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How to Sharpen Kitchen Knives the Ninja Way

What’s the most dangerous item to have in your kitchen? A razor-sharp knife or a dull knife? 

Some of you will go with the former. While that’s definitely the more intuitive answer, a dull knife has bigger chances of cutting through your peripherals because it requires more pressure to cut through food. 

This increases its chances of slipping and causing an accident, which means that a safety concerned chef will know when and how to sharpen kitchen knives to ensure they’ll be able to use their fingers for a long time. 

Safety should always be the number one priority in a kitchen. This is why we’ve put together a guide that will help you recognize a dull knife, present you with the various options of sharpening you have, and train you to use each one. Your razor-sharp blades await at the end of this article. 

How do I know if my knife needs sharpening?

Sometimes you need to follow your intuition. For example, if your kitchen knives never met the abrasive embrace of a sharpening stone, it could be time to sharpen them. Unfortunately, no set interval will tell you how often you need to sharpen your tools.

Does your knife need sharpening?

However, there are a few ways to check if your blades are due for some maintenance. The first, and most obvious way, is gently running your finger across the side of the blade. A sharp knife will have a well-defined edge that feels, well, sharp. 

If the blade feels a bit rounded and dull, it won’t send shivers down your spine at the thought of touching it with your fingers. In which case, your knife probably needs some attention. 

Another way to check if you have dull knives is by trying to cut a sheet of paper. If your kitchen knives can make clean cuts, they are in top condition. Otherwise, if the paper breaks or if the newly formed edges are rugged, it would be a great time to sharpen them. 

Nevertheless, you won’t probably need to put your knives on the spot like this. You will know if they need sharpening if they slip off onions or if they crush tomatoes rather than easily cut through them. 

How do you know when your knife is dull?

What are the risks of using a dull kitchen knife?

One of the biggest myths out there is that dull knives are safer than sharp ones. The reason why some people believe that is pretty obvious. After all, sharp knives cut through food a lot more easily, which is why many amateur cooks continue to believe that a sharper knife makes them more prone to accidents. 

The truth is that using dull knives can lead to many more mistakes, as they require a more significant amount of force to cut through food. This not only increases the risk of slippage, but it also means that if it touches your finger, it will do so with a larger amount of pressure. 

Sharp knives, on the other hand, use their geometry to cut. They will easily glide through materials without requiring much force. In the eventuality of it slipping, you’ve got fewer chances of seriously injuring yourself because you were a lot more gentle. 

The principle behind this is very simple, but many people still adhere to the myth of dull knives being safer. Thus, it’s better to be properly informed and avoid unnecessary risks. And since your knives will be sharp enough to do some damage if misused, you’ll be a lot more careful handling them in the first place. 

Dull blade & freshly sharpened blade
Source: Makezine.com

What are the differences between honing and sharpening? 

If you’ve been looking for the proper way to sharpen a kitchen knife, you might have heard about honing. Honing and sharpening are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s a significant difference you should keep in mind. You will need to consider both operations, depending on the occasion. 

A kitchen knife will lose its cutting power if its sharp edge becomes worn down with use or if it was misaligned due to excessive pressure. Wearing the blade down will usually take some time, but pushing it out of alignment can (and does) happen very frequently. 

Honing

The process of honing a knife should be regular maintenance for knives that are already sharp. It entails pushing the sharp edge against a honing steel until it is perfectly aligned again. To keep your knives in top condition, it is highly advisable to do this regularly. 

Some people prefer to hone their knives after every use, which ensures their knives will only need minimal sharpening, about twice a year. However, honing them once in a while is more than enough for the average home cook, especially if you want to reduce the time spent in the kitchen.

Sharpening

You should consider sharpening when your knives’ edges are worn down. If you’ve been using them for a while and they lost their bite, they probably need a fresh new edge. 

To do so, you will need to grind the side of the edge against a sharpening stone. 

This removes material from the blade to reveal a finer, tapering edge that will keep your fingers safe and your food evenly cooked.

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How to hone a knife with a honing steel?

