How to Clean and Care For Kitchen Knives

Published on 01/14/2024 · 8 min readKeep your knives in top shape! Learn how to clean and care for your kitchen knives, ensuring their longevity and maintaining their sharpness.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

A clean, shiny kitchen knife. Photo by RDNE Stock Project

TL;DR: There are several aspects to proper knife care, including storage, cleaning, and honing.

There are several aspects to taking proper care of your knives which will vary a bit depending on the knife and handle material. The same basic principles apply to all kitchen knives, though, and this will cover the cleaning and care of steel knives, as ceramic knives have different care requirements.

I grew up learning to cook by watching my mom prepare meals for the family. I was more interested in baking when I was younger, but I did cook for the family as a teenager. I’m now a dedicated home cook, and I’m always seeking to get better. And having good, properly maintained equipment, especially knives, is a big part of that.

This article should answer most of your questions about knife care, but if you aren’t sure about anything, reach out to any of our Curated Kitchen Experts. Our Experts offer advice and recommendations at no cost to you!

How to Wash Your Knives

Photo by Rick Neves

Keeping your knives clean is one of the best ways to maintain and improve their lifespan.

  • Hand wash: The dishwasher is hard on everything it washes, especially knives. The harsh detergent can damage your knife blade, the heat isn’t good for the steel, and it dries out the handle, particularly if it’s wood. The best thing you can do for your knives is to wash them by hand with dish soap and a sponge. Most of the time, you won’t need to even scrub them unless you’ve let them sit. Ideally, you should wash your knives right after using them, but just make sure not to leave anything too acidic or alkaline on them for a long time.
  • Dry immediately: The best thing you can do is dry your knives after washing them so they don’t stay wet. If your knives are stainless steel, the chromium in the alloy protects them from corrosion. This means that you don’t have to dry them right away. Most of the time, I let mine air dry, as I have a knife rack. That does cause water spots, though, and if you live somewhere humid or don’t have a place with good air circulation, don’t do it – you’re asking for rust spots. For carbon steel knives, never let them stay wet, or they’ll rust. Some high-carbon stainless steels aren’t very corrosion-resistant, either, so make sure to dry those with a soft cloth or hand towel after washing every time.
  • Shine them up: After a while, knife blades will begin to tarnish. This is a normal process and won’t affect the knife’s performance, but if you want your knife to look like new again, I recommend Bar Keepers Friend. Put some of the powder on a sponge or damp cloth, and then run it over your knife blade like you’re washing it. Make sure to rinse the knife off thoroughly – you don’t want to leave it on there – but it’ll take tarnish and rust spots right off, making your knife look like new again. If it was badly tarnished, then it might take a few passes to get it back to shiny.

A restored carbon steel knife. Photo by Di Doherty

Knife Storage

Photo by cabuscaa

Proper knife storage is another very important aspect of knife care. There are several different options for making sure your knives are kept safe and dry, and which one is best will depend on your knives and your kitchen.

  • Magnetic strip or bar: This is a great way to keep your knives out of the way and also display them. A magnetic bar is exactly what it sounds like: a bar that has a magnet in it so that the blade of the knife will stick to it. Most of these are affixed to the wall, though there are also refrigerator ones. Just make sure that the magnet is strong enough to hold the knives in place but isn’t so strong that it’s a struggle to remove them. Not only is that inconvenient, it stresses the knives every time you take them off of it.
  • Knife block: Likely the most common knife storage solution, knife blocks are attractive and compact – though they do take up counter space. There are several different types, including magnetic ones, which are a cross between a magnetic bar and a knife block, and ones that resemble a knife rack. Many knife sets also come with one.
  • Knife organizer: Sometimes called an in-drawer tray, these allow you to safely store your knives in a drawer. They resemble a knife block in that there are slots for the knives, but they're the right size and shape to slide into a kitchen drawer. Just make sure that the slots aren’t too tight, or they’ll dull your knife when you put them away.
  • Knife roll: If you travel a lot, there are also knife rolls to store your knives in. They’re a fabric case that has slots for knives to keep the blades and your hands safe as they’re being transported. They could also be used by those with limited storage space.

Keeping Your Knife Sharp

While it may sound counterintuitive, a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. Keeping your knives sharp not only prevents slipping and protects you but also it limits the amount of strain on the knife. If you don’t have to struggle to slice something, then you aren’t putting a lot on your cutlery.

Honing

Photo by Dmitry Kalinovsky

This is a vital part of knife care. A sharp knife has a very thin edge that can be curled over by using it to chop things. Honing straightens the edge out so that it's smooth and sharp again.

This is done with a honing rod (also called a sharpening steel or honing steel). Honing the knife involves running the blade along the edge of the rod, which straightens the edge out again. Pushing the knife downwards and towards you works the best, and be sure to run it along both sides. I alternate, but you can do a few swipes on one side then switch to the other, too.

This is different from sharpening, as honing a knife doesn't remove any steel. That means that you can do it every time you use it, but you should do it at least once a week. Wondering if your knife needs to be honed? Run the blade of the knife lightly along your thumbnail – don’t apply pressure, just use gravity. If the edge catches on your nail, it needs to be honed.

Sharpening

Sharpening a knife on a whetstone. Photo by Airam Datoon

Once honing the knife no longer makes it feel sharp again, it’s time for it to actually be sharpened. This can be done with a whetstone, knife sharpener, or taking it to a specialist – most kitchen stores offer sharpening services.

  • Knife sharpener: Most knife sharpeners remove more metal than a whetstone, so unless you have a specialty sharpener, it’s harder on your knife. It is more convenient, though, as you just have to drag the blade through it. So, if you have an inexpensive knife, go for it. Maybe don’t use it on your $300 gyuto, though.
  • Whetstone: This is considered the better way to sharpen your knife, though it takes more time and precision to do it right. Start by soaking your whetstone (amusingly, the name doesn't come from the fact that it needs to be wet, but whetting, which means sharpening) until it stops bubbling. Once the stone is ready, put your knife on it at an angle. Match the angle that the bevel is, which is usually 20 degrees for Western knives and about 15 for Japanese knives, then slide the knife forward, like you’re cutting something. Then, check the blade. If you see tool marks on the side of the blade, your angle is off. Alter the angle and try again. Some people will put Sharpie on the bevel as a way to see how good their angle is – it should be removed.
  • Strop: If you’re extra about how sharp your knives are, like I am, then get a strop. I use a leather one. After sharpening your knife, run the blade across the leather strop. Use the same angle you did on the whetstone to make sure that you’re just rubbing it across the bevel. Strops have two sides like a whetstone, so start with the rougher side. Once you’ve run the blade across it a few times, switch to the smoother side. This will give your knife that big of extra sharpness.

Testing the sharpness of a knife. A sharp edge will catch on your fingerprint as you slide your thumb across it. Photo by Cottonbro Studio via Pexels.

Find the Best Knife Care Solutions for You

Testing the sharpness of a knife. A sharp edge will catch on your fingerprint as you slide your thumb across it. Photo by Cottonbro Studio

Taking care of your kitchen knives is a commitment and can vary from knife to knife. If you have any questions about what type of care your knife might need or what products you can get to help better care for your knife, start a chat with a Kitchen Expert! All our Experts love their equipment and would be happy to let you know the best way to care for your knife and what you need. Best of all, it’s free!

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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