Tip: A sharp kitchen knife can cut your meal prep time in half. Are you honing and stropping every time you use your knife?
“As we head into the next decade, I’m going to need you to cook a few evenings a week,” my husband announced recently.
Fair enough, as my contributions in the kitchen had dwindled down to … well, none. Mark is such an excellent cook that I’d settled into being a lackadaisical, red-wine-sipping sous-chef at best.
I don’t mind cooking, but the challenge is squeezing all of that prep work into the sliver of time between getting home from work and heading off to an early evening exercise class. I like to cook fresh foods, so this time usually involves a lot of chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing. A sharp, well-honed kitchen knife means that dinner gets into the oven more easily and quickly than it otherwise would.
Sharp knife bonus: You can ditch that old wives’ tale about putting an extinguished match between your teeth. If chopping onions makes you tear up, a sharp knife is the best remedy out there. A dull knife destroys more cellular walls in the onion, releasing more irritants into the air and into your weepy eyes. A sharp knife cuts through the cellular structure more cleanly, releasing fewer irritants into your cooking area and keeping you tear-free.
I’ve never been good at sharpening or honing, which is why I was glad to get some practical kitchen knife tips from Josh Warren at Work Sharp-DAREX.
First, he clarified a distinction I only dimly understood previously — the difference between sharpening and honing. Sharpening involves removing material from the blade, and honing involves evening it out.
“When you sharpen a blade, you actually remove material from the blade edge or bevel on one side,” Warren explained. “Or, you’re removing material from both sides to create a sharp point where there once was a dull edge.”
Because you’re removing material from the blade when you sharpen it, the material in your sharpener must be harder than the steel in your knife. That’s why knife sharpeners are stone, ceramic, diamond-plated, or an abrasive belt.
The Quick & Dirty Science of Sharpening
As you use a knife for heavy or repeated cutting, the edge rolls over to one side or the other, Warren said. “If this is not corrected with a good sharpening, and the rolled edge continues to receive pressure. Eventually, it breaks off, leaving a flat plate where there used to be a razor-sharp edge. If you were able to look closely at the knife’s bevel, you’d see a pyramid without a top.”
“Sharpening involves removing material from the blade, and honing involves evening it out.”
You need to restore the edge — the top of that flattened pyramid. You can’t add microscopic material, so you must remove material to make a new edge. During sharpening, you chip away at each side of the pyramid until at the top becomes a fine point again. To maximize performance, you should remove material evenly from each side.
The tomato test is a quick way to know if your knife needs sharpening. A sharp kitchen knife cuts through the tough skin and soft flesh with equal ease.
Kinds of Sharpeners
Sharpening is much easier if you have the right tool, and there are several types.
Flat stone sharpeners are effective. But to maintain a consistent stroke and angle, you need to master a difficult-to-learn skill. Plus, it takes time to sharpen a knife this way, so you need to be the kind of person who likes that, like my dad. Me? Not so much.
Diamond-plated sharpeners are similar to sharpening stones, except that diamonds are harder and cut more quickly. Precision is still very important, but because of the reduced number of necessary strokes, it’s easier to achieve consistency with a diamond-plated sharpener, Warren said.
Powered sharpeners have abrasive belts that remove material more quickly than manual sharpeners, thus speeding up the sharpening process. Some come with angle guides, which make consistency more foolproof even for semi-skilled sharpeners like myself.
How to Sharpen a Knife
Whichever sharpening tool you use, principles are the same:
- Sharpen one side until you raise a burr. This will feel like a small wire pushed over to one side of the bevel.
- Next, repeat the same number of strokes on the other side. A burr will form again on this opposite side.
- Hone away this burr by repeating the process with finer grit stones or belts.
- Finish by honing and stropping.
When you hone a blade, you straighten it out. “When you use a knife for kitchen work, you essentially push around the metal as you apply force to the blade,” Warren said. This blade straightening motion is also called “stropping.”
Here’s the big wake-up call for me: “Honing or stropping should happen each time you use the knife,” Warren told me. “This practice keeps a knife performing longer and increases time between sharpenings.” Because sharpening a knife less also means removing less material, you thus extend the blade’s life.
You can use the honing steel that comes in a standard kitchen knife block to straighten the blade and give it a longer performance between sharpening sessions.
For honing, a hard, flat surface is crucial. The honing material must be harder than the steel in the blade. Unpolished glass or ceramic are two options.
Honing hack: If you find yourself without a honing block, look for the rough ceramic on the underside of some coffee mugs. The unpolished glass that’s at top of your vehicle window when you roll it down also works.
You can also use a leather strop to straighten the rolled edge of a blade:
- Lay the knife flat on the strop.
- Tip up the knife’s spine about 25 degrees, leaving the blade in contact with the strop.
- Pull backward, leading with the knife’s spine — opposite of a cutting motion.
Stropping Hacks: If you don’t have a leather strop, you can use the inside of a leather belt, thick denim jeans, or heavy cotton pants as a makeshift strop.
For more sharpening, honing, and stropping tips, check out Work Sharp’s blog. I also found some tasty recipes to help this former sous-chef get back into the main game.
No matter what type of sharpener you use, technique matters, and a sharp knife is essential.
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