When you’re ready to give your knife a new life, you should look for a good quality honing steel. You should opt for a heavier model that’s at least 9-inches long. The standard honing steel is made of a steel rod with tiny ridges along its length. 

Honing steel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You will need to hold the steel by its rubber handle and point it downwards, pressing on an adherent surface, like a wooden cutting board. Keep your knife in your dominant hand and place its heel at the top of the steel rod. Touch the steel with the knife’s edge by rotating it at a 15 degrees angle. 

Glide the edge lightly against the steel by pulling the knife towards yourself and down the honing rod. You should finish the movement with the tip of the blade touching the tip of the honing steel. Switch sides and repeat the motion a few times. You will need about eight alternate strokes per side. 

How to sharpen kitchen knives with a manual sharpener?

A handheld sharpener is a compact device you can whip out anytime you feel your knives could benefit from some new teeth. It features a rubber or plastic handle and two slots through which you can pull your blade. 

The first one is a coarse grit that removes material from the blade to gently taper it, while the second one is a fine grit for polishing. If this is your first time attempting to be a ninja, you might need a couple of tries until you get it right.

How to sharpen kitchen knives
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pros

  • They come in a broad range of models, and they’re easy to find online or in stores. 
  • They are the cheapest way to keep your sharps in top condition. 
  • They are small and effortless to clean up and store. 
  • They give you complete control over the angle at which you sharpen your blades. 
  • They are highly portable, which allows you to sharpen knives on the go. BBQ, anyone? 

Cons

  • They require more effort than electric sharpeners. 
  • They take more time to sharpen properly. 
  • They don’t work on waved edge or serrated knives. 

Is this your pick? Great! Let’s sharpen those bad boys. 

The process is quite intuitive. First, take the protective case off the sharpener (if it has one) and submerge the device in a little bit of water to get the gritty wheels wet. This will prevent them from getting too hot. 

Keep the sharpener firmly planted on the counter and place the blade’s heel into the coarse slot. You can then pull it through towards yourself, applying very light pressure. Next, pull it through three to six times on each side, pressing it evenly against the wheels from the heel to the tip. 

When ready, wash off the metal residue and pull it through the polishing slot a couple of times. 

How to sharpen dull kitchen knives with an electric sharpener?

On the other hand, an electric knife sharpener is probably the best choice for people who don’t want to watch too many YouTube tutorials. Using them is a quick and effortless way to ensure your knives are living up to their potential. 

A good electric sharpener will control the angle of the knife and sharpen it to perfection as you’re pulling the blade through the dedicated slot. The results are always consistent as they leave no room for mistakes. 

Pros

  • They are the fastest way to sharpen your blades – a couple of glides, and you’re done. 
  • They are great for beginners who don’t know exactly what they’re doing. 
  • They require no effort or technique on your end. 
  • They can sharpen all types of kitchen knives, including serrated and waved-edge. 

Cons

  • They are more expensive than other types of sharpeners. 
  • They don’t give you any control over the result, which can become frustrating as you evolve as a ninja. 
  • They are much bigger than their manual counterparts, so they are harder to store. 
  • They aren’t as portable as manual sharpeners (unless you’re very strong). 

If you got an electric sharpener, you’d be glad to know that you barely need any instructions. 

First, plug the device in and place your knife into the abrasive slot, starting at its heel. You can then pull it through to the tip slowly, then switch sides. You will need about three pulls in the coarse slot and a couple more through the fine grit one. 

Using an electric sharpener is relatively easy, but you will have to remember that they all come with different features. So don’t forget to read the instructions carefully and always put your safety first. 

How to sharpen your kitchen knives with a whetstone?

How to sharpen your knives with a whetstone
Source: Didriks for Flickr

There’s only one way to turn a knife sharpening ninja into a Hokage, and that is learning how to use a whetstone. They require more effort and technique than the alternatives, but it’s not really rocket science. This is probably the best way to sharpen kitchen knives, as it replicates the manufacturing process. 

They come in a broad range of sizes and grits, and they feature two distinct sides – one for sharpening and one for polishing. 

