The blades you use to chop vegetables don’t work for raw meat. You’re not likely going to use the stiff boning, slicing, and butcher knives we use in the shop. But home cooks still need one very specific thing we butchers need: “Sharp knives,” says Josh Applestone. These knives can be high end or low end; the price point doesn’t really matter. The critical thing is finding a knife that can hold a good edge. “The best knife someone can own is one you can keep sharp.” This means you need to know how to hone and sharpen knives. Anyone can do it. Here’s how.
First, you need to understand – if you don’t already – the difference between honing and sharpening knives. Both are needed to maintain and sharpen knives. In the most basic sense, sharpening involves removing metal from a worn blade and reshaping its edge. Unless you’re a die-hard home cook, and possibly even if you are, sharpening is best done by professionals on a stone or a machine that abrades the blade, at least once a year. If you would rather not outsource the job, make sure to watch a few online videos of skilled knife grinders so you know what you’re doing before you take metal off your blades in an effort to sharpen knives.
Honing, however, is easy to do at home using a steel, and you need to do it often. A steel is a tool that looks like a short, squat fencing foil – sometimes it’s round, sometimes flat. Because honing makes a knife cut better, it’s often mixed up with sharpening. “Honing is like pool rules: You always chalk a cue before shooting a ball. I never use a knife without first honing it by passing it over my steel,” says Applestone.
The cutting edge of a knife basically has microscopic teeth on it. These get dull and bent out of place with use. Honing the edge on a steel polishes and straightens it, bringing those little teeth from dullness back to life. Depending on how often you’re using your knives at home, you should hone your knives once a week or once a month, more often if you’re cutting bone. “I do it all day long,” says Applestone. “You need to get to know your knife and then hone it as often as you feel it needs it; there is no hard-and-fast rule.”
We have various kinds of steels at the shop, most of which would be overkill to use at home to sharpen knives. Home cooks need an unridged, or flat, steel with a medium- or fine-grit surface. The grit can be made of different materials: ceramic, borosilicate (a type of glass), or diamond (our favorite). It’s time to truly sharpen knives when honing no longer brings an edge back to them.
You can read an explanation of how to hone a knife in our book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat (come check out our community copy at our Stone Ridge shop), or if you prefer a visual, watch this Epicurious video.
If you’re in the market for a new knife, choose something that matches the level of care you’re willing to give it. High-carbon steel is easy to make super sharp, but it requires a lot of care. Stainless steel is more durable but maybe won’t ever get as sharp. Know yourself and purchase accordingly.
With old or new knives, Applestone cautions, “Don’t put them in the dishwasher and don’t leave them in the sink!” Keep them dry; don’t store them in a sheath or a guard as moisture may build up and cause the blade to rust. Now you know.