Essential Skills: How to Sharpen your Knives
This is a follow-up post to my first Essential Skills post, “How to Buy a Knife“. Now that you know what to look for in a high-quality knife you need to know how to keep that knife sharp. While there are many different methods and products for maintaining and sharpening your knife’s edge on the market, I’m going to cover 3 basic tools: honing rods, manual sharpeners, and electric sharpeners. Before I get into explaining those tools to you, lets first cover exactly what makes a knife sharp (or dull!).
What makes a knife’s edge sharp?
The next few lines may sound overly complicated or scientific but bear with me… knowing this information will help you to understand how, when, and how often to sharpen your knives for the best results. And believe me, if I can figure this stuff out, you definitely can!
The cutting edge of a kitchen knife is thin and V-shaped. Exactly how thin the edge is will be defined by the blade’s angle. The more narrow the angle of this V-shaped edge, the sharper (but also weaker) the knife will be. For example, most European-style cooking knifes have an angle between 20-22 degrees (measured from the vertical) whereas Japanese-style knives often have smaller angles, 10-16 degrees. Why is this important to know? Because every method of maintaining or sharpening will not be successful unless you utilize the angle of your knife in the process.
- For example, if you have a European knife with a 20 degree angle, you must hold your knife at a 20 degree angle when honing (see below for more info). Maintaining a correct and consistent angle during honing and sharpening ensures the sharpest possible edge.
Another technical term I think is important to know is microserrations, or teeth. These are serrations so teeny tiny at the cutting edge of the blade that our eyes cannot detect them. As the microserrations degrade with time they need to be corrected (or realigned) to maintain the sharpness of the edge. This is done with a honing steel. After a longer period of time the serrations may degrade beyond maintenance and must be repaired with a knife sharpener, which actually grinds metal away to restore the perfect V shape and angle.
How to evaluate a knife’s sharpness: use these tricks to see if your knife needs to be sharpened or to test how efficient your honing steel or sharpener is.
- Slice a tomato or lemon – the knife should glide through with ease and a clean cut
- Cut a sheet of paper – this is my favorite way (its the most fun!). Hold a sheet of paper in the air and carefully pull your knife blade down through the paper from the top. It should cut easily and evenly into the paper and create a slight curve.
What makes a knife’s edge dull?
By now you may be wondering how exactly those microserrations degrade over time or how that expensive knife you bought that was once perfectly sharp is now painfully dull. Your cutting board dulls your knife, not cutting through food. The more forcefully the blade hits the cutting board after each down-stroke, the faster your knife will dull. If you feel your blade is dulling too fast, pay attention to your chopping. Are you taking out your daily frustrations by hacking up a poor onion? See if you can ease up your chopping style to keep your knife sharp.
How to maintain a sharp edge:
While not mangling your vegetables like a mad-man may help to prevent your blade from dulling, the best way to keep your knife sharp is through proper maintenance. In my last post I compared shopping for a knife to shopping for a car in that you need to test drive it to see if it suits you. Similarly, your knife require routine honing like your car requires routine oil changes. Before I began working at Sur la Table I had no clue how to properly maintain my knives. When I eventually learned that you are supposed to hone your knives weekly, if not after every use, I was shocked. That seemed excessive (and inconvenient). Then I learned about angles and microserrations and it all started to make sense. If you want your knives to be high-quality, they will require high-quality care. Getting into the habit of honing your knives regularly is like getting into the habit of flossing your teeth daily: you’ll no doubt forget or forgo sometimes which won’t ruin your teeth instantly, but consistent abuse will definitely take its toll and you might need to visit a dentist (or in this case, a professional knife sharpener).
What is a honing steel?
A honing steel (or sharpening rod) is a long, circular or oval shaped piece of hard material (such as tungsten, diamond or ceramic) that maintains a knife’s edge when properly used. Lately more companies have been referring to honing steels as “sharpening steels” which can be misleading in some cases. Steels repair those microserrations after your knife has been used but will not remove metal from the blade. Honing steels will maintain your knife’s edge but don’t sharpen it. Knife sharpeners will re-create the microserrations and remove metal off the edge of your blade (which I’ll cover in detail below).
