June 10th, 2008, by Francesca
When you use your knives on a daily basis for a variety of cuts, your blades get dull pretty fast. Our school kit includes several knives and a honing steel and I soon found out that the steel only helps with straightening blades, but has no effect on sharpness. There are steels that do sharpen as well, but that's not what we got, so I had to get a sharpening stone.
In school we have an oil whetstone with three sides: coarse, medium, and fine. You oil them with industrial oil and sharpen your knives first on the coarse stone, then the medium and finally the fine one. When I looked for a similar stone in the neighborhood's cooking stores, I couldn't find it. The best I could find was a two-grit water whetstone, and that's what I got.
My whetstone is a Japanese model including two stone grades – medium and fine – and it works with water rather than oil, which is much more convenient as water is a lot easier to come by than industrial oil.
First, you soak the stone in water for about ten minutes. Then you start sharpening your knife on the medium stone by sliding it across the stone in a slightly circular motion. First in one direction, then the other, for an equal number of passes to keep things balanced between the two sides of the blade.
Opinions differ about the specific techniques, but my feeling is that it doesn't matter much which way you go as long as you maintain things equal between the two sides. Some people alternate the right-to-left and left-to-right motion constantly, while others execute all the motions in one direction first, followed by the same number of motions in the opposite direction.
I wish I could have found a stone with three grits, but going with water models means that I would have to buy another double stone (please, feel free to correct me if you know different), most likely with coarse and medium grits. Since these stones don't come cheaply ($90 and higher) I think I'm going to stick with just one for now.
Depending on the kind/brand of knife you have, you are supposed to sharpen the knife at a specific angle, or so I was told at Sur La Table in Pasadena. Others think that the angle is a function of how you hold your knife. Me, I don't worry too much about precise angle measurements and I hold my knives at an angle that feels comfortable to me, which happens to be quite close to the grinding stone, probably less than 20º.
So far, I am sharpening my knives about once a week and try to hone them with the steel daily, but I am not religious about it.
How do you know if your knife is sharp? Ha! Good question.
My chef from Intro 1 (Chef Gore) had several tips:
- Let the knife fall (gently, obviously) on a fingernail. If it "catches", the blade is sharp.
- Try the knife on a tomato. If it slices the skin easily, the knife is sharp.
- Try to slice a piece of paper (chef Gore demonstrated this with a sheet of parchment paper). If the knife cuts the paper on the first pass, it's sharp.
My favorite is the tomato test: it saves my fingernails and seems easier to assess than the paper test.