Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I really like knives. When I was younger, I bought a lot of silly knives, like f
olding blades and boot daggers. These days, though, my purchases are limited to kitchen knives. Over the years, S and I have amassed what I consider a pretty nifty collection. At last count, we have well over a dozen gorgeous chef’s knives. My personal favourites among them include a Masahiro Deba, a Kasumi, a Wusthof Classic with an exceptionally wide blade, a Chroma Type 301, and a Wusthof Culinar.
Buying knives is easy. Maintaining them is not. A good knife, to be really useful when working with it in the kitchen, has to be razor sharp. The only problem is that, for the longest time, I was neither confident nor sure how to properly sharpen my knives. Part of me feared that if I tried and somehow did something wrong, I’d ruin my precious tools. I do own one of those fancy-shmancy Global sharpeners, the kind which sits on the table and has litle grooves for you to run your knife through. But I’ve never really felt that it works properly. I also own a Global wetstone, but, as said, I’ve been too nervous about screwing up an expensive tool to acually use it. For the longest time, S has been sending my knives out to be professionally sharpened.
Fortunately, a very kind and very skilled new friend (I’ll call him Knife-Sensei David) spent a good chunk of a recent afternoon walking S and me through a knife sharpening class. The first thing we had to understand, Sensei David told us, was our knives themselves. German knives and Japanese knives are quite different. German knives are two-sided and each side is ground at a 20 degree angle. Traditional Japanese knives are only one sided and the angle is sharper, at 15 degrees. Modern Japanese knifemakers are also making double-edged blades now. These are also ground at around 15 degrees. But what does all this mean? Basically, the more acute the angle, the sharper your knife can be. A straight razor, for example, is ground at a 10 degree angle. However, the sharper the angle is, the thinner the blade becomes. And for a chef’s knife, a thin blade is only useful if it won’t break. The strength of the metal in a blade is measured by something called Rockwell Hardness. Most German blades measure between 55-58 while most Japanese blades measure between 59-60. The steel used in most Japanese knives are thus stronger, which is why they can be ground to a finer angle, i.e. thinner, (and are often made single-sided) without fear of becoming brittle.
Once we understood this, Sensei David then walked us through his 4 important points of knife sharpening. They are (1) angle, (2) abrasives , (3) technique, and (4) control.
Angle: Basically, he explained, as long as you understand that knife blades are sharpened along an acute angle ranging from 15-20 degrees, what actual angle you use to sharpen your own knives doesn’t really matter as long as you are consistent and stay within this range. For a quick check to ensure that you are somewhere on the right path, he advises holding the knife at a 90 degree angle, halving that to form a 45 degree angle, and then finally halving that again. You can then adjust according to your own preference.
Abrasives: Sensei David advocates using a wetstone. He advises to soak the stone in water for 5-10 minutes before use and to always let it dry properly afterwards. Wetstones are graded according to how rough and smooth they are. They can start as low as 200 and go all the way up to 10,000 (the higher the number, the smoother the surface). Stones graded between 200 – 1,000 are considered cutting stones. Those graded over 1,000 are for polishing and honing. Essentially, what stone you use is determined by how sharp or blunt your knife is. Start with a cutting stone. If your knife is dreadfully dull, you’ll need a very abrasive (low-numbered) stone, like a 400. If it’s already quite sharp, you could start with a 1,000. Polishing stones are used later to hone the edge of your knife as well as to create gorgeous, shiny edges on your blade. Most people, Sensei David suggests, will be thrilled with the polish from a 4,000 level stone. “Only kitchen samurais who want super-sharp, super-shiny knives use 10,000,” he said.
Technique: It’s better to sharpen your knives with a large stone. You’ll want one with a wide surface area so that you can draw all of the knife’s edge along the stone in one motion. Gripping the handle of your knife with one hand, get it into your desired angle along your stone. Place three fingers of the other hand on the flat of the blade near the tip. Start at the top left corner (if you are right-handed) and and run the blade along the stone towards the near right corner. Go back and forth in a consistent motion, sharpening only one side of the knife. Every so often, check the blade. You stop only when you can feel a burr running down the total length of the edge of the blade, on the side that you were not sharpening. When you feel this, stop, flip the blade and sharpen the other side the same way until you feel a fine burr. Sensei David said to us, “the burr is your friend, it is how you know your knife is sharp.” Then use a polishing stone to hone your knife. Holding it the same way, run the blade back and forth on both sides until the edge is smooth and gleaming.
Control: As in anything that requires technique, control is everything. You need to be consistent. The good thing is, according to Sensei David, that despite what you may believe, you really can’t ruin a good quality knife by botching up the sharpening process.
Once your knives are properly sharpened, you won’t need to sharpen them every day. Only professional chefs, who have to cut through endless produce every day, need to do that. Home chefs should, though, hone their blades with a few quick sweeps against a straightening steel (the ceramic vesions work equally well) each time they want to use one.
(Phew. Talk about long-winded posts.) Hopefully, this has helped you all a little. Or maybe you knew all this and I was the only moron out there who was spending a lot of money buying fancy knives without knowing how to take care of them properly. Thanks to Sensei David, I now understand how to sharpen these gorgeous babies myself. (So does S, which is great because hopefully she’ll feel motivated to shapen them for me.)
If, however, you still want to get your knives professionally sharpened (and you live in Singapore), feel free to call David’s company, Razor Sharp, any time. They can make your knives look like new and cut through paper as if it was air. I’ve been amazed at how finely-edged some of my knives have been after a visit to his office. And, because David knows I love it when the edges are super-shiny, he gives this fat foodie the kitchen-samurai special, honing my knives with a 10,000 graded stone.
315 Outram Road
#01-03 Tan Boon Liat Building
Tel: 6227 7515