I get asked a lot about sharpening knives and about the best way to do it. To clear things up, there is sharpening and there is honing. I hone my knives countless times a day and I sharpen them once a month depending on the knife. The picture below is of two different honing “blades”, meant for different types of knives.
The honing blade on the left is made of ceramic and the one on the right is made from steel. Most German knives will use the steel on the right because the steel is softer and the grooves actually take any dents and bends and straightens them out. Japanese knives and a lot of the knives that are too expensive to buy will use the honing blade on the left. Due to the harder type of metal that is made they need a more aggressive honing blade, hence the ceramic. It may not look or feel more aggressive but they have microscopic pits that actually remove small pieces of metal that are out of line and soften the larger pieces. Since the honing blades are used after sharpening, I will explain how to use them after I explain how I sharpen your knives.
There are many types of sharpening stones and whenever I go to a knife shop, they always try to sell me the cheap-o devices to slide your knives through. They work for making a quick edge but in the long run they will ruin the knife. The stones I recommend are two sided, one side of medium coarseness and the other of fine, and either oil or wet stones. If you buy an oil stone, make sure to buy the mineral oil and never use water on it, and vise versa with the wet stone. Overtime, oil stones will continue to absorb the mineral oil, requiring less oil each time it is used. Wet stones on the other hand need to be soaked in water before every use and that acts as the lubricant. Below is the oil stone that I use, the right side is the fine side and the left is the coarser side.
How To Sharpen Your Knives
Place a wet towel under the stone to prevent it from sliding when you run your knife along it. Now, figure out what angle you need to sharpen your blade: if you can eyeball the angle then make sure you will be consistent on both sides of the knife every time you run it. Different types of knives will need to be sharpened to different angles. For house knives I would go with a 22° angle because I feel that this is in the middle of being very sharp and very durable. For fish filet knives I usually use a 17° angle, for boning knives used to break down proteins I use a 25° angle. The smaller the angle, the sharper your knife will be but, it will not hold the edge for a long period of time. The larger the angle, the less sharp the edge, but the longer it will last. Below is a picture of the four knives I use the most and the angles they are sharpened to.
Since the boning knife and filet knife don’t have nearly as much contact with the cutting board, they do not require sharpening as often as the chefs knife. If you cannot eyeball the angle, don’t worry; cut a piece of paper into a square (I usually have 6″x6″ lying around), fold it into a triangle and you will get a 90° angle.
Then, fold the triangle to look like the picture below by grabbing the right corner from the picture above and folding it down to meet with the bottom of the triangle.
By the time you fold it a third time you end up with a 22.5° angle. The last fold can be adjusted to get the angle you want for your knives. Now it’s time to sharpen your knives!
Once your angle is set, grab the knife by the handle with your thumb on the back of the blade. With your other hand, “pinch” the front, keeping your thumb on the back of the blade.
From the bottom of the course stone, the end that is closest to you, grip the knife firmly and re-check your angle. Push forward with a little pressure while pushing the blade to the right until the tip of the knife reaches the top right corner of the stone. This motion will ensure that you sharpen the whole blade in one motion. Do this two more times then flip the knife over so the handle is in your left hand. Repeat the same motion three times, always count your strokes to ensure that you sharpen the knife equally on each side. It will take some practice to get the motion down with your non-dominant hand. I usually do this 3-4 strokes on each side of the knife and then check the edge of the knife.
If you look closely, you will see scratches on the actual edge of the knife. In order to have a sharp knife, those scratches need to be sharpened away and that is what the finer side of the stone is for. With the same technique that you used on the coarser side, run your knife up the stone until the edge looks smooth or polished.
How to Hone Your Knives
The final step to ensure a sharp knife is by using the honing blade. There are dozens of ways that people like to use their honing blades so don’t listen to everyone when they tell you that you are doing it wrong! If it feels comfortable then go with it. A freshly sharpened blade will go right through your finger to the bone if it feels like it. The most important thing to remember is to keep your angle consistent and don’t do what they do on television and go at lightning speed, it actually doesn’t do as good of a job. With your angle set and very light pressure, run your knife on the honing blade a couple of times on each side. Below are three different ways to hone your knife. When you are done, clean that knife and cut a tomato!