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The Very Best Way to Sharpen Your Knives

Millimeter-thin tomato slices coming right up.

by:
November 19, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

The world’s sharpest knives probably belong to newlyweds. That’s because it’s all downhill from there—the more you cook, the duller your most important tool becomes. It's only through regular maintenance that chefs and home cooks keep their blades sharp.

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 whetstone, but 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 use them both: 

Whetstone 

If you have a very nice knife, sharpen it with a whetstone. A stone will set you back about $10 at the hardware store (although you can spend more on ceramic and glass models). Moreover, it’s a great meditative practice, like zen archery—except that you can do it in the confines of your own apartment. 

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Sharpening stones come in different sizes and grits (the stone's level of coarseness), which are often indicated by color, depending on the brand. Some stones have two sides: a coarser side for removing dents and sharpening very dull blades, and a more refined side used for polishing and edge refinement. The rule of thumb is to always start sharpening your knife on the coarse side, moving to the refined side to finish.

  • If your countertop is slippery, place a rubber mat or towel underneath the stone.

  • 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!

Electric Sharpener 

The electric knife sharpener is the fastest way to restore your blade to health, but it’s also the most brutal. The edge of a knife is a carefully tapered compression of metal layers, and everyday thwacking sends the atomically aligned edge into disarray, or worse—it can chip tiny divots into the metal. An electric sharpener simply obliterates the old edge and tapers a new one. For the average knife, there are worse fates. But, if you happen to own a Japanese cold-forged sabatier, this is a sad, sad day indeed.

Honing Steel 

Once your knife is sharpened, you'll want to keep it that way. It’s a good habit to use a honing steel every time you take out your knife. A steel is the fat round thing in your knife block that looks like a metal lightsaber. This method is like two minutes of cardio for your blade; it quickly aligns all of the metallic ions in the knife's edge so that you can part your proteins with ease and precision. Simply hold the knife in your dominant hand, lay it nearly flat against the steel at about 22 degrees (think about it as half of 45 degrees), then draw it across the steel 10 times on each side. The steel won’t restore an edge to a dull knife, but it will help you keep an edge longer on a well-maintained knife.

 

This article was updated in November 2020 to add all the best sharpening options.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • jeanne
    jeanne
  • vicky
    vicky
  • chef.luis
    chef.luis
  • johndiggity
    johndiggity
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.

11 Comments

Smaug November 19, 2020
I bought an electric sharpener several years ago- it did a good job regrinding a bunch of old beat up knives my mother had, but I haven't used it since. The Chef's Choice and similar manual sharpeners do a good job of rough sharpening and maintaining a bevel- you really only need stones for the final stages- producing a microbevel and polishing. Stones vary hugely- mostwoodworkers prefer the Japanese waterstones, but hard Arkansas stones (oilstones) are also very popular; I'd avoid generic stones or any that don't use a lubricant (water or oil), this is a poor place to save a few dollars. For most home cooks diamond stones are probably the best bet. They can be had in quite fine grades (by the way, Japanese and Western knives use completely different scales for the grits), don't need work to keep them flat (a big factor with waterstones, especially), cut fast and are generally easy to use. There are honing guides for straight blades, such as chisels and plane blades, that can make it much easier, but the curves of knife blades don't allow for them- you need to learn how to read and follow your knife's bevel.
 
jeanne March 4, 2015
watched the video on sharping knives. Wondering were can you purchase one of this stones?
 
vicky October 13, 2014
how does one sharpen serrated knives?! these are not demonstrated on the video!
 
chef.luis June 29, 2012
Since I'm an "scary sharp" fanatic, I'll add my humble 2 cents...
1) If you're interested in keeping your knives sharp without too much work, on a foolproof way, get a chefs choice electric sharpener (There is one model that sharpens western and Japanese blades)
2)If you want to get it up a few notches, get the edgepro sharpening equipment, you'll get almost professional results without the big learning curve involved in freehand sharpening, and you'll get "scary sharp" edges without scratching or damaging your knives.
3) My favorite... Freehand sharpening, get a set of at least 3 different stones (Coarse, medium and fine grit), a good strop, a nice ceramic honing rod and get ready to learn.
I'm a knife junkie and I enjoy big time to have a razor sharp (And I mean... really razor sharp) blade that cuts easy and clean thru veggies and meats. There is nothing like the sensation and the results of a nice sharp edge.
If you want to get serius in the subject , there are a couple of great suppliers of knives and sharpening gear one is chefknivestogo and the other is japaneseknivesimports both sellers are top notch and absolutely professionals . Best regards.
 
johndiggity June 28, 2012
The AccuSharp knife sharpener on Amazon is the best $9 I've spent. Totally idiot proof. The downside is it only works on Western-style knives.
 
sygyzy June 28, 2012
Bobby has some great advice. Before home cooks try their hand at sharpening, I would advise spending some time to read up on the topic and educate themselves on it before potentially messing up their expensive knives. If in doubt, get your knife sharpened by a professional and by that I mean someone who specializes in different types of knives and steels, not your neighborhood butcher. Also, please don't run your knives through electric machines that just mangle up your edge. Once your knife is sharpened, the best thing you can do for it is to use a honing steel to re-align the edge before or after each use. A steel does not sharpen an edge, it just brings things back in-line.
 
himynameisjs June 28, 2012
Great video--I love this series!

One question I've had for a long time but haven't ever gotten around to asking: what kind of knives does Amanda have? They're beautiful!
 
Kristy M. June 28, 2012
That knife was a gift from her brother-in-law. He brought it back from a trip he took to Japan -- lucky her!

She's also got knives by henckles and global in the kitchen. Also lots of gorgeous knives she's picked up over the years that don't have brand names on them.
 
bobby B. June 28, 2012
Great video. I think its important to add that the method shown should only be recommended for Japanese knives with a 50/50 bevel. Some japanese knives only have a one sided bevel or a 80/20 which changes how many strokes per side you sharpen.

Also non Japanese knifes like wusthof or henkels have softer steel, therefore the penny trick gets too shallow of an angle (approx. a 12.5 degree angle). By all means use a stone for non japanese knives, just stand up the knife for a 90 degreee, half it once for 45 degrees and one more time for about 22.5 which is closer to where you want to be to get lasting sharpness.
 
Amanda L. June 28, 2012
bobby - that's a very good point about the one-sided bevel. thanks for bringing that up!

i've had relative success using the stone on my western knives but i find it takes a little longer to sharpen or re-make the edge (if it's been completely dulled) since western blades are so thick. will try using the 90-45-22.5 sharpening method, thanks!
 
sygyzy June 28, 2012
You can also try adding a few coarser stones to your kit, such as a 500 or 700.