Monday, 17 January 2011

A chef's guide to sharpening knives

Apols for the lack of blog-action of late, been pretty busy at the restaurant in the run up to Christmas.

But! Am now going to make up for lost time, starting with promised post on sharpening knives. A follow up to my previous 'guide to knives' post, this is a (
hopefully) helpful guide to sharpening keeping them sharp.

Two key points to start:

Sharpening your knife/knives is well worth it - a cheap knife kept sharp is much more useful than an expensive knife allowed to go dull.

2) If you're a home cook then the effort required to keep your knives sharp is minimal - one, maybe two pieces, of equipment, a bit of know-how and a few minutes of your time every so often is all that's needed.

Whether chef or occasional home cook, a sharp knife will make your life sooo much easier in the kitchen. You get things done faster and with less effort, your knife skills to improve more quickly and, frankly, you just cant do do lots of things (think a fillet fish, score a pork belly, finely chop a shallot etc) at all unless you have a sharp knife.

Most importantly you'll enjoy cooking more with a nice sharp knife.

So what's the best way to keep your knife or knives sharp?

Well, there's basically three categories here:

1. A steel (a hand-held sharpening stick)

2. A stone (a block of special sharpening stone)

3. Home use sharpening gadgets.

Home use gadgets

So lets start with the most user friendly method first: home use gadgets. There's all sorts of run-through and pull through contraptions out there which claim to be effective and fool-proof sharpeners. Many are undoubtedly fairly crap, so be a bit cautious if you've got expensive knives you don't fancy ruining, but there are some good ones out there.

From what I know the run-through water wheels produce the best results and are easy to use and not especially expensive. They look like this:

A run through water wheel gismo - a good easy use choice.

Here's one for around the £20 mark. These do really work and, if you follow the basic instructions, are pretty fool proof.

They're a good option for the home cook.

If you want to see one in action here's a short video from The Japanese Knife Company (he uses one at about 4:30 minutes in):

As the guy says in the vid these multi wheel sharpeners will, with a bit of work on the coarsest setting, be able to bring a blunt knife back to a place where you can then sharpen it up to a good edge.

So next are the more cheffy options - steels and stones....

A steel

A steel is basically a sharpening stick with a handle (the ones you see show-off chefs attempting to wave around faster than each other). The key thing to remember here is that a steel will sharpen your knife quite superficially i.e make it quite quickly a little sharper, but it wont last long, and it won't do enough to make a blunt knife sharp.

Chef's use steels as a handy way to give their knives a quick boost of sharpness e.g if you're just about to fillet a fish. Chef's tend to use stones before or after work, whereas during work when you're busy you have a steel to hand.

At home you could probably get away with just having a steel - as long as your knife or knives are fairly sharp to start with, and you keep in the habit of using it fairly regularly so they never get too dull.

So which one to buy?

They range from really coarse steel rods to very expensive ceramic numbers. The ceramic ones tend to be high quality but can break easily, the best option in my opinion and the one that most chefs I know go for, is a diamond edged steel. These are really light and durable, and not expensive: you can pick up one for about £20 quid e.g this one.

Here's a slightly random but helpful video of some American guy in his cook shop demonstrating the basics of the technique needed for using a steel.

A diamond edge steel - a good buy at under 20 notes.

N.B it's worth saying that, as with the gadgets above, don't use that cheap 'n' nasty steel you got free with your £20 knife set on your expensive new knife - you'll do more harm than good. Better to buy a new one or use a different method.

A stone

If you're a chef, or want to really get into sharpening your knives, then investing in a stone is the way to go.

Using a stone is really satisfying, and, once you get the technique down you can get a knife razor razor sharp, and then using it fairly regularly will mean you'll keep it that way.

Stones come in different grades - indicating how rough/smooth they are. As I understand it there's different grading systems - with the Japanese one 100 is really coarse, 1000 really fine, I believe there's also a US grading system which runs up to 30000 or something.

The point being you need a coarse stone to grind a fairly dull knife back to a state where you can then use a fine (finishing) stone to make it properly sharp.

I use a fine (Japanese 1000 grade) Kin stone (the waterstone WA1000 on this list)
to keep my knives sharp. I try to sharpen them about twice a week which means it's regular enough so that they stay pretty sharp all the time so I don't tend to need to grind down the knives using a coarser stone.

But generally a good option is to have a two sided stone, which has both rough and coarse grades. This means you can both grind down and finish a blade.

A two sided whetstone - the cheffy choice.

Anyway. Rather than me ramble on.... better to watch the Japanese Knife Co video embedded above, and then this, the second part below. Together they explain brilliantly the technique and principles behind using a whetstone on a knife:

It's worth mentioning that there are also ceramic stones available which don't need water or pre-soaking, but they are quite a lot more pricey (as you can see from the prices on the Kin sharpening page).

So that's my take on the slightly confusing world of sharpening - hope it's helpful, definitely watch the vids above, they're really useful.



chumbles said...

Thank you; a really, really useful post and at last I understand what I've been doing wrong and where all the bits of kit are positioned. Probably the post I will go back to time and again; my show-off steel sharpening has always felt good, looked good etc., but I never fully realised that they only put the edge back on and don't properly sharpen. Thank you once again.

pieternel said...

Thanks!! Now I need to practice (and un-learn everything I've done wrong with my steel for years....)
Would be good idea if you put in the facebook 'share' button - could make you world famous! ;-)