How to Care for your Kitchen Knives
If you take care of your knives, your knives will take care of you
This is a topic that comes to us from one of my community members. His name is Jason. Jason's a husband and a dad, and he told me recently how much he appreciated some of the other knife skills content that I had been sharing. Shout out to Jason: thank you so much for being a part of my kitchen community, and thank you so much for this question!
I'm going to separate the topic into two subcategories: sharpening and storage. Both of them are equally important. Obviously, you want to keep your knife sharp so that it is ready to use when you need it. Storage is also important because you want your knife to be stored in such a way that you're going to be able to find it when you need it and is not going to get damaged.
Honing Your Terminology
Before we get too far into this subject, let's differentiate between sharpening and honing.
I like to think of this in terms of getting a manicure. I know it's something that all of us chefs understand and home cooks as well. We all like to care for our cuticles, right?
I'm married, and my wife keeps in our bathroom something called a buffing block: it's this rectangular thing with four sides, and you're supposed to use them to whittle down your fingernails. Each of those four sides has a different texture to it - a different roughness, kind of like sandpaper. When your nails are really tough and you really want to go at it and sand them down, you use the the the coarser grain to get started and then work your way to the finer and finer texture of that block so that, by the end, you're just kind of buffing it and and softening the edges.
I see that is very similar to the difference between sharpening and honing: sharpening is something that's a little bit more abrasive, a little bit more mechanical. There's actually some physical changes going on to the properties of the knife. Honing is a little bit more delicate and something that can be done on a more regular basis.
Sharpening versus Honing
The difference between sharpening and honing really comes down to the mechanics.
When you are sharpening a knife, you are actually grinding off some of the metal from the knife itself - pieces of the knife that are sticking out and are making the blade uneven. Sharpening is actually grinding those pieces off so that you have more of a clean cutting edge to your knife, which makes it sharper.
Honing, on the other hand, is just cleaning the knife and pressing the blade flat so that it cuts better. Now when you hone your knife, it is going to make it easier to cut. It is going to add a little bit of sharpness to it, but you're not actually sharpening the knife; you're more or less just pressing the the metal of the knife flat and straight. If there are any nicks or dinks in that cutting edge, they're still going to be there. Honing is not going to remove them; the only thing that's going to remove any of the microscopic damage that is done to your cutting blade is to physically sharpen it.
Honing is one of those things that you can do as often as you like. Some chefs like to do it before every task. I don't believe you can hone your knife too much, as far as I'm concerned; others may disagree. Sharpening, on the other hand, is one of those things that isn't necessarily done all the time. The more you sharpen, the more you are removing a microscopic layer of metal from your knife, and so the more you sharpen it, the more of that knife you're actually losing.
Stay Sharp: How to Sharpen a Knife
manual knife sharpener
Manual Knife Sharpener
There are some ways that you can sharpen your knife at home, and there are various tools that you can purchase to make that happen. One of them is a manual sharpener: that thing that you keep in your in your knife drawer that kind of looks like a series of disks that are all packed up next to each other. I personally see it as more of a glorified honing steel, and I don't know if you're actually sharpening the knife when you use one. If you find that you get good results from it, that's fine, then continue to use it. There are, however, other options.
Sharpening Stone / Whetstone
The next option is a sharpening stone or whetstone. It looks like big block of sand that you wet or oil and run the knife across it. I've seen different people use whetstones in many different ways, and the concern that I have for people purchasing and using a sharpening stone is that you really have to do it in a certain fashion to get it right. You can't just rub your knife up against it and expect it to be sharp; you have to do it at a specific angle and do it a certain number of times (say four times this way and four times that way and then three and then two and then one). If you don’t use a whetstone the right way, you might end up doing more damage than good, so you won’t necessarily get the return on investment for a tool like that.
Then you have the electric or motorized sharpener, which is very similar to the first sharpener I mentioned. It’s a set of grinding wheels through which you drag the cutting edge of the knife. It definitely looks and sounds and feels like you're sharpening your knife really, really well. A lot of times they'll have two different grades to them: kind of a thicker grade and then a thinner grade. These, too, make me nervous just like the whetstone; I feel like you can potentially do more damage than good. For me personally, I feel like there's the the tendency to maybe take off a little bit too much of the blade, and the more you grind off of that blade, the less knife you have left to be cutting with, and so you end up shortening the lifespan of your kitchen knives by doing it improperly or by sharpening it too much.
Professional Knife Sharpening Services
I think knife sharpening is one of those things to leave to the professionals. Depending on where you live, you may not have someone who sharpens knife in your area. A lot of times, the butcher department in your local grocery store will offer knife sharpening services, and oftentimes they'll be for free. However, I always caution accepting anything done for free - especially when it comes to something as important as knife safety.
