Whether you’re cooking at home or in a restaurant kitchen, knives are some of the most important tools in any kitchen. Extremely versatile and constructed in a variety of sizes and styles, different knives are used by cooks for everything from chiffonading basil to breaking down a chicken to delicately fileting fish!
If you know how to use them properly and how to take care of them, a high quality knife can make a huge difference in the preparation of your meals and last for years. One crucial aspect in that regular maintenance is keeping your knives sharp.
Why is it so important? For one, a sharper knife helps you get the job done quicker simply because it’s easier to cut through an ingredient! Sharpness ensures more precise knife cuts, which will also help your cooking constancy. If all your vegetables are the same size, then they will cook more evenly and in the same amount of time. And if you’re trimming fat off of meat, a more precise cut helps you get as much usable meat as possible.
The same goes for when you’re skinning fish – a duller knife makes it extremely challenging to get clean cuts on your fillet. And when cutting vegetables, a sharp knife can also ensure less juice and pulp lost to the cutting board. When serving greens and other cellulose-laden ingredients, this will help you get all you can out of them, both inventory-wise and in their nutritional value.
A dull knife also means more strain on your arms, back, and hands. Putting that extra energy — into what could be hours of standing in the kitchen — can wear out even the most seasoned cooks. And your safety is at risk as well. A dull knife is more likely to slip as you pushed harder down on it, which can lead to accidents. And the duller the knife, the longer it takes for cuts it produces to heal, compared to those from a sharp blade.
Taking the time to ensure a knife is sharp and ready to go just makes practical sense. But even seasoned cooks (professional or home-taught) might not know how to properly keep their knives sharpened. In fact, sharpening incorrectly could actually damage your knives. To correctly maintain your tools, one key is to know the difference between honing and sharpening. Note: the following tips are specifically for non-serrated knives.
The honing steel, that stick that came with your knife kit, doesn’t actually sharpen your knives. Sharpening, believe it or not, involves actually removing a small amount of the knife to produce that sharper edge. While you want your knives to be sharp, using a sharpener on your knives all the time would be unnecessary and eventually wear them down.
What your steel does instead is hone your knife. While it’s impossible to tell with the naked eye, your knife’s edge can get unaligned as it’s used. The honing steel (usually made out of stainless steel, but sometimes can also be ceramic) realigns it. You’ll still need to actually sharpen the knife periodically, but honing it regularly will help the upkeep of the knife in-between sharpenings.
Simply run the knife along the steel at the same angle as your knife’s bevel (for most kitchen knives, that’s about a 20-degree angle) two or three times. This can be done either with the steel held in front of you or placed top down on the table.
The bevel can get out of alignment after regular use in the kitchen, so get into the habit of honing your knife before each use. In fact, if you’re in the middle of a more laborious meal and have been using your knife even more than usual, it’s not a bad idea to stop, wash your knife, and then quickly hone it before going back to your chopping and slicing. It only takes a few moments to do, but can make a big difference in the upkeep of your knives.
Actually sharpening your knives goes beyond just realigning – it actually skims off a little bit off your knife to create that sharp edge. A knife that is used on a regular basis should generally be sharpened once or twice a year. If you are a professional chef (or cook at home more days than not), it’s probably a good idea to have it done every six months, rather than wait a full year.
Ultimately, the less often you mishandle your knives, like when using the honed side of the knife to ‘scrape’ things into a dish from the cutting board, the less frequently you’ll need to have it sharpened.
You have a few options as far as sharpeners go.
A sharpening block or whetstone is available in most stores that sell kitchen tools, as is a sharpening rod. The rod looks similar to the honing steel, but is oval in shape instead of round, and is much harder and more abrasive. It’s important not to get the two mixed up among your utensils.
Another at-home option is an electric sharpener, which has a certain convenience factor, but do your homework. What other consumers are saying about different brands and different models can expose difficulties or advantages you’ll want to know about.
If you don’t want to worry about sharpening your knives yourself, you also can investigate options for getting them professionally sharpened. Be on the lookout in your area for cutlery shops, kitchen supply stores, and cooking class shops – many of them even have sharpening services in-house.
Some restaurants and butchers also advertise sharpening services, but it’s becoming more and more common to see businesses that only do knife sharpening. Rates vary, but the average kitchen knife can fall somewhere in the $5-12 range per sharpening.
And one more tip: consider sending them off to be worked on the day before you go on vacation or on a business trip and pick them up when you get back. That way, you don’t have to worry about spending a couple days without one of your most trusted kitchen tools.
Ready to test out those knives on some fascinating new cuts? Explore our look at cooking the whole hog — from nose to tail: