The television show Top Chef eliminates contestants with the line “pack up your knives and go.” Watching the care those chefs take with their slicers and dicers, it’s pretty obvious the average home cook is neglecting his cutlery.
“Proper maintenance is the most important thing when it comes to your knives,” says James Briscione, two-time champion of the Food Network’s Chopped and director of culinary development at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education.
When it comes to your chef’s knife—the big one that looks like an elongated shark fin—Briscione says proper maintenance includes sharpening your blade after every three or four uses.
When he says “sharpening,” Briscione actually means re-forming your knife’s edge using a rod-shaped honing steel. He says the edge of your knife is formed by very small teeth, which become curled or misaligned from use. A few swipes against the honing steel pushes those teeth back into a fine point.
But be warned: “You can hurt a nice knife with a steeling rod if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Briscione says.INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO VIA THE MIAMI CULINARY INSTITUTE
Proper “steeling” begins with the heel of your knife against the honing steel. (The heel is the part closest to your hand.) You want to draw your knife edge down along the length of the honing steel at a steep 15- to 20-degree angle, working from the heel to the tip of your blade, Briscione explains. To get the angle right, imagine you’re trying to pinch an olive between your knife and your honing steel as you sharpen.
Alternating from one side of the knife’s edge to the other using light pressure, three or four swipes on each side is all you need, Briscione says. “After that you’re just showing off.”
The good news: As long as you keep that knife-to-steel angle steep (and your fingers out of the way), you won’t hurt anything. Just be sure NOT to jam the edge of your knife into the steel, which will damage it, Briscione says. He also recommends wiping off your knife and honing steel when you’re done to remove any microscopic metal particles.
“A sharp knife shouldn’t require much pressure to cut,” he adds. If you have to push down to make a mark in things like bell peppers or tomatoes, your knife is dull.
If steeling doesn’t seem to get your knife sharp enough, it’s probably best to take it to a professional. “True sharpening requires a stone, and that’s not easy to do,” Briscione says.
One last piece of advice: Only sharpen while sober. “After a few drinks, it might seem cool to impress people doing this, but that’s a bad idea,” Briscione says, laughing.