How many times have you tried to slice through a tomato and ended up with only ragged chunks of skin and a squashed tomato?
Many of us take our trusty kitchen knives for granted, expecting them to last indefinitely with very little care of attention, but it’s surprisingly easy to give a little TLC to these important kitchen tools, making them more effective and extending their lives by years.
Master the art of knife sharpening and you’ll become a faster, safer and more efficient cook. This can seem like a daunting task if you’ve never thought to sharpen your knives before, but read on and you’ll find out the sharpening style best suited to you.
Why Sharpen A Kitchen Knife?
Dull knives are dangerous. You have to apply more force, and force will cost you finesse. While a sharp knife will easily grip into and slice through whatever you are cutting, a dull knife is more likely to slip and cut something you hadn’t intended – like your fingers!
Can you still cut yourself with a sharp knife? Absolutely, but a dull blade with some weight behind it will do more damage than a smoothly sharp blade.
You may not have considered it, but your cooking also suffers from a dull knife. A sharp knife is more likely to cut and slice evenly, and food that is cut into the same sized chunks cooks evenly and at a consistent rate, producing food that tastes and looks better.
Think about the cleanliness of your cut. If you’re chopping into herbs or fresh vegetables, a sharp knife creates a nice clean edge, whereas a blunt knife tends to crush more. This alone can speed up the rate of deterioration of your fresh produce.
Finally, a dull blade will slow you down, making your food prep more time consuming and far less enjoyable as you saw and hack away at the ingredients instead of efficiently slicing and dicing like a pro.
How Often Do Kitchen Knives Need To Be Sharpened?
The answer to this question can vary widely. It comes down to how often you use your knives, the manner in which you use them, and how well you care for and maintain them from day to day.
A proper sharp knife should be able to effortlessly cut through a ripe tomato. If it doesn’t, try honing it first – if the knife still struggles, it’s time to get to sharpening.
If you are careless with your knives – cutting on your best cutting board made of ceramic or glass and throwing them in the dishwasher – they will become blunt more rapidly.
SEE ALSO: How To Clean A Knife
Different styles of knife also hold an edge for varying lengths of time. For example, high-quality Japanese knives are made from harder, higher-grade steel, so will hold an edge for much longer than a cheaper knife.
It also depends on the angle that your edge is sharpened to. Wider angles of around 20 degrees will hold an edge far longer than more acute angles of below 15 degrees.
Regular honing (as opposed so sharpening) can keep your blade sharp for extended periods in between sharpening and is highly recommended. Professional chefs hone their blade before every use to ensure it is effective.
However, when the blade becomes too blunt, you’ll need to take it a step further and reshape the edge with one of the methods outlined below.
If you are a regular knife user who cooks every day and regularly hone your knife, you’ll probably only need to sharpen it every 6 or 12 months.
If you’re a passionate home chef who spends a lot of time cooking, this may shorten to every three months.
Knife Sharpening Techniques
As outlined further below, there’s a big difference between honing your knife and sharpening it. Regular honing is an important part of maintaining sharpness.
If using a whetstone or honing steel, you’ll need to be familiar with two important aspects of knife sharpening – grits and sharpening angles.
The term “whetstone” covers a variety of different kinds of sharpening stones, including water stones, oil stones, ceramic stones and diamond stones.
Some hardcore knife-sharpening purists swear by natural stones, but these are far more expensive and less practical for the at-home chef.
For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the most commonly used and preferred synthetic water stones available on the market – all of which do an excellent job of sharpening almost any kitchen knife.
Water stones should always be used with water. Some will need to be pre-soaked, while others can do the job with just a spray of water on the surface. The water helps prevent the fine particles of steel that are removed from the blade from clogging up the stone and making it ineffective.
Most store-bought whetstones are made from silicon carbide or aluminum oxide.
- Silicone-carbide won’t produce quite so fine an edge as aluminum, but it is good for rapid sharpening and getting a great sharp edge on a very dull knife, or repairing major chips and nicks.
- Aluminum oxide whetstones – also known as India stones – are usually a medium or fine grit. They also can rapidly work a blade but are capable of producing a much finer edge.
- Diamond stones are higher up on the price scale, namely because they are constructed from tiny diamonds which are stuck to a plate. These stones are very durable and can handle even the strongest steel. However, diamond stones are coarse and remove a lot more material than other synthetic whetstones. They are not recommended for novice sharpeners, as can easily remove too much metal from your blade if used incorrectly.
- Ceramic stones are designed to be used without water. They are a composite mixture of aluminum oxide and ceramic powder.
Whetstones have a similar action to sandpaper. They remove tiny particles of metal from your blade in order to create a razor-sharp new edge.
The coarser the grit of a stone, the more metal it will remove. Grit sizes range from 220, which is very coarse, to 8000 and above.
It’s unlikely you will need to use a 220 grit and we don’t recommend trying it if you’re just learning the art of using a whetstone. This grit is best for repairing major damage to your knife or setting a completely new bevel angle.
Medium grits of 1000-1500 are best used on a dull but not damaged blade, followed by a finer grit of around 4000 to refine the edge to optimal sharpness. For the average home chef, this will be as fine as you need to go.
