Even with the best care and always cutting on appropriate surfaces, a well-made knife will eventually lose its edge and become dull. This causes some people to turn to electric knife sharpeners which may actually ruin a chef’s knife, by removing too much of the cutting edge, or producing the wrong angle, etc. Often, however, what seems like a dull knife is actually not technically dull. It is a knife that needs to be honed.
On a very sharp high-quality knife, the cutting edge is called a burr. This burr is the part where the steel is so thin (and therefore sharp) that you can’t even see the outermost edge. This burr is not a perfectly smooth and uniform edge, but instead a series of irregular microscopic “teeth.” While this ultra-thin edge is what makes it possible to slice through foods with ease, it is also thin enough to be pliable, and the burr can basically roll over after repeated use. Since the burr, or fine edge, is still there, actually sharpening the knife on a whet-stone, electric sharpener, or wheel-grinder would actually be removing the already sharp edge and producing a new one. Counter-productive, at best.
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What you actually need to do is the hone the blade. This is where the honing steel or simply “steel” comes in, which is commonly and perhaps incorrectly, called a sharpening steel. Other names for it are the chef’s steel or butcher’s steel. Most knife sets come with a honing steel, but if you purchase a high-quality chef’s knife or another kitchen knife, you will also want to purchase a honing steel to maintain it.
A honing steel or sharpening steel is typically a tapered metal rod with a handle. The steel they are made from is harder than the steel of knife blades. The rods of most steels have shallow metal grooves running down their lengths. As well, some steels have a cross-hatched or diamond pattern of grooves. These are the types of steels that are sometimes called diamond steels. Although the term diamond refers to the pattern of the grooves, some steels also have a very thin coating of industrial diamond dust. Some rods are not round but have a flat profile with rounding corners. It is also possible to find a honing rod or “steel” made of ceramic. I have also seen knife honers or “sharpeners” that are composed of two small honing steels crossing each other in a V-shape, which are meant for hunters or outdoors-men.
Sometimes knives come with little V-shaped blades you are meant to run the knife through. These blades are, supposedly, set at a precise angle. They may be referred to as a “sharpener” but they are meant to align the burr, just as a honing steel. It is not possible to “sharpen” a hard steel knife with nothing more than two angled blades. While honing straightens out the burr, sharpening actually removes the burr and creates a new one. For honing purposes, it is hard to know how well these blades will work. Some may be better than others but it would probably be best to assume they do not work as well as advertised.
What is the Purpose of Honing a Blade?
The purpose of the honing steel is to straighten the burr along the edge of the blade. This is usually done by running the edge of the blade along the steel at around a 15 degree angle. It is said that regular maintenance of a blade by honing will maintain the edge so that it does not need to be sharpened. For the home cook, this is good since properly sharpening a worn blade is much more difficult than honing it, and do-it-yourself cooks are likely to damage or ruin their knife, rather than produce a well-sharpened edge. If you do need to have your expensive knives sharpened, it may be best to take them to a professional, but the determined and resourceful cook can probably educate themselves sufficiently on the process. If you are going to sharpen your own knives, the best tool for the job is a sharpening stone. As for “professionals,” be careful whom you choose. It is a high-skilled job and many may be willing to take your money even when they are not true professionals. Some kitchen supply stores advertise knife sharpening services. Ask to see the process before you hand over your knife. They are likely to just run it through a cheap electric sharpener, something you could do yourself. With regular honing, you should be able to keep your knife sharp for a very long time.
Sharpening Versus Honing
The distinction between sharpening and honing is a useful technical distinction since the purpose, and results of each are quite different. However, for everyday language the distinction is semantic, since a knife in need of honing is essentially a dull knife that needs to be sharpened. Therefore many cooks will say they are sharpening their knife while using a honing rod, and although Foodies may become pedantic about the difference between honing and sharpening, the result of honing a blade is that a knife that seemed dull will seem sharp again, hence “sharpened.”
How Often Should You Hone Your Knife?
Many chefs and butchers hone their blade before every use, or at least they claim to. This is probably to appear more legit and professional rather than for any practical reason. It is probably not necessary to hone your blade every time you use it. When your knife starts to seem a bit dull and is not cutting as well as before, then it is time to hone it. This is why I bought up the semantic distinction between “honing” and “sharpening,” above. You hone a blade when it is not cutting as well, or, in other words, when it starts to get dull. I.E. you sharpen it. There is no point in obsessing over your knife and over-maintaining it by constantly “honing” a sharp blade!
In the video below, Bob Kramer shows how to use the honing steel. He also gives several very useful tips, such as using a book of matches to help learn the proper angle for knife honing, and using a scale to determine the proper pressure. Admittedly, most of us probably don’t have such a kitchen scale but, in any case, he recommends 4 to 5 pounds of pressure on the blade for the first few strokes and points out that most people to not apply enough pressure to the blade.
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