For people who care about their food

A few hone truths

Keeping your kitchen knives sharp is one of those jobs where a little bit of effort every now and again saves a lot of trouble in the long run.

Why is it so important to have sharp knives?

There are three main reasons.

The first is safety. Sharp knives cut easily through whatever it is you’re trying to cut. Blunt knives require more force, and more force means less control – particularly if you slip. And slipping is far more likely with a blunt knife. (Have you ever had difficulty getting started when slicing a tomato? Then your knife wasn’t sharp enough.)

The second is simple efficiency. It takes a lot more effort to cut food using a blunt knife than it does with a sharp one. Use a sharp knife, and you’ll get finished faster and get a lot less tired in the process. You’ll probably find the process a lot more satisfying, too.

The third concerns the food itself. A blunt blade needs more force to push it through the food. That force gets spread more widely throughout the food, bruising it around the cut. As a result, you lose flavour, and the appearance isn’t helped either. This also explains why it’s best to have a really sharp knife when chopping onions – the sharper the knife, the less you cry.

How do I keep my knives sharp?

The best way is by regular use of a steel to hone your knives. (Not ‘sharpen’ them, you’ll note. Sharpening is what you do to create the edge, not to maintain it – and it’s a more heavy-duty process that involves grinding the blade down using a stone or a mechanical grinding tool.)

Most of us have a mental picture in our heads of how a steel should be used, involving the rapid brandishing of steel and knife in mid-air. While you can do it that way – and many professionals do – it’s difficult, and involves a certain amount of risk that you’ll cut yourself if your attention wanders.

A safer way (and easier, if you’re unused to honing knives) is to place a towel on your worktop or kitchen table and (using your non-knife wielding hand) hold the steel in front of you with the tip firmly on the towel, pointing straight downwards. Place the heel end of the edge of the blade against the top of the steel’s grooved surface, so that the edge meets the steel at an angle of about 20 degrees. (20° is the angle to which most manufacturers grind their blades). Then, using moderate pressure and maintaining the 20° angle, draw the knife towards you and down so that the whole length of the blade – right to the tip! – is pulled against the steel at the correct angle. About five times on each side of the edge should be enough, if you do it regularly.

How often should I hone my knives?

This depends on how often you use them and – to a certain extent – what you use them on, especially in terms of what work surface you use. Wooden boards (particularly end-grain wooden boards, like butcher’s blocks) are kinder on your edges than plastic; glass and marble “chopping boards” are a disaster. Once a week will probably be enough in most cases, though you may want to do it more frequently than that for the knives you use most often, and vice versa. And the more often you do it, the less effort you’ll need to put into doing it each time.

What sort of steel should I use? Are diamond and ceramic steels better than steel ones?

Use a steel made of steel, with a medium or fine grooved surface; the longer the better. (Too short, and you’ll find it hard to get the right honing action. A good guide to go by is the length of your longest blade plus five centimetres/two inches.) The diamond and ceramic steels last longer, but they’re for sharpening rather than honing. A steel steel generally lasts for three to four years in normal use.
All this may seem like a bit of a chore, but it’s worth persevering with. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon have it down to a fine art – and you’ll find your cooking becomes more enjoyable as a result.

As usual, I recommend Nisbets for kitchen equipment. They’ve got a vast range of honing and sharpening tools for kitchen knives, ranging from less than a tenner to well over a hundred pounds – just click on the banner below to find out more!

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9 Responses to “A few hone truths”

  1. Luxury Travel

    As someone who is guilty of not sharpening (or should I say ‘honing’) our knives regularly enough, you’ve just motivated me to do something about it. There’s another job for this evening.

  2. Not Delia

    When I worked in a professional kitchen, I used the steel every day before using any knife for work. These days, even though I cook a lot, it’s not necessary to do it all the time.

    I think some people like to show off, because they can do this impressive-looking rapid brandishing stuff. But it’s not recommended and it’s quite an easy way to give yourself a nasty cut if you’re not careful.

  3. dave

    Showing off is something i never give thought to as i’ve been using a steel so long it’s of a second nature to me, thinking back to last christmas though and the grandchildren’s faces has just made me laugh, i must have looked like a samurai warrior. I am a quick learner and only cut myself once in my early days, not using the steel but testing the blade the wrong way after honing it.

  4. Not Delia

    I’m still a bit of a wimp (unusual for me!) and when I use a steel I plant the tip of it firmly on the work top. I know some people can do very well with the brandishing action, but somehow I never quite mastered the knack. It always seemed like a bad idea to me to brandish a knife towards your own fingers.

  5. dave

    Interesting, you just made me observe, if the small guards are in the right position your fingers are fairly safe, however your main wrist arteries seem to be in most danger, wow, Maybe too late for the turkey but that would be a good christmas spectacle for the family.

  6. Not Delia

    LOL! You could always make a black pudding if you hit an artery. I know it looks impressive but I won’t be starting to do the brandishing thing any time soon.

    Of course blood is also a good thickener for gravy, so don’t worry about it too much. No need to waste anything.

  7. Oldjoe clarke

    With a grooved steel, it is important to use very soft strokes, about the weight of the knife would be a good rule, also, using a reverse action will further prevent accidental damage to your blade. I hold the steel pointing straight out from me and have the cutting edge facing me at the handle of the steel and with a light pressure run it down the steel away from me. All that crazy swashbuckling can and will chip your knife edge, all you are doing with a honing steel is realigning any parts of the blade edge that has folded over during use. A couple of gentle swipes before use does the job

  8. Mr Not Delia

    Thanks, Oldjoe. I’ve never heard of anyone using that reverse action technique before, but on the face of it, it sounds like a good idea. I’d be interested to hear from/of others who use it.

  9. Oldjoe clarke

    I should also of said that the angle of the knife on the steel should be just a tiny bit more than the angle that you sharpen your knife edge to. You can also just use the spine of another knife as a smooth honing rod, this is just as effective but will take a few more strokes to get the same effect. A final strop on some newspaper, about 10 sheets thick on a flat surface, will give an extra sharp feel to your edge, just run the blade at the angle you sharpen at along the paper and lift it straight up at the end of the stroke about 20-30 times for each side, ( place the cutting edge on the paper and draw it across the length of the paper thick side of the blade first) this is free, no cost honing of a knife edge, try it, get better at it and watch those onions just fall apart. Yes it really does make a difference.

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