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Live on the Edge: the How-Tos of Sharpening Knives

As any chef worth his or her salt will tell you, sharpening your knives—and keeping them sharp—is one of the most important things you can do to keep your kitchen efficient and safe. Despite what you might think, a sharp knife is much, much safer than a dull knife; a sharp knife will cut straight and true with minimal effort, while a dull knife will strain your wrist, skip off your steak and land in your finger. Learning how to properly sharpen a knife yourself is an important tool to keep your knives healthy, save you money on replacements and professional sharpening, and ensure that your fingers stay exactly where they are now.

To get started, a proper knife–sharpening kit will include two types of sharpening surfaces: a coarse stone and a fine stone, often mounted together on opposite sides for ease of use. There are also sharpening stones that require the use of specialized oil or water to carry away the swarf, or the metal particles that will be shorn off your dull knife. The basic tenets of knife–sharpening are the same no matter what type of stone you choose to use.

If the knife is already sharp and you’re just touching it up, start with one of the finer stones; if it’s dull, start with the coarsest. If the knife has rust on it, do not sharpen it right away; scrub away with some fine sandpaper to remove it before continuing. Begin by putting some oil on your stone — vegetable oil is preferable (although it will go rancid if left unchecked and unwashed!), but other cooking oils will work. Align your stone with the edge of your knife at its cutting angle and grind the stone along the edge repeatedly, occasionally correcting your angle to ensure an even stroke. Remember to take your time, and go slow. Going fast can cause damage to both the knife and your fingers. As you work, you will occasionally need to change your stone, moving from coarser stones to finer stones as you hone the knife. Once you have the knife at a point that you think is sharp, test it out on a piece of paper by holding it in one hand and cutting it with the other. Careful not to cut yourself!

Sharp knives are a joy to work with and will cut quicker with better and safer results. With good practice, anyone can learn to sharpen a knife well. Sharpening well means being able to recognize a sharp edge, correct your honing angles, and learn how long to hone at each step. Unfortunately, developing these skills with tools that you’ll need to work with every day can be very frustrating. Pick one knife out of your drawer to sharpen at a time and master it before moving on to your next knife. If you’re having trouble, professional knife sharpening services are always available and will give you a good comparison point for your own sharpening skills. (You could always make friends with a chef too!)

Kitchen knives are generally difficult to sharpen because their edges have a “changing radius”, meaning they will curve and change their width and angle from tip to base, allowing them to be used for different types of cuts. Getting the right angle for each part of the knife can be difficult. Thankfully, if your knives are sharpened well the first time, it won’t be nearly as hard to keep them that way. Frequent touch–ups will keep your knives cutting like brand new, and good knife practices will prevent you from damaging them in a major way.

  • Make sure that the food you cut is supported by a surface that is softer than the knife, such as a bamboo or wood cutting board — never cut anything on metal or stone.
  • Avoid pushing or forcing a knife through food — this is how axes work, not knives! Drawing your knife back and forth in a sawing motion is the best way to cut through anything.
  • Don’t let your knife’s sharp edge bump into dishes or other utensils when washing them to prevent the edge from chipping or dulling.
  • Protect the knife from rust by drying it quickly and oiling it if you don’t plan to use it for a while.
  • Finally, be careful about where you store your knife — knives are best kept on the wall above, not in the drawer.

These helpful tips should keep your knives cutting like new. As a veteran chef will tell you, high–quality and well–maintained knives can last a lifetime of cooking. Get a good set and keep them that way. Good luck, and good cutting!