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Hone Sweet Hone: How to Sharpen Your Knives, Any Which Way

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Treat your knives well, and they'll love you back. Here's how to sharpen your most essential tool, any which way.

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The world’s sharpest knives belong to newlyweds. It’s all downhill from there -- the more you cook, the duller your most important tool becomes. It's only through regular maintenance that cooks keep their blades sharp.

Knife sharpening, like shoe shines and TV repair, is something of a casualty in our throw-away culture, but learning to care for your tools is more than just prudent; sometimes, the methodical, rhythmic ring of steel on stone is therapeutic after a frazzled day at the office.

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If you can no longer slice a bell pepper, or the last fish fillet you cut looked like Jack the Ripper’s practice dummy, it’s time to get your edge back. First, choose a method. We'll show you how to do the rest:

Sharpening Steel
It’s a good habit to use a sharpening steel every time you take out your knife. A steel is the fat round thing in your knife block that looks like a metal lightsaber. This method is like 2 minutes of cardio for your blade; it quickly aligns all of the metallic ions in the knife's edge so that you can part your proteins with ease and precision. Simply hold the knife in your dominant hand, lay it nearly flat against the steel at about 22 degrees (think about it as half of 45 degrees), then draw it across the steel 10 times on each side. The steel won’t restore an edge to a dull knife, but it will help you keep an edge longer on a well-maintained knife.

To sharpen a dull knife, you have 2 options:

Electric Knife Sharpener
The electric knife sharpener is the fastest way to restore your blade to health., but it’s also the most brutal. The edge of a knife is a carefully tapered compression of metal layers, and everyday thwacking sends the atomically aligned edge into disarray, or worse -- it can chip tiny divots into the metal. An electric sharpener simply obliterates the old edge and tapers a new one. For the average knife, there are worse fates. But, if you happen to own a Japanese cold-forged sabatier made from Valyrian steel, this is a sad, sad day indeed.

More: Our philosophy? The prettier the knives, the more likely you are to take care of them.

Sharpening Stone (Whetstone)
If you have a very nice knife, sharpen it with a whetstone. A stone will set you back $10 at the hardware store (although you can spend more on ceramic and glass models). Moreover, it’s a great meditative practice, like zen archery -- except that you can do it in the confines of your own apartment. 

Sharpening stones come in different sizes and grits (the stone's level of coarseness), which are often indicated by color, depending on the brand. Some stones have two sides: a coarser side for removing dents and sharpening very dull blades, and a more refined side used for polishing and edge refinement. The rule of thumb is to always start sharpening your knife on the coarse side, moving to the refined side to finish.

If your countertop is slippery, place a rubber mat or towel underneath the stone. Some stones should be used with either mineral oil or water, but not all stones require a lubricant. Read the instruction manual that comes with your stone in order to avoid damaging your knife. 

The key to sharpening your knife with a stone is to keep your blade at the proper angle, about 22 degrees. To eyeball it, it’s helpful to think of it as half of a 45-degree angle. Another helpful way to maintain the proper angle is to attach a 1/4 inch binder clip to the spine of your knife. This will keep the blade consistently at a 22-degree angle as you draw it against the stone. 

Lay the blade against the stone, with the tip pointing at 11 o’clock and the sharp edge pointing away from you. With one hand on the hilt, and the other guiding the tip and maintaining the angle, draw it up the stone slowly, from left to right, with minimal pressure. You can repeat this movement a dozen times or more. Then, turn the knife over, and with the tip at 2 o’clock, repeat the same movement from right to left. This may feel a bit more awkward -- just listen to your inner Mr. Miyagi coaching you: Slowly! Gently!

Turn the stone over to the side with the finer grit. Perform the same sharpening actions on both sides once again, further tapering that edge. When you’re done, break out that sharpening steel and draw the blade against it a few times. Then, be sure to clean the knife with a damp towel to remove any excess metal or grit.

Razor-sharp knives may sound scary, but they’re actually much safer than forcing semi-dull tools through stubborn tomatoes. You might even find they make your cooking taste better, too.

Note: None of these techniques will work on a serrated knife. So skip that one.

Photos by Alpha Smoot

Tags: knife sharpening, how to sharpen your knives, whet stone, sharpening steel, electric sharpener, whetstone, knife skills