How to Sharpen Your Knife
Cutlery Expert Andrew Forrest details the ins and outs of when and why you should sharpen your knives as well as the different options of how to sharpen them!
Table of Contents
- Why Should You Sharpen Your Knife?
- Sharpening Knives At Home
- Taking Your Knives in to Be Sharpened
- Testing Your Knives Sharpness
- Knife Maintenance
- Knife Storage
- Final Thoughts
Hello to the new chefs, home cooks, and other kitchen knife enthusiasts hoping to get an understanding of the basics of how to get a sharp knife through a variety of methods! To start with, let’s answer a key question…
Why Should You Sharpen Your Knife?
A sharp knife is a safe knife! Keeping knives sharp and ready for meal prep will prevent slippage and the need for additional force while cutting simple ingredients. Cutting your vegetables and meats with a high-quality sharpened blade will ensure the cooking process is done evenly, making your food taste even better. Lastly, sharpening your knives regularly when they are feeling dull will create a more consistent workflow at home in the kitchen.
Now that you know why you need your knife sharpened, it’s time to break down how to do it. To keep this simple and straight to the point, I have divided this article into two parts. One for the do-it-yourselfers who want to learn how to sharpen their knives like professionals at home; and the other for the high-quality kitchen knife users who plan on taking their knives in to be sharpened professionally.
There are many benefits to sharpening your knives at home and understanding the quality of your tools. On the other hand, taking your knives in can help save storage space in smaller kitchens and allows for perfect results from the beginning. We will talk about how often and the best places to take your knives if you’re in this group!
Sharpening Knives At Home
I will be covering three different types of at-home sharpening tools. Two of the tools are much easier to use and take little to no time to perfect but will provide less satisfying end results. When approaching sharpening, think about whether you are looking for something to help keep your knife sharp in between taking it into a professional or if you want to be able to take a completely dull knife and reshape the blade.
1. Electric Sharpener
There are many different makes and models of electric knife sharpeners on the market, but they all work generally the same and operate with little skill or practice. Two abrasive pads spin on motorized wheels at a similar angle to the blade. To sharpen, you simply pull the knife gently through the slots in the sharpener while keeping a firm and secure grip to prevent slipping.
2. Manual Sharpener
The simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to sharpen your knives at home is with a fixed-angle manual sharpener. Similar to the electric knife sharpener, it has abrasive materials angled relative to the angle of the blade. These sharpeners typically have a V-shaped notch to pull the knife through. The blade should be held firmly but not pressed down while the knife is pulled through the chamber with even pressure.
3. Water Stones / Whetstone
The oldest and most effective way to sharpen a knife at home is by using a whetstone or sharpening stone. They are found in a range of coarseness to tackle everything from sharpening the dullest knives to perfecting and polishing the sharpest knives.
Generally, a two-sided stone will be all an at-home chef should need and will come with a coarse grit side for the initial sharpening and a fine grit side to smooth things out along the blade. Whetstones typically come with directions and normally need to be left soaking in either water or oil before sharpening.
When purchasing a knife, the knife should state the angle of the blade and whether it is asymmetrical (which is rare and only comes on certain Japanese blades). Normally, Western-style knives will have around a 20-degree angle whereas softer Japanese knives are sharper and angled more toward a 15-degree angle. Knowing your knife and the degrees of the blade will not only help with sharpening but will help you to understand how it cuts.
Using whetstones might seem like a lot of work and somewhat counterintuitive at times, luckily it is extremely difficult to mess up a knife on a whetstone.
The technique of using whetstones is fairly vague and can be adapted in a variety of ways. There are devices called angle guards that attach to the backside of the knife to set your knife at the proper height for sharpening. Some people also will use coins stacked beneath the blade to create the proper angle on the side of the blade. My favorite method when learning is to use a permanent marker along the edge of the blade, and when the mark begins to fade, you know you have the right angle for the job.
In the video above, the chef positions the knife at a 5-o'clock angle to the stone with the cutting edge facing away from himself, holding the handle and the blade firmly, using his thumb to create the angle of the blade. He slowly pushes the blade away from himself with the knife angled against its tip. After you have pulled your knife across the stone at least five times, you should notice a burr that forms—that is how you know it is time to change sides. Once you have burred both sides, you should notice the knife is sharper. It is now time to repeat the process on either the finer side of the stone or on another finer stone, depending on your sharpening tools.
Using a whetstone is not something that has to be done at a fast pace or with an unreasonable amount of pressure. Slowing down and understanding the blade angles and the softness of the steel will help know your knife.
- Repetiton and Time Commitment: Whetstones can take time to truly master—between finding the right knife angle and building confidence—but this time investment is well worth it. You will probably be cooking for the rest of your life, so you might as well know how to sharpen your tools properly when needed.
- Money Savings: Paying for years of sharpening can add up and increase the monetary investment in your knife. By learning how to properly and safely sharpen knives at home, you will save time and money with a small investment into sharpening tools.
Taking Your Knives in to Be Sharpened
How Often You Should Sharpen Your Knives
Knowing the tools that build out your kitchen allows for a better relationship with food prep. Having sharp tools to get the job done properly allows you to enjoy the kitchen experience. When you begin to feel resistance or you feel you have to apply too much pressure to the knife, it is typically time to get it sharp again. Once I start dealing with troubling tomato skins, I know my knives have had enough and it's time to sharpen. Generally speaking, every three to four months seems to be perfect for most at-home chefs, depending on how much they cook.
Where to Go to Sharpen Your Knives
Everyone knows they can take knives into stores like Sur La Table or William Sonoma to get sharpened, but what I’ve found after tons of different experiences from expensive kitchen stores, farmer's markets, and local sharpeners, is that knife stores and trained sharpeners will sharpen your knife much better and with much more care than big kitchen stores. Knife sharpening costs around $5-10 dollars on the knife, but can sometimes vary based on the knife's dullness or if there is damage.
Why Go Professionally?
Tools for sharpening take up space, so if you are sharing a studio apartment with your partner and are hurting on cabinet space, I would recommend taking your knives in. It can also save tons of time and will be perfect immediately, unlike sharpening yourself where it takes time to practice.
Testing Your Knives Sharpness
The most accurate way to test the sharpness of your knife is by cutting ingredients you are familiar with. However, if you are not planning on cooking after you sharpen, then try the paper test to see how little resistance is needed to slice through the sheet. Using the knife blade, gently glide it against the paper to see if it cuts with ease.
Honing a knife is a simple way to keep a knife sharp and is done by gliding the knife at the blade's angle against either a ceramic or steel rod while pushing the blade back to the center. It is an essential part of maintaining the longevity of the sharpness you either perfected or paid for. In my opinion, through years of sharpening and conducting maintenance on a sharp knife, I have liked my ceramic honing rod for my sharper Japanese knives while I prefer a steel honing rod for my German and French knives as their steel is much stronger and takes more effort to reshape.
Washing and Drying
Washing your knives is extremely important! Typically, I will wipe my knife throughout prep and then do a final clean with soap and a sponge. These types of high-quality knives are not dishwasher safe.
Drying your knives is probably even more important than cleaning them—a wet knife is a dirty knife! Wiping them dry with a towel after a wash removes the risk of rust. Keep knives dry and stored in a dry place to prevent rust, decoloration, and other contaminants.
Use wood or plastic cutting boards as they are softer and easier on your knives compared to granite, glass, or marble.
Keeping knives sharp starts with proper storage. Blades are fragile, especially when in contact with other blades. Organization and edge and tip protection will be the most effective way to prevent chips or damaged edges.
- Cover: Knife covers and sayas can be used to protect knives' sharp blades from clanking around in the kitchen drawer.
- Roll: Knife rolls are a great storage and transportation option for a small set of knives.
- Bag: Knife bags come in tons of shapes, colors, and sizes to match individual quivers.
- Magnetic Strip: Magnetic strips can be used along walls and in drawers to prevent knives from smashing into one another.
- Block: Knife blocks are simple and effective, but do take up a lot of space on the countertop.
Knife sharpening is not something that you learn in one day; some chefs and sharpeners would say it can take years to master. It seems like every time I sharpen my knives I learn something new and improve on the practice. If you’re set on sharpening at home, using whetstones is a safe and very effective way to sharpen your knives. It is almost impossible to mess up a knife on a whetstone so don’t be afraid! Otherwise, I’d recommend going to a knife sharpener. You can always reach out to me or other Cutlery Experts with questions on sharpening and the tools needed to get the job done.