Knife Sharpening?

by Elizabeth Skipper | December 12th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

From what I’ve seen on cooking shows, knives are the most important tools that a chef owns. I have several “good” knives, which I take to a sharpener a couple times a year. Should I learn to sharpen my own knives or leave it to the professionals?

Aside from what you’ve seen on cooking shows, I suspect you already know how indispensible good sharp knives are to the cook. Good for you for getting yours sharpened! Working with dull knives is both frustrating and dangerous.

Are you happy with the work the sharpening service is providing and the cost? Then I don’t see any reason to change things. If, on the other hand, you’re not happy with either, you’d like to cut down on how often you send your knives out, or you’d just like to learn how to do it yourself, read on.

Do you have some older knives to practice on? Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could ruin a good knife. Even if you don’t ruin it, you can wear it down before its time. Knives do wear down over time, but there’s no sense in hastening the process. This is especially true if you succumb to the lure of using an electric sharpener.

Knife blades vary in shape and thickness, and it’s important to get a feel for the particular blade you’re working on. That’s difficult to do with an electric sharpener, which does the work for you. Also, if you have any Asian knives, the reason they’re so razor sharp is because the angle on them is narrower than a Western knife’s. Electric sharpeners which accommodate blades of both 15° and 20° are costly. If you’re considering going with an electric sharpener, the investment is a consideration. Another is the fact that it’s difficult to sharpen the blade at the very heel of the knife near the handle with an electric sharpener.

After a period of time, that will keep the edge of the knife from making perfect contact with the cutting board, and you’ll need to have it professionally ground down to even it up.

The original tool used to sharpen knives is a whetstone. This is what Global, a Japanese knife manufacturer, recommends. If this is a skill that comes easily to you, there’s your answer. However, a lot of people find it difficult to master.

Let’s back up a little. Keeping knives sharp requires two separate processes. The first employs a steel, a metal rod with a finely ridged surface. Every time you cut something with a knife, microscopic bits of the metal are nicked or bent aside. Steeling “trues”, or re-aligns, the blade; a few strokes across a steel realign the edge and pull off any burrs. Think of it as a tune-up vs. an engine overhaul.

Steeling should be a regular habit. Chefs, because they use their knives incessantly, touch up their knives multiple times during a service or shift. Even so, restaurants, butcher shops, and any other facility that uses knives heavily, will use a professional sharpening service regularly, usually weekly. A home cook can significantly reduce the number of times his or her  knives go out for professional sharpening simply by using a steel frequently. It’s easy to learn how to do.

However, there comes a point when a knife blade has dulled to where steeling no longer will bring back the edge. An inexpensive tool to perform this task is a manual sharpener, of which there are a plethora of choices. AccuSharp makes an excellent one for about $10.00. Between using a steel and a manual sharpener, you can greatly lengthen the time between professional sharpenings, even of your most frequently used knives.

Granton edged knives—those with the little oval-shaped recesses along the edge, that look a bit like serrated knives—surprisingly, require no special technique and can be sharpened at home. There are three kinds of knives, however, which either cannot or require special care. Those are serrated, specialty elite, and ceramic knives.

Serrated knives can’t be steeled, but can go for years without requiring sharpening; I’ve yet to send out the one I bought in Switzerland thirty years ago. Perhaps in another thirty years, when it needs it, I’ll take it to a professional to be sharpened! My ceramic knives have gone back to Kyocera twice in ten years. MAC (I love my Japanese MAC knives—can’t recommend them highly enough) recommends and sells a manual sharpener called a RollSharp made by Fiskars which works well on their own and other steel knives; they also offer a mail-in sharpening and repair service.

I try to touch up my knives every time I start cooking. Some prefer to do it after the knives are washed, before they’re put away. Although it doesn’t take long, at the end of whatever clean-up has been involved, I’m ready to be done with chores. See what works for you. Whichever you prefer, you’ll find that frequent steeling will cut down dramatically on the need to sharpen your knives, either by yourself or by a professional.

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