Kitchen Safety Tips. Your knife could be too dull?

Posted on 06 July 2009 by wrenchwear

Sharpening a knife sounds simple enough, but many people don’t put any effort into keeping their knives sharpened. Nothing is more frustrating to me than picking up a knife, trying to cut through a vegetable or piece of meat, and having it crush rather than slice cleanly through the flesh. Especially when sharpening a knife is relatively easy once you get the hang of it. And quick. Dull knives can be dangerous; you end up applying more pressure than you would with a sharp knife therefore your hand is much more likely to slip.

Step-by-step knife sharpening.

Step-by-step knife sharpening.

This simple problem has two equally simple solutions;
#1 find a hardware store that offers a knife sharpening service and then use it. It might be a couple bucks per knife, a couple times a year but it will pay off.
#2 do it yourself a couple times a year. It might take you longer but you get the satisfaction of the DIY’er.

TIP: you might want to practice on a knife you don’t really use and/or like, as keeping the angles right takes practice…

The first thing you must understand with sharpening knives is that the specific angle that you grind at is not as important as keeping that constant angle, i.e. if you change the angle of the grind you could be dulling the knife rather than sharpening it. In general, sharpen the bevel of the blade at the same angle that was already there.

TIP: Sharpening at a steep angle gives a more durable edge; sharpening at a low angle gives a sharper edge.

It is important that you have two abrasive surfaces: a coarse one to get the initial hard grinding done and a fine one for the finish sharpening. Depending on your type of stone you will want to use either water or Honing oil. We will be using 3 in 1 Oil as a substitute with a two-sided sharpening stone.

If possible secure your stone to a solid surface. Apply oil to the stone’s rougher surface and spread it evenly over the stone sufficient to cover 80% of the working surface. Use the knife-edge by dragging the edge to spread the oil.

While holding the blade at a 10 -20 degree angle with the stone’s surface, draw the cutting edge along the stone using a light even down pressure to the blade edge. Imagine that you’re carving off a thin slice of the stones surface. If the knife blade is curved or if it’s longer than the stone, you’ll need to draw the blade sideways as you work, so the entire edge is sharpened evenly in one pass. There is no need to push down hard on the blade, moderate pressure is fine.

Flip the blade over and duplicate the angle and down pressure as the blade is pushed in the opposite direction. I generally make about a dozen passes.

To gauge the sharpness of the edge, try using your fingertips as you draw them ACROSS the blade at 90 degrees to the edge. Note: Drawing your fingertips along the blade edge does not ever end well. SAFETY FIRST PEOPLE. After you’ve sharpened each side, try making a few alternating strokes – sharpening one side and then the other.

By now you should have a nice sharp edge. To make sure try holding the blade edge up to an overhead light, look for a bright reflection of the light from the blade edge. If there is a reflection, you do not have it sharp yet. Once it is sharp, you can flip your stone over to the finer side for the finish sharpening.

The final step, prepare the other side of the stone as you did the first but with a little less oil. Repeat the same process as before, just do it a few more times. I generally go for 15 passes on the finer side of the stone.

Now you’re ready to test the edge of your knife again. Note: I repeat. Drawing your fingertips along the blade edge does not ever end well. SAFETY FIRST PEOPLE. At this point you should feel less roughness to the edge and it will appear more polished, i.e. a mirror finish is nice, very nice. Try testing the blade edge for sharpness by drawing the knife over the edge of a piece of paper. It should make a nice smooth cut through the paper without tearing into it.

If you don’t already have one, try picking up a honing steel. The honing steel is one more step in maintaining a sharp knife. If you can give your knife a few strokes on this every time you cut something you will keep your edge properly aligned and sharp longer.
The easiest way to hold it is vertically with the point down, resting securely on a towel. This position allows you to see the angle you are using and provides excellent control. 
 Keep in mind that you must work the full length of the knife-edge and you will want an angle of about 22.5 degrees.
With the heel of the blade contacting the steel as close to the handle as possible and the tip pointing straight out, pull the blade back towards you and down the shaft of the steel. The motion should end with the tip of the blade in contact with the steel towards the bottom of the shaft. Switch sides and do the exact same thing on the other side. Use the same angle on both sides. Repeat about half a dozen times. Gentle pressure is all that is needed.

I try to sharpen my knives twice a year, coinciding with the time changes. I use the honing steel religiously. My knives are always sharp, the tomatoes are cut rather than crushed and if my cooking doesn’t make the meat fall off the bone, my knife will.

TIP: Knife sharpening is a skill going back centuries, there are always debates as to the type of stone, type of lubricate (if any), type of stroke, etc. If you really want to know the secrets try reading The Complete Guide to Sharpening by Leonard Lee or consult your grand-dad if you got one.

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