knife with sharpening on the wooden table

You’ve seen them on television ‒ chefs slicing rapid-fire into herbs, onions and vegetables of all colors. The knives whir so quickly that all you see is a blur followed by a heap of cleanly chopped ingredients. But when you’re trying to replicate their actions on a chopping board piled high with green onions or parsley, you’re face-to-face with a knife that squashes the stalks, sealing them closed. Don’t blame yourself or your knife skills. Instead, test the blade of your knife. It most likely needs a few minutes with a manual hand-held knife sharpener to bring it back to chef’s quality.

Dull Is Dangerous

A dull knife is a dangerous knife. Not only does it take more force to cut, but your fingers are in jeopardy as you manipulate the food and the knife to work together easily, which they don’t unless your knife is sharp. A dull knife also seals the ends of stalk foods by compressing the top into the bottom. You need a clean cut, one that leaves your fingers intact and the food sharply cut.

Work Like a Chef

Chefs are protective of their knives. They paid a lot of money for each one, and, like a custom-fitted suit, they choose their knives for the fit to their hand. Chefs often tend to their knives as they would their children. Wrapped in sleeves after every shift, they’re never far away from the person who uses them. And before every use, chefs hone their knives.

Sharpening Comes First

Sharpening a knife, whether manually or with one of those electric gadgets found in appliance stores, is a project dictated by the quality of the knife. An expensive knife deserves the care of manual sharpening on a whetstone. The edges are refined as they are carefully dragged against the sandpaper-like surface of the stone. After sharpening, put away the stone until the knife tells you it’s dull again. Until that time, hone the knife on a steel rod.

Long-Term Care With Sharpening

A good sharpening on a good knife should leave it in working condition for several months. When the blade isn’t responding to the cut without force, then it’s time to sharpen. You’ll need a good block of time, sharpening utensils, a tub of water, a non-slip base for the stone and a clean towel at the ready before you start. When you’re finished, it’s time to cook like a chef!

Using a Whetstone

A whetstone is rectangular, about 7 inches long and 1 1/4 inches high, and its name has nothing to do with the fact that the stone is wet before use. In fact, whet means to sharpen, as in “whet your appetite.”

Most whetstones have two colors, indicating the grit of each side ‒ fine and coarse. And like a good knife, a good whetstone isn’t cheap. When shopping for a whetstone, be aware that European grit is measured differently than Japanese whetstones, so if your stone is a Japanese variety, you’ll want to find one with at least 1,000 coarse and 3,000-grit measurements. European whetstones are 400 coarse and 1,000 fine grit. It doesn’t matter which type of whetstone you buy; just be aware of the grit measurements.

Before using it, submerse your whetstone in water for 5‒10 minutes until no more bubbles come out of the stone. It’s now waterlogged and ready for use.

Place the whetstone on a non-slip base with the coarse side up and the short side parallel to your body. Hold the knife at a 20-degree angle, and, using a little pressure, run it back and forth across the stone, away from and toward your body. A messy substance will collect on the top of the stone, but don’t wipe it away. It helps with the sharpening process. Finish the sharpening exercise by running the knife against the fine-grit side a few times.

Go for the Burr

You should see something that looks like microscopic fuzz hanging onto the edge of the newly sharpened side of the blade. This burr is what tells you the job you’re doing is almost over and that you’ve done it right. It’s not always easy to see, but you can feel it by running your fingernail across the body of the knife and over the sharpened edge. Make sure the burr runs the entire length of the knife, not just in the center of the blade.

Using very light pressure, run the knife over the fine edge of your whetstone a few times. Remember to do both sides of the blade. Complete the removal of the burr by swiping the knife over a stack of newspapers.

Wash the knife, dry it completely, and put it back into its paper or canvas sleeve until you’re ready to chop like a chef.

Honing Maintenance

While the whetstone removes small bits of steel from your knife, the honing rod, also known as a sharpening steel, is your knives’ everyday sidekick. Used for daily maintenance, it merely sharpens ‒ hones ‒ what’s there without removing steel.

Some home cooks make a dramatic display of holding the rod at arm’s length and swiping the knife up and down with a flourish. Wrong! Stick the tip of the rod onto a non-slip pad on the counter. Hold the top grip with one hand and place the knife in a slightly upward position at a 15‒20-degree angle from the stem of the rod. Swipe the knife downward, starting with the wide side of the knife and continue to the tip.

Keep the pressure on the knife at a minimum and don’t let the blade smack up against the finger guard. Alternate the sides of the knife with the honing rod. What you are doing is making the edge smooth, not sharp. Eight to 10 swipes against the rod should refresh the edges of the knife. Wipe it clean.

Diamond ‒ A Chef’s Best Friend

Chefs who want a quicker method of sharpening their knives turn to diamond steel. It looks like a honing rod but works like a whetstone. The core is stainless steel, but in a proprietary process, more than 2 million bits of diamond coat the steel, creating a very fine grit. Unlike the honing rod, steel is removed using the diamond rod. Hone with one of these as usual.

Sharpening Ceramic Knives

They’re touted as staying sharp forever with no sharpening tools necessary. Not true. Like any blade, a ceramic blade eventually gets dull. The problem with sharpening them, however, is that ceramic is very brittle. Just a little pressure can snap the blade.

A diamond steel is best for sharpening ceramic blades as the pressure is minimal and the strokes are fewer. Because diamond steels are harder, your job is completed faster and safer. A set of diamond stones in graduated grits helps cure any nicks in the ceramic.