Continuing our running cutlery conversation, let’s visit one of the more frequent (and open-ended) questions we receive: when and how do my knives need sharpening?
To begin to understand this question is to understand the fundamentals of sharpening vs. honing… “Sharpening” is the process by which metal is literally ground from the blade, and a new edge is formed, while “honing” simply straightens an edge that already exists.
When you use your metal knife, the edge will gradually roll in on itself on a microscopic level, causing the blade to dull. Honing should be done each time before using your knives, with a honing tool like a steel. This straightens the edge, returning the blade to a consistent sharpness. (An important exception is ceramic cutlery, which can be damaged by honing with a steel.)
Sharpening, as a more abrasive process, should only be done when honing will no longer “bring back an edge.” Think of it as using styling gel in your hair versus clipping it off and starting from scratch.
This answer depends on three factors:
- what kind of knife you have,
- what it’s made of, and
- how often you use it.
For example, a long slicer (used mostly for carving thin slices of meat) is used sparingly (unless you eat tryptophanic turkey dinners every day). Something like a chef’s knife is a true kitchen work horse, with a blade that takes a much tougher beating on a more regular basis. On average, we recommend having a new edge ground through sharpening once every 6 months to 1 year for a metal knife, depending on use.
Ceramic knives are a different animal altogether, requiring specialized sharpening tools. Ceramic knives should probably be sharpened after 3-5 years of use. You’ll be able to notice after a bit if your knife is dull enough to require sharpening. Cutting limes is a good indicator. A sharp knife will pass through a lime with almost no effort. When your knife needs a push to break the skin, it’s definitely time to sharpen it.
(We carry the Kyocera brand ceramic knives, which micro-grain ceramic is more dense than others, and thus has a sharper cutting edge. They can be re-sharpened by the manufacturer.
In between sharpenings, you can perform regular maintenance through honing. Using a honing steel, which we mentioned above, strikes fear in the hearts of many a cook, but it’s truly easy. The first step is to abandon the images you’ve acquired from reality cooking shows, where chefs are seen waving their knives and steels about in a theatrical dance reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. Trust us. There is a calmer, easier way.
· First, position your steel’s point down on your cutting board, holding the handle straight like a ski pole.
· Next, position your knife edge at approximately a 20-degree angle* against the steel, at the very heel of the knife. (Toque Tip: The heel is the end of the edge near the handle).
· Third, with light pressure, drag the knife down at this angle as you pull it toward you (so you get to the tip of the knife by the time you get near the tip of the steel).
· Do the same on the other side, and again on both sides another 3-4 times.
Be sure to wipe the blade with a damp towel after, and you’re done. And wipe the steel, too!
*In a pinch, using a book of matches as a visual guide will produce the approximate angle for you. You can follow our guide in the video, below.
Our demonstration features hard-chromed steels, which are fairly common. Something like a diamond steel will be more abrasive, thus removing more metal from your knife. Diamond steels should be used more sparingly.
If you’re still uneasy with using the traditional honing steel, other tools are gaining in popularity. Tools like the Henckels Twin Sharp, offer honing and ‘light-duty’ sharpening with preset angles, taking away the guessing game.
If you’re looking to grind a new edge on your knife, there are generally two options: the home sharpener, or leaving the work to professionals. We endorse both, since we sharpen (many) knives for customers in our Philadelphia store, and also carry home sharpeners. The pros to home sharpening? More opportunity to sharpen your knives means better familiarity with your knives, and the more fun you’ll have in the kitchen. The pros to leaving it to professionals like Fante’s? Less to worry about, and you get to hang out in our store and enjoy a granita while you wait!
Of course, if you don’t live near Fante’s (for shame!) we suggest speaking with your local butcher shop, or favorite restaurant about where they have their knives sharpened.
Produced by Curt Sauer and Eric Horvath