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!