One of the most important tools in a cook’s arsenal is a good, sharp knife, and while some knife manufacturers would have you believe that the more money you spend on a knife, the sharper it will be, most knives come factory-sharpened (i.e. near-razor sharp). There are many other factors that contribute to how long a knife's blade stays sharp, including how you store it, the material of your cutting board (hint: stay away from glass), as well as the material and style of the knife (Japanese-style knives are often made of harder steel, which can dull faster than softer German-style knives, which bend and warp). And a big part of extending the shelf-life of your knives' edges is knowing when to hone or sharpen them. Sharpening and honing are both techniques used to maintain the edge of a knife, but they serve different purposes.
What Is Honing?
Winware by Winco 12-Inch Sharpening Steel
Messermeister Ceramic Rod Knife Sharpener
Messermeister 800 Grit 12-Inch Diamond Sharpening Rod
Honing is used to maintain, straighten and align a knife's sharp edge, which can bend and warp with frequent use. It's pretty easy to do: just run the blade edge at a 15-to-20-degree angle down a honing steel (also known as a rod) an equal amount of times per side. Honing doesn't remove any metal from the blade; instead, it realigns the existing edge, resulting in a sharper-feeling, more precise blade. It also extends the length of time needed between actual sharpening.
How often you should hone your knives really depends on the amount of use they get. Chefs will often hone their knives daily, but they also do significantly more knife work than the average home cook. Once you get a sense of how sharp your knife normally is, you can get a feel for when it might be time to hone. Typically, a few swipes on the steel before every major cooking project is a good idea.
What Is Sharpening?
King Fine-Grit Whetstone
Norton Abrasives Flattening Stone With Grooves
Sharpening is used to restore a dull or damaged knife edge. This is typically done by removing metal from the blade by running it over a whetstone or through a manual or electric sharpener (though we very sparingly recommend the latter two). Since this process actually removes metal, we don't recommend doing it too frequently (twice a year is good for most home cooks), or it might eventually make your chef’s knife look like a filet knife.
How to Sharpen a Knife
There are a few different ways to sharpen a knife, including pull-through manual or electric sharpeners, spinning grindstones, and whetstones. Pull-through sharpeners and grindstones are often avoided by professionals since a good amount of metal is removed, whittling away at your knife faster. According to Korin’s resident sharpener Vincent Kazuhito Lau, “The worst method of sharpening is to use a pull-through grinder/sharpener. These tend to grind more metal than necessary and will wear down the knife.” Instead, he recommends using a whetstone (as do we). "This allows you to create an ideal edge for the specific knife you are sharpening," he says.
Sharpening a knife with a whetstone is a special process that takes a bit of practice to get right. Whetstones are blocks of ceramic with different grits on the exterior (kind of like sandpaper). Running the edge of the blade over the pre-soaked whetstone shaves off microscopic bits of metal, which sharpens the bevel to a razor-thin edge.
Some specialty knife retailers (such as Korin) have professional sharpeners, like Kazuhito Lau, who use whetstones to manually sharpen the blade. It can be pricey, but it can be worth it if you’re intimidated to do it yourself.
The style of the knife can also dictate how you might want to go about sharpening it. A representative at Cangshan Cutlery, in Texas, broke it down for us:
“Each manufacturer uses different steel to make knives, and this creates metals that are harder or softer than each other. Harder steel (typically Japanese) has better edge retention but can be more brittle. These types of steel do not require as much honing, but may need to be sharpened more often. Softer metals (such as German steel) do require more honing/maintenance, but can be sharpened less frequently,” they said in an email.
So, if you find yourself in the market for a new knife, it could be helpful to consider these different styles' sharpening needs, especially if you're a whetstone newbie.
All this information can be a little overwhelming. To keep it simple: sharpen your knives twice a year (or pay a professional to sharpen them on a whetstone), and hone in between to maintain the blade's edge. Keeping the edge sharp also has a lot to do with storage and use, since any time the blade touches metal (or any surface really) the edge can dull, so we don’t recommend storing your knives in a drawer or a knife block. Instead, invest in a knife guard or magnetic knife strip (which also allows for easy access, not to mention it looks kinda cool to have your knives on display). Lau also recommends being picky about your cutting board, since certain materials (cough *glass* cough) can dull your knives faster.
What is the difference between honing and sharpening a knife?
In short, sharpening is used to restore a dull or damaged edge by removing metal, while honing is used to maintain and straighten the edge (which can bend over time). It's good practice to hone a knife often to maintain the edge and only sharpen it when it becomes dull.
What is the best honing rod?
There are a variety of materials used to make honing rods, so we have picks for each. For stainless steel, we like this model from Winware. We also like this ceramic model from Messermeister, and this diamond model from Messermeister. You can read more on which material is right for you here.
All you need to hone a knife is a good honing steel. The ideal honing steel is about 12 inches long with a decent-sized cross guard for protecting your hand.
Sharpening your knife can be done a few different ways, but we recommend using a whetstone. Follow our handy guide here for a step-by-step explanation.
What is the best way to sharpen a knife?
We think the best way to sharpen a knife is with a whetstone. These blocks, which you soak in water prior to use, can be made of a variety of materials (ceramic, diamond), but the premise is the same: they are used to shave small bits of metal from your blade, which results in a sharp edge. Kenji has written about how to choose a whetstone and recommends buying one with a medium grit for major sharpening jobs, as well as one with a fine grit for fine-tuning.
How do I hone a knife?
The simple way to hone a knife is to grasp the knife in your dominant hand and the honing steel in the other. Grip the handle of your steel and plant the tip onto a cutting board. Run the length of the knife at a 15-20 degree angle down the honing steel an equal number of times on each side for a total of about eight strokes.