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How to Sharpen a Knife

Michael Sheridan

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All chefs who go to a western-style catering college, and most butcher's apprentices, are taught to sharpen their knives by swiping the cutting edge several times on a steel towards the hand that is holding that implement. I used to do it that way as well, many years ago.

I also used to teach others the same method until the day I saw someone lay his hand open with a cut needing fourteen stitches. That gives you pause for thought.

There are two problems with this way of doing things in my view. In the first place it requires a certain amount of skill and dexterity to make the required contact with the steel; it's an awkward movement until you are used to it. Few domestic cooks will perform the action enough times in a week, let alone a day, to become at ease with it. The second problem is that most domestic steels are not only very small, they lack a proper guard for the holding hand. The same is true of some steels I've seen in professional kitchens.

I began to experiment by reversing the blade. In other words, using the same action but sweeping the edge away from me, as if slicing pieces off the steel. This, too, I found was difficult for most people to master, particularly on the “undercut", so I went back to the theorists to see what they had to say. Not much, was the answer. A lot of talk about “angles" and “burrs" and “realignment", none of which did much to help.

Then it occurred to me that in everything I had read and seen, it was the knife blade that did the work while the steel remained erect but dormant. What happens, I wondered, if you move the steel instead? Not very much was the answer, it was just as difficult to do and without any satisfactory result.

Then the light came on. I reasoned that if I moved the knife and steel together, but in opposite directions, I could recreate the original idea but in perfect safety. In reality, the knife blade moves in one direction and the steel in another, creating a perfect edge. It's achieved by placing the handle end of the cutting edge against the guard of the steel, which is held in front of you like a sword. Draw the knife blade across the steel and at the same time draw the steel towards you. The two implements will be crossing each other at an angle of 90 degrees. Do this on either side of the blade around six times, no more.

Now, the purists will continue to scream this doesn't work, it's bad for the blade and all kinds of other received nonsense. They will also tell you this is not “sharpening" the blade, this is “honing" it. Well, I have knives that I have used for over 25 years, all sharpened with this method. As for the second point, this is what Chambers dictionary has to say about that: “Hone: v. t. - to sharpen as on a hone" - But what do they know?

The method I give is simple, safe, easy to learn and will keep a fine edge on your knife for as long as you care to use it. Try it and see what you think. Remember, it's the blunt knife that cuts you.

Michael Sheridan - The Cool Cook - is a former head chef and an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at All About Cooking, contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks, including video based how-to guides.


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