The Care and feeding of Your Knives
By Chef David Hall
You may have noticed I did not post an article in the last couple weeks. Debbie, my wife, and I were having fun with hurricane Sandy and had little to no means of communication with the outside world. Thankfully we have returned home to dry weather where I could have my 2nd hernia surgery. Now recovering it’s time to get this next article out.
Simply stated, sharp knives are safe knives. It is a misconception that using a dull blade will somehow cause less injury if you happen to cut yourself. The reality is sharp knives are easier to control because you do not have to use as much force or strength to cut through things. Injuries frequently occur when one tries to force a dull knife through food; then suddenly the food gives way to the knife, the knife slips and then next thing you know you have blood on your cutting board and food. I know; this has happened to me more times than I like to admit whether in the kitchen or the wood shop.
Preventable Injuries to you and your knives – Other causes of preventable injuries include knives being randomly tossed in a draw with other cooking utensils. You go to grab a ladle and the edge of a knife meets with your skin with predictable results. If you store knives in drawers, they should be safely contained in either sheaths or in the slots of a drawer knife block and not mixed amongst your other utensils. Having your knives bounce around a in drawer with other utensils is also very hard on the cutting edge causing nicks and gouges in what is supposed to be a fine cutting edge.
Another hazardous thing to do with your knives and hazardous is placing them in a sink of sudsy water with other things that need to be washed. Again, having the blade bang against other pot, pans, dishes, etc. is very damaging to the cutting edge, not to mention causing unnecessary injuries to hands when blindly reaching through the suds to retrieve those things that need washing. Leave your knives on the countertop until you are ready to clean them. My habit is to immediately wash and dry my knives when I am done using them, making sure they are bone dry before I place them securely in my knife block for chef’s knife kit. They are both clean and ready for the next use without having to carefully probe through murky soapy water.
Washing – When washing your knives, use gentle dish soap. Wash, rinse and immediately dry. This not only prevents mineral spots and staining your expensive knives, but also reduces the risk of bacterial growth. Don’t use your dish washer to clean your knives, especially if your knives have natural wood handles, such as Chicago Cutlery. The harsh detergent not only strips the natural oil from the handles causing them to split or delaminate, but the strong basic detergent will cause damage by actually etching the grain boundaries of the steel, weakening both the edge and the blade itself.
The Steel – You know that steel rod with a handle that came with your set of knives? It is called just that, “The Steel.” Some erroneously refer to it as a “sharpening” stick or steel, however it does not actually sharpen but rather hones the edge of a sharp blade. If your knives are dull, the steel will be of no benefit to you. The steel is used to maintain the edge. Every time I pick up my knives to prepare a meal, I run my knives over the steel. Doing so means I do not need to sharpen my knives to restore the factory edge nearly as frequently as I would have had I not used the steel. Remember, sharpening actually removes metal in the grinding process, whereas the steel merely realigns the microscopic artifacts that constitute the fine edge of the blade. Frequent use of the steel translates to an infrequent need for sharpening or restoring the factory edge.
Sharpening – Eventually all knives need to be sharpened to maintain a good working edge. The best tools for sharpening are either water stones, oil stone or fine grinders specifically designed for cutlery. Those carbide v-shaped things that you drag a knife through may provide you with a temporary cutting edge, but at the expense of the life of your knife. Some of these cheap products are too aggressive and remove too much metal from the blade, thereby shortening the life of your knives. Spend the money needed to purchase good sharpening equipment. If you use quality tools to maintain your quality knives, you will not need to purchase knives again. Knives should last your lifetime.
One sharpening system I recommend is the Work Sharp Knife and Tool sharpening system. I have seen the best price on Amazon and while it costs less than most sharpening machines you find at stores, it does the best job. If you prefer to go “old-school” I recommend considering higher quality diamond water stones, but you will need multiple grits for sharpening as well as honing, not to mention the know-how to sharpen, which is an art. One benefit of the Work Sharp system is that fixturing is included that enables you to hold knives at the appropriate and critical angles for sharpening. All the guess-work is taken out, yielding great results. Regardless of the route you choose, keep those knives sharp and you will avoid injuries.
Until next time, keep those knives sharp and working.
Happy chopping and slicing,
Chef David Hall