When I get ready to prepare delicious food for myself, my friends, or my family, there's almost nothing that kills my spirit more than a dull knife. By and large, in most kitchens I visit, from family members to clients to schools, dull knives are lurking everywhere, posing a safety hazard and threatening inspired cooking. It's much easier to cut yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp one, because the edge is susceptible to slipping over the surface of the food and ending up in your finger; and as most of us know, an injury from a blunt object is much harder to bear than a clean cut from a sharp blade.
This article aims to help home cooks choose the right knives, adjust knife handling for increased tool longevity, and introduce basic honing and sharpening skills to keep you safe and cooking joyfully.
Choosing the right knives
Start by stocking the right tools, and not too many of them. There are three types of knives I use religiously in my kitchen, and they're all I really need.
- Chef's knife: A broad-bladed, multi-purpose knife for all kinds of prep work, including slicing, dicing, chopping, chiffonade, and julienne techniques. I even cut steaks with it. I recommend a 10- to 12-inch blade. We also have a 6-inch chef's knife for smaller jobs, or if we want more than one person at the prep counter.
- Boning knife: A slender, often curved, 5- to 6-inch blade that can be flexible for moving around bones and joints. It's extremely useful for fish and poultry. You can substitute a filet knife if you prefer it.
- Paring knife: A small, slender, 3- to 4-inch blade for peeling, slicing, or small-dice jobs.
As you go, you may choose to add other sizes and styles. The handling, honing, and sharpening tips that follow here will apply to those knives as well.
When you're shopping for a knife from each of the previous categories, take into account the way the knife is built and the type of metal used. Most home kitchen knives are going to be stainless steel, or stainless steel coated. This prevents the blade from rusting, and the stainless steel alloys found in many conventional kitchen knives are soft enough that you can hone the knife easily and the blade will be unlikely to chip or break if it's dropped. The downside of softer alloys is they lose their edge more quickly, so you may find yourself honing and sharpening more than you like, depending on how zealous a cook you happen to be. If you seek blades constructed of harder alloys, you'll enjoy a longer-lived sharp edge; however, the knife will be more fragile (edges can crack or shatter more easily), and might be more susceptible to corrosion — particularly in the case of high-carbon steel alloys.
You'll have a choice among narrow tang or partial tang knives and full-tang knives. The former consists of a blade with a long narrow, or "short," tang on it, which is inserted into the knife handle — these blades are often stamped from steel plate, although some are forged or cut from plate. A full-tang knife will have the metal of the blade running continuously through the center of the handle and then the handle material bonded to either side of the metal. Full-tang knives, as a result, are usually better balanced for higher efficiency and often more comfortable to use, leading to better handling. Full-tang knives can be forged, stamped, or cut from steel plate. The forged and cut blades tend to be more expensive.
I generally recommend you spend more money on a chef's knife than your other knives. You'll use it more often. A full-tang, high-carbon chef's knife that's stainless steel coated will keep you in business longer than an economy stamped stainless steel chef's knife that saves you a buck at the get-go. If you're new to boning knives, a stamped stainless steel boning knife with a flexible blade will do fine for starters. Finally, shoot for a full-tang, stainless steel paring knife. I like the following knife brands: Victorinox, Dexter-Russell, Shun, Global, Tojiro, and Wüsthof.
Keeping your knives in proper condition involves handling them properly to avoid damage or rapid dulling. Probably most important is cutting surface. End-grain wood cutting boards are the kindest surface for your knife's edge because the fibers of the wood won't resist the knife's work. Side-grain boards require your knife to drag or hit the long grain of the wood (perpendicular to the wood grain), which will dull your blade more quickly. Plastic boards aren't the worst, but they're not as good as wood, and please avoid glass and ceramic altogether.
As far as handling, any use of the knife that doesn't respect the edge should be avoided. This means banging the blade on the edge of a pan or pot, using a hard knife to cleave through bones or completely frozen foods, or scraping against hard surfaces with the sharp edge. Cutting on any surface that's not a proper cutting board should also be avoided. Throwing or tossing is dangerous and can be destructive to a knife's edge, and dropping knives is certainly hazardous and can cause breaking. It can also be tempting to use your knife to pry something open or off, but there's a very good chance you'll chip your blade, and it would be bad news if that chip fell into the food that you're preparing. There are two kinds of wear to a knife's edge: misalignment and dulling; your handling of the knife can speed deterioration in both ways.
Even though you can't see it, your knife's sharp edge is formed with microscopic teeth. Normal wear and tear will move these teeth out of alignment when you use the knife, even when you adopt proper handling and knife holds. This is why you need a honing steel.
