Sharp Knives: The Key To World Domination

Again, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Do you sense a trend towards hyperbole here?


A dull knife in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster. In my kitchen right now, the knives are speeding towards the iceberg while Jack and Rose are waltzing on the deck. In short, they have not been actually sharpened beyond a few passes on the steel in, oh, say, a year.

This is culinary blasphemy. You know it’s bad when your 15-year-old comments on it.

So. Sharpening it is.

If you have never sharpened a knife, this is a simple how-to that utilizes two different methods: the steel and the stone.

There is a clear distinction between these two implements, though, in that only one of them actually sharpens the knife.


As a knife is used, the blade suffers microscopic (sometimes even visible) dings and bends in the blade. A steel doesn’t sharpen so much as it hones the blade. Passing a knife evenly on both sides straightens the edges in a knife. There is very little of the blade material removed, but by straightening the knife, it may seem as if the blade is actually sharper. It’s straighter, but not technically any sharper.This is why a knife should be honed every time it’s used, just after the chopping, dicing, and kung-fu fighting. Alternately, you could get super attuned to your blade and use your best judgment, but if your judgment is often clouded by lazy, just get into the routine of honing after each use.


On the other hand, a stone removes bits of the blade itself, producing a new, sharp edge. This can be done with a grindstone or whetstone but not with a Curtis, Joss, or Rolling Stone. Thankfully, this is only recommended three or so times a year, really depending on the amount of use the knives get (way more for professional chefs or seriously dedicated and prolific home cooks).

Let’s start with honing, since that’s what you will be doing most often.

How To Properly Hone (Steel) A Knife

1. Hold the steel up in the air. Don’t wave it like you just don’t care. This is serious. Keep your fingers below the butt of the steel so you don’t accidentally slice off the tip.

Alternately, you can stand the steel on a cutting board and hone in downward strokes for safety. If you are accident-prone, this may be the technique for you.

2. Hold the knife in your dominant hand (you will be moving this hand and need some control. Now is not the time to work on ambidexterity) and place it against the steel at an angle between 12 and 15 degrees. You can move the knife either towards you or away from you, but start at the widest part of the knife (the heel) and slide it along the steel while moving towards the narrowest part (the tip).

Maintain the angle the whole way, the do the same thing on the other side.

3. Use strokes with more pressure to begin with, gradually using less pressure as you work. A good place to start is about four pounds of pressure, which can be measured by pressing your knife on a pastry scale. Lacking a pastry scale, just guess and do it until it is sharp.

4. Test your honing skills with the classic slice-a-piece-of-paper gambit. ¬†Or just try it on a tomato, one of nature’s most ridiculous vegetables to cut. A properly honed blade should slice cleanly through the skin and into the tomato with minimal pressure.

If you hone your knife and it is still not slicing and dicing cleanly and with ease, that’s a good indication that it’s time to actually sharpen.Now that you are a pro at honing, let’s move on to sharpening.

How To Sharpen a Knife

1. Take the easy way out and drop your knives off at that guy’s stand in the farmer’s market, you know, the one who sharpens them while you shop. If you only have a few knives in rotation, this is actually not a bad idea. I mainly use a chef’s knife and a paring knife, so for me, this is a good idea. But I am a big fan of DIY, and I hate paying for something I can do myself.

This is a #judgmentfree zone. Take this option if you want. If not, keep reading.

2. Your sharpening stone may require pre-soaking, but many can be used with just a sprinkle of water. For properly sharpened knives, you will need two types of stone, one coarser than the other. The easiest purchase is a combination stone with one coarse side and one fine side.

Start with the coarse side and wet the surface before you begin.

3. Use the same angle on the sharpening stone as you did on the steel (about 12 to 15 degrees). If you are having trouble gauging what that angle is and happen to have a matchbook handy, it’s approximately that steep.

4. Hold the knife in your dominant hand and place the fingers of your other hand on the flat of the blade to apply even pressure. There are two techniques for sharpening:

  • The simple back and forth: move the blade back and forth as you also move from the heel of the blade to the tip.
  • The sweeping arc: sweep in one movement from the heel of the blade to the tip in an arc across the sharpening stone.

Pictures don’t quite do the process justice. Here’s a quick video on one way to sharpen your knives with a steel.

Whichever technique you choose, repeat it on both sides. You are actually grinding material away in order to bring both sides of the blades together.

When you can feel something on the blade called a burr (like a wire edge), it’s time to flip the stone and move to the finer side. This polishes the sharp surface you created. Pressure lightens as you finish your polishing,

If this doesn’t help your knives, chances are A) you are not applying enough pressure as you sharpen, B) your knives are super dull and just need more, or C) your knives are cheap and not very good and it is time to replace them. If that becomes an option, ditch the 16-piece knife block and spend your ducats on the only four knives you actually need.

Sharp knives are a safety essential in the kitchen. How often do you sharpen yours?