Homemade is Better—Knife Knowledge

This past week my family and I camped in Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta.  It was a great trip and was capped off by a two-night stay in Airdrie (a small city just north of Calgary) where my friend Chris, who I’ve known for almost 30 years, lives with his family.  While visiting their house, his partner’s daughter mentioned that she had been selling knives through one of those multi-level marketing companies, and she gave us a quick demonstration. When I looked at the chef’s knife they own, I could feel a burr on one side.  As someone very particular about honing and sharpening my knives, this made me curious about how many people know how to do either AND what knives you should own.

Many a celebrity chef might tell you that you should have a plethora of knives, each of which is a master at a particular task!  But the truth is, you can do everything you need with four knives, three if you want to be more thrifty.  Those knives are a Chef’s knife of at least 8 – 10 inches, a serrated bread knife, a boning knife, and a paring knife.  You should also have a steel honing rod.

So why those knives?  Why not a butcher’s knife, a scimitar (aka a breaking knife), a santoku, or a slicer?  The truth is those knives are useful, and you would use them if you knew the reason you have them, but they aren’t necessary.  A good quality chef’s knife can do 90% of the cutting, slicing, chopping, and dicing you need.  A serrated bread knife is to slice bread, meat, pastries, and more delicate foods.  A boning knife is for removing the bones from meat like chicken, fish, beef, or pork.  And a paring knife is for those smaller items that you need, plus it can peel, core, and dice.  I mentioned earlier that if you were thrifty, you could use three, and the one knife you could get away without is the boning knife because the chef’s knife can do the work. It’s a little more awkward that way, but it works.  I also mentioned a honing steel; notice I didn’t say sharpening steel because the steel rod is not for sharpening it is for straightening the edge of your knife blade.

When knives come from the factory, they are all razor-sharp, and the edge should be absolutely straight.  After use, the edge starts to curve slightly, either to the left of to the right.  You can feel it is you run your thumbnail from the spine (or the back) of the knife to the tip.  You will feel your nail grab a little, that’s a burr.  Once a burr starts, it needs to be removed, which is the job of the honing steel.  Stand your steel straight up on a cutting board. The handle will have a funny shaped end to it; mine has three sides.  That end is set so that your blade will follow the correct angle to hone your edge.  If you have a specialty knife, make sure you get that manufacturer’s honing steel, because they might have a different angle that the blade should be honed to.  Shun knives, for example, require a tighter angle, whereas Victorinox or Henckel are a standard 20.  The best way to do this is to run the blade from the end of the knife to the point (the tip) in a downward motion.  I usually do six times on each side in an alternating pattern or 3, 2, 1.  This motion works well with all straight-edge knives, but how does one sharpen your serrated knife.  The serrations need you to work one groove at a time.  So start on the cutting board at the 20-degree angle, and slide down, then slide up but keep your angle consistent.

So, I’ve described how to hone your knife, but what about sharpening your knives.  I recommend you take your blades to a professional for sharpening, but if you’re interested in doing this yourself, you’ll want to buy a whetstone.  They come in various grits—the higher the number, the finer the grit—like sandpaper.  To get a razor-sharp edge, you’ll want to find the finest grit you can, and many knife sharpening kits on amazon come with at least three stones.  Look for quality stones and do your research before buying them.  Having said that, I’ve worked in a couple of restaurants, and they all had a guy they would call every few months to sharpen their restaurant knives.  Those of us who used our knives would learn how to sharpen them ourselves, or we took to a place to get them sharpened.  I like to sharpen my knives, and I have a dry stone that I use.  However, I have, as of late, been thinking of getting a good quality whetstone for sharpening my knives as my older kids now have pocket knives for Scouting, and I’d like to teach them the right way to sharpen their knives.

I have been sharpening my knives for years because I enjoy it.  However, paying the good money to someone to make sure you have razor-sharp blades is worth it: dull knives cause many knife injuries.  A dull knife forces you to work harder, so you are more likely to injure yourself, whereas a sharp knife requires less effort to cut through food.

Now let’s talk cutting boards.  There are suitable surfaces to cut on and bad surfaces.  If you use a terrible surface, stop!  The suitable surfaces are hardwood, bamboo composite or plastic cutting boards.  You can get them at kitchen supply stores, Amazon, Wholesale clubs, or your local grocery store.  It would be best if you got a cutting board that is longer than your longest knife blade.  If you have a 10-inch chef’s knife, then your cutting board should be 12 inches from corner to corner.  IF your cutting board is not any of the above mentioned, please stop cutting on it. I’m sure it’s super pretty, and I’ll bet your friends think so too.  So turn it into a great cheese platter, or use it for charcuterie, but a cutting board it should not be.

How much should you spend on a quality knife?  That answer depends on how much money you have.  A good quality knife could be over $100, most of my knives were. But you get what you pay for; buying a cheap knife means the blade might not hold a sharp edge as long, but a quality knife (notice I didn’t say expensive) means your knife will stay sharper longer.  Invest in a good set of knives, but do some research.  There are marketing companies out there that will sell you quality knives, but you can also go to a kitchen supply store or knife store and buy some.  But don’t feel you have to be in a hurry to buy them.  It’s ok to build up your set as you can afford to.  The number one knife you should buy first is a chef’s knife, because that will do 90% of the work for you, and you can substitute it for the other knives as you need to.