A lot of home cooks think they have poor knife skills, when in reality they’re just using dull knives.
Even the best kitchen knife on the market is no good unless it’s sharp. But few home cooks sharpen their knives regularly ― or even at all ― and many sharpen them in a way that’s actually destroying the blade (hello, electric sharpeners!). But two tools that cost less than $23 total can dramatically improve your knifework, to the point where you’ll stop dreading dinnertime.
Here’s what they are and how to use them.
First, you need a honing steel
Most people confuse a honing steel with a sharpener. A honing steel (pictured below) is for everyday use. It’s a ridged metal wand that you run your knife across. You’ve probably seen flashy cooking show contestants dramatically swiping them through the air like swashbucklers with swords.
While a honing steel does help a knife slice better, it doesn’t actually sharpen a knife. Here’s how it works: When your knife cuts food and slams into a hard cutting board, its microscopic teeth get out of alignment, and a honing steel straightens and smooths them, giving you the feeling that your knife is sharp. If you cook every day, you should hone your knife at least once a week, but you can do it every time you cook if you prefer. Be sure to replace your honing steel once it starts to wear down.
Next, you need a sharpener. But only the right kind will do.
When your knife’s blade has taken a beating and needs more help, it’s time to step things up and get out the sharpener, which should only be used a handful of times a year.
Electric sharpeners may seem like the superior choice, but they’re probably the worst tool for sharpening a knife. I learned this in culinary school, when a fellow student pulled one from his tool kit and our French chef instructor swiftly swatted it across the kitchen. Electric sharpeners strip too much metal from the knife, destroying the blade and weakening it over time. (Which is a shame if you spent a lot of money on your beloved knives.)
Handheld sharpeners are OK, but they’re not the best.
What you really want is a whetstone (also known as a sharpening stone or water stone), which is the preferred tool for sharpening knives because it gives you, the cook, complete control. Sharpening stones are basically long, rectangular blocks of composite stone, typically with a coarse grit on one side and a fine grit on the other. As seen below, the side with the lower number is used for sharpening, and the side with the higher number is used for polishing:
Save yourself a lot of heartache and bloodied fingers and order one of these whetstones right now. It’s cheap, low maintenance and will make a huge difference when you’re chopping onions.
Now let’s learn how to use it.
How to sharpen your knives using a whetstone
Start by soaking the stone for 10 minutes to 20 minutes in water, which will help lubricate the knife as you sharpen. Place the stone on a towel or mat with the coarse side up. Next, a very important step: Establish the knife’s angle, which is usually between 20 degrees and 25 degrees for European-style knives, and as steep as 15 degrees for Japanese-style knives. Hold the knife firmly at the appropriate angle and slide it across the stone, pulling it toward you, starting from the heel and working toward the tip. Do about 10 to 20 strokes per side, then repeat on the fine grit side. Wipe the knife clean and it’s ready to use. Test it on a tomato to see how sharp it is, and you’ll be amazed.
Watch this video from Serious Eats for a tutorial on using both a honing steel and a whetstone:
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