Kitchen Knife Care

Treat your kitchen knives right and they’ll reward you. Keep your cutlery in tiptop shape and ready to use at any time with this advice for honing, sharpening, and more.

| July/August 2018

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.

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