Essential Tools

The Controversial Kitchen Tool That's Become My Staple

Hear me out: I bought an electric knife sharpener, and you should too.

by:
January  6, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Any professional chef will tell you that good knives are only to be sharpened manually and with a whetstone—electric knife sharpeners are for the uneducated, who don't truly care about their tools. So like any self-respecting cook (someone who interviews chefs for a living!) I never deigned to purchase a knife sharpener. Instead I bought a whetstone, found it impossible to use, stuck it far away in a drawer, and subsequently got my knives sharpened by a professional every three months or so (honing daily in-between).

This strategy was working quite well for me, until the world was placed into quarantine. My day job of filming a public television show about food was replaced this spring by becoming a glorified in-home chef/cleaner for my family, a homeschool prisoner/teacher, and the kind of person who does daily Instagram Lives cooking with her son just to have a reason to get dressed. As the days and weeks dragged into months, I was suddenly faced with a new problem. My daily knife honing was no match for knives that required sharpening.

I thought long and hard about pulling the whetstone out from its hiding place, but after watching one too many YouTube videos about the precision and practice necessary, the idea of failing at another facet of my current life was deeply unappealing. So, I went down the rabbit hole of electric knife sharpeners. All the critics were there, loud and clear. Knife sharpeners are less precise than a stone. Knife sharpeners remove more metal from your knife, dramatically reducing its lifespan.

But the arguments start to break down for me when I considered the normal lifespan of a knife, even for the most active home cooks. Let's be clear: I am not slicing sushi-grade tuna or breaking down animal carcasses. I am not planning to pass my knives on to my grandchildren. They aren't heirlooms crafted by an artisanal metalworker. They are higher-end, very serviceable, commercially available knives. Their cost is roughly equivalent to the amount I spend every three years on sharpening them. I was spending more money while I wasted my time dropping my knives off for a day to be sharpened, rather than secretly accepting the shame of being a food journalist and cookbook author who happens to use an electric knife sharpener.

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Top Comment:
“Thanks so much for your comment - and totally agree this is all completely my laziness (🙋‍♀️mom of 3 with a full time job in a pandemic) and not a knock on whetstones or proper knife sharpening. But I do want to assure you that I was definitely not paid in any way by the brand I recommended and when I pitched this story to Food52 it wasn't at their prompting or from any brand. If I ever get a product for free to test and review I would make that known. So all fair game on my own laziness and ineptitude with knife sharpening haha, but just didn't want you or anyone else to think that I or Food52 would ever be paid to promote a product without disclosing that. Appreciate your perspective on whetstones!”
— Ali R.
Comment

In this new brave world of quarantine, I was happy to accept a bit of shame in exchange for the pure joy and culinary power of a freshly sharpened knife.

Most reputable outlets recommend the same knife sharpener—the Chef's Choice Trizor XV—so I put in my order, and eagerly awaited its arrival every time I went to cut a tomato with a serrated knife. When the day came, I pulled the machine out of its box and looked it over. It has a simple design and a logo that looks straight out of the eighties. But the instructions made it seem easy enough: Pull the knife through three sections that sharpen, hone, and polish. Three steps, and your knife will be sharp again. I took out one of my least favorite knives and put it through each stage. It was extremely loud and sounded like my knife was being eaten. But when it was done, I took my knife to a tomato and it easily slid right through. My knife was sharp! It did not look smaller or ruined in any way. I quickly took the plunge, and put every knife that needed sharpening right through the process.

As the months wore on and the summer allowed for more stores to reopen, I had a choice to go back to my professional sharpeners. But by that point, I had admitted to myself that I was in fact a convert.

