Honing in on Truly Sharp Cutlery

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Gary McLaughlin

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.

STAY SHARP

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.

HANDY HONING

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.

HOW DO HONING DEVICES WORK?

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.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

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.

HONING TIP

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.

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