I Might now be the Sharpest Tool in the Box

One of my Christmas pressies was one of those kitchen steels, used to sharpen knives. I’ve used it a couple of times now and think it’s marvellous.

As a wedding present (now three and a half years ago), we received a knife block set. With daily use, they were starting to get quite dull. Only the largest (the least-used one) of the set had any real purpose to the cutting edge. Here then, was a great test-bed for my new-found skill of sharpening knives.

There weren’t any instructions supplied in the pack. Just one big, surprisingly heavy, lump of stainless steel with a really meaty handle to it. The steel itself is basically a rod with very fine grooves running the length of it and doesn’t look particularly useful. I had a bit search of the web and found a few sites all pretty much agreeing on how a beginner to the knife-sharpening world should go about the business of making dangerous things more dangerous.

The key to it all is firstly to discover that you’re not really sharpening the knife. Basically, as you use a knife the molecules along the cutting edge “turn over” and start to make the cutting edge wider than it should be. You end up with all the molecules pointing in different directions and not really having a well-honed cutting edge. What happens with the steel is that it tries to re-align a lot of these molecules and the key to this is the technique used. When you properly sharpen a knife, you re-grind a complete new edge, which is a different process altogether.

The basic technique is this. Hold the steel firmly by the handle using your “wrong hand”, rod vertical, with the tip resting against a firm surface. I put a tea-towel underneath to prevent it skidding around. Now get the knife in your preferred hand, blade downwards (which was opposite to what I was expecting), and hold against the steel. The blade should make about a 20-25 degree angle with the steel and the very back of the knife should be touching the top of the sharpening rod.

Now bring the knife down in a smooth action – don’t twist the wrist – it’s all in the elbow. Make an arc such that as you get to the bottom, the contact point between the knife and the steel moves along the blade and off the tip. It shouldn’t make a grinding sound, and should be a slightly musical note. Now repeat for the other side. You must alternate sides as you sharpen, otherwise you’ll just curl the edge over completely and make things worse. Don’t bother trying to flash them about in the air like professional cooks and don’t do it too quickly.

For my first knife, I did about 20 strokes each side (general recommendations were about 10-15), but these were pretty blunt knives. Afterwards, there was quite a bit of grey dust which came off the knife edge after sharpening – presumably that’s all the little bits of edge which have been knocked off due to the sharpening action. Since then, however, I’ve sharpened the knives before every use (as recommended). You only need 4 or 5 strokes, which is dead quick to do before using it.

The difference is stunning. I’m once again careful about chopping stuff with them, especially the two smaller knives. Tonight I was chopping garlic and onion, and it just breezed through them with very little effort. Normally I’d resort to the bigger ones, but now these are almost as good as new. I don’t remember them ever being this sharp.

A kitchen gadget received at Christmas which is genuinely useful? Make a note of it — highly recommended.