01 February 2009

How To Stay Sharp In The Kitchen

The most important tools in the kitchen, in my opinion, are one's knives. Therefore, it is crucial to take proper care of them. If you don't, everything from the flavour of your food, to your annual expenses will suffer for it. 

If you believe in gimmicky blades, with lifetime guarantees of sharpness, serrated edges, and paper thin shafts with plastic handles, you need not read any further...

In many cultures, the first thing a Swordsman is required to do, upon the completion of his training, is to forge his own sword, or to select one deemed appropriate for his individual style. Without this ability, he would not be worthy of the title. This is sensible for the obvious reason that one should know, fundamentally, the tools of their trade, or art if you will.

My understanding of this principle is rooted in the brief time in which I fancied myself a Macrobiotic. I, like many, was a vegetarian at this time and mistakenly believed that this was a prerequisite to being Macrobiotic. This, I later discovered was untrue, and began the task of understanding Macrobiotics more fully. I was also interested in The Way of The Samurai. In Bushido, all organisms are regarded as equal to the Samurai. This lends one to a new level of respect. Remember, your food is a cellular compound, as are you. A dull knife will cause pain, whereas with a sharp blade, there may be a lot of blood, yet there will be no pain. Using a sharp knife will leave more cells intact, thus improving the quality of flavour, as well as aesthetic. 

I've personally never made a knife, but I have carefully selected the ones I own, and have taught myself to sharpen and hone them.

I began my knife collection one at a time. I was young, and forking out over a $100.00 per knife was not an option for me at all, though I managed to do it. It took a few years. I still have each one of them, eight in all. This collection accommodates all of my needs. The number of knives, as well as the types one chooses, is a personal decision that should be made in as informed a way as possible. I started safe with a 6" Chef's knife. This gave me the most versatility, as it was large enough for most things while small enough to almost substitute for a paring knife. I used it exclusively for 4 or 5 years before I purchased my second knife, a 10" version. Then came the 10" bread knife, the paring knives, the tomato knife, and the 4"Chef's. Then, a second 10". Sometimes, I need two.

A good quality knife will typically come with a lifetime guarantee. It can also last a lifetime if it is properly cared for. Once I dropped one of my 10" blades. It hit the Terra Cotta tiled floor tip first and broke off about a 1/4" of the point. I took it back, (2 or 3 years after purchasing), and it was replaced. So, initially investing in a good knife will even save you money in the long run. 

To best keep your blades in the optimal condition in which they came, they must be honed regularly and sharpened 2 or 3 times a year. If you are spending a lot of time using them, you should have a honing steel. I have a wonderful antique Dickeron steel from Germany. It was a gift to me years ago and I absolutely treasure it. 

Honing realigns the metal of the existing edge, returning folds and burrs to the blade angle in which it was cut. Sharpening actually creates a new edge by removing the damaged metal. I hone my knives nearly daily. I sharpen them with a dry stone in three stages from coarse to fine, changing the angle from wide to narrow with each step. Never oil your stones. The metal gets trapped in the oil and damages your edge. Once a year, I have my knives professionally sharpened. Perhaps if I had more time, I could avoid this expense, but I am not a professional knife sharpener. This skill is one I respect and ultimately put my trust in those whom have made it their craft.

It is also important to be mindful of the type of surface you use with your blades. Wood is best. Never, and I mean never use plastic. It will destroy your knife. It is a myth that plastic is more sanitary as well. Nothing is wrong with wood if you keep it oiled and wash it with soap after each use. Besides, the chemicals in plastic boards do transfer to your food affecting the healthiness and taste. I use a large Mahogany board and oil it with a combination of refined seed oil, lemon oil, vitamin E, and carotene. I use this on all of my wooden utensils as well. 

Now, go give your knives some love.


  1. Going along with your principle of quality over quantity of knives, I find that I can only properly maintain two or three knives on a regular basis, and so I should only use that many. I also do all of my own sharpening, and recommend a method that costs almost nothing, can be learned in minutes, and provides unparalleled sharpness. I re-profile all my knives to a convex edge cross-section, which reduces cutting friction and improves the wedge effect. Just take a flat wooden board and place an old mousepad on it, then lay a piece of 200 grit wet/dry sandpaper on top. I tape this down to the board, but simply wetting the mousepad and sandpaper will provide enough friction to keep things in place. Then I lay the knife blade flat on the sandpaper and raise the angle carefully until the edge comes down to just touch the sandpaper. Not pressing, letting the weight of the blade alone press it down, I draw it along the sandpaper spine first. The weight of the blade depresses the neoprene mousepad slightly, creating a curved rubbing surface. The first time a blade is profiled in this way, I use 50 consecutive strokes on one side of the blade, then the other, followed by 20 each, 10, 5, 4, 3, 2 and then a single stroke on each side, alternating for 20 strokes. Then I repeat with 400-600 grain paper, and finish with 800-1200 grain. After the initial re-profiling, the sets of 50 and 20 strokes are no longer necessary, as the blade is already the right shape, and it's quite quick. If you do it regularly, the coarser grains will seldom need to be used. This edge shape makes 'push' cutting, in contrast to 'sawing', very easy, and is stronger and more durable than a V cross-section edge. It is the traditional edge of Japanese swordsmiths, and can only be achieved by hand.

  2. I had read of this method sometime ago. I was personally too fearful and unsure of my ability to try it, as I was taught in the Western tradition of wedge rubbing. I also wasn't sure how effective this would be in re-profiling my blades. I'm grateful you brought this up. I am always contemplating ways to improve on my method. I would miss my honing steel, though you've convinced me to give it a try. Does anyone have a mouse pad I can borrow? The only one in my house has a picture of my kids on it. Somehow, I think it would be inappropriate to use.

  3. Yes, do try just one, the one you are least worried about, maybe the oldest and most beat up of your good knives, and use it that way for several months. Try to make sure it's a fine-grained steel: I have some Chicago Cutlery knives that are good for holding a V-edge, but too coarse to take a good Japanese-style edge. Of course, any decent Japanese knife will take it beautifully. Two keys I should have emphasized: resist the urge to press down into the pad--once you feel the give, you will want to press into it, and that can round the edge too much. And lay the knife down as flat as you can such that the paper still comes up just to the edge while the knife is moving. With some blades, I have to lay them completely flat to the sandpaper, so that it abrades much of the side of the blade--this isn't a bad thing, and with our Japanese paring knife it actually cleans and polishes the (non-stainless) old-school steel. With the rest, I come up just a hair from that, as i do with the French commercial sabatier that performs so well with this edge: tonight, I was stripping Italian kale leaf from the stalk, in the air over the pot with effortless strokes. It was like a cross between the old Japanese Iron Chef and a Kurasawa movie.

    For a video, see number 4 on this page: