Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 16, 2009

Steeling a knife

The problem with celebrity chef shows is that they’re terrifically inspiring.

Yep, that’s right. It’s a problem. Primarily because the “techniques” you learn on a show are not necessarily the right or best way to do a thing — they tend to be quick and dirty shortcuts designed to fit into a TV spot.

Take steeling your knife. First, steeling is not sharpening, sharpening is sharpening. To sharpen your knife, you’re going to use some gadget, gizmo or (set of) abrasives, usually stones. Then, once that knife is sharp, you’re good to go. Chop, slice, dice, and all that.

Then, when you’re done, your knife is still sharp, right? Well, yes, it is.

What happens to it, however, is that on a microscopic level, the little micron-sized “teeth” in the cutting edge of any blade (serrated or not) are probably not in alignment anymore. And that’s best case! Worse, the edge is actually folded over, or worst case — it’s now gone altogether. All that banging into the cutting board and pushing through all that food may well have turned what was once a straight, fine edge into something looking more like a bit of twisty mountain roadway. With random drop offs and no guard rails.

Aside — your cutting boards are probably to blame for the bulk of this damage, by the way. Most of us use very cheap plastic boards or hardwood. Unfortunately, they’re all too hard. And for those of you using glass or stone “boards”, stop. They’re so hard that you’re gonna crush that delicate edge on the first impact. Remember, your steel is hard — but ceramic & stone are harder, so your edge dulls with each contact. Wood too — most of us use edge-grain cutting boards, which are very hard, if cheap, but will dull your edge. Not as fast as cutting on your counter, but sure enough, they’ll destroy your knife edges. What you want is rubber (SaniTuff) or end-grain boards (think “butcher’s block” and you’ll be in the ball park). End of aside.

To get your blade edge re-aligned, you use a steel (or a strop, but lets not get ahead of ourselves). A steel has one and only one purpose — to straighten out those micro imperfections and bring your edge back into a single, straight line.

There are lots of ways to NOT do this. Think Gordon Ramsay, as he shows here in the opening segment admonishing us home cooks to only use sharp knives:

Looks pretty cool, no? The rest of the video isn’t bad, but he’s actually steeling in the wrong direction — you want to steel away from you, edge first. He’s using an edge-trailing stroke, which just isn’t as effective. Also, I want to encourage good habits, not TV habits, so let’s get this one right. Plant that sucker, set your angle, and give it 2-3 gentle swipes per side, alternating between each swipe.

What angle to use? That’s easy to say, hard to do. For your Wusthof’s & Henckels, say, 20% per side. For your Japanese knives, maybe 10-15% per side. For your single bevel knives — ha. No steel for you, use a strop!

Do this right before you use the knife. Consider it calisthenics prior to a workout — this is the warmup for your knife. Do this every time you use the knife, use the right cutting boards, and your knife edge can last months without needing to be touched up on any kind of abrasive.

A word about steels. There are quite a few out there. The one that came with your knife block or set as a “free bonus” is worth about that. That is, not much. My hero Dave Martell of Japanese Knife Sharpening says to throw those away. Me, I say donate them or use them in some art project. What you want is a “smooth” steel. Dick makes a line of such steels called “Dickoron Smooth”. They’re pricey — about $100, but worth every penny. Another option is glass. Hand American makes/made a boroscilliate rod that is just awesome and costs about the same as a Dickoron. A much more affordable alternative is ceramic, like an Idahone (check out Dave’s site for these), but these are actually abrasive, about a 1,200 grit — which is pretty rough. It will, however, iron out a not too FUBARed edge pretty smartly. They’re about $25. They make a rougher grit hone too, but why bother — that’s why you have sharpening gear. You do have sharpening gear, don’t you? Anyway, 2-3 swipes per side on an Idahone and you’re good to go. Do not use “grooved steels”. Grooved steels will actually cut teeth into your blade edge, which while they seem to cut sharp, will not hold an edge long and will shorten the life of your knife. Smooth … it’s what you want and its the way to go.

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