fast way to dull your knives. Get a plastic board and you'll find that your knives stay sharper, longer.
Keep it simple. Yes, you can buy electric knife sharpeners or crazy contraptions that set the angle of the blade against the stone for you. You can track down "Free Knife Sharpening Day" at the local kitchen store and eagerly await it. You can pay someone to sharpen your knives for you. But honestly, why? It's not difficult it just takes a little practice and a little self confidence. And learning to do something yourself is so much more satisfying than paying someone else to do it.

 

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Posted in Landscaping Post Date 01/09/2016


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