Essential Tools

Who Needs a Meditation App When You Can Sharpen Knives?

June 22, 2018

While I love to tinker around with all manner of utensils and gadgets in my kitchen, my mother is decidedly austere in hers, and shuns most things that fall outside her steady tool triumvirate of knife, kitchen shears, and chopsticks.

Do you need ALL these things? she asks whenever she comes for a visit. A good cook just needs a sharp knife, she insists, eyeing my melon baller with curiosity.

Well, the woman does speak the truth. At the end of the day, a good ol' chef's knife is the ultimate MVP of the kitchen. It's one of very few tools that will be called upon for duty, meal in and meal out.

There are many knives in my arsenal, but really only a handful are kept on the magnetic rack for daily use. These are the ones making vital contributions: the small and mighty paring knife that makes quick work of strawberry-hulling and salami-slicing alike; the vegetable knife handed down to me from my mother-in-law; two trusty Japanese santoku knives with their signature sloped blades; and the biggest one of them all, a longer santoku from my grandmother that I use to cut up large melons and cucumbers in a minimal number of strokes.

I have specialty knives, too, including a Japanese nakiri that looks like a petite cleaver (great for chopping and slicing vegetables), and a thin, flexible boning knife for removing perfect little fish fillets; but I keep those off the rack and waiting in the wings (drawers), protected in their respective sheaths.

As in any good relationship, a good knife only benefits from the attention and care you bestow on it. That means that in addition to keeping them clean (hand wash only, please), dry, and safely stored, you must also make sure they are sharpened. We all know that a sharp knife is a safe knife. Dull knives force you to push or pull harder than you need to, which can lead to slippage and potential injuries. How often you need to sharpen your knives depends on how hard and often you're putting them to work. My knives see nearly daily activity; if I'm able to sharpen them every month or two with an occasional pass on a honing steel in between, I feel good!

Because it's about more than just having a sharp knife to me.

I can pinpoint when I started looking forward to my sharpening sessions to my days working in a restaurant kitchen, where sharp knives weren't just a nice to have, but an absolute necessity. I recall our chef running occasional knife checks up and down the line before the onslaught of service began, lightly flicking his thumb across our shiny blades. No one at home would complain about a slightly bruised chiffonade of herbs, but that simply wouldn't fly when paying customers were involved.

A sharp knife is a safe knife.

I thought I kept my knives sharp, but of course, they were never sharp enough. Chef’s routine checks (not to mention all of those Cambros of kale that needed cutting) were enough motivation to get my knife up to par―and keep it that way. On my weekly day off, I’d find myself in my apartment, turning on a podcast or my favorite tunes before setting myself up in front of a double-sided Japanese whetstone planted firmly on the kitchen counter with a wet kitchen towel underneath it, a bowl of water and an array of knives nearby. The next 20 to 30 minutes were spent swooshing the knives diagonally and perpendicularly, sharpening on the coarser side first before flipping it to finish the edges on the smoother side.

tssssssss tssssssssSSSS tssssssss tssssssssSSSS

That meditative sound, the growing slurry between the blades and the stone, washed calm over me. It’s about as close to zen as I felt back then, when 12-plus hour shifts at a high-volume New York City restaurant were the norm.

These days, I have a far less physically-demanding job, but my knife sharpening rituals largely remain the same, even though the frequency has dialed back to once every couple of months and not weekly. I’m usually alone in the kitchen with a Spotify playlist on in the background. As I fall into a steady rhythm, going from knives small to large, I have to concentrate. I can let my mind wander, but not too far—these are knives, after all! Every time I've tried meditation, be it traditional or app-based, I find reaching this level of concentration difficult, but the physicality of sharpening knives (and being grounded on my two feet), coupled with the white noise of both the blades and background music, all lend themselves to a wholly satisfying experience. I leave feeling recharged.

