If you think a sharp knife is dangerous, just try using a dull one. We’ve all been there: you’re in the kitchen chopping tomatoes or butterflying a steak, when you notice that the knife isn’t cutting as cleanly as it used to. “No big deal,” you think, and grab the honing steel from the butcher’s block.
Sooner or later, though, the steel fails to improve your knife’s edge, and you find yourself assuming improper technique in order to gain more leverage. With all that extra pressure exerted on the blade, a slip or miscalculation could cost you a finger or worse.
Because knife sharpening is an extremely broad topic, I’ll limit my remarks to stainless steel kitchen knives. And let’s be honest, if you own and regularly use carbon steel kitchen or other classes of knives, you probably already know how to properly sharpen and care for them.
Back to our kitchen scenario: what is a frustrated cook to do with his dull stainless steel blades, when steeling them no longer works? Sharpen them, of course!
The first thing to understand is the difference between sharpening and steeling. Sharpening is the process of removing metal from the blade, thus creating a new edge. There are several different kinds of edges, also called “grinds,” but in the case of kitchen knives, it’s typically a “saber grind.” This grind’s bevel begins about halfway down both sides of the blade, which then angle to form a “V” shape.
Steeling, on the other hand does not actually remove material, but rather serves to restore the integrity of the blade by removing microscopic bends and folds along its edge. Steeling should be done with every use of your knife, while sharpening is done less frequently.
To sharpen a stainless steel, you’ll need a whetstone or other abrasive designed for the purpose. Whetstones come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and grits, but generally, they’ll be two-sided, with a coarse grit on one side, and a fine grit on the other.
Place your dry whetstone on a paper towel to keep it in place. Using two hands, then run one side of the blade against the stone at a 22 1/2 degree angle (half a 45 degree angle) 10 times. Forward or backwards doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent.
When you’re done, flip it over, and do the same thing on the other side of the blade, ensuring that you hold the 22 1/2 degree angle.
After working both sides of the blade, it’s time to turn the whetstone over and sharpen the blade on the finer grit. Repeat the same steps as above, making certain to hold a consistent angle.
Next is steeling the blade. Start by holding the steel against a cutting board. Then run then entire length of the blade ten times across the steel, maintaining a constant 22 1/2 degree angle (remember, it’s just half of a 45 degree angle). Do the same on the other side of the blade. Once finished, rinse it well to remove any residual metal particles.
If you haven’t sharpened your knife, you may need to repeat the process. Once you have a good, sharp edge, you’ll be amazed at how much easier and safer cutting is.