Keeping kitchen knives razor sharp and in mint condition is an art. With practice and patience, most people can master traditional techniques, but modern technology also offers simpler and more effective solutions to a drawer full of dull blades.
"However you choose to sharpen your knives, do it frequently, rather than once or twice a year," says chef Lou Bouchenot, gourmet and cooking instructor. "In fact, for maximum effectiveness, knives should be sharpened after every use."The most popular tool for reviving dull knives is the butcher's or sharpening steel. It is relatively easy to use, but does not actually sharpen a blade. Instead, it realigns the bent fibers of the blade and evens out the edge where they have broken off.
The safest way to "steel" a blade is by grasping the knife in one hand and holding the steel perpendicular to a cutting board with the other. Then, position the heel of the blade - the part closest to the handle - at a 20-degree angle to the rod of the steel just below the handle.
With a quick swinging motion, bring the knife down and across the steel until the tip reaches the bottom. Repeat the process with the other side of the blade. About six strokes on each side should complete the job.
"The trick to steeling is maintaining the proper angle and using a consistent amount of pressure throughout the process," says Buchenot, culinary consultant to Wilkinson Sword, Inc. "If you don't, the edge will be uneven and perhaps too dull or so sharp that it will wear away quickly."
An easier and more convenient alternative is a set of self-sharpening knives, which contains its own automatic sharpening cassettes and, unlike a steel, actually puts a new edge on a knife. Each knife's individual storage compartment contains one of these cassettes so that knives are automatically sharpened before and after each use.
The cassette works similarly to many popular sharpening tools, but eliminates all the guesswork. It houses two angled tungsten-carbide sharpening blocks and is scientifically engineered to hold the blade at the correct angle as it is sharpened. A spring-load mechanism insures consistent pressure throughout the process. Sharpening takes place with one smooth continuous motion, ensuring an even edge. The knives are dishwasher-safe and virtually maintenance-free. Sharpening cassettes, however, may be removed from the unit and should be washed occasionally to remove any debris.
However, if you are a die-hard do-it-yourselfer, you can try your hand at giving traditional knives a new edge yourself with a whetstone.
Use a medium grade stone to start and finish with a finer grade. Lubricate each with honing oil or a half-and-half mixture of machine oil and kerosene.
To sharpen, place the whetstone on a flat surface and hold the blade at one end of the stone at a 20-degree angle to its surface. With one smooth motion, bring the blade diagonally across the stone to the opposite end, gradually shifting pressure from the heel to tip of the blade.
Turn the blade over and repeat the process starting at the other end of the stone. Continue with alternating sides until sharpened.
"Again, maintaining the correct angle and applying consistent pressure is important," says Bouchenot.