Sharpening knives is not fun.
There are a lot of things in life that you should be doing that aren’t fun.
The trick is to find joy in the mundane. And it doesn’t get much more mundane than sharpening knives.
Once you get some practice, it requires very little thought or focus. It’s just repetitive motion and counting. It becomes meditative. Let yourself zone out. Think about everything and nothing simultaneously. Attain nirvana.
Or just sharpen your damn knives so they cut better.
First thing’s first. That metal rod that comes as part of your 135 piece knife set…that’s not a knife sharpener. That is a honing steel. You need one of those, but it doesn’t sharpen. We’ll deal with that later.
Those sharpening contraptions that you see in Bed Bath & Beyond that have diamonds and crap in them - don't bother with those.
Professionals use wet stones and so should you. Using one involves oiling it up and running the edge of your knife across its surface. The stone grinds off a small amount of your knife’s edge, leaving it sharper. Do this a hundred times on each side of your blade, and it’ll slide through most fleshy things you put in front of it.
You will need to buy a set of wet stones. They come in several varieties. This particular wet stone set-up is a good one.
It has a coarse, medium, and fine grit stone all attached to each other. Plus, it has a slip-proof base that doubles as an oil well. It’s not cheap, but it is a worthwhile investment. If used properly and semi-regularly, it will extend the life of a good knife long enough to be written into your will.
You can also just buy a cheaper medium and a fine grit stone, like this, rather than the tri-stone set up. They’ll get the job done.
You will also need oil to keep your stones lubricated. If you have a wooden cutting board, you should theoretically already have suitable oil. You do know that you are supposed to periodically oil your wood board, right?
Don’t buy oils that are marketed as kitchen or butcher block oils, like this one. They work just fine, but they have unnecessary additives and they’re more expensive.
All you need is plain old mineral oil. You can get it in nearly any grocery or drug store. It’s in the medication aisle right alongside all of the other laxatives.
Yes. The oil you need to sharpen your knives and take care of your cutting board doubles as an effective laxative. Don’t worry – you're not drinking it.
The last thing you need is the honing steel we talked about earlier. You don’t need anything fancy. The one that came with the knife set on your wedding registry should work just fine. If you don’t have one, get a relatively cheap one from amazon. Don’t spend more than $15.
Alright, let’s get to it.
Pick a sturdy, level surface to work on. A kitchen counter, not a rickety little card table.
Start with your medium grit stone. If you have a stone assembly with a slip proof base, put it directly on your work surface. If you’re working with standalone stones, put down a rag or kitchen towel and place your stone on top of it, with the long side running left to right.
Apply a thin coating of mineral oil to the top side of the stone and spread it around with your finger until it covers the surface.
Hold your knife by the handle with your right hand and extend it out in front of you, perpendicular to the stone.
Turn your wrist counterclockwise so the knife rotates and the edge of blade is facing away from you and to your right.
Take you middle and index fingers on your left hand and place them on the middle of the top side of the knife blade. Keep them against the back ridge of the knife, far from the blade.
Position the knife on the left side of the stone and lay the blade flat against it.
Now, rotate your right wrist slightly so that there is about 15 degrees between the back side of the blade (where you left hand is) and the stone. Only the edge of the blade should be touching the stone now.
That was confusing. Just hold it like this...
Some stones come with a 15 degree plastic wedge as a guide. If you have one, use it to show yourself the proper angle. If you don't have one, approximate a 45 degree angle and then mentally divide it into thirds. The first third is 15 degrees off of the stone.
While applying light pressure, move the knife from left to right across the stone, pulling the knife slightly towards you so that the entire length of the blade eventually touches the stone, from heel to tip. It’s as if you’re slicing a thin piece off the top of the stone.
Repeat that same motion, left to right, for a total of 10 times.
Now you need to do the same thing to the flip side of the blade edge. Flip the knife over and hold the handle with your left hand. Place your right index and middle fingers against the back edge of the blade, and hold the knife on the right side of the stone now. Copy the motion you made before, this time moving from your right to left.
Do this 10 times.
Then go back to the other side of the blade and move left to right again.
You're going to make 60 swipes total on this stone. Switch sides of the blade every 10 swipes. 10 on the left side, 10 on the right side, 10 on the left side, etc.
It will take some practice to maintain the 15 degree angle across the entire motion. Don’t worry. Even if you’re not particularly good at it right away, you’ll still end up with a sharper knife.
Now, get your fine grit stone and put it on the towel. Oil it the same way you did the medium grit one.
Start with the knife in your right hand, and swipe it left to right exactly like you did with the medium grit stone.
You're going to make 100 swipes on this stone, still switching sides every 10 swipes.
Your knife is now sharpened. Set it aside and repeat this routine for any additional knives that need sharpening.
When all of your knives are sharp, carefully wash the oil off of them with soapy water. Dry them thoroughly.
What you have now is a very fine sharp edge on your knife. However, if you tried to cut a tomato with it, you might not even get through the skin.
Even though the edge is sharp, it’s not straight. It’s probably bent over, meaning that the part of the knife that would make contact with the tomato isn’t that sharp edge.
Honing fixes this problem by straightening your edge. This ensures that the sharp part of your knife actually hits your target.
Hold your honing steel in your non-dominant hand, and your knife in your dominant hand.
Position your knife, blade down, at the top of your honing steel, on the side of the steel facing you.
Turn your wrist so that the blade is at a 15 degree angle to the honing steel.
Apply gentle pressure and methodically slide your knife blade down the length of the steel towards the bottom, maintaining the 15 degree angle and moving horizontally so the knife slides across the steel from its heel to its tip.
Again, that was confusing. Do this...
Now, return the knife to the top and place it on the other side of the steel, so the opposite side of the blade is against it. Hold it at a 15 degree angle to the steel and repeat the motion, moving to the bottom of the steel.
Repeat this motion 5 - 10 times total, switching sides after each swipe.
Your knife is now sharp and properly honed.
Ideally, you should hone your knife every day, or after heavy use.
You’ve probably seen people pick up a honing steel and whip their knife across it as fast as they can. Why? Because it looks cool.
Don’t do this. It’s dangerous, and it’s not very effective. Plus, to people in the know, you look like an asshole when you do this. And that makes them assume that you are an asshole.
Are you an asshole? Then don’t do this.
You want smooth, consistent motions.
People on cooking shows like to say that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife. This is crap.
You are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife, that much is true. When you go to slice an onion with a dull knife, the chances are better that your knife will slide off of the surface of the onion and into your hand.
But, if the knife is dull enough to do this, chances are good that it won’t cut you very badly. You might bleed a lot, but it will probably be from a nick.
If you screw up and cut yourself with a freshly sharpened and honed knife, it will cut the crap out of you. If you are wielding it with a lot of force, the thing that finally stops that blade might be the bone in your finger.
Having a knife blade touch your bone is not a pleasurable sensation. If it happens to you, it will haunt your dreams for years to come.
Save your dream haunting for this, and keep your knives off your bones.
When your knife is sharp, it doesn’t need much force to do its job. A good, sharp chef’s knife with some heft to it will cut most things with little more than its own weight behind it.
Now, go forth and enjoy your sharp knife.