Essential Tools

The Speediest Way to Improve Your Cooking

February 16, 2018

What can you do with just five minutes? Actually, way more than you think! Introducing Food52 in 5: your cheat sheet for speedy, delicious recipes, fun mini projects, and more.


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.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

1 Comment

AntoniaJames February 20, 2018
I’m glad to see Food52 devoting some editorial real estate to this "what can you do in five minutes?" approach, which I’ve been evangelizing since the earliest days of the site. Several years ago, one of the editors picked up on this to write a short-ish feature on tasks quickly done in the morning, to make the evening meal easier. I created a quick list, just off the top of my head, of the many 2 - 6 minute tasks that I do to take advantage of small “pockets” of time when I’m home. To share it with anyone who might find it helpful, I’ve posted a link to this (still somewhat stream of consciousness) list of quickly completed tasks. https://tinyurl.com/SmallMakeAhead...... <br /><br />(This general idea is not original to me. I have been doing this in my office since reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” which was published the year I started my own law practice. It’s one of the most useful business books out there. But I digress . . . .) <br /><br />I’ve added this overarching suggestion to the linked Google Doc about a month ago:<br /><br />When I plan / review my menus for the following week to lay out my prep activities for the weekend and weeknight evenings, I create a list of every small food prep or other task that will eventually need to be done. I put it on a medium index card, which I keep handy to consult whenever I have a few minutes of "downtime,” or to include in my longer prep sessions. <br /><br />Also, there are quite a few good suggestions of 5-minute tasks in this Hotline thread started last month: <br /><br />https://food52.com/hotline...... I’m guessing that many of these ideas will be the subject of separate posts in the near future . . . . . . .<br /><br />;o)