10/20/09

Sharpening Steel Unsharpened

We used to use this knife service, who would come in and switch out our dull knives with ostensibly sharpened knives. The reality was that they would switch out our dull knives with other dull knives, all of whose quality was utter crap. I gently convinced (read: nagged) Cliff to go with Henry Westpfalz & Co, who do an excellent job. Also, it's right on my way to work, so if need be, I can swing by, snag the knives, and come straight to work in no time flat.

As many knife-savvy people know, the most important accessory for your knife (aside from its sheath) is the sharpening steel. Every time you pick up your knife for a chopping job, you should give it a few passes with your sharpening steel. Yes. Every time. This doesn't apply if you've got one of those never-needs-sharpening dealies (which, if you do, I hope it's because that's a temporary situation until you can afford at least one good quality chef's knife).

The problem with the name "sharpening steel" is that it's a bit of a misnomer. It doesn't actually sharpen your blade; it maintains and hones it. Every time you knife makes contact with the cutting board (you are using a cutting board, right?), the fine sharp edge is no longer upright. It gets a little bent out of shape ... literally. If you can imagine the cutting edge of your knife as a triangle, this mental illustration will help you.

The razor-sharp blade is like a triangle. The dull blade is like a triangle with the top point bent over to one side (maybe a wave shape?), which is why when you're cutting with a dull knife, the job doesn't get done as effectively. The honing steel realigns the triangle back to a point. You only need to give the knife a couple of passes for it to get ready to start chopping.

The reason that you get the knife sharpened is the same reason that people go get a hair cut when they have long hair. It removes the dull edges, split ends and any frayed tips. Sharpening the knife (when you send it out to your knife sharpening person) physically removes a small amount of the knife's steel, and re-establishes the edge. You only need to do this once in a while, because sharpening needs to happen when the tip of the triangle is no longer bent, but is outright flat.

The reason I started thinking of honing steels is because we had to replace ours. Just as we send our knives out to get sharpened a LOT more frequently than people in homes do (at home, you need to send them out once or twice a year; at Chow, we send 'em out every month or two), we also need to replace our honing steel more frequently (I think this one lasted like 3 months or so; I ordered it in June). Why? Because it's one honing steel that all the staff pick up and use. At home, however, your honing steel can last quite a few years, and is definitely worth the investment.

But here's the deal. Just as you don't want to go spend a huge amount of money on your first knife (because you're not even sure if you're ready for it), I don't want you to run down to the gourmet store, and shell out $50 for a sharpening steel. Jump onto Amazon or something, and get one for around $10 - $20. When you notice the difference, and start to use it more and more frequently, and find yourself yearning for a new one, that's when you want to go spring for the works: ergonomic handle, good weight, nice spacing of the steel's teeth, all that stuff.

You won't regret it.
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