Knives are among your most important kitchen tools, whether you are a cook-to-survive person or a keen chef.
Knives are a very good example: a blunt knife will tear instead of cutting, and will require force where a soft touch saves work, mess and mistakes. A sharp knife makes light work and allows finer, more precise cuts.
Why do knives need looking after?
It is often assumed that when a knife becomes inefficient it must be blunt, and needs to be sharpened. But have you ever watched a craftsman barber hone his razors on a leather strop? Or perhaps you haven’t plucked up the courage to take (or watch) a professional shave! Have you ever wondered how a piece of leather can sharpen hardened steel? Answer: it doesn’t, and yet it works.
When a sharp knife is used, even on soft material such as human hair, the fine edge becomes microscopically wrinkled. This causes the blade to feel blunt, making it tear instead of cutting cleanly, and needing more force than is necessary (or perhaps safe!).
What should you do about it?
When you stroke the blade carefully on a suitable material these wrinkles are realigned without removing any metal. If you do this often (I do it every time before using a knife) the metal is kept in shape and lasts forever, with no effort.
If you don’t do this when a blade begins to feel blunt, the wrinkles become so out of shape that pushing them back weakens the metal, which after a few times breaks up with invisibly fine fragments, and the blade becomes finely jagged along the edge. Then it needs honing or grinding, which few people bother to do.
Butchers use a “steel” which is a long, thin rod of steel fitted with a handle, and the rod is ground with fine grooves. You may have seen them looking (and sounding) like they are having a Samurai fight with themselves! Steels do not act like abrasive files, as you can tell if you run your finger over them. But, like a leather strop, when properly used they gently realign the blade without wearing it down.
Kitchen steels are cheap enough, and I keep one on a string next to my work surface. Like a good snooker player chalking his cue before each shot to make sure the strike is true, every time I get out a knife I give it a couple of strokes each side. This takes seconds and doesn’t need to be a theatrical drama. I do this whether I am cutting meat or vegetables, or skinning wet fish, and the knives I use now are still as sharp as new after more than 30 years constant use.
A good test is a soft tomato (I hope you don’t chuck out tomatoes when they go a bit soft!!). A sharp knife will slice cleanly with a gentle touch, where a blunt knife snags and tears the skin and makes a mess.
Watch the video on Youtube
The video shows how to use a steel on various kitchen knives, but the technique is the same for all flat-bladed knives however long. Starting with the handle end of the blade and steel, bring them together in a V, with the blade angled slightly to the steel (about 10-15 degrees if you want to be scientific about it!) then draw them across each other maintaining a V shape and working down to the very tip of the knife, keeping gentle pressure until it drops away from the steel. Always make sure you draw the knife away from its edge, never “digging in” to the steel.
Some people like to wipe the blade on a cloth afterwards, but I have never seen a butcher do it.
Then twist the knife round in you hand and repeat for the other side. Repeat a couple of times for each side. Remember it’s not a test of strength: gentle pressure is all that’s needed. Neither is it a speed test: there’s no need to show off how quickly you can do it; better to provide an even pressure without banging the metals together or digging the blade into the steel.