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Many people confuse honing with sharpening, but there is a distinct difference. We've already discussed using a water stone to sharpen a dull knife. When you sharpen a knife, you're actively removing material from the blade, creating a brand new razor-sharp beveled edge.
The thing about metal is, it's malleable. That means that with regular kitchen use, that thin sharpened edge can get microscopic dents in it that throw the blade out of alignment. Even if the blade is sharp, it can feel dull because the sharp edge has been pushed off to the side, like this:
That's where a honing steel comes in. When used properly, a steel will realign the edge of the blade such that the sharpened bit is all facing the right direction. You should steel your knife every time you use it to ensure that you're getting the best edge possible.
When purchasing a steel, look for a heavy model at least 9-inches long. Just like a good knife, a high quality steel will last a lifetime. The ridges may wear out over time, but don't worry—it's still doing its job.
A Honing Steel
A standard honing steel is made of a rod of steel that ridged along its length. The ridges gently guide a blade back into alignment as you draw the knife over it. A regular steel should be used every day before you use your knife.
A Diamond Steel
A diamond steel has a flatter length that is coated in diamond dust. Unlike a regular steel which will straighten a blade but not remove any material, a diamond steel will actually shave off a thin layer of your knife as you use it. It's not great for every day use, but it can extend the working life of your knife between sharpening sessions.
Step 1: Start at The Heel
Most first-timers find the vertical grip to be easiest. Hold the handle of the steel and plant the tip into your cutting board. Place the heel of the knife against the top of the steel at an approximate 15-20 degree angle.
Step 2: Finish at The Tip
Applying only light pressure, draw the knife down the steel, using the full length of the steel, and pulling across the full length of the knife, maintaining a constant angle.
Step 3: Begin Second Side
Hold the heel of the knife against the other side of the steel, again at a 15 - 20 degree angle.
Step 4: Finish Second Side
Drag the knife blade across the steel until the tip of the knife and the tip of the steel meet. Repeat with both sides until blade is honed—usually about 8 strokes per side.
Step 5: Advanced Method
For more advanced cooks, a floating hold like this one (shown here with a diamond steel) is faster, and doesn't require using up cutting board space. It is, however, more difficult to control.
Hold the steel out horizontally with your non-knife hand, and place the heel of the blade against the base of the steel.
Step 6: Advanced Method Continued
Pull the knife across the steel, maintaining a 15 - 20 degree angle until the tip of the knife meets the tip of the steel. Repeat on the second side. Your knife should now be perfectly aligned.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.