If you cook, you own a knife and you know, more or less, what to do with it. But do you know how to keep it sharp and strong as the day you bought it? If you answered "honing steel" to this—close, but no cigar.
"You might think your knife is invincible but it's not," Mari Sugai of Korin, a New York City knife shop that specializes in Japanese knives, told me. Luckily, there are a few easy things we could all be doing to keep our knives in shape:
1. Stop putting your knives in the dishwasher.
Putting a knife through the dishwasher removes any protective coatings it has and dulls the blade's edge. Even worse, it can cause your knife to rust from the inside out. When this happens, Mari warned that your knife may crumble when you go to sharpen it.
Instead, clean your knife by washing it with soap and water, drying it thoroughly with a dishtowel, and putting it away immediately after use. This will help prevent staining and rusting.
2. Use your honing steel thoughtfully (and sparingly).
"Don't use honing steels on Japanese knives!" Mari said. Honing steels are good for Western-style knives because the steel they're made with tends to be a little bit softer than the steel used for Japanese knives, which are are thinner and harder. Using a honing steel on a Japanese knife will begin to chip the knife's blade.
While it's okay to use a honing steel for short-term sharpening of Western-style knives, it will eventually undo the blade's intended bevel (that's its sharp edge, which on Western knives is about 50-50 and on Japanese knives is an asymmetrical 70-30). Over time, you'll dull the blade and scratch your knife.
The best way to get a sharp knife is to use a whet stone for at home sharpening—and to take it to a professional sharpener once or twice a year. "Very few people actually bring it in this often," Mari admitted, but once a year or so will be just fine—and a lot better than having either a dull blade or a blade that's harmed from an incorrect sharpening.
3. Choose an appropriate cutting board.
If you want to keep your knife sharp, the type of cutting board you use matters. Mari and the rest of the Korin staff recommend rubber cutting boards. (Wood is fine too, but they're harder to maintain.) Though you may not use a rubber board at home just yet, it's a common choice at restaurants for two reasons:
- Rubber is softer than plastic, glass, or wood, so you don't damage the knife while you're cutting. (A glass cutting board is the worst thing you could do to a knife: "You're making the knife's surface dull instantaneously," Mari said.)
- Rubber cutting boards absorb impact—like a shock absorber for your knife and your wrist. "It helps prevent fatigue if you're cutting for a long time," explained Mari.
4. Remember that any given knife can't do everything.
Even "all-purpose" knives aren't really all-purpose. Most people have a chef's knife in their arsenal, and that's often the one they reach for first: It takes care of chopping, mincing, slicing for big jobs and small ones. But, said Mari, it's a bad idea to use a knife to cut through bone unless the knife is meant to cut through bone. The same goes for trying to cut through frozen things.
Additionally, don't try to bend your knives—they're really not all that flexible. And never twist your knife! Doing so could snap the blade. This goes for both Japanese and Western-style knives (though Japanese knives tend to be slightly more delicate than Western ones).
5. Store your knives properly.
And that means storing them correctly. After you wash and dry your knife, you can store it in a wooden block or on a magnetic strip—but Mari cautioned two things:
- A wooden block is fine, but be gentle putting your knife into it! "Some people sort of throw their knives in," said Mari, and that could cause you to lose the tip of your knife. "They forget that it's a hard surface they're throwing their knives into," she said, "so the [knife's] tip will chip or bend over time."
- Similarly, gentleness is key with a magnetic strip: "Don't be rough with how you're putting the knife against the metal strip" or with how you're removing it, Mari told me. Slapping the knife on with gusto might be satisfying, but you could easily chip the blade doing it. And if the magnetic strip is very strong, its pull could warp or even ultimately snap the blade.
6. Get your knives covers!
The best way to store a knife is to get a cover—essentially a simple sheath, usually either plastic or wood. A wooden cover is ideal and will help keep moisture off of the knife and protect it from being banged around in a block, on a strip, or in a drawer.
What's more, "it makes you realize that you have to put it back," Mari said. "If you see your case is empty, chances are you'll clean your knife and put it back, instead of leaving it in the sink" where it will rust.