Sharpening your Knife

A while ago I did a post on The Four Knives You Will Ever Need.  And I should have done this follow up post a long time ago! So here it goes…

I get asked all the time how to keep a sharp knife.  It’s really pretty easy, though I know it can seem a little intimidating at first.  I’m going to be sharing how actually sharpen your knife, keep it sharp for longer, and how to store and properly take care of your knife.  Also I’ll be talking a  little bit about some of the tools that you will need in your home in order to keep your knife razor sharp.

Having a sharp knife makes doing prep work in the kitchen enjoyable, and more importantly, safe!  Now a lot of people I talk to seem to be under the impression that a sharp knife is more dangerous/scary than a dull one.  But I would like to officially dispel that myth.   dull knife is one of the most dangerous things in the kitchen.  That’s because a dull knife requires a lot more strength to make cuts  And any time you are forcing a knife around, bad things usually follow.  And besides that, the cuts with a dull knife always come out sloppy and uneven.  When your knife is sharp, the weight of the knife practically cuts through the food with its own weight.  Its a wondrous feeling to behold.  So there are no reasons for you to keep dull knives in your kitchen anymore.  Never.  Ever.  I sharpen about once a month to keep my blades in tip top shape.  Sometimes I need to do it more often, sometimes less depending on use.

If you were to look at the edge of your knife under a microscope, it would look kind of like one of these three finely drawn The first one is a perfectly fine sharp knife.  The second one is still sharp but needs honing.  And the third one is dull.  So, I know, I just introduced a new term into the mix: Honing.  A lot of people mix up honing for sharpening.  A honing tool is a long round or rounded rod attached to a handle.  Kind of like one of these. 

You will definitely need one of these to keep your knifes sharp, but they don’t actually do any sharpening.  Le me refer back to the previous three graphics.  If you will direct your attention to number two, you will see that the blade is still sharp at its edge, but is slightly bent over from the force of cutting.  A honing steel will bring an edge back from this state to being perfectly sharp again.  It cannot, however, save a knife from the fate of graphic three.  You see how the edge is flat on top.  No amount of steel honing your knife can help.  At this stage, your knife needs metal shaved off, aka sharpening, in order to get it sharp again, like in graphic one.

To sharpen your knife you will need a stone or a high speed grinder….an since a grinder is a little beyond what anyone would most likely ever use, I’ll be focusing on the more cost and space effective alternative: sharpening stones  There are a lot of different products on the market you can use that advertise their properties as a sharpening stone, but I would avoid the ones that require running your blade through a channel.  even though it seems like a good idea, for whatever reason, they never seem to work.  Another option is an oil stone.  The most common oil stones you can find come in a set of three: coarse, medium, and fine grains.  You need to buy special oil for the stones in order to properly care for them.  While these stones work really really great to sharpen your knife.  I don’t like the fact that I need to buy a special oil.  And also, they are insanely expensive  The cheapest ones I have ever found cost over $200.  No, the stones I like are whetstones.  They are of Japanese origin, and are basically terracotta slabs of varying degree coarseness.  In that regard, they are similar to oil stones except they use water to reduce friction instead of oil.  They also come in coarse. medium, and fine grits.  But whetstones fine grits can go from 3000, all the way to 8000.

Now, what does al this mean?  Well if you are going to buy a whetstone, and you should, I would recommend buying 1000 grit medium stone and a 5000-8000 grit fine stone.  Coarse stones are pretty much unnecessary unless your knives are in really really bad shape.  The medium grit will be fine to get your knife really sharp.  And the fine stone will bring it to a razor sharp finish.  While you don’t necessarily need the fine stone, the stones only cost about $25 each so wont break the bank.  And If I m going to go to the trouble of sharpening my knife, I might as well make it as sharp as possible…just my way of thinking.

Now once you get your stone and are ready to sharpen, here’s how you are gong to want to set up your sharpening station.  First, soak your stone in a container filed with water until you see the bubbles disappear (if you are using a whetstone…if you are using an oil stone, they usually come with a stand, and don’t nee to be soaked in water).  next to your sink, place a damp towel down flat on the counter.  Now put a cookie sheet down on top of that.  And on top of that place another damp towel with the whetstone on top.  The cookie sheet is to catch any excess water or metal shaving slurry that forms.  The damp towels help keep everything from sliding around.  And its nice to do this next to the sink for cleanliness and to wash off the stone from time to time.

Now that you are all set, you are ready to sharpen.  First, sprinkle a generous puddle of water on the stone.  I like to hold my knife by pinching the handle between my thumb and forefinger in one hand, and using the other hand, guide the blade.  Make sure the blade is facing you.  It feels a little weird to have your fingers on the blade, but don’t worry.  At this point, the blade is an extension of your arm so you wont cut yourself.  Start by holding the knife diagonally and sliding the knife back and forth.  Check out this graphic for a guide on the technique.

Notice the grip I use, and notice the angle I am holding the blade against the stone.  Also, see how my fingers on the blade control the amount of pressure I am using.  That is important.  For the first few grinds, I am putting really firm pressure down on the blade.  I am also grinding the blade as I push away and pull back.  Also for the first few grinds, I slightly increase the angle of the blade in order to shave away excess metal.  My routine is to go back and forth 11 times, the flip the knife over, change my grip, and grind the other side of the blade 11 times.  Do this 2 or 3 times, remembering to sprinkle water on the stone in between grinds, and washing off the stone if necessary.  These first grinds I call rough  grinding.  After the rough grinding, I decrease my angle so that the edge of the blade is flatter against the stone, and I am only putting pressure on the knife as I push away, no pressure when I pull back.  This stage I call  light grinding.  You will want to light grind for about 5 minutes, remembering to wet the stone/wash the stone when it becomes dry or when there is too much slurry.

If you want to continue on a fine stone, repeat the process of light grinding for another few minutes.  Knife sharpening is a very tactile art, and at first might feel a little weird, maybe like nothing is happening.  But keep experimenting with angles and pressure.  And pay attention to how the knife feels when moving against the stone.  You will start to feel when the angle and pressure is perfect.

Though this might sound a little crazy, gently touch the edge of the blade with your thumb in between grinds to feel what is going on.  you should start to feel some bite to the edge of the blade.  Slide your thumb up one side of the blade up to the edge.  If you feel that the metal is smooth on one side, but forms a ridge on the other side, you know to focus your grind on the side with the ridge.  Keep checking until your knife is smooth on both sides, and had a nice sharp bite directly on the edge.  Your knife is now officially sharp.  Congratulations.

Make sure you was the blade with soap and water to get off any excess metal slurry before you use it.

The other part of sharpening, and this might not really seem obvious, is how to store your knife. Most knives get dull, or worse, bent, when they are improperly stored.  Whatever you do, AVOID AT ALL COSTS doing on of the following:

storing your knife loose in a drawer, washing your knife in the dishwasher, putting your knife at the bottom of the sink under a pile of dirty dishes, letting the edge touch metal, glass, or tile

Any one of these will quickly ruin all your had work, and could possibly lead to cutting yourself or damaging your knife.  The best way to store a knife is to either keep it in a knife block, buy a sheath for it, or (my personal favorite) but a knife roll for all your cutlery.  They are safe and compact, and relatively cheap.

As A final thought, remember that the knife is a tool and you are in control.  I know that it can be a little intimidating, and even kind of scary to be doing these things with a deadly object.  Don’t be scared of the knife, but always treat it with respect.  When ever you are handling a knife pay extra attention to what you are doing and you will always be safe.  Blade sharpening is actually a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.  I always look forward to sharpening day.

The knife is possibly the most important tool in the chefs arsenal, and for sure the most iconic tool in the kitchen.  Keep yours sharp and safe, and using it will always be a pleasant experience!  Le me know what you think and if you have any questions in the comments below.

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