You may think that sharp knives are a safety hazard, and while of course there’s always the possibility of cutting yourself when prepping veggies or slicing meat, a sharp knife isn't just easier to work with—it is significantly safer to use than a dull knife.
“Sharp knives are safer because they won’t slip and don’t require as much force to cut as well,” says William Eick, chef-owner of Naegi and, soon, Matsu. “When you use a dull knife, more pressure is used because the knife is not doing the work, and more pressure is dangerous because if you slip then you can really injure yourself,” adds Devan Cameron, professional home chef and founder of Braised & Glazed.
“But a sharp knife will also cut through your food much easier, which will in turn require much less energy from yourself,” Eick explains. This is crucial in a professional kitchen setting, where cooks are chopping, slicing, and dicing hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds of ingredients a day, but also in any home kitchen. A well-sharpened blade helps you cut your food more cleanly and quickly.
The point? In addition to the safety component, neglecting to sharpen your best knives will slow you down significantly in the kitchen, especially if you’re someone who makes meals at home several times in the week—and cooks with plenty of fresh produce. When it comes to boosting your efficiency when chopping, slicing, and dicing, nothing beats using a sharp knife.
“Knowing how to keep your knives sharp also saves you money, because it will both extend the life of your pricey cutlery and [having this skill under your belt] means you won’t need to pay someone else to do it,” says Frank Proto, Director of Culinary Operations at the Institute of Culinary Education.
If you're totally new to the process, rest assured that you won’t need to shell out for a ton of tools to keep your knives sharp; a simple stone or a manual drag-across sharpener is really all it takes. And for those who would rather just have your knives sharpened by a professional, we've included top-notch (and affordable) options here as well.
How to sharpen a knife with a whetstone
For the greatest efficiency and the best results, go with the whetstone method. You’ll need a stone, soap, and water. A 1000 grit sharpening stone—like this Sharp Pebble Premium Whetstone ($39) that includes a base and an angle guide—is good for any meal-prepping home cook. To really hone the blade and add extra polish to the edge, try using the 6000 grit side of the stone. You can also enlist help with alignment from a leather strop ($8) if desired.
“There are plenty of videos online for great reference, but to explain it in words, find the angle that the edge of your blade matches with the stone, keep your stone wet (or oiled if you’re using oil stone), and gently slide the knife across, only applying pressure while the edge is going away from the stone,” says Eick. Do the same on the other side of the blade for the same number of strokes.
Proto's method is similar with a bit more detail. “I use the same technique to sharpen all types of knives—using essentially the same angle of 20-22 degrees—including chef knives, paring knives, and boning knives,” says Proto. This technique works best for European/American-style cutlery, but can be applied to Japanese knives. Just keep in mind that those are generally only sharpened on one side.
Start by soaking your stone in cold water for about half an hour. Then, with the rough side of the stone facing up, place it perpendicular to your body with a damp towel underneath.
Press the knife firmly onto the stone at a 20-22 degree angle and drag it from the tip to the bolster. Then flip it and do the same to the other side. Continue to do so until the blade is sharp. Flip the stone to the smoother side and repeat the process.
How to sharpen a knife with a drag-across sharpener
The sharpening stone method takes practice but gives you the best results. “That being said, there are other options like knife sharpeners, where you drag the knife across a grinder machine, which grinds a new edge. I think these can be less effective, but they're certainly easy to work with,” says Proto. “I always hand-sharpen my highest-quality knives, but with cheaper knives I may use the grinder or drag-across sharpener method,” Proto adds.
Proto likes the Chef's Choice Pronto Pro ($46), which will give all knife styles a nice edge. In fact, the model actually includes a 15 degree setting for sharper Japanese knives and a 20 degree edge for European knives. “And unlike cheaper imitators, the Pronto Pro uses diamond abrasive disks at an ideal angle to produce the perfect edge, and it also has a polisher that creates a burr-free razor-sharp edge,” says Proto. To use, simply slide your knife inside the right slot (15 degrees, 20 degrees, or the polishing/serrating setting), and press down to bring the knife edge into firm sustained contact with the “V” between the two internal diamond coated disks. Slide the blade back and forth in a sawing-like motion. For optimal results, center (left to right) the blade in the slot and avoid rubbing the face of the blade against the walls of the slot.
Best knife sharpening services
You can of course also get your knives sharpened by a professional service if you don’t have the time to do them yourself—and believe it or not, affordable options exist.
Togu Knives offers a great $6 a month sharpening service so your knives are always sharp. Cameron's favorite knife store, Korin, also offers a sharpening service great for professionals and home cooks. “Use this to sharpen any of your expensive Japanese knives,” Cameron recommends.
How to care for your knives like a pro
It's not just about sharpening—being mindful of how you clean, store, and use your knives will make a world of difference when it comes to how long your most precious kitchen tools will last you.
1. Avoid the dishwasher
One of the most important tips for maintaining the quality of your knives: avoid the temptation to throw them in the dishwasher, which can cause damage to the blade. “Do not put knives in the dishwasher, as dishwashers are often too abrasive and will end up causing rust and degrading the knife,” Eick says. A good scrub with soapy water is all you really need to give your knives a good cleaning and protect the blade and material.
2. Sharpen a couple of times a year
“Personally, I sharpen my knives once a week, mostly because my personal knives go through heavy use with being in a restaurant setting every day,” says Eick.
Proto, who doesn't work in restaurants, sharpens his go-to knives once a month. “A simple sharpening session with my Pronto Pro once a month takes about 45 seconds per knife, and it produces a perfect result every time,” he says. That being said, most home cooks will only need to sharpen their knives once or twice a year, but more for those doing lots of heavy meal prepping.
3. Avoid using a honing steel as a way to sharpen knives
Eick also cautions against using a honing steel, even ceramic. “Contrary to popular belief, steels do not sharpen knives. They actually only straighten the blade back out, and more times than not, cause microscopic chips or ‘teeth’ in the knife,” says Eick. A leather strop would be more ideal for honing than steel. “They actually tend to be abusive on the knife, especially if you use a softer steel like a high carbon knife,” Eick adds.
4. Don't practice your sharpening skills on your best knives
If you are a novice knife sharpener, practice using your cheapest knives until you get into the swing of things, then move onto products you are planning to keep around for a while.
5. Consider the quality of your cutting board, and store knives properly
Also, use a high-quality cutting board when prepping a meal. Proto prefers rubber, wood, or plastic and advises against cutting on hard materials, like glass, stone or metal.
Once clean, store the knives flat in a drawer, without stacking them. The knives can get chipped from stacking. And keep away from acidic ingredients, which can damage the steel.
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