You spent the money and got that super high-tech knife set you saw on TV or in the store. You know, the ones that promised you would never need to sharpen them? And yet, here you are, with a set of knives that could once cut through a shoe now so dull they are crushing the Italian bread you are trying to slice for your dinner party.
So, what can you do? You can always throw them in the dump and just try a different recipe that doesn’t include any slicing, dicing, or cutting. Or, you can take on the medieval task of grabbing a whetstone and sharpening those puppies to their former glory.
Hundreds of years ago, we would have recommended the latter. Luckily, times have advanced since the days of bringing your sword to a smith or carrying a stone and rag.
Nowadays, there are many products on the market you can use to keep your knife set in peak form long after you buy them.
Read on as we break down how to use a knife sharpener: the right way!
A Cut Above
You probably had a knife sharpener somewhere in your silverware drawer growing up. It maybe had an ergonomic handle and two small edges in the center. You may have even tried to mindlessly sharpen one of your knives only to give up once you realized you had no idea what you were doing.
In the words of the late, great Robin Williams, “It’s not your fault!” These products don’t often come with detailed directions on how or even when to use them. So, you buy one or two or ten and try to use it only to get frustrated and give up, condemning yourself to a dull knife existence.
But the buck stops here! Today you learn. Knife sharpening might seem like a strange skill at first glance, but it is actually a fine science. But first, why not a little backstory on knives and sharpeners.
The Knives Of The Round Table
It probably comes as no surprise that people have been sharpening blades as long as they have been using them. The first known record of knife sharpening was…big surprise: the Stone Age. However, historians differ on the exact date, with some suggesting 75,000 BC and others suggesting 164,000.
One thing historians do agree on, however, is that the first recorded method of knife sharpening was discovered in Africa. This method required using a sharp bone or stick pressed with precision to break flakes off of the stone to sharpen its edges. The process evolved to use flint instead of bone or sticks.
Fast forward a few thousand years and the first western-style knife sharpening can be traced to the “moletas” of Northern Italy. The moletas traveled to villages offering their sharpening services. It wasn’t long before the moletas immigrated to America to spread their business.
Due to other knife grinders in the states fighting over territory, the Knife Grinders Association was founded in 1930. Slowly, people have begun to rely less on professionals and more on tools and products that bring knife sharpening into the home. But with more options for in-home sharpening, there is more opportunity for error.
So make sure to follow these steps for using a sharpener the right way:
Cut To The Chase
There are several knife sharpening techniques you can choose from depending on the tools available to you. Sharp knives are part of a functioning, happy kitchen.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
It’s important to know the difference between sharpening and honing before we get into the techniques.
Chances are your new knife set even came with a honing rod, but you haven’t used it because you have no clue how to! This steel rod isn’t for sharpening; instead, it is used to straighten out the edge of the blade to allow for a smoother cut.
Sharpening your blade actually sharpens it. You will want to use both, though. Hone your blade every time you take it out to keep it in good shape and sharpen your knife every few months, or whenever you notice it starting to dull.
The Cutting Edge
Handheld or pull-through knife sharpeners are the most convenient way to keep your knives sharp. They are simple and convenient to use. They don’t require electricity as electric sharpeners do, and they are faster than whetstones.
To use a handheld or pull-through, place the device on the counter or hold it in your hand. Firmly grasp the sharpener with your non-dominant hand to hold it in place.
Grip your knife by then handle and begin to pull the knife through the slot (start with the coarse slot for multi-stage sharpeners). Make sure you start with the knife closest to the heel before pulling smoothly through the slot toward yourself.
Apply mild pressure as you pull through. Make sure to lift the handle as you approach the tip to follow the contour of the blade. The whole motion should only be a second or so.
Move to the fine grit slot if you are using a multi-stage sharpener and continue until the blade is smooth. Clean the blade with mild soap and water, and then wipe dry.
The goal here is to create what is known as a burr. A burr is a wiry edge that is created from the sharpening of the metal. It will form on the edge of the knife where the sides of the knife intersect.
Once you notice the knife has an edge that is wiry, you are done sharpening.
Whet Your Whistle
The most classic way to sharpen your knife – and many people’s favorite – is by using a whetstone. A whetstone is a rectangular block that works almost like sandpaper for your knife’s edge. It straightens and refines the edge of the blade as you slide the knife over it.
Whetstones are usually wet (surprise, surprise) and soaked in water prior to use. Funny enough, whet is an old word meaning “to sharpen,” and the fact that most stones are wet is a happy accident.
Check the manufacturer’s instructions to see if the stone you are using needs to be soaked and, if so, submerged in water before use.
To use the stone, place it on a flat surface with the coarse side facing up. Use the provided holder to keep it in place. If there is no holder, place the stone on a wet paper towel or cloth to keep it from moving around.
Next, determine the set-angle of your knife. Generally, a 20-degree angle will be sufficient. Holding the knife in your dominant hand, gently drag each side of the knife against the stone a few times, tip to heel.
The proper hand placement requires your thumb and index finger on either side of the blade with your other fingers around the handle of the knife. Place your other hand on top of the blade for pressure and stabilization.
Run the blade lengthwise from tip to heel three or four times, then do the same on the other side. If the stone has a fine grit side, flip it and repeat the process on that side. When you are finished and can see or feel a slight burr, wash the knife with soap and water and dry it off.
It’s Electric, Boogey-Oogey-Oogey!
If a whetstone is too old-fashioned and a sharpener is too labor-intensive, try an electric sharpener. These are super easy to use and efficient.
Simply plug the unit in and hold the knife in your dominant hand. Slide the knife-edge in and pull through as you would on a non-electric unit. Continue three or four times and move on to any other stages if using a three-stage electric sharpener. Clean and dry, and you are good to go!
Knife To Know Ya!
A knife sharpening system is the most labor-intensive method but also one of the best. To use this method, secure the knife firmly in the clamp. Choose a stone with a coarse grit and insert the rod at an angle appropriate for the knife. Press the stone over the blade in long strokes or in a series of short, circular motions.
Continue this until you feel a raised burr. Flip the knife and do the same on the opposite side. Once a burr is achieved on this side, switch to a medium grit stone and repeat the process in the opposite direction you sharpened with the coarse stone.
Finally, switch to a fine grit stone and begin the process again. Only make light passes in a single direction until the burr is all but gone. Clean and dry the blade and you are finished.
Dull Knife, Dull Life
A dull knife is frustrating to work with and can even be more dangerous. Learning how to sharpen your knives, as we have mapped out above, is a sure-fire way to make sure your food comes out better, and your kitchen is safer.
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