Some would argue against the characterization of knife sharpening as an ingredient, but I beg to differ. I’ve recently noticed knife exchanges on foodie websites between visitors and the web master that were either disturbing, or simply disappointing. I attribute this to a lack of information on the subject, so in my infinite wisdom, I will try to remedy the situation. I approach this subject from a perspective not familiar to most foodies, home cooks, or even to a great number of chefs – manual DIY sharpening. I spent 5 years putting myself through undergraduate and graduate courses by peddling man cave sundries at a knife (and shaver) store – part of the Victor Kiam/New England Patriots empire. Yes, that long forgotten bastion of shopping mall manliness that also sold darts, dull samurai swords, and nose hair trimmers – all laced with testosterone and requiring burliness to browse.
We worked on commission, and I spent much of my time peddling sharpening stones to browsing patrons by sharping the knife they were carrying – for free. The primary selling point became how I could easily sharpen a knife by hand on a tabletop diamond stone that could shave the hair from my arm. The most difficult part was maintaining an unshaven patch of hair on my arm for the demonstration. I learned in those days the proper angle for holding a knife while sharpening, how to sweep the knife on the stone to uniformly sharpen the knife from tang to tip, and most importantly, how to “finish” the knife on a sharpening steel. One of the most misunderstood tools in the kitchen, the sharpening steel really doesn’t sharpen, at least not the traditional kind. The traditional sharpening steel simply knocks microscopic burrs from the knife edge, which makes it slice better. Eventually, you will need a proper sharpening of your knives. But most home cooks think that the sharpening steel is all they need, if anything, to keep their knives functioning properly.
A Proper Sharpening
I realize that my grandfather would probably disagree, but I believe the diamond stone is a better tool for sharpening than the traditional whetstone, and with much less mess. Diamond stones are metal plates with diamond dust embedded in them, and can be quite expensive, since a proper sharpening requires three different stones of varying sizes of diamond dust – let’s call them coarse, medium, and fine. Instead of oil, the stones use water for lubrication and can be rinsed clean under running water. In keeping with the diamond theme, I also use a diamond steel on a regular basis, followed by a traditional sharpening steel. A proper sharpening goes from coarse, medium, to fine on the stones, then to a fine diamond steel and ending with the traditional steel.
I understand that a proper sharpening takes some practice, and requires a bit of time to be successful, which is probably why most chefs, and not many home cooks ever try it. A professional chef will typically send out his knives for professional sharpening, which we also did in our retail man cave. Since those places are difficult to find, another option for the home cook (and professional chef) is the Chef’s choice knife sharpener. There are various models available at all price points, they have a long successful history, and are almost foolproof. Look them up on Amazon, along with the DMT diamond steels and sharpening stones. They may become your most important ingredient too.