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How to Sharpen Knives and Keep Them Sharp

Fine Cooking Issue 37
Photos: Judi Rutz
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Dull knives are why some people don’t like to cook. Chopping, dicing, and carving—satisfying kitchen endeavors when done with a sharp knife—turn into pure tedium with a dull one. And a dull knife, because it needs more force exerted on it, is actually more dangerous than a sharp one.

With few exceptions, most of the knife-sharpening gadgets sold for home cooks do little more than take knives from very dull to just dull. What works best, once you get the hang of it, is periodic sharpening on a whetstone, followed by diligent use of a steel.

A whetstone, also called a sharpening stone, is a rectangular block of abrasive natural or synthetic stone. Whetstones are used for all kinds of knives and woodworking tools and so come in many sizes, a variety of materials, and different levels of coarseness (called grit size). This can make choosing a stone confusing. I recommend starting at a good kitchen shop or restaurant-supply store; it may have a smaller selection than a woodworking store, but the stones will be targeted to kitchen knives. (For woodworkers who already own a stone, knife-sharpening guru Leonard Lee suggests that a 1,000-grit water stone works well for most kitchen cutlery.)

I use a Carborundum stone, the trade name for several synthetic abrasives. It’s cheap and does the job well. The one I like has one side that’s finer than the other. After a preliminary sharpening on the coarser side, I can make the knife razor-sharp by repeating the same steps on the finer side.   

A couple of buying tips:
Get a long stone. One that’s eight inches long makes sharpening larger knives easier.
Consider a water stone. Before sharpening, a stone is lubricated with either water or mineral oil to wash away the metal dust that would otherwise clog the abrasive surface of the stone. Both lubricants work equally well, but water is less messy and always available. Just don’t switch from one to the other on the same stone or you’ll ruin the stone.

Sources for sharpening equipment

Bridge Kitchenware carries a wide variety of knife sharpening equipment from stones to steels to Chef’s Choice sharpeners. You can also try Knife Merchant , A Cook’s Wares, or Professional Cutlery ­Direct. For more information about Chef’sChoice sharpeners, visit www.chefschoice.com/page2b.html.

Consistency is key

Every cooking professional, hunter, or wood carver has his or her own opinion about the best way to use a whetstone. Some insist the blade be pushed against the stone, others insist it be pulled. Some start with the tip, others with the heel. To my knowledge, no single way has been proven most effective. What matters most is consistency.

When you sharpen a knife, sharpen each side to the same degree by holding the knife at a consistent angle against the stone. Don’t confuse this angle with the angle at which the two sides of the blade meet, which is called the included angle. For example, if you sharpen a knife at a 20° angle on both sides, the included angle will be 40°. The included angle determines sharpness and durability. A knife sharpened to a narrow 20° included angle (10° against the stone) will cut through food easily, but with so little metal to support it, the edge will wear down quickly. For a chef’s knife, which takes a lot of abuse, you need a stronger angle. An included angle between 30° and 45° gives you a good compromise between durability and sharpness. That means the angle you hold the knife to the stone should be 15° to 22-1/2°. Between those degrees, you should choose the angle that feels the most comfortable because that’s the angle you’ll be able to hold most consistently.

Follow the shape of the knife. Most knives are gently curved toward the tip. When you sharpen a knife, you should maintain this curve, pushing or pulling the knife along the stone in relation to its arc. I sharpen my large chef’s knives in two steps, honing the curved side before moving onto the straight part of the blade near the handle.

As you sharpen, inspect the blade. Run your finger along the side of the blade where you’ve sharpened it. If the edge of the blade feels rough, you’ve created what’s called a burr. A burr signifies that the edge of the blade has been sharpened sufficiently and in fact has become so thin that the metal is actually beginning to break off. When that happens, stop sharpening that side. If you’ve sharpened both sides and you finish with a burr, lightly stroke both sides of the knife on the finer side of your stone or run the knife along a steel. Don’t use any pressure on the stone at this stage or you’ll continue to break off more metal, creating more burrs.

Using a stone correctly just takes practice

For the tip of the knife, set the stone on a damp towel, position the blade at an angle (15° to 20°) up from the lubricated surface of the stone. Position the fingers of your other hand near the knife’s tip.
Push the blade back along the length of the stone while moving the blade across the stone from tip toward the heel, following the blade’s arc shape. Stop each swipe when you reach the straighter part of the knife. Repeat about 10-times, picking the knife up off the stone after each stroke.
For the straight part of the blade: hold the knife perpendicular to the stone, and push it away from you, maintaining the same 15° to 20° angle. Be sure the entire heel of the knife is on the stone.
Turn the knife over so that the blade is facing away from you and repeat the arc movements starting from the other end of the stone. This time, pull the blade toward you, maintaining the same angle. Repeat this movement 10 to 20 times. Then sharpen the straight part of the blade, this time pulling it toward you.

Steel regularly

If you take care of your knives (store them properly and don’t put them in a dishwasher), you only need to sharpen them on a stone two or three times a year. You may need to use a steel—a metal rod with a finely ridged surface—as often as every couple of minutes, so keep it handy.

A steel realigns the edge. Some types of steel actually sharpen knives, but the role of the steel has more traditionally been to realign the knife’s edge. As you cut and chop, the edge of the blade begins to curl over microscopically. Proper steeling straightens that curl.

Get in the habit of steeling often—it takes only seconds

Position the knife’s heel against the tip of the steel so that the knife is pointing slightly upward and the blade is a 20° angle to the steel.
Draw the knife down and across the steel, pulling it from heel to tip, following its arc shape. Ideally, the middle of the knife will cross the middle of the steel.
Continue until the tip crosses the steel just above the guard. Repeat the action with the other side of the blade on the steel’s other side. Repeat 3 or 4 times, alternating sides.
For safer steeling, position the steel tip placed on a nonslippery surface. Start with the heel of the knife near the guard. Maintaining a 20° angle, draw the knife down the steel, pulling it toward you, from heel to tip. Repeat the action with the blade against the steel’s other side.

Other sharpening options

If a whetstone seems like too much work, there are other options. Chef’sChoice electric sharpeners make knives much sharper than those I find in most home kitchens. But electric sharpeners can shorten the knife’s life by grinding away too much metal.

Manual V-shaped sharpeners have sharpening rods set in a base to help you maintain a consistent angle. Look for kits that allow you to set the rods at different angles.

Finally, you can get your knives sharpened professionally. A restaurant-supply or hardware store may sharpen knives or will know where you can send them. Just do’t forget to steel them regularly when you get them back.


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