Despite my newfound secret sharpener love, I knew the existing reasons against it remained the mainstream professional opinion. So I reached out to the professionals to get their take—the first step in coming to terms with laziness. A lot of chefs I reached out to politely said they had nothing to contribute to the conversation (a.k.a., not a chance of sullying their knives’ reputations by even thinking about an electric sharpener). But Hiroki Odo of o.d.o by ODO was game to explain why his needs—as a chef at a Michelin-starred Japanese kaiseki restaurant—should of course be different to a consumer. As he explained, “Chefs use many different knives depending on the ingredients. There are specific knives for meat, fish, vegetable[s]. There are different knives for different types of fish. Home cooks typically use the same knife for almost everything.” And, he pointed out, that knife is typically even made of a different material. He recommends home cooks use, “a stainless steel knife. Chefs tend to use knives made with iron, but if you don't maintain and polish the knives every day, they will rust very fast.”

I was buoyed by his lack of judgement. But what about someone who has devoted their life to knives? I hopped on the phone with Tara Hohenberger of Chubo Knives to get her take. She was, understandably, more cautious in her outlook. For anyone who has invested in a higher-quality knife, the risk of a sharpener is that you have no idea what you are actually changing. “Japanese knives are often not equal on both sides. Not every knife is designed at the same angle.” When you use an electric sharpener, “you can't see what's happening in there. You could mess up the good edge that was established and you're taking off more material than is necessary.”

Her recommendation is to commit to taking proper care of your knives, but to start by setting yourself up for less sharpening. “Consider the type of steel your knife is made of: harder steels maintain their edge longer. Then minimize damage with your cutting board. We recommend using soft rubber or end grain wood. That prevents the knife from being damaged every time it hits the surface of the board.” By her estimation, a home cook could sharpen every two to six months (depending on how often you cook), and using the stone should only take 10 to 20 minutes. For anyone looking to pick up a new skill in the new year, there are tons of resources online to help take the guesswork out of using a stone.

The adage says that a sharp knife is a safe knife. I completely understand that taking the extra time to sharpen properly is the best course of action. But I also think it’s okay to recognize that sometimes we don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to take the superior route (see: every diet ever; leaving dishes in the sink; wearing that pair of socks with the holes in them because you haven’t done laundry yet). I have spent my entire professional career learning about food, writing about food, and teaching people about food. If I don’t want to put the effort into a whetstone, I imagine most non-professional cooks feel the same way. Yet we all need sharp knives to cook effectively. Snobbery has always been a part of food—from demanding higher-end ingredients to denigrating freezers and microwaves—and knives have become another cult to follow. For those who want to, I applaud them for their commitment. But it doesn’t have to be right or wrong. We can all pick our priorities.

I will argue until I’m blue in the face about the differences in quality of mass-produced versus small-batch cheeses, but it doesn’t make someone love Kraft singles any less. We can have certain items that we geek out over, and others that we don’t. And the truth of the matter is that I’m not a chef—I’m a home cook who learns from chefs. My job is to teach other home cooks who are just as frazzled, time-constrained and limited in their resources, just like me. And what a home cook needs more than any fancy knife is a simple, sharp knife. For every person researching and purchasing an expensive, hand-crafted knife there are 5,000 others just trying to figure out how to keep their regular knife sharp enough.

So sure, I wish I had the time and energy to practice manually sharpening my knives until it became second nature to me. But for now I’m going to use my electric knife sharpener. And having a sharp knife will be worth it all.


Get To Know Your Knives A Little Better

How do you sharpen your knives? What would you never cut without a freshly sharpened knife? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Ali Rosen

Written by: Ali Rosen

Cookbook author and host of Potluck with Ali

20 Comments

Luxie January 15, 2021
I use an electric sharper. Better to have sharp knives. Come on people, they are knives, hardly family
heirlooms. And I have never had a problem. After 8 years, my knives are just fine.
 
Badger January 16, 2021
Why the resentment towards someone who would pass a knife down to someone? What qualifies? Lol. You definitely got insecurities about something here.
 
Fister128 January 11, 2021
I have a sharpening business in Western Wisconsin and I use electric sharpeners one I have allows me to adjust the sharpening angle depending upon the knife. As a retired chef I also have use the whetstone but I haven't had any complaints from my customers so far.
 
