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