When I reach a suitable sharpness level, I test them out, sliding each blade across a sheet of printer paper or a perfectly plump tomato that doesn't know what harm is headed its way. In my mind, they should be sharp, but we’re not looking to shave the hair off of anyone’s arms here. Once clean, easy cuts are made, I breathe a sigh of relief as if a burden's been lifted. I know I can proceed with the week’s cooking knowing that I’ve started with my best knife forward.

Listen, I’m far from a knife sharpening master. I can’t say with certainty whether I’m maintaining the 70/30 angle ratio required of my Japanese knives, but I'll continue to take great joy in watching all manner of YouTubers for their soothing, ASMR-friendly guidance and relishing in that little pocket of quiet me-time I carve out for myself every month.

Now Put Those Knife Skills to Work

Do you enjoy sharpening your knives? Share your favorite ways to wind down in the kitchen below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
  • Smaug
  • Dean Neal
    Dean Neal
  • Hana Asbrink
    Hana Asbrink
Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.


Eric K. June 25, 2018
Smaug June 23, 2018
Astounded that I let the expression "meditation app" slip by without comment; I can only suppose that the constant petty outrages of modern living have at last worn me down.
Smaug June 22, 2018
Waterstones make the best edge ultimately (if you go out all the way to a high quality finishing stone,and don't forget the Nagura stone), but good ones are expensive and they require considerable maintenance to maintain flatness. I think a better choice for most home cooks would be the factory made diamond stones, such as the ones sold by DMT. They're reasonably priced, use water for a lubricant and are completely stable. If you want more, go for a good finishing Waterstone, but be prepared to pay in the neighborhood of $100 for quality. Unless you've actually apprenticed in a temple builder's workshop, you will likely have trouble maintaining an even bevel with hand sharpening, and it DOES make a difference. Inexpensive devices such as the Chef's Choice sharpeners can be useful in preliminary sharpening stages for maintaining an even bevel. There are some proprietary systems made for knives, too- I know people who have some very expensive systems that work very well, but I have no recommendations.
Dean N. June 22, 2018
I recommend Wicked Edge USA, have a sweet $400 system with 100/200, 400/600, and 800/1000 diamond plate holders, gets my kitchen, hunting, tactical, and pocket knives scary sharp. Before I got carpal tunnel I hand sharpened with DMT diamond plates, 100, 200, 400, and 600 grits then would finish with ceramic crock sticks to knock off the burr. After my carpal tunnel I had trouble maintaining angle without pain, so for years before I got my WE USA system I relied on a crappy carbide pull through with ceramic pull through on the opposite side, made by Smith, had no other choice. Getting my WE was the best thing I ever invested in.
Hana A. June 25, 2018
Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful recs, Smaug and Dean! I love hearing everyone's preferences; knife maintenance is so personal.
Dean N. June 25, 2018
You're so very welcome Hana :)
Smaug June 25, 2018
Well, maybe- people certainly vary quite a bit in what they will accept in an edge, but and ideal edge will have no irregularities at all, and a microscope will show quite objectively the relative merits of two edges. At any rate, mention should be made of hard Arkansas stones. They've fallen somewhat out of style except among the huntin'/ fishin' crowd- perhaps because they use oil as a lubricant, which can be a bit messy, but they've produced excellent edges for a long time, and require less maintenance than Waterstones.
Dean N. June 25, 2018
Smaug, I learned on an Arkansas oilstone as a youth in the Boy Scouts in the early 80's and discovered DMT diamond plates in my early 20's about '91 or '92. However after having carpal tunnel winter of '00/'01, I can no longer maintain angle without pain. Discovering Wicked Edge USA in 2011 brought the zen of sharpening back, hearing zzzzzck, zzzzzck, zzzzzzck again is pure bliss.
Smaug June 25, 2018
DN Yeah, I know what you mean, I have days when I'd swear my hands were full of broken glass and things like this are out of the question. Fortunately for me, it's not every day.
Dean N. June 25, 2018
Smaug, with me it was nasty numbness and tingling and couldn't feel anything else, and the tingling hurt like crazy. Fortunately I didn't have to have the surgery, my Dr prescribed me B6 and it helped, but I still have to take it from time to time to keep it at bay.