December 21, 2017

Knife care: Sharpen yourself or use a service?

As any Austin culinary arts professional is well aware, no chef should ever be without a sharp knife. A dull blade makes preparing ingredients a slower process with less impressive-looking results. Worse, it increases the risk of injury, since the additional pressure you put on the knife makes it more likely to slip.

A question all chefs will have to face is whether they should devote the time and effort to maintaining their knives themselves or enlist a professional to handle the task. Each approach has its advantages, so first consider what goes into keeping your knives properly sharp, and then make the choice that’s right for your kitchen.

Keep your blade honed

“Keeping knives at their best calls for specialized tools and techniques.”

Keeping knives at their best calls for specialized tools and techniques. According to Cook’s Illustrated, you can easily test whether a blade is due for maintenance by attempting to cut cleanly through a sheet of paper. If you can’t easily slice through a piece of newsprint, that’s a strong sign your knife is in need of honing or sharpening.

Honing steels are sometimes referred to as sharpening steels, but their job is to put a blade back into its proper alignment. When the edge is straightened and back in the center where it belongs, the knife cuts more effectively.

Use the steel by holding it vertically and setting its tip on the counter. Hold the blade with its heel against the top of the steel and angled away at about 15 degrees. Apply light pressure as you move the knife down. Do the same on the other side of the blade, repeating for a total of eight to 10 strokes.

Gaining the edge in knife-sharpening

Honing regularly is essential, but sometimes it’s not enough. If your blade still isn’t dicing or julienning as efficiently as you’d like, it probably needs to be sharpened. As Serious Eats noted, electric sharpeners are an option, but they tend to remove more metal than is necessary and may permanently affect the knife’s balance.

A sharpening stone is much better for your knife, but it takes practice and patience. When sharpening manually, you need a clear sense of the proper angle for positioning the blade on your stone and an exceptionally steady pair of hands to get the best outcome.

Many stones have both a coarse and fine side, but you can also purchase two with differing levels of grit. More grit will give you a sharper blade, but it takes longer to achieve the desired results, so start with the coarser stone.

Keep the whetstone in place by setting it on a cutting board with a towel draped over top. Using both hands, position the knife at a 15 degree-angle for most Japanese knives or a 20-degree angle for most American and European ones, with the blade facing away from you. Consistently maintain the angle as you lightly pull the knife down the stone.

Repeat several times before flipping over the knife to sharpen the other side. Then, switch to the finer stone to finish sharpening the knife on both sides.

A well-sharpened knife makes your prep work more efficient.A well-sharpened knife makes your prep work more efficient.

Why DIY is not always the best choice

It’s important for a chef to know how to care for a knife, and doing it yourself can save you money. Still, in many cases you might be better off seeking outside help.┬áThe Kitchn explained that a professional will be able to determine the correct angle with precision and keep the amount of metal removed in the process to a minimum.

Pay close attention to how your knives are performing, and hone them regularly. You may need to have blades sharpened every few months if you use them a great deal. Keep in mind that the better you take care of your tools, the better you’ll cook.