If you're like me and you live in the Columbus area, there are professional knife sharpening services that you can use. The place where I have always taken my knives is River’s Edge Cutlery in Hilliard. They do a fantastic job of sharpening my knives. I try to take them there at least once or twice a year, and the blades come back really nice and sharp.
You'd be surprised at how affordable it is to have your knives professionally sharpened. Now I can't speak for every place, but when I've taken them to have them done, it's only costed maybe $3-4 a knife, and I would say that's a that's a pretty good investment. A few bucks per knife for safety and for speed and efficiency and effectiveness? I think it's worth it.
I've given you a lot of different choices here as far as sharpening your knives. Most of the home remedy sharpeners you can find through Amazon. The first investment you should make in your home kitchen to your knife cutting as it should, if you don’t already have one, would be to get a good honing steel.
The important part about knowing how to store your knives is to store them in such a way that, when you're going into the kitchen to do some cutting, you know where to find them and they are kept from being damaged.
A lot of us have a knife drawer. I will admit, my home has a kitchen knife drawer where some of the miscellaneous knives are left. Let's be honest, this is not the safest method; I mean, sure the the drawer is very close to where we keep the cutting board and where we do a lot of our knife work, but if one of those knives happens to be put in the drawer the wrong way, or maybe as you're opening and closing the drawer things kind of get shuffled around a little bit and one of those knives is sticking blade up and you put your hand into the drawer and you're not looking properly and... “oh no, I've cut myself and I haven't even started doing any work!”
There are some disadvantages to keeping your knives in a drawer. However, if you don't have any other way of storing your knives other than keeping in a drawer, one thing you can do is purchase knives that come with a plastic sheath to protect them and protect you. If you've seen the Chicago cutlery knives that I use and all my demonstrations and my hands on kitchen sessions, I purchased all of those through Amazon, and every single one of them came with that plastic sheath to go around the knife, and whenever I store it either in a drawer or in a shelf or in the carrying case that I used to bring my knives with me when I'm going on location, I always keep the knives in those sheaths.
Obviously, some of these knives didn’t come with the set.
The second thing you can use is a knife block. You can buy a set of knives that come with a knife block that is especially designed for those knives to fit, and they are right there on the countertop close to where you're going to be doing your knife work. The only potential disadvantage to this is if you don't have a whole lot of space, that knife block is just one more thing cluttering up the counter.
If you already have knives and don't have a block, it can be a bit difficult to find a block that's going to fit your knives; a lot of times those blocks are made by the same manufacturer as the knives so that everything fits into the slots on the block just right. If, however, you are in the market for some new kitchen knives, now would be a good time to look at a really nice quality knife set that comes with a knife block.
Another method is the knife roll. Many chefs use the the knife roll to hold their knives. It is made from heavy duty cloth fabric or sometimes leather. It has pockets at the bottom where you insert the handles of the knives, then you zip it up, roll it up, or sometimes they have a buckle on them.
For most people, a knife roll probably isn't a very practical choice because most people aren't taking their knives out of their kitchen. I mean, they might be taken out on the porch or something like that, but you don't really need a knife roll to make that happen. That's more of something that chefs tend to use If they want to have their personal knives with them, both at home and at work in the kitchen.
Magnetic Knife Strip
The final option I'm going to talk about is the magnet strip: a strip, usually reinforced with wood and has a metal magnetic strip built into it, that you would fasten to a wall in the kitchen somewhere. It’s a very powerful magnet that, once it's attached to the wall, all you do is take your knife and press it to the magnet and leave it there on the wall.
The advantage here is that it's not taking up any counter space, and it's not taking up any space in a drawer, and your knives are very accessible. However, and this is probably just my perception of them, I worry that I'm not going to place it on their properly, and then it's going to fall and break. I worry about putting it on too hard and potentially dinging, bending, or damaging the knife in in some way. I know plenty of kitchens where I've worked and plenty of homes that have them. It's just a matter of making sure that it is firmly attached to the wall, that is anchored properly, and that it's done so in a way that it is accessible. Be safe and cautious when you are placing the knife on the magnets; when you were pulling it off, make sure you have a really good firm grip so that you don't accidentally drop it.
Okay, so that's a few options of ways you can store your knives and also keep them sharp in between uses. I hope you found this information helpful. If so, leave me a comment and let me know what your next steps are with regard to sharpening and storing your kitchen knives, and tell me what you’d like to learn next about knives or home cooking in general.