Much as we love ‘em, even our Best Chef’s Knives don’t stay sharp forever. They dull from use and in order to keep their edge they must be honed and occasionally sharpened.
Often it’s misunderstood what the difference is between sharpening a knife and honing a knife. In this pic, daily or weekly honing brings a curved edge back into alignment (the arrow). The sharp edge has always been there it just needed to be pointed back in the right direction. If the edge has become blunt, however, no amount of honing will bring that back.
Sharpening, on the other hand, is the act of reshaping the cutting edge by grinding away tiny amounts of blade material. This is usually done by a professional with a whetstone but there are high-quality knife sharpeners for the home. We’ll cover some of those in a bit.
What’s confusing is occasionally when a honing steel gets referred to as a sharpening steel, or chef’s sharpening steel. The purpose of the steel is not to actually sharpen, but to maintain the edge alignment. A good honing steel simply a rod made out of ceramic or diamond coated steel that is used at least once a month, preferrably weekly. They are usually flat, oblong, or rounded in the cross-section and about a foot long. A proper chef’s steel should be at least as long as the knife, too, so if you have a 10″ Wusthof Classic, your honing steel should be 10 inches or more.
Using a honing steel – Do this every time you use your knife, if possible
Great chefs on TV and in the movies always steel their knives in the air and make it look impressive and effortless. That swish-swish-swish may look cool but remember they’re pros. Until you get comfortable with what angle to work with always use a cutting board and go slow. Here’s how to hone your chef knives:
- Hold the honing steel straight down with the tip resting on the top of a cutting board. With your other hand, pass the knife down one side of the steel like you were trying to slice off a very thin piece of the honing rod. Don’t push hard-just let gravity pull the knife down. What angle should you use? The best chef knives are sharpened to an angle of around 15 degrees but unless you happen to have a protractor ready you’re not going to get that!
- Just eyeball it around the 20-25 degree mark. How do you do that? Well, you can easily see what angle 90 degrees is (knife blade at a right-angle to the steel if it’s straight up and down). Cut that amount in half which is 45 degrees and half that again is 22.5. Close enough: the fact that you’re taking care of your knife by steeling it is an investment in its longevity.
- Pass the knife an even number of times on each side to keep the edge centered. Good Eats host Alton Brown recommends five passes on one side, then five passes on the other. Then do two passes on the first side and two on the other. Try to pull the knife through the entire edge from bolster to tip.
If you manage to do this every time you use your knives they will reward you daily with effortless prep time. Do you still need to have them sharpened? Yes, but once a year should be adequate if you are honing them properly each time you use. Stropping, by the way, is just a phrase used to describe the finishing and polishing of the knife which does a bit of honing on it’s own.
Choosing a honing steel
A great honing steel is an investment and should at least match the quality of knife it touches. Don’t use a cheap honing steel on a great knife. Hey,show it a little respect. When you go shopping for a honing steel, look for ones that have a diamond grit or coating on the contact surface. The hardness of the diamond will actually contribute a little bit to the actual sharpening of the blade. Ceramic is a good choice, too, as it is harder than any steel. However, bear in mind you cannot use a ceramic honing steel to hone a ceramic knife, like the Kyocera Kyotop.
Here are a few of our top picks for the best honing steel for your money. Amazon is still our favorite choice price-wise and they’re still offering free shipping as well:
Top of the Line
When you already have an investment in the best Wusthof, Global and MAC’s-you might as well get the very best sharpening steel. Loved by professional chefs for keeping their collection just like when they bought ‘em. Certainly not cheap but if you’re serious about the integrity of your knives and your kitchen, this is it.
The F. Dick Company has been in business since 1778, and this is their most popular model. Seven steels in one tool-use a light pressure for honing and a stronger one for grinding.
This Henckels will hone anything you can throw at it-even might bring some of your cheaper knives back to life. And getting a diamond-dust coating for under $50 at Amazon makes it, well, you know-an absolute steel. Sorry, we just had to do it.
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