Working in restaurants taught me an incredibly important lesson: A sharp knife is a safe knife.
That’s because most injuries occur when you’re trying to force a cut, rather than letting your (super sharp) knife do the work for you.
Even if you’re not interested in making paper-thin slices and intricate French cuts, learning how to sharpen kitchen knives is essential for anyone who does a lot of cooking at home. That’s why I’d like to take a moment to share my sharpening experience, including when, how, and what tools to use for sharpening your kitchen knives.
When to Sharpen Your Knife
How can you really know how sharp your knife is? I use three simple tests:
- Slice through paper. Fold a piece of stiff paper in half, and stand it up on your countertop. Your knife should be able to cut from top to bottom without tearing the paper. Printer paper works, but newspaper or magazine paper is often a better material.
- Slice a tomato. As soon as my knife won’t slice a tomato in one clean motion, I know it’s time to sharpen it.
- Mince shallots or garlic. You should be able to do this without feeling any resistance from the ingredient.
If your knife can’t pass any of these tests, it’s in need of serious attention. If it can pass one or two, but not the paper test, it’ll still be good for general use. But once you get your first taste of what a truly sharp knife feels like, you won’t want to settle for anything less.
How to Use A Sharpening Steel
A sharpening steel is not to be confused with a honing rod, though they look nearly identical at a glance. The difference is that sharpening steel is covered with a ceramic or diamond coating. That gives it the ability to remove metal off your blade’s edge, restoring its sharpness.
To use a sharpening steel, hold the handle in your non-dominant hand with the steel pointing down towards a cutting board. Rest the tip of the steel on the board. Use your dominant hand to position your knife at approximately a 20-degree angle, in contact with the steel. Then, smoothly drag the blade down the length of the steel about a dozen times. Switch to the opposite side and repeat, and you’re finished.
How to Use An Electric Knife Sharpener
Electric knife sharpeners are very straightforward in their design and function. First, put your blade in the coarsest slot, and pull it through slowly, two or three times on each side. Then, repeat this process with any finer slots that are available.
Electric knife sharpeners take a lot of material off of your blade, so resist the temptation to run them through more than once or twice per sharpening.
How to Use A Whetstone
Whetstones are the gold standard of sharpening for professional quality knives. They’re also the most technical of all sharpening methods, and take a fair bit of practice to use well.
Here are the basics of sharpening with a whetstone:
- Always start with a medium stone, between 1000 and 2000 grit. Finish knives on a finer stone, 6000 grit or more. Coarse stones, those between 200 and 600 grit, are only used for repairing damaged blades.
- Make sure your whetstone is ready to use. Water-based stones need to be soaked in water overnight to be used for sharpening.
- Place your stone securely on a countertop. You can use a specially made base, a shelf liner, or a damp kitchen towel for this.
- Holding your knife with the edge facing away from you, place it on the whetstone at a 15 to 20-degree angle.
- Place your non-dominant hand on the spine of the knife, and apply gentle pressure as you slide the blade back and forth on the stone 15 to 20 times.
- Turn the blade over, and repeat the process on the other side.
- Wipe your blade off, and test its sharpness with one of the methods mentioned above. If it’s not sharp enough, go through the process once more.
- When your blade is sharp enough, repeat this process on a finer stone to set the edge, giving your knife greater edge retention.
In this case, a series of videos is worth far more than 1000 words. I strongly recommend checking out Korin’s series of videos that go in-depth on how to sharpen your knives with whetstones.
Which Sharpening Method Is Right For You?
After reading through the method for using a whetstone, you might be tempted to go for a simpler method. I wouldn’t blame you — but I also can’t wholeheartedly recommend that path.
Both sharpening steels and electric knife sharpeners take a lot of material off of your blade, ultimately leading to a shorter lifespan for your knife.
If you’re using a set of bargain-priced kitchen knives, replacing them may not be much of an issue. In that case, go ahead and use an electric sharpener or sharpening steel for the sake of convenience. But once you make the move to higher quality, more costly kitchen knives, whetstones are the only way to go.
How to Keep Your Edge Straight With Honing
Honing steels play a much different role than sharpening steels, as they don’t remove any material from your blade. Instead, they help to keep your blade’s edge perfectly aligned, leading to a cleaner, sharper feeling.
Straightening your blade edge with a honing steel is easy, and nearly identical to the directions for using a sharpening steel. Hold the honing steel in your non-dominant hand, with the tip of the steel resting on your cutting board. Then smoothly pull your knife’s edge across the steel a dozen times or so on each side. Done regularly, this will keep your knife in great cutting shape.
How to Store Your Knives to Keep Them Sharp
Why does a knife get dull, anyway?
It can happen while you’re cutting, especially if you run into bones or other hard bits. But one of the most common places knives get dull is in your kitchen drawers, as they bang against other tools!
If you’re going to the trouble of choosing high-quality knives, getting them set up with proper storage is the next step. Knife blocks, magnetic racks, in-drawer storage systems, and sheaths are the most popular options. And it just so happens I’ve covered each of those in-depth in my guide to knife storage solutions, which I’d encourage you to read next.
Topics for Further Study
Learning how to sharpen kitchen knives can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. If it all seems overwhelming, fear not: There’s a simple solution, and one that I often advocate for:
When your knives are getting dull, take them to a professional sharpening service.
The pros are often able to get a much sharper and more consistent result than DIY methods — it is their job, after all.
If this short introduction has sparked your curiosity on the subject, there’s a deep world of knife knowledge waiting to be explored! Both European and Japanese bladesmiths have honed their craft to extreme degrees, including using a wide variety of sharpening styles and blade materials. The folks over at the r/chefknives subreddit are a welcoming bunch and offer a great jumping-off point into more in-depth sharpening topics.