Badger January 11, 2021
This is so obviously a commercial for electric sharpeners aimed at making everyone feel ok for being afraid of failing at freehand sharpening on whetstones. If you have any inkling of desire to learn whetstone sharpening don’t let this article sway you away from them. They are not difficult to use if you educate yourself about the kind you need. There is a plethora of knowledge on YouTube about sharpening. With a couple diamond whetstones and a very basic understanding of knife sharpening principles anyone will have succes with the correct stones and even mediocre technique which will improve rapidly once you get past the confidence /fear factor. By all means use an electric sharpener if that’s what makes you happy but a good set of whetstones will set you free to sharpen nearly anything besides serated blades. It’s personal choice but once you learn whetstone sharpening electric sharpeners would never be needed again unless you want to re-establish a bevel on a very very badly abused/damaged blade but even then a whetstone will be your best tool to go ahead and refine that electric produced bevel. It’s so simple once you understand the basic mechanics of what needs to happen. The writer of this article most likely purchased a whetstone that was too fine too get the bevel back soon enough and gave up before he got there. Learn whetstones and you’ll be free from dependence on gadgets that separate you from your money. It’s the smartest kitchen investment you can make for maintaining your knives. I wish I had the guts to post my personal email address for anyone that wanted help with this but trust me there’s plenty of solid info on YouTube to get you going.
 
Author Comment
Ali R. January 11, 2021
Thanks so much for your comment - and totally agree this is all completely my laziness (🙋‍♀️mom of 3 with a full time job in a pandemic) and not a knock on whetstones or proper knife sharpening. But I do want to assure you that I was definitely not paid in any way by the brand I recommended and when I pitched this story to Food52 it wasn't at their prompting or from any brand. If I ever get a product for free to test and review I would make that known. So all fair game on my own laziness and ineptitude with knife sharpening haha, but just didn't want you or anyone else to think that I or Food52 would ever be paid to promote a product without disclosing that. Appreciate your perspective on whetstones!
 
Theo January 8, 2021
Thank you for the permission Ali Rosen! I too am a home chef now and have always felt need for a whetstone university! Impossible for me to learn it seems. I am in love with Japanese ceramic knives for this reason. The ones you send back in to have sharpened free as they have a lifetime warranty. Still when deboning a leg of lamb one needs a steel knife. I’m ordering my electric sharpener now! (and im not telling anyone but you.)
 
Author Comment
Ali R. January 11, 2021
haha I wonder how many are in our secret club now 😂
 
TheCocktalien January 7, 2021
I couldn't agree more.. the Chef's Choice electric sharpeners are the way to go. I have whetstones, a guided rod (Edge Pro) system, a Ken Onion Worksharp, and a Chef's Choice 702 (little brother to the Trizor XV, same 15 degree angle). I use them for different things, but when I need to touch up a kitchen knife, the Chef's Choice is *always* the first stop. One thing the whetstone folks don't tell you is that 3 decent whetstones corresponding to the 3 stages of the Chef's Choice will cost you more than the Chef's Choice. Then you need to learn to use them. Then you need to learn to maintain them, because the stones themselves need to be kept flat in order to work, and sharpening knives on them makes them not flat. So, now you need more equipment. It takes up space, and it's messy. The Chef's Choice is tiny by comparison and almost no mess. And if you use it right, it doesn't need to take off any more metal than whetstones do. You use it just until you raise a burr (the instructions tell you how to tell when you have done so), they you go to finer stages to knock off the burr, et voila, sharp knife. And if you can do it in 10-20 minutes with stones, you can do it in 1-2 minutes with the Chef's Choice. Regarding asymmetrically ground Japanese knives or those made out of exotic steels costing upwards of $250 per knife, yeah, don't run those through the Chef's Choice. Also, be careful who you take that kind of knife to when getting it professionally sharpened.
 
