Having a sharp knife makes ALL the difference in the kitchen. Learn why you need to keep your knife sharp, and how to do it.
Why having a sharp knife is so important:
Call me Captain Obvious, but having a sharp knife will change your entire cooking experience. I never went to culinary school, and so I have definitely been guilty of having blunt crappy knives at my disposal. The day I realized what a difference a sharp knife made changed everything. It allows you to hone your knife skills, allowing for more precise and fine work. It is also HUGELY important in terms of safety (case in point: slicing though tomato skin with ease rather than having your knife push against the tension and jump onto your innocent thumb). And having a sharp knife can actually even extend to ergonomic health, avoiding exacerbating carpal tunnel, tendonitis and so forth.
If you think you’re getting your knives sharp with a steel, you’re not, and here’s why:
A steel is that long piece of metal with a handle, and you drag the knife along either side of the metal to “sharpen” it (it’s on the far right in the pic above). Except you’re not actually sharpening it, you’re honing it. Basically, this action aligns the microscopic edge of the blade so it gives the impression that the knife is now sharper. You should definitely have a steel in your arsenal, and be using it frequently. There are two major things to be aware of when using a steel. First, you need to hold the knife at the correct angle to the steel shaft. Second, you should use slow and controlled motions along the entire blade. The sound of furious metal on metal action means you’re probably not doing it right. I know, it can be tempting to go all ninja, but you shouldn’t.
How often you should be sharpening your knives:
You should be using a steel during every use of your knives- before you start, and if cutting for extended periods, a quick refresh and hone is a great idea during your task. When it comes to actually sharpening your knives, it will depend greatly on frequency of use but I recommend every 3-4 months for low to average use. When you make knife sharpening a more regular part of your kitchen routine, you’ll also start to get a much better sense of when they start to dull.
Which angle am I supposed to sharpen at?
Great question. You didn’t expect it to be an simple answer, did you? Because there are several answers. 17° is a happy medium, though western knives are usually about 20°, and Japanese knives are an even finer 15° (usually because they’re made with such high quality metals and can handle a more narrow edge). If you think about it, to the naked eye, getting this precisely correct is going to be pretty tough. Which supports the argument for not being too gung-ho when trying to sharpen yourself… unless you have the right tools.
What you need to sharpen a knife properly:
So now you know you need to do it, but how do you do it? Ideally, you want to use a high grade sharpening stone (whetstone) or traditional stone wheel. But be cautioned – if you attempt either of these and hold the knife at the wrong angle, you will ruin your blade and have the exact opposite effect than intended. Also, you’re probably not going to have a “ye olde bigass stone wheel” in your home. Unless you’re super into medieval roleplay? You’re way better off looking for a professional sharpener in your area who can do it for you, and often they appear at local farmers markets.
Personally, I don’t have the time to take my knives elsewhere to be sharpened, because it’s kind of a PITA. I also harbor a shameful secret: I totally lack the skills to use a sharpening stone correctly. I’ve ruined knives trying. It was bad. It was sad. But given my vocation as a professional carnivore, having sharp knives is a must. I’ve tried pull-through mini stone wheels that didn’t fit all my blades properly, cheap electric sharpeners, those V shaped metal sharpeners (which are particularly crappy). I’ve got a drawer full of crap to warn you about, and I’d rather just tell you what I AM using these days.
The answer: I use an electric knife sharpener. Specifically, the Worksharp Culinary E5. It’s much different to traditional electric sharpeners because it has a flexible belt attachment that you use to sand/sharpen the knife, rather than a rigid slot for it to go into. It also has two 17° angled guides on each side, and everything from my Gerber everyday carry, to my chefs knife, to my boning knife runs through it perfectly. As a bonus, it also comes with an incredible ceramic shaft steel, which I much prefer to traditional steels.
Let me tell you, purists are going to stick their noses up that you’re using an electric sharpener. And let them do so. I tried and failed too many times with a stone. I’d MUCH rather have a functional sharp knife than a destroyed one.
- If your knife collection averages over $250 per piece, learn to use a stone properly or take them to a professional.
- If you have a large collection of knives, some expensive, some affordable, get a Work Sharp Culinary E5 sharpener.
- If you believe you shouldn’t spent more than $10 per knife, use em til they blunt and just go ahead and buy new ones. Also, why are you reading this?
Whatever you cook with, keep em sharp – it’ll be a game changer to your cooking life.