Knives sharp as lightning

Dull knives lead to dull lives. Here's how to sharpen up.

click to enlarge The safe way to hone a knife with a steel. - PHOTO BY ANN SHAFFER GLATZ
Photo by Ann Shaffer Glatz
The safe way to hone a knife with a steel.
While living in France in the late 50s, Paul Childs recalled hearing his wife, Julia, cry out:

"Goddamnit! I've never yet gone into a private French kitchen where the knives are sharp! How the hell do these people think they're going to cook when they can't even slice through a tomato?" Julia Childs had such strong feelings about properly sharpened knives that she included instruction on knife sharpening in the second episode of Season One of "The French Chef" (1963).

Cookbook writer Michael Ruhlman agrees: "The biggest problem in home kitchens is dull knives." I suspect if I were to be able to take a peek into most people's home kitchens these days (wearing gloves and a mask of course) I'd find their knives woefully dull and improperly stored. In fact, some folks I've talked to admit that they've never ever had their knives sharpened.

One of the best ways to improve your skills in the kitchen is to use really sharp knives, knives that MFK Fisher described "as sharp as lightning." My 40-year experience as a dentist taught me the importance of using quality instruments to achieve quality results. At my age, when arthritic changes are a fact of life, a properly sharpened knife is even more essential. An additional benefit is that a clean cut from a sharp knife is easier to treat than a cut from a dull knife. Dull knives require more force and tend to slide off the food you are cutting, leaving cooks with ragged cuts that are slower to heal.

A properly sharpened knife should be able to cleanly and effortlessly cut through a piece of newspaper or easily slice through an over-ripe tomato. To assess the sharpness of your knife, Cook's Illustrated magazine recommends: "Hold a folded, but not creased, sheet of newspaper by one end. Lay the blade against the top edge at an angle and slice outward. If the knife fails to slice cleanly, try steeling (honing) it. If that fails, it needs to be sharpened."

Honing a knife with a steel doesn't actually sharpen your knife; it helps align the blade of the knife to a true edge. Honing pushes the metal on the edge of the knife into alignment by smoothing out the irregularities that develop after sharpening on a whetstone and to revive the edge after you've been chopping or slicing for a while. The easiest and safest way to use a steel is to hold it upright with the tip against a cutting board. Slide the knife downward along the steel at a 20-30 degree angle, pulling it back toward you, starting at the handle and moving down to the knife's tip, giving it 10 strokes on the left side and 10 strokes on the right. You should hone your knife weekly (or better yet, every time you use it).

If, after honing or steeling, your knife still won't cleanly cut through newspaper, it needs to be sharpened. If you use your knife frequently you should find a good knife-sharpening service and get your knives professionally sharpened to a new edge once or twice a year. In between professional sharpenings you should sharpen your knives on your own every couple months, depending on frequency of use.

There are three ways to sharpen your knives at home. The easiest method is to use an electric or manual sharpening machine. These have the advantage of allowing an unskilled user to sharpen to a consistent bevel with minimal effort or concentration. Because it's easy and convenient, you'll be more likely to use it. Requiring a bit more skill, but yielding superior results, is to free-hand sharpen with a whetstone.

America's Test Kitchen evaluated electric sharpeners and gave its highest ratings to Chef's Choice Trizor XV EdgeSelect Professional Electric Knife Sharpener ($140 on Amazon).

This electric sharpener has three ports that create a new honed edge. It's pretty goofproof and if you can afford it, go for it. Be aware that electric sharpeners take away metal, so don't rely on it on an everyday basis. First try honing your knives with a steel and use your electric sharpener when honing just won't "cut it."

A less expensive option is the Chef's Choice 4643 ProntoPro Diamond Hone Manual Knife Sharpener ($41.75 on Amazon). This manual sharpener uses the same diamond abrasives as the Trizor XV. It has spring-loaded angle guides which makes it impossible to make a mistake. It too is a three-stage sharpener: the first and second stages sharpen and hone and the third stage polishes (strops) the edge with micron-sized diamond abrasives.

I'm old school, so my go-to method of sharpening is with whetstones. Smith's TRI-6 Arkansas TRI-HONE Sharpening Stones System ($25 on Amazon) consists of a non-slip holder base with three different abrasive stones: 400 grit, 600 grit and 1,000 grit. Though whetstones are decidedly "analog," I feel I can achieve optimal sharpness with minimal metal loss. I have watched Jeremy Wolfe, the executive chef at Nonesuch, get his knives so sharp with these whetstones that he can shave the hair off his arm.

If you find yourself in a friend's kitchen or an Airbnb with dull knives and a sharpening setup is not available, find a ceramic plate or bowl with an unglazed ring on the bottom. Angle your knife at about 20 degrees and run it along the ring a few times on each side. It's not the best way to sharpen your knife, but gets you by in a pinch.

Regardless of the method you choose, after sharpening your knife, finish by honing with a steel. And my final words of advice: Only cut on three surfaces: wood, composite resin or plastic.

Hand wash your knives in hot soapy water. Never run your knives through a dishwasher. In addition to banging around and knicking the blades, the heat of the dishwasher will cause the metal to expand and contract, which damages the blade and handle. The heating element inside the dishwasher can actually soften the blade.

At the time this was written Peter, wife Ann, and dog Toulouse have survived 30 days in their school bus home. They've spent six days in campgrounds, twenty days in four private driveways and four days in a junkyard. At present they are in an undisclosed location somewhere along the Illinois/Wisconsin border.

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