Badger January 11, 2021
True information here. I would add that diamond stones and ceramic stones for finishing the edge don’t require flattening of the stones which would be a good choice for someone to gain confidence in their sharpening technique and are more than capable of creating an edge more than sharp enough for any kitchen chore. I’m biased because sharpening with whetstones using my own abilities brings me joy. I think it depends on ones personality to some degree which one will fit your needs best. I’m somewhat sentimental when it comes to tools of any kind and stones are definitely a more versatile option. Start with an electric but don’t give up on stones if you want the best. And if you’re talking about something that won’t let you down there’s nothing about a stone that quits working if electricity or the motor fails you.
 
Smaug January 7, 2021
Once while wandering about a Target with some extraneous money in my pocket (a rare event) I bought a Chef's Choice electric sharpener. It did a good job of returning some old, beat up stainless steel knives my mother had around to usability, but I haven't used it for years (except for the manual finishing slot). If knives have been maintained at all, there's no reason to remove that much metal. A manual, v groove sharpener such as the manual Chef's Choice types will maintain the bevel nicely with a few occasional stokes; the finishing slot will give a usable edge, but a good finishing stone, such as a hard Arkansas of a finishing Waterstone will give a better edge. Finishing stones remove very little material so will not deform the bevel; in fact it's best to finish with a microbevel very slightly more obtuse than the main bevel.
 
Matt018888 January 7, 2021
I use a cheap $40.00 harbor freight 1x30 belt sander with a leather belt called the super strop for another $20.00 I have owned expensive sharpeners and stones... this gets the job done quick and is shaving sharp. You can also use the slack part of the belt to get a long lasting convex edge.
 
Adam C. January 6, 2021
I run all my knives, pocket and kitchen, through my KME. It's hard to beat the edge that a precision angle guided system can offer. Plus, that mirror edge is a beautiful thing to look at.
 
Ed A. January 6, 2021
Personally I use whetstones with a guide, a ceramic rod and stropping compound but the Worksharp Ken Onion gets a lot of praise if you're looking for a versatile electric sharpener. There's also the Tormek if you don't mind the price.
 
HalfPint January 6, 2021
My preference:
I get my knives professionally sharpened approximately every 6 months. It is not expensive, avg $6-7 per knife. I have 5 that are used daily. I don't baby them, but make sure to use, clean, and store them properly. I don't use the honing steel that much because if the knives are properly sharpened and maintained, there tends to be little need to use the steel. I think it is more important to use the correct knife for the food that you want to cut.
 
AntoniaJames January 6, 2021
HalfPint, where do you get them sharpened? I no longer live in the Bay Area, but my younger son (a great cook and baker!) lives in SF now, was recently given some very nice knives for Christmas (I know; I picked them out), and would certainly appreciate this information. Thank you! ;o)
 
HalfPint January 6, 2021
I live in the South Bay (of SF Bay Area). I take them to Williams Cutlery in San Jose. They've been in business for decades and a lot of the local restaurants take their knives there for sharpening. Since your son is in SF, I see that Bernal Cutlery is well rated. I have also seen sharpening services at the farmers' market. Hope that helps!

ps. what knives were your son gifted?
 
samanthaalison January 6, 2021
I highly recommend Bernal Cutlery. They know their stuff and are very nice people as well! Our knives come back so much sharper than when we had them sharpened on the east coast.
 
Author Comment
Ali R. January 6, 2021
Yes I think if you can get it cheaply and it is quick and near your house it is great to have a pro! Near me (in NYC) it is just too expensive to make it worth it. But I will say: I would double-check because a lot of the cheaper places use essentially just a knife sharpener themselves. So if you are going to pay and take the time to do it just be sure they are actually using stones.
 
samanthaalison January 7, 2021
Yep, I once worked at Sur La Table, and we just ran them through an electric sharpener there. It may have been slightly fancier than the ones available for regular consumers, but definitely not the same as folks who are doing it by hand with stones.
 
giyengar January 14, 2021
I don't understand this. Honing is not sharpening, it is straightening out your edge without any material removal. I do this every time I pick up a knife for the evening, as does every chef I know.