How To Sharpen Your Kitchen Knife
That’s because most injuries occur when you’re trying to force a cut, rather than letting your knife do the work for you.
Even if you’re not interested in making paper-thin slices, learning how to sharpen kitchen knives is essential for anyone who does a lot of cooking at home.
What does it really mean to sharpen a knife? When many of us imagine the sharpening process, we conjure a picture of someone quickly running the knife’s blade up and down a long steel rod. Spoiler alert: That’s actually a process called honing. A honing steel, that big long rod with a handle, uses friction to realign the blade, not sharpen it. The thin edge becomes warped and dinged during the normal wear and tear that comes with using the knife. If you were to look at the edge of your knife at a microscopic level, you would see all kinds of bends and folds in the edge of the blade. Over time, this decreases the blade’s precision, making it feel duller. Honing pushes those dents and dings back into place and realigns the edge, returning it to a balanced position. Sure, this makes the knife feel sharper when you use it, but the sharpness of the blade hasn’t actually been altered at all.
On the other hand, sharpening is a process that physically removes material from the blade. When using a tabletop knife sharpener or a whetstone, you’re sanding down each side of the blade to make a thinner — and accordingly, sharper — edge.
But before learning how to sharpen your knife properly, you should understand why it’s important to use a sharp knife:
- Safety: a dull blade will slip on food and increase the chance of injury
- Efficiency: you can cut more food in less time with a sharp blade
- Appearance: especially true for raw foods, a sharp blade is essential for aesthetics and presentation
- Yield: maximise your yield and minimise food waste
- Quality: ever notice that cutting with a dull blade makes herbs or vegetables oxidise more quickly? Chiffonade basil or slice sashimi with a dull blade and sharp blade and see the difference. A dull blade presses down on food, damaging it on a cellular level. Many are not aware of that, but this not only makes the food lose more moisture but alters the appearance and taste as well.
How to test the sharpness of the blade
- Paper method:use the weight of your knife to shave thin strips of paper. A sharp blade will slice right through and make a smooth cut whereas a dull blade will leave jagged edges or get caught. Make sure the knife or paper is not damp.
You should be able to easily cut strips from the piece of paper without snagging or tearing the paper as the knife cuts through.
- Nail method:gently use the weight of the knife and place the blade on your fingernail. If the blade is dull it will slip across but if it is sharp it will dig in a little and you will feel a slight resistance. Be careful though, pressing too strong can seriously damage your nail surface.
- Food test:there’s no better way to test the sharpness of your knife than cutting food. Simply test your knife on vegetables such as tomatoes, scallion and onions or whatever ingredient the knife will be used for.
- Hone the Knife:To use a tabletop sharpener, first, hone your knife with a honing steel. If you skip this step, you risk misaligning the blade. (Think of it like combing through your bangs before cutting them; if you were to just go in with the scissors on bed-head hair, you’d end up with some really crooked bangs when you do eventually comb them out.)
- Position and Pull the Knife Through the Sharpener:Once you’ve honed your knife, set the sharpener on a flat surface and grip the handle with your non-dominant hand. Firmly hold the knife in your dominant hand and, starting with the coarsest grit, set the blade into the slit beginning at the base of the blade and quickly pull the knife through the slit towards yourself. It’s essential to make sure the entirety of the blade, including the tip and base, goes all the way through the slit to ensure even sharpening.
- Repeat:Repeat this process 3-4 times on the coarse grit and then repeat 5-6 times on the finer grit.
- Wipe the Blade Clean:Once you’re done, wipe your blade with a damp cloth and dry thoroughly. It’s normal to see black or gray residue on the towel — that’s the metal that the sharpener sanded off.
- Hone It Again:Quickly hone the blade one last time and you’re ready to go!
How to Sharpen a Knife With a Stone
- Soak the Stone:There’s a little bit of prep you need to do before you’re ready to use a whetstone. If using a stone that needs to be wet, make sure you soak it ahead of time. This means completely submerging the stone in water until there are no air bubbles; a glass baking dish filled with water is perfect for this. Some say as little as 15 minutes of soaking is sufficient, but to err on the side of caution, you can pop your stone into the water before bed for an overnight soak and use it for sharpening the next day.
- Hone the Knife:Once you’re ready, hone your knife; just like with a tabletop sharpener, you risk seriously misaligning the blade if you don’t hone it before sharpening.
- Set Up Your Station:You’ll want to place a dry towel down to soak up the water that splashes off. (It’s also worth having another dry towel on hand to keep your hands and the handle dry.) Once you’ve set your stone up longways on the towel, and in the rubber base, if your stone comes with one, you’re ready to start.
- Sharpen the First Side:To use the stone, start with the coarser grit, which is the lower number; for the Sharp Pebble stone referenced above, that is the 1000 grit. Sprinkle a few drops of water onto the surface, so it’s nice and wet. Then, using your right hand, grip your knife at the base just above the handle, pinching the blade between your thumb and the knuckle of your index finger with the rest of your fingers around the handle. Set the knife blade at about a 45-degree angle on the stone and place the four fingers from your left hand onto the blade with your fingertips facing the edge; this is the hand that will guide and stabilize your knife. Place the base of your knife edge in the upper left corner of the stone, and applying even pressure while maintaining that 45-degree angle, pull the knife towards you, ending with the tip in the bottom right corner. Depending on how dull your knife is, repeat this motion for 5-10 more passes on one side, sprinkling more water onto the stone as needed to keep it wet.
- Sharpen the Second Side:Make sure to dry your hands and the knife’s handle to avoid any type of slipping. Then, switch hands; grip the handle of your knife with your left hand and use the fingers on your right hand to stabilize. Start with the base of the edge in the upper right corner and pull the knife to the lower-left corner, making sure to keep the pressure and angle steady. For most people, the motion of one of the sides feels very natural, while flipping to the other feels rather unnatural. So while it might feel awkward at first, practice makes perfect. The most important thing to note when using a whetstone is to make absolutely sure that you sharpen each side evenly. Meaning, if you made eight passes along the stone on the first side, make sure to do eight passes on the second side.
- Flip the Stone:Finally, flip the stone over to the finer, or “finishing,” grit and repeat the whole process again with the same number of passes on each side. It can take some getting used to, but as long as you are mindful of keeping your knife at a 45-degree angle and do the same number of passes per side, your blade will come out sharper.
- Wipe the Blade Clean:Once you’ve finished, rinse the blade and wipe it with warm soapy water to remove any metal filings that have been shaved off. Wipe the knife completely dry with a clean towel, and you’re all set!
Once you go through the trouble of sharpening your knife, you’ll want to keep that fresh edge as long as possible and avoid unintentionally fast-tracking your way back to a dull blade. To do this, avoid bringing your knife into contact with other metals. This means don’t store your knife loose in a drawer with other utensils and never toss your knife in the sink. Most importantly, no matter what, never put your knife in the dishwasher; that’s a one-way ticket to a ruined knife. Hand-wash and dry your knife and always store it in a plastic sheath.
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