A Cut Above

Think you’ve got cooking chops? Not unless you have the right knife and know how to maintain it. Here’s what you need to dice and slice like a pro and keep your knife in good working order.
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A Cut Above - Tools Maintenance Series - Knives

The right knife is an indispensable kitchen tool.

Everyone fusses over the newest appliance or pretty ceramics, but nothing gets more use in the kitchen than a chef’s knife. When it’s the right size and whisper sharp, a knife can be a joy to work with — but if it’s dull or outmatched by the task at hand, things can get messy or downright dangerous really quickly. Here’s what you need to know to get the right knife and keep it just as sharp as the day you bought it.

Understanding Knife Types 

It’s easy to get dazzled by the variety when you’re standing in front of a display of knives, but they’re broken into two basic types: German and Japanese. Though there are some general differences in how they’re manufactured (German knives are traditionally made from molten steel poured into molds, while Japanese knives are forged from different layers of metal), most knives are made with steel, and both are great for home cooks.

A few things set these dependable chefs’ knives apart. If you look at the blade of a German knife, it tends to be curved, making it easier to rock the knife when you’re chopping, and the pointy tip can be helpful for scoring and deboning. The cutting edge is at a slightly shallower angle than a Japanese knife, which makes the chef’s knife more durable but less precise. These knives are also made with a softer type of steel than Japanese knives, so they need to be sharpened more frequently (but take on a sharp edge when they do). They also tend to be heavier, which is useful when you need a little more leverage with heavy jobs, but that heft can be tiring if you’re going through a big batch of veggies.

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In general, Japanese knives are thinner, harder and lighter than their German counterparts. While not all Japanese blades are in the Santoku shape (which means “three virtues” in Japanese, alluding to the things it does best: dicing, chopping and mincing), many of them are. They’re easy to spot: The cutting edge of the blade is either straight or nearly straight, and the top of the blade curves down to the cutting edge instead of coming to a point. It often has very shallow ridges along one side of the blade (called a Granton edge), which help keep food from sticking to it. The cutting edge of the blade is angled more steeply than a German blade, which means it can make more exact cuts, but that also makes it prone to chip, so don’t use it for, say, cutting through bones.

Bottom line: If you’re not sure which one is best for you, go to a knife store and trying holding a few different ones. “A knife should feel like an extension of your arm,” says Taylor Erkkinen, founder and chief creative officer of The Brooklyn Kitchen, A Radical Cooking School. It should feel well-balanced and have a pleasant heft to it, but above all, “buy the one that fits in your hand.” After all, you’re going to spend a lot of time together.

Hone In

No matter what type of knife you have, to keep it in tip-top shape, you need to hone it periodically. Honing is the process of knocking the sharp edge of the knife back into alignment (as opposed to sharpening, which grinds down the metal to create a fresh point).

As you use the knife, the sharp edge inevitably gets ever so slightly bent — not so much that you can see it with the naked eye, but enough that you might notice your knife catching on the edge of foods or taking more effort to use. Luckily, all it takes is a few swipes with a honing steel to knock the edge straight again.

Everyone should have a classic steel, sometimes known as a butcher’s steel, and you should use it every day. The blade is round, with a bit of texture. A diamond steel (which, as its name suggests, has diamond dust on the exterior) hones and gently sharpens at the same time, so it will extend the amount of time between sharpenings. That said, you should only use it about once a month to avoid wearing out your knife.

You use both types of steels in a similar manner: Start by holding the steel vertically so the tip touches your work surface. For a German knife, hold the blade at a 20° angle to the steel, and for a Japanese knife, hold the blade at a 15° angle. (Take extra care with the angle if you’re using a diamond steel, because you can actually make your knife duller if you get it wrong.) Starting from the heel, draw the knife down and across to the point, applying firm and even pressure throughout.  Switch sides and repeat, being sure to keep the blade at a consistent angle. Repeat this process about 10 times, until the blade is honed. 

Looking Sharp 

No matter how much you hone your knife, eventually it will wear down, and a sharpener grinds both sides of the blade to create a keen edge once again. You should sharpen your blades at least once a year. “Whetstones are the best sharpeners out there, you can easily do it at home and you have complete control. It just takes a little practice to master,” says Erkkinen.

To use one, start by soaking it for about 30 minutes (the water gives the stone the right degree of friction), then place it so the coarsest side is up. If the whetstone doesn’t come with a base, anchor it by placing it on a kitchen towel. As with honing, the process is the same for German and Japanese knives, but you’ll have to work at a steeper angle for a Japanese knife. Hold the knife so that the blade faces away from you and touches the stone at a 20° angle for a German knife, or 15° for a Japanese one. Starting from the heel and working toward the point, sweep the blade across the stone, applying gentle downward pressure and maintaining a consistent angle. Repeat about 10 times, dribbling water over the stone occasionally, then switch sides of the blade. Flip or turn the stone over so you can work on the less coarse side, and repeat this process, again working with both sides of the blade and drizzling water over the stone periodically.  After you’re done, hone the blade a few times, just to make sure the edge is perfectly aligned. 

Knife sharpening

How do you know you’re honing at a 20° angle? Start with a right angle (90°) and cut that in half, giving you a 45° angle. Cut that in half (plus a little more) and you’re set!

Cleaning & Storing

The dishwasher is the natural enemy of a good knife: High heat and harsh detergents are bad for the steel and the handle, while other items in the dish rack might bump up against the blade and dull it. Instead, your best bet is to hand wash your knives soon after you use them. Just be sure to never drop them in a sink full of soapy water, where you might catch a sharp blade unaware. Make a habit of drying them and putting them away immediately — moisture is bad for steel, and it’s never good to have sharp objects hanging out in a dish rack, where it might bang up against pots and pans or you might grab it by accident.

You have three options for storing knives: In a drawer, in a knife block and on a magnetic strip on the wall, and there are ways to do all three well.

The worst option is keeping knives in a drawer unprotected. It’s dangerous for you, and your knives will get dull much faster from getting knocked around. If you want to keep them out of sight, the best move is to buy a special knife insert for your drawer, or store them with blade covers, which are inexpensive to buy.

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If you bought a set of knives that includes a knife block, it’s a totally acceptable way to store your knives. Just make sure your knives are scrupulously clean and dry when you put them away, to avoid any sort of icky bacteria growth.

Many chefs prefer to use a magnetic knife rack: Knives stay sharp and away from one another, it’s always easy to find the one you’re looking for, and you’re not limited to the number of slots in the set you bought. It goes without saying, though, that the knife rack should be positioned well away from hands that might bump into it. 

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