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How to Care for Knives & How to Sharpen Knives

"Knives are the best friends a cook can have,
to be treasured along with the family silver." James Beard

Caring for and Sharpening Knives: Clean, Well-sharpened Knives

Caring for professional quality knives is vital. There are but a few caveats.

The first is to use wood or polyethylene cutting boards. Marble, glass, stone, ceramic and other hard surfaces damage knives. They can dull, blunt or nick a blade.

To clean knives, wipe the knife quickly with a nonabrasive cloth or sponge, dry it and put it away.

A little silver polish will clean it if it discolors. Please don't leave it lying around in the sink where it will bang into other cutlery. And putting it away quickly avoids the possibility of it colliding with a force that might dull the blade, and is a safety measure. Do not put that expensive knife in the dishwasher: the handle will loosen over time. The blade of a knife is made from different material from the handle and each will expand and contract differently.

What exactly is a well-sharpened knife? We jump to answer that it is obvious - sharp as opposed to dull. But if you have ever observed a chef examining his knives, you'd see that he lifts them close in his line of vision, zeroing in on the blade with a squint. Why is said chef squinting at a blade when his finger could discern dull from sharp?

Quite simply, our professional friend is looking for smoothness. Look at the photo below, many times enlarged to see a knife edge that would give a professional chef heart palpitations.

knife_photo The spot that looks like a highlight is a jagged tear in the knife. It is many, many times enlarged, but that is the surface of a poorly sharpened knife.

We sharpen knives to smooth and hone the blade. To have a knife professionally ground and sharpened by a skilled craftsman is the best way to go, and watching an artisan at work is a unique pleasure. It is not impossible to master the art of sharpening yourself, however. You will need both a whetstone and a honing steel, each implement serving a different purpose and each working in tandem with the other.

Whichever instrument you are about to use, most knife edges will be ground to a 20 degree angle to the perpendicular on both sides. This sets the standard, and you should always hold the knife at that angle.


The Whetstone: Preparation and Proper Use

Begin with the whetstone. They are generally made of carborundum or another abrasive and are available in three densities, coarse, medium (for all-purpose sharpening) and fine. Coarse is the all-purpose stone, good for Chef's Knives, while fine is good for slicing or boning knives.

There are two basic types of whetstones - oil or water. An oil whetstone is prepared by lubricating it with a few drops of oil which is smoothed to a light film across the stone. A water stone needs to be soaked in water for 10 to 15 minutes to absorb moisture. When either stone is prepared, place it on a non-stick surface (a tea towel is good to steady the stone) and begin.

Place the blade at a 20 degree angle and lay the heel of the blade on the stone. Steady the extended tip of the knife with one hand to guide it, and draw the blade toward you, sweeping across the stone in an arc. Turn the blade over and repeat the process on the other side. Always go in one direction - NEVER NEVER NEVER go back and forth. You will repeat this sharpening gesture 10 to 20 times on each side. Test for sharpness, then move on to the honing steel.

The Honing Steel: Proper Use

The whetstone may have left a few minuscule pieces of jagged metal. Now you use the second implement - the honing steel. This is the familiar steel stick with grooves in the steel. The purpose of the honing steel is to remove any nicks or jags and make the knife smooth. Hold the knife at the same 20 degree angle and draw it across the steel with the same sweeping motion that you used on the whetstone. Repeat on the other side. Do this five or six times. Once again, always work in one direction only.

Sharpen your knife on a honing steel before you use it. Do this EVERY TIME you use a knife. Honing removes small burrs and maintains the edge in between sharpening on a whetstone. A whetstone is generally needed every two to three months.


Knife Storage

Proper storage is critical to maintain knives without damaging the blades. There are several ways to store.

1- Knife Blocks These are the ubiquitous wooden blocks that sit on a counter offering convenient access when working and when safely putting away. There are various sizes and configurations. Since the slots are difficult to clean, it's important that the blade is clean and dry before putting away.

2 -Magnetic Bars Wall-mounted magnetic bars are designed to hold knives firmly in place. You must use care to not move too fast and knock a knife from place though the bars are extremely strong.

3- Knife Sleeves Rigid plastic sleeves fully enclose the blade. This is the only way you can store a knife in a drawer with other utensils.

4 - Knife Cases This is the choice of professionals who will carry their knives with them. They are padded, have elastic loops to hold a knife firmly. The have mesh pockets and Velcro fasteners. If you are traveling to visit friends and plan to be the chef, you will want to bring your professional knives. This is your choice.

And now - lift the blade and squint like a professional chef. You have taken an important step to culinary success.



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