When you actually sharpen a knife's edge, you take metal off the blade, so we'd grind our knives down if we sharpened every time we needed a boost. Honing just realigns the edge, so you'll get some oomph without losing any metal. This is why we hone every time we use our knives, and throughout the cutting job if we're working on something tedious like butchery or doing sustained prep work.
Honing steels are available in several sizes, and I recommend buying a sturdy, somewhat heavy steel that's as long as, or longer than, your longest knife blade. Purchase a stainless steel or diamond honing steel for best results.
Learning to hone can take some practice, but once you've got it, you'll be able to right your blade quickly and without really thinking about it. The trick is to always hone in the same direction as the sharp blade and at the proper angle. Most knives are beveled off their edges at a 20-degree angle, so you'll need to mimic this angle when honing and sharpening. Keeping the proper angle, sweep the knife from base to tip down the steel rod, taking care to hone both sides of the blade. (If you have a specialized Asian-style knife that's only beveled on one side, you obviously only need to sharpen and hone on one side.) You also need to make sure you hone the entire length of the edge, several times on each side.
The three hardest things about sharpening your own knives are: deciding your preferred sharpening method, mastering the right technique, and cultivating patience.
My preference is for stone sharpening by hand. That being said, many people looking for a quick and mostly effective way of sharpening knives are probably going to start with a pull-through device, so my quick word on that is just to make sure you get the right angle.
When you buy your knives, you can usually read in the fine print at what angle the edge is beveled. If it doesn't say, it's probably the standard 20 degrees. From our technique discussion in the honing section, you know that you want to match the angle of treatment in honing and sharpening to the same angle as your knife's bevel. Most pull-through sharpeners, like most knives, are angled about 20 degrees. They work by angling two pieces of tungsten carbide in a V-shape, which you pull the knife edge through to shave off metal and create a new edge. These devices are simple, safe to use, and pretty effective for quick sharpening; however, they aren't the most precise, and the amount of metal they shave off is a little bit of an overkill. If you're interested in a more precise edge, taking off less metal, and increasing the longevity of the blade, or if you have a knife beveled less than the standard 20 degrees, consider taking the extra time and skilling up so you can stone sharpen by hand.
To sharpen by hand using stones, you'll want to choose between an oilstone and a water stone. A water stone uses water during sharpening and an oilstone uses oil. I have both, but prefer my water stone because it doesn't get logged with oil like an oilstone. (Although you can pull excess oil from an oilstone by soaking it in seltzer.) Water stones are also lighter weight, and you can find water for sharpening just about anywhere. Stones come in different grit levels, and you'll start sharpening on coarser stones and work your way to finer-grit stones as the blade edge gets sharper. With an oilstone, just be sure to keep it well oiled with sharpening oil (mineral oil, essentially). For a water stone, soak the stone until it stops bubbling and then keep a bowl of water close at hand so you can keep the stone lubricated with water as you sharpen. I begin sharpening on a 400 grit stone, move to 1,000 grit, then 3,000, then 8,000.
As with honing, the trick to sharpening is getting the right angle, and making sure you sharpen the entire length of the blade using even pressure. I accomplish this by spreading my fingers across the back of the spine, and starting with the base of the knife edge at one far side of the stone, moving it to the other side of the stone while also moving toward the tip of the knife edge. I usually count my passes, so I can be sure to give the same treatment to the other side of the blade. To sharpen the other side of the blade, simply flip it over and sharpen in the opposite direction. Depending on whether you are left- or right-handed, you'll find sharpening one side of the blade easier to master than the other side. Take your time, and remember that this takes a while. If my knife is quite worn down (I use my knives a lot), it may take 400 passes on each stone, on each side of the blade, before I feel it's sharp enough. I often sharpen for a while, then walk away and work on other projects before coming back to sharpening. Once I'm finished, I always hone each edge, wash each knife, and dry everything thoroughly before use.
The less wear on your knife between sharpenings, the easier it'll be to sharpen each time, and you'll find you can start with finer grit stones from the get-go. As you skill up and practice, you'll find your own rhythm, discover the character of your knives, and settle into a routine. Above all, you'll have the tools and know-how to keep your edges sharp and your food prep less cumbersome, leading to more fun in the kitchen.
Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of a sustainable food system. She's the author of The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore and Pure Charcuterie: The Craft & Poetry of Curing Meats at Home. She is a presenter at Mother Earth News Fairs and lives in Asheville, North Carolina.