How To Care For Kitchen Knives
Apr 19, 2023
So you’ve invested in some high-quality knives and now, you want to make sure you don't halve their lifespan by neglecting to care for them properly. After all, no one wants to shell out on a premium chef's knife only to have the handle crack or the blade rust. While knife maintenance can sound intimidating at first, it's really quite straightforward once you get the routine down. And by properly caring for your knives, you can ensure their quality doesn't deteriorate prematurely.
To ensure the longevity of your kitchen knives, you need to care for them properly, which includes ... [+] honing and sharpening them regularly.
"Like any fine tool, it is important to clean with care and detail," says Jacqueline Blanchard, owner of Coutelier, a New Orleans-based culinary shop. Whether you work in a professional kitchen or you’re an everyday home cook with a mid-range knife set, maintenance looks pretty much the same. To start, there's a correct way (and plenty more incorrect ways) to clean and dry your knives. To ensure the blades retain their sharp edge, you also need to hone and sharpen them regularly. Proper storage, too, is important. Ahead, to take the guesswork out of the process, we broke down the necessary steps to help your kitchen knives enjoy a long, sharp life.
As tempting as it may be, you should never put off cleaning your knives after putting them to use. For one, food remains—especially those from acidic produce like lemons and tomatoes—can corrode a knife's delicate blade, says Wüsthof brand manager Katie Costanzo. Equally as important, it's simply not a good idea to leave dirty knives lying on your countertop or in your sink, where they can bang against pans or flatware, leading to chipping. Instead, you should hand-wash your blades with hot water and a mild dish detergent. Then, once you’ve rinsed your knives, promptly dry them with a clean knife to prevent rusting.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but it bears repeating: Never put your nice kitchen knives in the dishwasher. While an inexpensive butter knife can handle a dishwasher's harsh environment, your expensive chef's knives and paring knives cannot. "Dishwashers can often toss around particulate matter and high temperatures could negatively impact the steel quality," says Blanchard. Carbon steel blades can rust while wooden handles can oversaturate with water, causing them to deteriorate rapidly and potentially crack, she adds.
There's a good chance you’re familiar with the importance of sharpening you knives from time to time, whereas honing—which is done with a stick-like rod—is less well-understood. To start, those terms aren't synonymous. "Honing is re-aligning a bent or very slightly dulled edge, whereas sharpening is removing metal along the bevels that create the edge," says Josh Donald, co-founder of Bernal Cutlery, a San Francisco-based knife shop. Ideally, you should hone your knives after each use. If you occasionally forget, though, and end up honing them after every few uses, your blades will forgive you. Just keep in mind that the more regularly you hone your knives, the less frequently they need to be sharpened.
So how exactly do you hone a knife? To start, you need a honing rod. While these tools are commonly made of steel, Blanchard isn't a fan of the material, as it can be hard on a knife's delicate blade. Instead, she advises looking for rods made of ceramic, which is only gently abrasive.
Now, onto the actual process. With the honing rod in your non-dominant hand, point the tool's tip downward to rest on a nonslip surface, such as a damp kitchen towel. Then, in your dominant hold, hold your knife at a 14- to 18-degree angle and run the blade down the steel, moving it away from you; simultaneously, slide the knife diagonally from its heel (near the handle) toward its tip. Then, place the knife on the other side of the steel and repeat the process, alternating sides for a few swipes.
Over time, your knives will start to lose their sharp factory edge, and that's okay—that just means the blades have enjoyed regular use in your home kitchen. That also means it's time to sharpen them, which isn't a step you want to put off. Sharpening makes slicing and dicing easier and more precise, which means you don't have to exert as much effort while cutting. And though it may sound counterintuitive, a sharp knife is actually safer to use than a dull one. "The most common cause of kitchen injury is a dull knife because it requires more pressure while cutting," says Costanzo. "By adding additional force to compensate for a dull blade, you decrease your control over the knife and increase your chance of injury."
How often you need to sharpen a knife comes down to a few factors. "It depends on how often the knife is used, on what kind of cutting board, by whom, and what knife is in question," says Donald. "This is subjective, as different people have different standards for what feels sharp and what doesn't." As a rule of thumb, anywhere between once every few months to once a year should do the trick, depending on how often you use the knife. "If you notice yourself having to keep honing your knife to catch an edge, it means it's time for a proper sharpening," says Blanchard.
If you want to try restoring your blades at home, there are a few types of knife sharpener you can purchase: there are electric sharpeners, manual sharpeners and whetstones. Electric sharpeners are the easiest and most convenient to use, as these motor-powered devices feature slots with pre-set angles (or one slot with different settings) to help guide you knife as you slide it through.
Manual sharpeners, which resemble electric models in design, tend to be less expensive and more precise, though they’re a little trickier to use. While both electric and manual sharpeners are popular for their convenience, they both can be hard on a knife's delicate edge.
And then, there's the whetstone, which is widely considered to be the superior sharpening method. "A whetstone uses a combination of high-quality abrasive grits and water to allow you to both hone and sharpen your knife," explains Costanzo. "The fine grit is used to realign the microscopic teeth on the blade while the coarse grit is used to grind the edge of your knife." (If you have Japanese knives, which are thinner and more brittle than Western-style knives, they must be sharpened using a whetstone—not a manual or electric model.)
Now, using a whetstone comes with a learning curve—though experts say it's worth it. "While it is a skill set that requires practice, water stone sharpening is best for the life of the knife and superior edge retention," adds Bouchard. And if the thought of sharpening your knives yourself is simply too daunting, you can always take your knives to a major retailer like Williams Sonoma or an independent cutlery stores to be sharpened professionally. If this plan of action appeals to you, don't be ashamed—many professional chefs, cookbook authors and food-world experts leave sharpening to the pros.
Lastly, to give your knives a long life, you need to store them properly so that their blades are always protected. Among the most popular solutions are knife blocks, which can house a variety of different knives directly on your countertop. This method comes with a few downsides, though: Wooden blocks can be a breeding ground for bacteria and, in general, they’re difficult to clean. Additionally, knife blocks can take up a decent amount of space on your countertop.
Instead, consider storing your knives on a magnetic knife strip like the Schmidt Brothers Acacia Wood Magnetic Wall Bar, which can be attached directly to your wall. "The wood is gentle on the steel, especially when pulling the knife on and off of it as you use it," says Blanchard. Not only do knife strips clear up counter space, but they display your knife collection beautifully.
And if you prefer to keep your knives tucked away in a drawer, you have options. you can protect them with knife guards, which slip over the blades to protect their delicate edges and your delicate fingers. (You can purchase a set or buy individual knife guards to accommodate your specific knives.) Just, whatever you do, never toss unprotected knives into a chaotic kitchen drawer. This is not only damaging to blades, but it's also quite dangerous for anyone reaching into the drawer.