- Advantages: quick, inexpensive, makes necessary repairs to microserrations
- Disadvantages: will not make a dull knife sharp, requires frequent use (depending on the type of steel)
Types of honing steels:
- round vs. oval: while these two styles are fairly comparable, I find that oval steels are easier to use and more efficient. The best way to see what style you prefer is to try each out.
- steel vs. diamond & ceramic: the material of the honing rod provides different advantages and disadvantages. Diamond and ceramic, which have become more popular and widely available, are much harder than steel and actually have the ability to abrade metal from the edge. Because of this ability, diamond and ceramic honing rods require less frequent honing (monthly instead of daily or weekly) which makes them preferable (to me at least).
How to use a honing steel:
A knife should be honed ideally after each use (depending on the type of steel you have, see above) or at least weekly. If you’ve never used a honing steel before remember to focus on your angle, not speed and keep your wrist straight.
- Grasp the honing steel by its grip and set it vertically upright so the tip, or anchor, is resting on a non-skid surface.
- Take your knife and hold it at a 20 degree angle (or whatever the angle of your knife is) against the steel. If you are unsure of what a 20 degree angle is, hold your knife out perpendicular at a 90 degree angle against the steel then cut that in half to 45 degrees then cut in half again to find 22.5 degrees. From there move a smidgen inward to achieve 20 degrees. Some steels have guards on the handle to guide you at a 20 degree angle.
- Keeping your angle in mind, pull the blade toward you and downwards, applying slight pressure. Repeat the stroke on the other side of the blade without changing hands. Repeat 10 more times, alternating sides and loosening pressure gradually. At first it might feel like a bizarre movement but the more you practice the more comfortable it will feel.
Here is a great video from Fine Cooking illustrating everything I’ve covered up to this point.
A review*: Edgeware Oval 9″ Ceramic Sharpening Rod
Brand: Edgeware by Smith’s (since 1886)
Price: $14.99 (very affordable!)
Appearance: Simple, straightforward. The pure white ceramic part of the tool does become marked with use (similar to how some receipts look when scratched with your fingernail or a coin). This doesn’t bother me, however.
Pros: Since it is ceramic it hones and realigns the blade edge, lightweight, easy to grip, non-slip tip, doesn’t require as frequent use as honing rods made from steel, oval shape makes it easier to use and more efficient
Cons: only 9″ long but since my longest straight-edge knife is 8″, this doesn’t affect me.
Overall impression: I really like the characteristics of this sharpening rod, much more than the steel one I previously owned. It requires less use and when you do use it, its super easy and effective. However, this product cannot turn a super dull knife sharp (unlike the next 2 products).
What is a manual sharpener?
For this post when I refer to manual sharpeners I will be speaking of pull-through sharpeners. These are handheld tools that have a set of abrasive materials that make a small V which you pull your knife through. Some sharpeners may have multiple stages of different abrasives, offering more customization to your knife sharpening needs. Depending on the type of sharpener, some may sharpen scissors, serrated, or santoku knives in addition to straight edge knives. Unfortunately most manual sharpeners only perform on straight edge knives and require additional sharpeners for other knife styles.
- Advantages: quick, easy to use, requires no skill, most have built in angles
- Disadvantages: may not perform well on severely dull blades
How to use a manual sharpener:
Using a manual sharpener is very simple and easy. Since every pull-through manual sharpener is different and has different features, it is best to follow the directions that come with the product.
A review*: Edgeware Diamond Elite Pull-Thru Sharpener
Brand: Edgeware by Smith’s (since 1886)
Appearance: small, thin, pleasing design
Pros: SUPER versatile (will sharpen santoku, standard, and serrated knives), abrasive stones are reversible and replaceable, 2 stages (coarse – diamond & fine – ceramic), easy to use, quick, lightweight, easy to store, has a guard so you won’t get confused on which area to pull your knife through, non-skid base. This sharpener performed on my VERY dull chef’s knife. Before sharpening it wouldn’t come close to slicing a piece of paper and now it makes a straight cut.
