Professional cooks know the importance of having high quality tools in their kitchen, the most important of which are knives. However they’ll tell you that having good knives is just the first step. Often overlooked is the equal importance of sharpening and properly maintaining your knives.
To quote from a memoir of the same title by Kathleen Flinn, “the sharper your knife, the less you cry”. Using a dull knife crushes the onions while cutting them and draws out more of the tear causing oils, making you cry more than if you had used a sharp knife. Of course, you could just use onion goggles to solve that particular problem, but I digress.
In addition to crying a little less while chopping onions, a sharp knife is much safer to use than a dull knife. For example, a fingertip cut by a sharp knife heals faster than a jagged gouge from a dull knife. Statistics show that far more kitchen knife injuries are caused by a dull knife. Dull knives require the use of more pressure to cut. Because the edge of the blade will not easily penetrate the food, there is a chance the knife will lose traction and slip, potentially landing in the cook’s (or an unsuspecting bystander’s) unfortunate foot. Using a sharp knife helps the cook to maintain control, requires less pressure and will ultimately be safer and more efficient than a dull knife.
To ensure that your knives remain sharp, it is necessary to both sharpen and maintain them.
Sharpening your knives:
There are a few different options for sharpening your knives. The easiest and most stress-free way to sharpen your knives is to leave them in the hands of professionals. We will sharpen your knives for $2.50 per blade (no serrated, ceramic or single-bevel) while you wait in the store, simply call ahead to make sure we have a sharpening professional available that day. It is much easier to maintain your knives if you start with a sharp edge.
To sharpen at home, the best results are from a sharpening stone. Stones deliver professional results and are the preferred method of chefs and butchers for sharpening their knives. Stones are used by applying a lubricant (usually a food safe mineral oil) to the surface of the stone and holding the knife at a 15-20° angle horizontally against the surface of the stone to achieve the angle of the edge you are looking for, depending upon the style of your knife. Move the knife along its edge on the stone maintaining the angle of contact, pressure and speed. Any variation will deliver uneven and unsatisfactory results. Stones can be a little tricky to get the hang of and we recommend working on some “practice” knives before you try it out on your favorites.
Electric sharpeners for home use are another option and are fairly easy to use. The angle is pre-determined and you simply guide the knife through the grinding stage a few times, then the sharpening stage and finish with the honing stage. It is important to maintain the pressure and speed of the knife as you pass it through each stage to obtain the best results.
Maintaining your knives:
Ideally, each time you use a knife you should hone the blade. A sharp knife has a very fine edge which at first contact will begin to curl slightly. Honing the knife simply re-aligns the edge to maintain the sharp, fine edge achieved during sharpening. Over time and use, of course, the blade will eventually dull and then you will need to sharpen it. Honing will extend the time between required sharpening. Hold the honing steel in a vertical position with the tip against a steady surface. Angle the knife 15-20° and pass the blade along the steel maintaining the angle, pressure and speed from the heel of the knife to the tip. You will often see butchers in movies making a big show about honing their knives. While it looks impressive, there is no need to move at their lighting speed! Take your time – slow and steady.
Manual sharpeners are a great and easy way to maintain your knives. They generally have a course and fine setting. The sharpening mechanism is pre-angled so all you have to do is hold your knives vertically and run them from the heel of the knife to the tip, again maintaining pressure and speed. Using the fine setting (ideally) each time you use your knife to realign the blade and the course setting to sharpen the blade at less frequent intervals. While it is possible to sharpen and re-edge your knife using a manual sharpener, it will require a lot of work and time. (Think 30+ minutes passing the knife through the course stage.) If your preference is to take care of your knives in the most stress-free way, we recommend professional sharpening as needed and the use of a manual sharpener to maintain the edge at home.
Sharp knives are essential kitchen tools. As such, it is essential to take care of them. Each chef will have a preference for how much time they would like to devote to their knives. In deciding which method to use, be realistic about how much time you wish to set aside to learn how to sharpen. It is certainly a skill that will last a lifetime, but can take some time to “hone” (excuse the pun). This author’s father is a butcher and has had his sharpening stones and honing steel for 30 years. This author, however, prefers to leave the sharpening to the professionals for $2/blade/year (even though that simply means she sharpens her knife at work instead of in her own kitchen) and uses a manual sharpener weekly to maintain the edges at home.
Just as there are many choices for knives, there are many choices for sharpening. Keep your knives sharp using the method of your choice and you will work more easily, more safely and cry over onions less.