Grits higher than 4000 create razor-sharp edges, but also a more delicate blade which will dull more quickly.
If you are sharpening a standard Western style knife, you can safely finish with a 1000 or 2000 grit. Japanese knives have harder steel blades and can be refined up to 5000 or 8000 grit.
What Is The Difference Between Honing And Sharpening?
Sharpening steels or rods are rather deceptively named, as they don’t technically sharpen your knife. They do, however, make your knife feel like it’s sharper.
Any time you use your knife, the tiny teeth or burrs in the blade become misaligned. Honing smooths them back into alignment. Because honing doesn’t actually remove any material from the blade, you can do it as often as you like without damaging the blade.
Sharpening a stone actively removes material from the knife’s blade to recreate a fine edge. If done incorrectly, using an overly coarse grit, you can remove too much material and cause the knife to rapidly disappear.
Honing between sharpenings is highly recommended to keep the blade in good working order.
What Is The Best Angle To Sharpen A Knife?
When we talk about sharpening angles, we are referring to the angle of the bevel. This is the very thin line either side of the blade – the actual cutting edge.
A more acute angle provides a much sharper blade, whereas a wider angle creates a tougher, more durable blade.
Most kitchen knives have a V-edge bevel, where edge side of the blade is sharpened to matching angles. However, you can get one-sided blades or even differing angles on each side.
Heftier Western or German style knives, such as those manufactured by Henckels or Wusthof knife brands, are usually sharpened to around a 20-degree angle, but they can easily be sharpened to a 15-degree angle if you want razor sharpness. Japanese knives are traditionally sharpened to 10-15 degrees.
Keep in mind that it is handy to have one or two knives with a less acute angle, as they are more sturdy and can be used to chop and cut through tougher foods.
How To Choose The Right Knife Sharpener
Choosing the best knife sharpener for your needs depends on your budget, how much time you want to put into sharpening your knives, and to a lesser extent, what kind of knives you have.
Whether you want something foolproof and fast or are inclined to put time and effort into creating a near-perfect edge, there is an option to suit you.
The best way to sharpen your knife to a professional standard at home is to use a sharpening stone – also known as a whetstone.
These sharpening stones provide precise control over sharpening angle, pressure, and enable you to create a razor-sharp, professional edge on almost any style of knife – excluding serrated blades.
SEE ALSO: How To Sharpen A Serrated Knife
Whetstones are rectangular blocks made of materials of varying grits, enabling you to fully repair a chipped or completely blunt knife and refine it up to a finished edge.
Although relatively inexpensive and highly effective, whetstones are not for everyone. You will need time, patience and dedication to master the art of sharpening your knives using this method.
Using a whetstone provides a methodical and somewhat meditative approach to sharpening which many people enjoy. If this is something that appeals to you – along with the potential to sharpen your knives to professional quality – check out our How To Use A Whetstone guide.
Whetstones are an affordable investment which should last you for many years.
Pull Through Knife Sharpeners
Manual or electric pull through knife sharpeners are the easiest and fastest way to sharpen your knife, although they won’t be able to repair nicks and chips or sharpen a seriously dull blade.
They are easy to use, with each device adjusting the angle so all you have to do is swipe the blade through a number of times and you’re done.
SEE ALSO: Best Electric Knife Sharpeners
Some people maintain that electric sharpeners can be too aggressive, removing too much metal from the blade and damaging your knife. They can also tend to be a bit on the pricey side and take up quite a lot of room.
Manual knife sharpeners are compact enough to take anywhere. They give you slightly more control than electric models, but usually only have one or two slots so you won’t be able to highly refine your edge.
If you simply want your knives sharp enough to keep you efficient and happy in the kitchen and aren’t too fussed about the finer details, this is your ideal choice. For a more in-depth guide on how to use a knife sharpener, head over to our How To Use A Knife Sharpener guide.
Honing Steel & Sharpening Rods
Honing steels and sharpening rods are an essential part of your kitchen kit. As mentioned above, they don’t sharpen your knife but do hone the edge of a dull blade to make it cut more effectively
These long rods should be used for everyday maintenance.
Simple to use, you simply need to swipe the length of the blade along the steel in a single motion a few times, holding the blade at the correct angle.
Sharpening Knives At Home Vs Professionally
If you don’t fancy mastering the art of sharpening using a whetstone but truly desire a chef’s quality blade in your kitchen, you’ll need to send your knife off to be professionally sharpened by an expert.
Many knife manufacturers will offer the service for free if you cover postage. Professional knife sharpeners are great if you have a blade that has some serious nicks or chips, or is completely blunt.
Do a bit of research when choosing your professional knife sharpener – make sure they are familiar with the style of knife you use and are highly experienced. The last thing you want is to get your knife back with too much of the steel removed.
The downside to getting your knives sharpened by a professional is that you may have to do without them for a day or two – or even longer if you are sending them away by post. It can also be costly if you are a heavy knife user who needs to sharpen their knives every few months.
Keeping your knives sharp so you don’t wind up hacking at your food is a good use of your time. Whether you go with an electric sharpener or a sharpening stone of your own, enjoy maintaining these critically important tools so they’re ready to go when you are.