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Cuts Like a Knife

My honing steel and favourite chefs knife

My honing steel and favourite chef's knife

Evidently, I’m pretty hooked on this whole idea of writing about food thing.  Pictures help a lot but some food and cooking concepts are really difficult to describe.  I still remember an “ah ha!” moment more than five years ago when Alton Brown demonstrated how to swirl crepe batter in a pan (this clip starting around minute ten) to get it to the optimal thinness.  I realised that was a technique that would have been much more difficult to understand without the visual aid.  There are many others but I’d like to deal with one today: knife honing.

First to deal with a confusing point: a knife is sharpened when its edge is ground on a stone (powered or otherwise) so that metal is actually removed from both sides of the edge.  Between sharpenings and through normal use parts of the edge will get pushed out of line and compromise the knife’s effectiveness.  By drawing a knife’s edge across a steel (or honing it) the edge is pushed back into line.

In my post about my favourite chef’s knife way back in March I posted this link to a youtube clip of Alton Brown honing a knife.  Click on the link and you can see that he uses the beginner method of holding the steel steady and perpendicular to a flat surface while he works the knife on either side of it.  That’s okay and it works but for entirely vain, aesthetic reason–who doesn’t want to look like Gordon Ramsey in those cut-scenes from Hell’s Kitchen?–I’m challenging myself to learn how to hone a knife with the more advanced technique.

A lot of the honing videos on the Internet (read: on youtube) only deal with the upright method.  Here is a good one from the Rouxbe Cooking School that lays out three different methods.  It also had a good demonstration of how a knife becomes dull and why honing is important.  He’s more of a spaz (obviously) but because, as mentioned, he was part of the inspiration for this challenge here is Gordon Ramsey’s take.  Confusingly, he refers to the process as sharpening, maybe because of different British usage?

The rod-with-a-handle tool featured in all of these videos is called a honing steel.  Mine is a Henckels (the only big-name German tool in my knife bag) that I found at Tap Phong on Spadina near Baldwin in Toronto.

There are a few good ways to test a knife’s sharpness.  My favourite “hardcore” method is to to test a knife’s ability to cleanly shave hair off your fore arm.  For those who are (properly) more concerned with hygiene than acting like a kitchen pirate a better test is to hold a sheet of paper in the air and test whether your knife will easily slice through the paper’s edge.  Once a good honing no longer brings back a knife’s sharp edge, or worse, it has visible knicks or dings in it, it is time to take it in for a professional sharpening.

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  1. Jess Bennett says:

    Hi David,

    I read your post from back in March that discussed how professional sharpening methods differ according to European knife design or Japanese. Do you know of anywhere that sharpens Japanese knives?

    I have a lovely Global knife that I’ve been stressed out about getting professionally sharpened because I want to make sure the place knows what they are doing! I should probably just contact the company directly and see who they recommend.

    Thanks for the great knife post!

  2. Irina says:

    Considering the prevalence of Santoku knives, I’m pretty sure that any professional knife sharpener would know to change the angle of sharpening for a Japanese knife.

    Incidentally, Williams-Sonoma sells a not-too-expensive knife sharpener that does both German and Japanese knives.

  3. Sheryl says:

    Jess – why not buy a whetstone and learn how to sharpen it yourself?

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Jess: Are you sure that your Global has a single-bevel, “Japanese” edge on it? I have never owned a Global knife myself but I thought I remembered that some of their blades come with a two-bevel, european edge. I have read complaints from some of the hardcore knife-heads on Chowhound (who insist on buying kitchen knives for more than $300 from the blacksmiths-to-the-samurai) that Nella does a bad job with Japanese knives. Knowing chowhound I’m sure they posted their favourite alternative pro sharpener so that might be a good place to look.

    As Sheryl and Irina have mentioned you can always try sharpening it yourself. Learning to use a whetstone is on my list of expert kitchen skills to acquire. Online opinion seems to be split between the “why would you bother when you can get a pro to do it for $5 or buy a manual sharpener for $20 to $40″ and the “once you learn how to sharpen your kitchen knives the hatchets, hedge clippers, and machetes in your garden shed will be sharper than they have ever been” camps.

    Conveniently, the November issue of Cook’s Illustrated reviewed manual sharpeners for asian knives. First, they did say that only the “knife wizards among [their] test cooks” could tell that an asian knife had been sharpened on a western sharpener. Secondly, if you want a special sharpener for your asian knives they recommend the Chef’s Choice Model 463. In reading this article I was reminded that asian knives have a 15-degree bevel instead of the 20-degree on western knives. I’ve never used a whetstone but I imagine the five degree difference would be quite difficult to eyeball.

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