Nearly everyone has a set of serviceable kitchen knives. That is, if they’re sharp. And most of the time, they’re not.
This isn’t just a problem for amateur cooks. The pros struggle with it too, so much so that many professional kitchens have a knife-sharpening service that stops by once or twice a week to sharpen them. Unfortunately, daily use against a cutting board and everything from vegetables to bone-in meats take their toll on even the best blades, no matter WHAT they’re made of.
Now, besides the extra-human effort it takes to push a dull blade through some fibrous food, beyond the fact that a dull blade destroys both the integrity and the appearance of many delicate ingredients, beyond ALL that, a dull knife is just plain, flat-out dangerous. It seems counterintuitive, but in reality, a dull knife, while not quite able to effortlessly cut through an Idaho potato, can do quite a number on any one of the digits extending from your hand when you’re exerting an extra amount of effort to get your dull blade through a stubborn spud.
Professional chefs learn their lessons early on because, unlike a home cook, when you’re doing it for a living, you literally can’t afford to end up on the injured reserve list.
A very sharp knife is your friend, and you take care of your friends.
With that in mind, I took a run down to the local cookware stores to see what they were recommending, and in turn, what was actually selling in the way of knife-sharpening devices.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised by their answers.
Before I begin, I feel obliged to tell you that I don’t consider a Chef’s or Butcher’s Steel (that long, stick-like wand you see the chefs use) a true knife sharpener. While it will straighten the edge of a recently sharpened knife and will allow the blade to cut through products easier, it can’t really sharpen an otherwise dull knife to any usefulness. It doesn’t remove any metal, except perhaps some stray burrs that occur while sharpening with the devices below. What it basically does best is trues or straightens the blade.
Having said that, there are basically three distinct devices you can purchase to sharpen your knives. The choices you have range from cheap (and when I say cheap I’m talking about $10 to $15) to expensive (and that’s well over $150). They range from one that takes a bit of experience to use to one that literally anyone could master with a few swipes.
Add to that the factor of speed, which can’t be discounted when choosing a device to sharpen your knives. Most people tend to sharpen their dull knives just after discovering they’re too dull to use and while the food is still sitting on the cutting board. Speed counts when people are waiting to eat.
As it turns out, the cheapest (unfortunately) is also the one that takes the longest to sharpen and the most experience to master. That product is a silicon carbide stone or wet stone (basically a flat, hard slab of pulverized silica and carbon).
Chefs, butchers and experienced sharpeners learn to master the use of these slabs. In the hands of the experienced, they can produce a razor-sharp knife, and in the hands of an amateur, a dull Popsicle stick, all in a matter of minutes. I own one, but I wouldn’t recommend you buy one unless you have some patience to learn the art or have someone shepherd you through the process.
This basically leaves you two other options.
Going up in price (to anywhere from $15 to $30) is a whole different way to sharpen a knife, and that is the draw or pull sharpener. These devices have perfectly angled, V-shape blades that, when the knife if drawn between them, re-set the blade to the exact and perfect angle by literally shearing away any metal (or ceramic) that doesn’t conform to that V shape. They’re handheld and easy to use.
Their upside? It’s by FAR the fastest way to sharpen a knife. The downside? It’s very aggressive and can remove more metal than needed if you really get into your sharpening success and over-zealously pass your blade through these cutters more than needed. It can also leave tiny steps or chinks in your blade if you don’t evenly and completely pass the blade through the device from one end to the other each time. Lastly, it can leave the blade a bit raw, meaning you might still need to refine the edge with a steel before getting the kind of smooth edge you will get on my last option.
As you might guess, the best sharpener is generally the best for anyone who really values his or her knives and wants them very sharp without destroying them.
These devices, similar to professional services, are electric and use small wheels of silicon carbide and other similar abrasives to gently but effectively grind and then polish the edges to precise angles. Each rotating wheel is progressively less aggressive, and as you work your way through the process, you get a razor-sharp blade ground to the perfect angle with the least amount of trauma to the blade.
What did they recommend? What’s selling?
They, by far, recommend the most expensive electric sharpeners. I can understand that. Most of their customers actually like to cook, and I’d guess most of them also have pretty good knives that they’ve spent good money on. It makes sense. These folks probably look at their knives as an investment, so it’s an easy pitch. What they sell the most of, however, is the draw or pull type of device. I’d guess part of that is ease of use and speed, but most of it is cost. $29.99 is a whole lot less than, say, $149.99.
They sell very few of the silicon carbide stones. And I’m not surprised.
There are many companies that make all three of these options. Among them are the German Wusthof brand and the American-made Chef Choice brand, which are sold at all the local housewares stores. Whichever device you choose, whether it be the most expensive one you can afford or one that’s quick and easy to use, I encourage you to keep your knives sharp.