When a friend recently sliced up a lime for cocktails and tossed my favorite knife (an all-purpose, serrated Swiss tool I use for everything) into the sink, I made a dash to save it. At first I felt silly for having such an attachment to a household object. But I was vindicated while watching a Top Chef episode during which two contestants became embroiled in a tense confrontation over one “borrowing” another’s knife. The gist: “Your knife is an extension of yourself.” Depending on the job at hand, a properly chosen knife will easily cut a T-bone steak, crack through a coconut, or delicately slice the pillowy layers of soft white bread – but they require special consideration to preserve sharpness and strength. Here’s a guide to keeping your edge.
There are countless varieties of knives on the market. Western models are traditionally meant for heavy-duty tasks, as demanded by European cuisine, and optimal for cutting meats, boning poultry, and chopping and dicing vegetables. Lighter and more nimble, traditional Japanese knives are preferred by many chefs for being able to delicately fillet fish, slice sushi and handle the raw ingredients of paramount importance to the country’s cuisine – without crushing the natural membranes in fish and vegetables.
First, to address my well-meaning, lime-cutting, knife-tossing friend: never abandon your knife in the sink. If your blade is carbon, leaving it there will cause rusting. If it’s made of stainless steel, as almost all knives are these days, it won’t rust, but the unpredictable environment of the kitchen sink leaves the knife vulnerable to sustaining harmful dents and scratches that will ultimately affect the blade’s performance and longevity. Wash, dry and put your knives away immediately in their intended sheath, magnetic strip or storage block (place blades up to minimize contact with the wood). Never put them in the dishwasher, since the high heat causes metal to contract and expand, and the roiling motion of the machine bangs and bounces the knives around.
As for cutting, there are some staunch do’s and don’ts no matter which type of knife you are using:
– Cut only on wood, bamboo or plastic surfaces. The impact of other materials, such as glass, granite or porcelain, will damage the blade.
– If possible, utilize a rocking or sliding motion when cutting and avoid chopping. The up and down motion of chopping dulls the blade edge.
– When transferring food from the cutting surface, use the back of the blade and not the sharp edge to scrape ingredients into the cooking vessel.
Each time you cut through a piece of food, minute disturbances in the knife’s blade edge occur. Mangled metal burrs and microscopic bits of food weaken its sharpness. To combat this, you should ideally hone your knife after every single use. Many knife sets come with a long tubular steel rod – this is your knife steel (often wrongly referred to as a knife sharpener), and you should run the length of your blade edge through it after every use.
Fix the steel rod in one hand or on a countertop, pointing away from you. Place the heel of the knife (the end at the handle) against the steel rod and slowly glide the knife down, maintaining a 22-degree angle for the entire length of the blade. At the end of this motion, all parts of the blade should have touched the steel. Repeat about 8-10 times for each side of the knife’s edge. After both sides run across the steel, wipe off the metal particles with a clean, soft towel.
Always maintain the sharpness of the blade. A dull blade will bruise ingredients; a sharp blade provides precision and efficiency. An easy way to test sharpness is to see if your knife can cut through a sheet of paper. To give you an idea: daily cooks sharpen their knives around once or twice a year. Those who, like me and the Top Chef contestants, harbor a personal attachment to their knives may want to try the traditional whetstone method.
Place the whetstone with the coarse grit facing up on a secure, non-slippery surface. Using one hand, grasp the knife by the handle and hold the cutting edge against the stone, tip-first, at the same 22-degree angle you employed for honing the knife. Applying pressure, slide the blade forward and across the whetstone, covering the entire length of the blade and keeping it flush against the stone at that consistent 22-degree angle. Repeat about 10 times for each side of the blade.
Then, flip the whetstone over to the fine grit surface and give each side of the blade 10 strokes, just as you did above. Finally, use your knife steel to hone the blade, then rinse and wipe it dry to remove any metal particles.
If you’d rather not hazard the process, there’s always the proficiency of a professional knife sharpener. In Spain, it’s typical to see afiladors (Spanish for “sharpener”) cruise around on motorcycles and sounding a five-note whistle to alert the neighborhood that their door-to-door services are available. Not one to toot his own horn, Rick Strauss of Gary’s Knife Sharpening is still my go-to, with a booth at my local Los Angeles farmers’ market. (If you live in the city, they also come to you.) During the grinding process, Rick listens to the sound of the metal to determine how much pressure and at what angle to apply the knives to the rotating buffer and sharpening wheels. Talk about sharpening your senses! Maybe that Top Chef maxim is true…
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