Cons: None, really. The abrasives themselves require care (removal for cleaning) but there is no way around that.
Overall impression: I really like the small size of this sharpener and how quickly and easily you can whip through sharpening your entire set of knives. I think this product would work very well with a honing steel to keep your knives nice and sharp without having to visit a professional knife sharpener.
What is an electric sharpener?
An electric sharpener is a device you plug into the wall and once turned on has spinning abrasive disks that sharpen the edge of your knife when drawn against. Some electric sharpeners have the ability to sharpen Santoku knives, scissors, and/or serrated knives. Others offer either customizable or fixed angle settings. Varying styles of electric sharpeners offer different stages with different abrasives for different purposes. A sharpener with multiple stages may offer more options and may be better equipped to sharpen an extremely dull knife. Like with honing steels, I prefer a sharpener that includes a ceramic abrasive because although they grind more slowly, they finish a finer edge. In my experience, most electric knife sharpeners from reputable companies do an excellent job of sharpening your knife.
- Advantages: easy, quick, most effective, can sharpen extremely dull knives
- Disadvantages: more expensive, heavy, bulky, noisy
How to use an electric sharpener:
As with the manual sharpener, many electric sharpeners have different features and settings so its best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Brand: Edgeware by Smith’s (since 1886)
Appearance: Clean colors and lines, rounded design, slightly bulky
Pros: This product sharpened my knife like nothing I’ve used before! VERY effective, easy, and straightforward. Unlike electric sharpeners I’ve used before, this one sharpens both sides of the blades simultaneously making it quicker and easier. The steps and materials allow for different sharpening situations (light touch-ups to dull knives desperately in need of sharpening). It also sharpens scissors and serrated knives, something that the sharpeners I’ve used before could not do. While the manual sharpener took my super dull chef’s knife and sharpened it enough to make a small cut in a piece of paper, this electric sharpener made the edge sharp enough to feel (carefully!) a difference and sliced a huge, clean, sightly curved cut into a piece of paper.
Cons: This product is a little on the bulky side. Also, the sound of your knife sharpening under the electric slot isn’t the most pleasant but actually isn’t as bad as the ear-piercing noises of other electric sharpeners I’ve used. Also, this one is much more expensive than the other products I’ve reviewed.
Overall impression: When I first opened the package containing this sharpener I was a little apprehensive simply because it looks different than other electric sharpeners I’ve used (mostly Chef’s Choice and Wusthof). But as it turns out this is one of the easiest knife sharpening products I’ve used and produced pretty amazing results. I was sure that my poor chef’s knife would have to be retired after years of abuse but this sharpener saved it.
Since I was so impressed with the Edgeware Ceramic Electric Knife Sharpener I’ve decided to… GIVE ONE AWAY!
The winner of this giveaway will win one Edgeware Ceramic Electric Knife Sharpener to use and love in their kitchen. Here are the details:
How to enter:
- Leave a comment on this post describing why you would like to win the electric knife sharpener. You MUST include an email so I can contact you if you win.
- Deadline: Friday, October 1st 11:59pm Mountain Standard Time. Comments submitted past this time will not be considered for entry.
- Follow me on twitter @handleheat. Leave an additional comment saying you’re a follower.
- Mention @handleheat with this link (http://bit.ly/b1Lm1u) to the giveaway on twitter. Leave an additional comment saying you posted something on twitter.
- Subscribe to my RSS Feed. Leave an additional comment saying you’re a subscriber.
You can complete one, none, or all of the extra entries, the choice is yours.
Fine print: U.S. and Canada residents only. No purchase necessary. Winner will be selected by Handle the Heat at random using random.org. All entries must be received by the deadline and meet the listed requirements. Dishonest entries will be removed from consideration. Winner will be notified via email and announced on Handle the Heat. If the winner does not respond within 48 hours, a new winner will be chosen. This giveaway has been sponsored by Edgeware Products.
*Disclaimer: Edgeware contacted me about sending their products at no cost to me for the purpose of reviewing them and giving one away. All thoughts and comments are entirely my own without bias as I strive to maintain an honest and open environment on my blog.