Quality cutlery allows you to cut food more efficiently, attractively and safely. But no matter what quality of cutlery you use, allowing knives to become dull makes kitchen prep more difficult and potentially dangerous. Before you rush out to buy a knife sharpener, you need to understand the difference between sharpening and honing. Although you need to do both regularly, these two tasks require different tools.
For best results, have your knives professionally sharpened once every six to 12 months, depending upon how often you use them. A knife-sharpening expert can do this for you, using machinery too large and costly to keep in your home. Check the yellow pages in your area for a shop that sells knives and offers this service. Call gourmet kitchen and cutlery shops in your area; if they don’t sharpen knives, they can refer you to a skilled machinist who does. Sharpening fees often cost approximately $1 per knife.
In between professional sharpenings, you’ll need to hone your knives at least once a week. The more chopping and cooking you do, the more often you’ll need to hone the blades you use most frequently.
Honing maintains the edge of a sharpened knife once it has “turned” due to daily use. Most professional chefs use sharpening steels to maintain their knife edges. The steel should be at least two inches longer than your longest knife blade and you must hold the knife at a constant 15- to 25-degree angle, depending on the type of knife, as you move it from one side to the other across the steel in an arching motion.
This requires skill, and many home cooks have difficulty getting the angle right. As a result, they may dull or damage their knives, or fail to create a consistently sharp edge.
For ease and simplicity, you can buy a simple device that holds your knife at the precise angle, honing the blade in half the time required by conventional steeling. These easy-to-use tools require no special skills. They eliminate the uncertainty and inconsistency of using an unguided steel. They take up very little space and allow you to fine-tune knife blades within minutes. A good one will set you back less than $45.
Styles and designs vary among manufacturers, but most tools contain precision guides that hold your knife at the perfect angle while you stroke the knife across tension-mounted miniature steel rods mounted in the device’s frame.
Chef’s Choice Steel Pro #470. This is not a knife sharpener; it’s a knife maintenance tool. Like a conventional sharpening steel, it maintains a razor-sharp edge on straight-edged knives. Fully hardened, nonabrasive high carbon steeling rods are mounted in a 3-inch-high case with a 23/4- by 3-inch base and a 43/4-inch-long handle. The rods control and align the face of the knife as you run the blade through two slots, aligning the left side and then the right side of your knife.
This easy-to-operate device is designed to last a lifetime with normal household use. You can run your knife through it thousands of times before the wear requires you to adjust one of the device’s 55 pairs of “steeling” surfaces. The base has small rubber feet to securely hold it to any dry, flat surface. A hook on the end of the handle allows you to conveniently hang this honing tool on the wall. It works on all fine-edge knives, regardless of brand, and comes with a detailed instruction manual. It may not be the most beautiful kitchen gadget you own, but it works.
The Steel Pro sharpens only straight-edged knives. Look for it in kitchen stores everywhere for $39.99 or from EdgeCraft Corporation, 825 Southwood Road, Avondale, PA 19311; (800) 342-3255; www.Chefs Choice.com.
Chantry Knife Sharpener. Although the label calls this a “Knife Sharpener,” the Chantry does not actually sharpen; it maintains the edge produced by your knife’s manufacturer and kept up by regular professional sharpening. Like the Steel Pro, it reproduces the action of a butcher’s steel, but with a higher degree of accuracy because it automatically holds the knife at the correct angle.
Unlike the Steel Pro, the Chantry hones both sides of the blade at the same time. In contrast to electric knife sharpeners, the Chantry does not wear away the blade. To use it, you draw your knife between the steels as if slicing bread, using only enough pressure to engage the steels. You may need to apply more pressure for extremely dull knives. For best results, the manufacturer recommends you run your knife through the device with each use. This prevents premature dulling.
The Chantry quickly and easily sharpens both straight and serrated edges. It boasts a sturdy metal construction, measures 5 inches across, 41/2 inches high and 11/2 inches wide, and comes in eight attractive colors and two designs. It looks pretty enough to sit out on your kitchen counter.
It sells for $42.98 in fine kitchen shops or from Messermeister Cutlery, 418 Bryant Circle, Ste. A, Ojai, CA 93023; (800) 426-5134; www.messermeister.com.
AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener. The smallest and least expensive of the lot, this compact plastic “sharpener” measures 51/2 inches long, 21/2 inches high and 2/3 inch wide; it fits in the palm of your hand. What it lacks in size and looks it makes up for in versatility. It adds a razor-sharp edge to knives (both straight and serrated) as well as cleavers, axes, machetes and other common cutting tools, within 10 seconds. Its compact construction makes it ideal for camping, traveling or tossing into a toolbox.
To use it, you slip the plastic guard over your knuckles and grip the ergonomic handle. (Imagine plastic brass knuckles.) Place your knife blade-side up on a flat work surface, then pull the knife blade along the tungsten carbide sharpener. It performs equally well for right- and left-handed users. Wash it with soap and water or in the dishwasher; it won’t rust.
Available for $10.99 from hardware stores or from AccuSharp, 205 Hickory Creek Road, Marble Falls, TX, 78654-3357; (830) 693-6111; www.AccuSharp.com.
Before using any honing tool, wipe the knife blade with a damp cloth to keep the machine clean. After honing, rinse and dry the blade to remove any rough particles.
Rachel Albert-Matesz is a Phoenix-based food and health writer and co-author of The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004). For information about her book, classes and services, visit www.TheGardenOfEatingDiet.com.