As the holidays approach, our kitchen knives are about to get a pretty good workout chopping vegetables, cutting cheese, slicing bread or carving that glorious Thanksgiving turkey. It may seem counter-intuitive, but dull knives are actually more dangerous, as the added cutting pressure needed makes it far easier to lose control of the blade.
Is it time to give your cutlery a tune up?
A sharp knife is a chef's best friend and keeping it that way is easier than one might think.
Honing vs. Sharpening
That metal rod that came with your knife set doesn't technically sharpen blades, but used regularly is the most important tool in the block for keeping knives in top cutting form. Called a honing steel (or sometimes butcher's steel), it is not used to sharpen a knife (which grinds away metal to a fine bevel), but to straighten it. As a knife is used, the edge becomes bent and mangled. Although it isn't visible to the eye, the misaligned edge has the same effect as a dull edge. Frequent use of a honing steel will keep a blade in fighting condition without the need to sharpen.
How to Hone A knife
Get into the habit of honing knives often (at least every few uses if not before every use). Hold the honing steel upright with the tip pressed down firmly on a flat surface. Holding the knife by its handle, rest the blade against the steel at a 22 degree angle. Why 22 ? It closely matches the bevel on the edge of the blade and can be easily achieved by holding the knife at a 90 degree angle from the steel, halving the angle to 45 degrees and halving again to 22 . It won't be exact, but think of it as though you are trying to slice off a very thin piece of the steel.
Gently drag the blade down and across the steel from handle to tip as though slicing a roast. Repeat five or six times and switch sides to hone the other side of the blade.
When does a knife need to be sharpened? When a honing steel no longer restores the edge to satisfaction, it may be time to put a new edge on that blade. A knife that gets frequent use may need to be sharpened several times a year, but it's not usual to go a year or longer without the need to sharpen.
Some suggest that knife sharpening is best left to professionals and an expensive knife might be worth the safety and reliability of professional service. Knife sharpening services usually charge between five and ten dollars per knife, but the price may vary depending on the blade and your location.
Sharpening knives at home is more convenient and perhaps cheaper in the long run. There are several options for sharpening at home. There may not be one €right€ choice, but consider the options before choosing the one that will work for you.
A pull-through sharpener is a handheld device with two €V€-shaped notches, one coarse, one fine. Placing the blade in the coarse V at a 90 degree angle and drawing it through from handle to tip will sharpen the edge and switching to the fine notch will refine the point. Pull-through sharpeners are fairly inexpensive and can be used without any special skills. For the casual user, this style has an ease of use, reliability and price point that make it a good choice.
Like pull-through sharpeners, a blade is drawn through notches to sharpen, but abrasive wheels will grind the edge more quickly than the manual pull-though. Electric sharpeners are extremely convenient, but can be expensive. A bad electric sharpener can ruin a knife quickly, so shop around before choosing one that will suit your needs.
Some whetstones are to be soaked in water before use, other stones require an oil lubricant and diamond sharpening stones can quickly sharpen an edge. With two or more surfaces ranging from coarse to fine on one or several stones, these abrasive blocks sharpen knives by dragging the edge of the blade over the surface at an angle (usually 20-25 degrees).
Using this traditional method can take some practice, but for enthusiasts it is the most reliable way to restore the edge of a knife. Not necessarily the best choice for the casual user, but for those willing to put in the time, the results can't be beat.
A Word on Japanese Knives
Santoku knives have become more popular in recent years because of their hardness and fine edge. The style of knife does not necessarily reflect the metal or the edge type, but the blade edge traditionally has a bevel of 10 or 15 degrees (compared to the 20 or more degrees of classic kitchen knives) and sometimes a single bevel. Using sharpening equipment meant for standard blades can result in severe damage. Consult manufacturer recommendations before honing or sharpening non-traditional blades.
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