Pros

  • They give you complete control over the result. 
  • They come with a very low risk of damaging your blades (unless you don’t know what you’re doing).  
  • They are tiny, light and portable. 
  • They work for a wide variety of knives, including kitchen shears. You can even use them for your gardening tools. 

Cons

  • They are a poor option for beginners, as there are no guides to hold the blade. 
  • They require a lot more time and effort than their counterparts. 
  • High-quality whetstones can be quite expensive. 

Before buying a whetstone, you’ll need to learn what’s the proper way to sharpen a kitchen knife with this blocky fellow. You’d think a slab of stone would come with fewer instructions than an electrical appliance, but a sharpening stone is an exception to that rule. 

Before we’re going to test your sharpening method, we need to prepare the stage. First, soak your whetstone in lukewarm water for a few minutes until you can’t see any more air bubbles. Next, you will need to place it coarse side up, on the counter, or on a cutting board. 

Most kitchen knives require a 20-degree angle, while some Japanese knives should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle. You can check with your knife’s manufacturer if you aren’t sure. The science behind is fascinating, so make sure to check out this if you want to learn more about sharpening angles. 

Once you’re ready to sharpen, place the blade at the correct angle, facing away from you. 

Grip the handle firmly with your dominant hand, and use the other one to apply pressure on the flat side of the blade. Starting at the heel, drag the edge down the stone towards the tip. At the same time, slowly pull the knife towards you. Glide the edge against the stone in a circular motion several times until you can see metal residue forming near the blade. 

Repeat the same steps for the other side of the blade when you can see metal specks covering the entire length. When finished, turn the stone over and polish the knife. 

I bet you’re already on the verge of buying new kitchen knives. Don’t worry, here’s a video that explains the whole process. It’s a lot easier than it sounds. 

How can you tell when your knife is sharp enough?

The intimidating sheen of a properly sharpened knife should be enough to let you know you’re finished. However, if you’re not sure when to stop, there are a few ways in which you can put your work to the test. 

The paper method works very well and is easy to use throughout the sharpening process. Keep a few pieces of paper nearby and check your edges once in a while to make sure you’re not sharpening your knives into oblivion. 

You can also test them with your fingernail, but you’ll have to be careful. Gently tap the edge against one of your fingernails to see if it bites in ever so slightly. If it does, then your knife is sharp enough. Blades that are still dull will usually slide or deflect. 

How can you store your knives to keep them sharp for longer?

When you put some effort into keeping your knives pristine, you’ll start caring about how they’re stored a lot more. There’s nothing worse than your work going to waste, and improper storage can do a lot of damage to otherwise perfect knives. 

Wall-mounted knives

Depending on your lifestyle, there are a few great ways to store them. If you have small kids or pets, your safest bet is to put them in a drawer. There are drawer inserts you can buy that will ensure they won’t rub against other utensils. You should opt for wooden ones, as they will remove excess moisture and prevent your tools from rusting. 

Another great way to store them is on your wall. You can buy a special magnetic strip that you mount on one of your walls, then snap your knives to it. This is a great storage solution because there’s no friction involved. Plus, you’ll be able to see them all at a glance. 

Lastly, countertop blocks are great, as long as they are made of wood and feature horizontal slots. Make sure the slots have a little bit of extra room so that the tips of your knives don’t touch anything when inserted. 

Final words

With great power comes great responsibility. Once you’ve been initiated on sharpening your knives the ninja way, you must use your knowledge wisely. There is no going back to cutting food with a dull knife once you’ve learned the danger it entails. 

Luckily, you’re now equipped with everything you need to know to keep your blades in top condition. All you need for proper maintenance are a couple of small accessories and a half-hour twice a year. Not only will this keep you safe in your own kitchen, but it will also increase the life of your tools by a significant margin. 

A sharp knife is a chef’s most important sidekick, so make sure you give yours enough attention. They will reward you with better meals and an enhanced cooking experience.

Lastly, a benefit you don’t want to miss is the possibility of going to your friends’ houses and saying: “wow, you haven’t sharpened these knives in a long time.” Petty? Yas. But they won’t mind once you show them how it’s done.

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