Knowing how to hone and sharpen a knife is one of the most useful skills in the kitchen.
Why, you simply can’t do nothin’ without a sharp knife!
A sharp knife works like an extension of the cook’s mind, helping you execute the most important part of food prepping. It cuts where, when, and how you want the materials to be cut, turning your creative ideas into beautiful and delicious products.
A dull knife is, meanwhile, your worst frenemy in the kitchen.
Like all frenemies, the knife always starts out decent and you love it! Then over time, it gets dull so quietly you hardly never notice the changes. It drags your speed down. It reduces the precision in your cuts. It slips and cuts you instead of the materials, and gets you to blame your own carelessness.
Fortunately, however, it’s not too difficult to detect a dull knife once you’re mindful about it. And, unlike real frenemies, you don’t have to get rid of your knives when they’re dull. Equip yourself with a good sharpener (Don’t know which one you should get? Read my review of the best sharpening devices!), and let me show you how to hone and sharpen your blades!
How you know when your knife needs honing/sharpening
One of the most common ways is the paper test.
It’s very easy. Get a piece of A4 paper. Hold the corner and try to cut it through it on the edge with your knife. If the knife runs through the paper without tears, it is sharp. If it doesn’t, you know it’s high time for honing/sharpening.
Another very common way to check the sharpness of your knife is to try slicing a tomato or an onion.
Your knife is considered sharp if it cuts through the tough peel of the tomato/onion with minimal force. If it slides on the peel or requires your pushing to cut, then it is dull.
How to hone a knife using a sharpening steel
A honing/sharpening steel is a metal rod with small ridges along it. Most complete knife sets come with a sharpening steel of 9 inches in length.
When you slide the edge of your knife along this rod, the ridges work to remove dirt/some small particles on the edge and makes it sharper. I heard somewhere it can realign the edge, but I’ll probably need more time to completely understand the science behind it.
Now, there are many different ways to hone a knife with a sharpening steel (different angles, to be exact). Since the vertical stroke is the safest and easiest method, I will be introducing it here.
Here is how to hone a knife with vertical strokes, step by step:
- Hold the steel vertically, its tip firmly pressed on your work surface. Keep your hold firm to minimize sliding while you’re honing the knife. To be safe, the distance between you and the steel should be almost an arm’s length.
- Place the heel of your knife against the top of the steel, its tip slightly pointing upwards.
- Place the knife so that there’s an angle of 15 degrees between its blade and the rod.
- Maintain this angle while sliding the knife downwards, pulling it to the direction of your body.
- Repeat the motion for about 4 – 5 times. Or until your arms are exhausted.
- Change the side of the edge and repeat all the steps.
Once you’ve mastered the vertical strokes, maybe you can go on to try this:
The method does look a little more badass and are usually performed by experts (that guy in the gif is Chef Gordon Ramsay). However, note that the sharpness obtained will be just the same as the vertical strokes. I personally don’t think it’s worth the risk of you hurting yourself.
Either way, honing significantly helps with slightly dull knives. If you hone your blades frequently (once before every use or after several uses), they can stay sharp for a long time. That reduces the need for serious sharpening to about once a year.
If your knife is already more than slightly dull, however, it’s time to consider having it sharpened.
How to sharpen a knife
Sharpening a knife with whetstones requires more than simple techniques.
First you will need a set of different stones, which can be quite a nuisance to keep in the cupboard only to be used once or twice a year.
Then, even when you know all the steps, it typically takes years of experience before you can finally master them.
If you are a casual home cook, it’s best to bring your knives to a professional for the sharpening. Once a year will work, especially if you do hone the knives regularly at home.
It is not to say that mastering the arts of knife sharpening isn’t worth it. It’s a useful and very impressive skill to have. In fact, it’s one of the sexiest things thing to see your partner in the kitchen, their shirt sleeves rolled up, their eyes and mind totally focus on the blades. Then again maybe it’s just me – I’m hooked with anything kitchen.
Anyway, if you want to learn how to sharpen a knife step by step, here’s an excellent tutorial by this expert from J.A. Henckels, Bob Krammer. He’s the first Master Bladesmith in the world to specialize in kitchen cutlery. And his explanation is super clear and easy to follow!
Now you know how to test your knives, and to hone and sharpen them if they’re dull.
But honing and sharpening is not the only thing you have to do to keep them running for decades. Learn other tricks to maintain and care for your knives to maximize their lifespan!