Considering that the chef’s knife is the most important tool in the kitchen, it helps to have it perform at peak performance, whether at home or in a professional setting. There is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife. I’ve seen a coworker stab straight through the fleshy part of his hand from a mere miscalculation with a knife dulled by animal fat and sinew. An old sushi chef acquaintance once told me, “Anthony, you treat your knife like your girlfriend…let nobody touch her!”
In this post, I will show you my discoveries with the art and science of knife sharpening and allow you to infer the best knife sharpener for the chef’s kitchen based upon your findings.
Sharpness & Shelf-Life
In an experiment to see how the sharpness of a knife can affect the duration of a product’s shelf-life, Clay Allison, an entrepreneur we’ll be coming back to, cut cross sections of celery with a sharp knife and then with a dull knife, bagged them in ziploc bags and kept them in a fridge for 2.5 days.
And here are the results after 9.5 days:
So apparently, a knife’s edge can really make a difference…which is why the Japanese are so fond of the intricacies of knife sharpening:
The image should give you an idea of how far the complexity of knife sharpening can go, but I believe this is as complicated as it gets.
With all the information found on this art form, the most important thing I’ve learned is that the little differences make a big impact–which is interesting when you relate knife sharpening to professional kitchen practice.
Every person will sharpen differently, use different pressures, angles, strokes, and frequencies…but as long as the techniques are applied consistently, the knife should reply with noticeable efficiency.
After five years of cooking in professional settings, I’ve ended up with the Gesshin Kagero Wa-Gyoto (Japanese chef’s knife).
I have found that I prefer thinner Japanese steel for most of my projects unless I’m breaking down animal proteins or working on something stubborn like a mature squash or galangal. The smooth choil or “ the area between the cutting edge and the tang,” makes this knife a real pleasure to work finer projects with or to choke up with your index supporting the spine for longer oblique cuts.
Of all the knife sharpening videos I’ve seen, Korin’s “Learn How to Sharpen: Episode 2 – Chef Knife” (which focuses on how to put an asymmetrical angle of 70/30 on a Japanese gyutou) is the easiest to follow in my opinion. I also trust this source because this man is paid to sharpen knives inside a glass box inside a knife store in NYC.
Another fantastic technique for knife sharpening is by the guys at chef steps:
In regards to using a honing steel, I believe Bob Kramer, master bladesmith with Zwilling J.A. Henckels does it right: Quick reminder: honing is NOT the same as sharpening. Honing simply realigns the microscopic teeth in the blade’s edge without stripping the knife of any metal. Sharpening requires the gradual removal of a knife’s material to create a new edge.
After putting the information above together for this presentation, I discovered a product called Wicked Edge Precision Knife Sharpeners.
Pictured above, is the “Wicked Edge” device, a $400 vise (original baseline price) with interchangeable accessory stones and strops. In order to sharpen one’s edge, you simply take both “stones” which are attached to the base via thin sliding rails, and run them across your edge until you reach your desired edge. Clay Allison, who I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation, was initially a hunter who was fed up with electric and controlled angle sharpeners for not giving him a solid enough edge for field-dressing. He eventually teamed up with an engineer in 2007 to develop the Wicked Edge.
I came across Wicked Edge’s website when I was searching for images of knife edge microscopy, and luckily for me, Mr. Allison is a bit obsessed with knife edge microscopy.
In an entry titled “Micro Photos of Identical Knives after Different Sharpening Methods,” Mr. Allison shows how different methods of sharpening on the same factory-made blade appear under a microscope:
Factory Edge (230X)
Results from using Chef’s Choice Electric Sharpener (230X)
I have to say, I like the concept of the Wicked Edge. It’s smart, effective, and doesn’t take more room in your kitchen than your standard appliance.
If I had the money, I would purchase the wicked edge, at least to try it. The price has gone down to $299 on Amazon and unfortunately I am not in the financial position to purchase this item, especially considering that my knife cost just over $300 and ESPECIALLY considering that I only subsist on a chef and writer’s salary.
Mr. Allison’s blog goes on and on about the topic and even documents the process of sharpening knives for knife sharpening competitions. It gets looney. But with that said, it’s interesting to take all this in mind and to consider how easy it is to strip away not only the guesswork of this art form but also the artistry. In my opinion, the $300+ price tag isn’t worth missing out on “perfecting” your whetstone technique, but to each his hone.