Knife Sharpening and Maintenance Best Practices
Any artisan knows a job can’t be done without the right tools. It stands to reason then as a chef you must know how to maintain and care for the most important tool in your arsenal, the knife. While years of perfecting knives has made them able to endure more work in the kitchen, even the strongest knife will need the best maintenance in order to last.
Here are some tips you can use to ensure that your knives stay at their peak performance in the kitchen.
Properly Sharpening and Honing Your Knife
The first thing you should learn knife owner is how and when to sharpen them. A dull knife is a dangerous knife and one that should not be in regular use in a kitchen. For your safety, it is important to not only know how to sharpen and hone your knives but to do so regularly.
While at home maintenance is encouraged and recommended there are also different professional knife sharpening services you can use if you don’t feel comfortable sharpening your own knives.
Whichever you choose It is suggested that at a minimum you sharpen your knives every couple of months. However, if your knife begins to feel dull you should always err on the side of sharpening. Remember a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.
1. Using a Whetstone
For sharpening your knives at home nothing works as well as a whetstone. They are handy, safe, and easy to use even for the most novice of knife wielders. If you are new to using a whetstone it is a rectangular block and is the classic method for sharpening a knife blade.
A decent whetstone (about 1,000 grits) runs around $20 online. You’ll also want to make sure you have a stone holder to steady the whetstone as you sharpen your blade. Most whetstones are designed to be soaked in water prior to use so be sure to follow any manufacturer’s instructions before beginning to sharpen your blade.
You’ll first want to find the correct angle for the blade against the whetstone, about 20-degrees or so. Gently run the knife’s blade across the block making sure to repeat the motion on the other side of the blade.
Some whetstones will have two different sides, a “coarse” side, and a “fine” side. If your knife is extremely dull you’ll want to start on the coarse side to really remove any rough micro-abrasions. You’ll then switch to the fine side for a nice clean finish.
Once you’ve run the blade across the whetstone a few times the burr will form. The burr is a very thin strip of metal that forms at the apex of the blade as you sharpen. When the burr appears from sharpening one side of the blade that means it is time to switch to the other side. You should be able to easily locate the burr by gently feeling for it at the tip of the blade. This will ensure your knife is sharpened evenly.
You’ll know to stop sharpening your knife when you feel the burr on both sides of the blade. The last step in sharpening is to remove the burr. This is done by simply repeating the same steps, only this time with less pressure. You are cleaning the blade versus sharpening it now. Be sure to test the blade to make sure you are satisfied with the final result.
2. Using an Electric Sharpener
Using an electric sharpener may seem like the easiest solution to fixing a dull knife. While it is easier and less labor intensive it may not necessarily be the best option for sharpening your knives. However, it can be used as a quick fix to prevent using a dull knife when a whetstone isn’t available.
Like a whetstone, an electric sharpener will have a coarse slot and a fine slot. Place your blade into whichever slot you would prefer to use. You then simply press the blade and pull towards you letting the machine sharpen it.
While it is a good idea to learn how to use an electric knife sharpener it should not be used as a replacement for a whetstone. Electric sharpeners have been known to be harsher on blades, burning the metal and essentially wearing down the knife instead of making it last longer. For these reasons it is suggested that you only use an electric sharpener when there is no other option and even then do so on your more economical knives versus your fancy chef’s knives.
3. Using a Honing Rod
In between regular sharpening, it is also important for the longevity of your knives that you take the time to hone them. The most common way to do this is with a steel honing rod, which are made to remove microscopic bits of metal that build up on the knife's edge after regular use.
*Note: Honing is not sharpening. Your blades will need both in order to be safe and fully functional in the kitchen.
Most knife sets include a steel honing rod. It is recommended that you hone your blade on a weekly basis. However, if you need to hone your blade more often you can do so without fear of damaging your knives. Honing does not wear down the blade like sharpening does.
To use a honing rod place it vertically onto a work surface such as a kitchen counter while gripping the handle in one hand. You’ll then want to place the bottom of the blade (the thickest part) against the steel of the rod. Make sure the blade is at a 15-20 degree angle and then carefully pull the knife down towards you. Follow through the motion to the tip of the blade. Then keeping the knife in the same hand repeat on the opposite side of the blade.
Honing your blade will line up the burrs on either side of the blade for easier cuts and safe knife handling. Remember honing should be done regularly, but should not be done in replacement of regular sharpening.
4. Using a Leather Strop
Used more for a finishing touch, a leather strop can be the final step in sharpening or honing your knives. Stropping your blade will align the edge removing any burrs that might be left over. Adding a compound to the leather can also further hone your blade and leave it with a nice polished finish.
When selecting a leather strop you will have two options, suede or smooth. You can even find a leather strop that is made of both. One difference between them is that suede is mostly used in conjunction with compounds, while smooth is used for plain stropping. However, this is in no way universal. Research has shown that it mainly comes down to personal preference and the type of blade being sharpened.
Those who use straight razors commonly use the gain side of a smooth leather strop, perfect for delicate low-angles. Whereas carvers or knife sharpeners tend to prefer the softer surface of a suede leather strop. This adds a rounding to the bevel from the suede compressing under the blade.
In the end, it is up to you to decide the best possible leather strop for your knife needs.
Properly Storing Your Knives
To ensure your efforts of sharpening and honing aren’t for not you’ll need to make sure you store your knives in a safe and secure location for longevity and damage prevention. When it comes to knife storage there are three common options.
- On the wall
- On the counter
- In a drawer
1. Using a Magnetic Strip
If you have space a magnetic wall strip is a great option for storing your knives. In addition to making all your knives easily accessible, there is an added bonus in being able to see every inch of your knife without having to search for the right one.
A few things to keep in mind: You’ll want a magnetic strip that is strong enough to hold your knives in place, but not so strong that it will cause your knives to slap against the metal and risk damaging them. The best practice is making sure the first and last thing to touch the magnetic strip is the backside of the blade versus the sharp side.
2. Using a Knife Block
Another good option that allows you to keep your knives within good working distance is finding space on your counter for them. This will require a knife block and it is best to not settle for the pre-built block that comes with most knife sets. A better option for those who are working on building a diverse knife set is to find a knife block without pre-sized slots.
A few things to keep in mind: Many knife blocks are built diagonally allowing you to slide your knives out at an angle. This design takes up more counter space. It is recommended to use a top-down knife block instead. Whichever design you choose remember to always remove and replace knives putting the backside of the knife against the wood versus the sharp side.
3. Using In-drawer Storage
Sometimes houses don’t have space for a magnetic strip or knife block leaving you no choice but to store your knives in a drawer. This in no way means that you can neglect to store them properly. After all, you wouldn’t want to reach your hand into a drawer of unorganized blades.
For this reason, when storing your knives in a drawer you’ll want to get an in-drawer storage unit that can fit a wide range of knives. While there are some in-drawer storage units that are designed with certain knife brands and shapes in mind it is better to go with one that allows a variety of knives (brands and sizes) to be stored.
Properly Cleaning Your Knives
The most important thing to know about cleaning your knives is to never place them in the dishwasher or let them soak for an extended period of time in water. This can cause damage to the blade such as bending or rusting.
The best practice is hand washing your knife in warm soapy water with a sponge. Washing your blade after every use is a great habit and should be one you pick up if you plan on using knives in your kitchen on a regular basis.
Once your knife has been cleaned be sure to dry the handle and blade completely. You want to avoid any chance of moisture sticking to your knife and causing damage while the knife is stored.
Knives, especially those used by chefs, will always experience wear and tear in the kitchen. However, following these best practices for knife sharpening and maintenance will ensure that your knives last as long as possible.