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One of the simplest things you can do to improve your cooking is to sharpen your knives regularly. I know this because I used to wait until mine were far more useful for crushing onions than chopping them; I'd be struggling to slice something as delicate as tomato skin before reluctantly dragging out my sharpening stone. But, unfortunately for the procrastinators among us, it’s one of those kitchen tasks that really is a whole lot easier if you stay on top of it. Plus, futzing with dull knives every time you want to make dinner is maddening (not to mention dangerous; don’t do that to yourself!). It’s worth it to take five minutes every so often to give them a tune-up while you’re waiting for that pasta water to boil.
So how often should you aim for? Well, the short answer is whenever they start to feel dull—which can vary depending on the quality of your knives and how often you use them. Can your knife cut a tomato cleanly? If not, it's time to sharpen it. You can also use the paper test: Hold a sheet of printer paper up and try to slice it vertically. If you have trouble hacking through the paper, your knife could stand to be sharper. For most home cooks, this will be two to three times a year.
For sharpening at home, you can use an electric sharpener or a stone; stones are generally agreed to be the better choice, since they are gentler on your blades, relatively inexpensive, and easy to use. Here’s how to do it:
Some stones need to be oiled or soaked in water first; check the manual that comes with yours to be sure. If it’s two-sided, start with the coarser side.
Hold your knife at a 15 to 20 degree angle—this can vary slightly from knife to knife, so again, double-check the info that came with yours. (You can use a matchbook, a couple of pennies, or a ¼-inch binder clip to help keep everything at the proper angle.)
Holding the knife at the correct angle with one hand and the blade facing toward you, rest fingers of the other hand on the flat side of the blade and push it away from you, making 10 strokes. Flip it over and do 10 strokes on the other side.
Test and, if it’s still not sharp enough, repeat until your knife is back to its former glory. That’s it!
P.S. Once your knife is sharpened, you'll want to keep it that way. This is where honing steel comes in, which realigns the edge of your blade (versus sharpening, which grinds off the dull edge). Honing keeps knives in good shape between sharpenings. Some cooks hone their knives every time they use them, but once a week or once every two to four uses should do it for most people.
Pro tip: If you don't have a sharpener, or find yourself in a pinch with a dull knife, you can use the unglazed bottom rim of a ceramic mug, which is just hard and abrasive enough to do the trick. Run your knife along it just as you would a sharpening stone.