Learning to care for a chef’s knife is critical to maintain your investment in this critical kitchen tool.
You’ve selected the perfect chef’s knife. You found it on sale and had it shipped overnight because, well, delayed gratification sucks. You’ve even attacked your first tomato and sighed with satisfaction as the new blade penetrated the vegetable’s tough outer skin and sliced through the tasty flesh like, well, a hot knife through vegan butter.
Run the chef’s knife through the dishwasher and toss it into the drawer?
Read on for how to care for your chef’s knife.
“A kitchen without a knife is not a kitchen.” – Masaharu Morimoto
Why It’s Important to Care for Your Chef’s Knife
You just spent a hundred dollars (or more) on a knife or perhaps hundreds of dollars on a knife set. Do you want to spend hundreds of dollars every year on knives? Don’t answer that. Even if you do, don’t you want those suckers to last a while?
Two reasons to take care of your knives:
- A well-cared-for knife will last a long, long time. My 8-inch Wüsthof chef’s knife is, I think, fifteen years old. Older than my relationship with my wife. I have a Wüsthof paring knife that dates to the early 1980s. They’re still going. I use them every day.
- A sharp knife cuts with accuracy. Most accidents with knives happen because a dull knife slips from its intended trajectory and plunges into an unsuspecting digit. Keep the blade sharp and you’ll make quick work of that onion and not your finger.
Five Easy Steps to Care for Your Chef’s Knife
Okay, you sold me. I’d rather be cooking, but what’s the easiest way to take care of this sucker?
1. Use a proper cutting surface
The debate about cutting surfaces is as spirited as the debate about whether to salt your watermelon. Wooden cutting boards harbor bacteria! Plastic cutting boards dull the knife! Wooden boards are more sustainable; let’s not add more plastic to the oceans. Wood or plastic, it’s your choice, but please use a soft cutting surface.
Wood (and bamboo) Cutting Boards
Growing up, my mother kept a thick butcher block cutting board on our counter all day and all night. She picked it up in Hong Kong when she and my father were stationed overseas during the Vietnam war. She chopped everything on it. Raw chicken, vegetables, roast beef, and her morning fruit. Of course, she cleaned it religiously. We never got sick, as far as we know. I’m not sure what happened to that gorgeous hunk of wood, but ever since, I’ve had a soft spot for wood cutting boards. Home chefs are (thankfully) not held to the same cleanliness standards as restaurants, which are required to use plastic.
Yes, wooden boards can trap bacteria. Wooden cutting boards need to be hand-cleaned and cannot go through the dishwasher. They can warp (I’m talking to you, Mr. Boos). They can be heavy and unwieldy.
But, wood is soft on a knife’s edge. There is more give as the knife constantly slices or chops your bok choy and broccoli. Cuts in wood tend to close up on their own. To me, it’s also more aesthetically pleasing to have a beautiful, hand-crafted, wood surface on which to prepare your favorite meal.
Jill feels different. Insert laughing emoji.
Plastic Cutting Boards
One of the most popular cutting boards is the plastic OXO Good Grips carving board. Plastic is a popular cutting board material due to the ease of cleaning (yes, you can stick it in the dishwasher), they are lightweight, and they do not warp. They are more easily sanitized than wood. Jill has used her OXO for years and loves it.
A couple of things to know. A knife will dull faster on a plastic cutting board than a wooden board. The plastic will retain stains and smells over time, so you should replace the plastic board every couple of years (I’m talking to you, Jill).
Regardless of which you chose, use a surface with some give, whether it’s wood, plastic, or bamboo.
(I always wonder what happens to those microscopic slivers of plastic that erode from the cutting board over time. Do they end up in your food?)
2. Hand wash and dry the knife
After you slice open that avocado for your avocado toast, take a minute and hand wash your knife. In a dishwasher, the knife might tumble around or the blade might grind against other cutlery. The heat in a dishwasher could damage the handle material. Instead, I give the knife a quick scrub with a soapy dish wand before hand-drying it with a kitchen towel. It takes ten seconds.
Try not to leave the wet knife on a drying rack. To the naked eye, the blade of a knife looks like a smooth, gleaming, razor-sharp edge. But believe it or not, your knife’s blade is actually a series of microscopic teeth. When left out to dry, minerals and salt from your water sit in those little teeth, and over time, those minerals will degrade the steel. Those minerals are ruining your investment! Dry that sucker off and stick it in the block so it’s ready and waiting the next time you need it.
3. Use a honing steel – regularly
Swishing your knife against a honing steel is not just for the movies or The Next Iron Chef! That long piece of steel with the handle has a unique and important purpose. Over time, as you chop onions, slice peppers, and hew open pomegranates, the edge of your knife slowly dulls. What actually happens as the blade repeatedly bangs against your John Boos cutting board is the edge begins to curl under. I’m serious. You can’t see it, but that’s what’s happening. It’s hard to cut well when your blade looks like a J.
A honing steel removes that invisible-to-the-eye curl. As you swipe the blade down the steel, the microscopic curled edge is straightened, or pushed back into alignment. Little to no material is removed from your blade. You can perform this tiny, edge-saving trick daily.
There are two types of ‘steels’, so be sure to get the right one:
- A honing ‘steel’ will straighten the curl and, when used regularly, will lengthen the time between sharpening
- A sharpening ‘steel’ will remove material from your blade and sharpen it
You want a proper honing steel for this step in the process. I recommend against using a sharpening steel to regularly hone your blade because you’ll shorten the life of your knife by taking too much steel away.
When using a honing steel, it’s important to keep your knife at the proper angle to correspond to your knife’s bevel. What’s a bevel? Check it out here.
Don’t spend a lot of clams on your honing steel. Dish out $25 to $50 and get one with a Rockwell hardness rating that is higher than your knife’s hardness rating. For example, my Wüsthof Chef’s knife is a 58 hardness and my Wüsthof 10″ Deluxe Honing Steel has a hardness of 65.
4. Sharpen the knife – quarterly
This step can be intimidating! Don’t let it be. While visions of old men in leathery aprons in front of a grinding wheel dance through your mind, let me reassure you that sharpening a knife is simple. It comes down to using something harder than your knife – diamonds, ceramic, or hard steel, to remove a tiny fraction of the blade at the correct angle. That’s it.
Sharpening a knife is easier than preparing a fresh mango. Trust me.
If you talk with chefs on this topic, you’ll get all kinds of strange sharpening ideas from swiping the blade with sandpaper to utilizing the edge of a ceramic coffee mug. Those methods might be fine for experienced professionals, but for the home cooking enthusiast, I recommend one of two methods. See below.
Or outsource it. But more on that later.
Why sharpen your knife?
A sharp knife is safer. It will be more likely to do what you want it to do, and it will be less likely to perform erratically. After a few weeks with your new knife, try to slice through that lovely ripe tomato. The dull blade hangs up on the skin. You saw at it, only to watch in horror as the blade, seemingly in slow motion, slips off the tomato’s tough skin and plunges into your delicate finger.
Also, a sharp knife cuts food more uniformly, thus allowing more even cooking.
Okay, fine. I’m sold. But do I need to use a wet stone-like I’m grinding an ax for a murder spree?
Negative. Here are two simple ways to keep your knives sharp, along with two sharpening methods you should avoid.
Recommended Knife Sharpening Methods
A sharpening steel (rod). This is the easiest and fastest way to keep your knife sharp. It’s also cost-effective. Be sure to keep your blade at the proper bevel angle (ie. 14 degrees for a Wüsthof) and give it a couple of good swipes. Keep in mind that a honing steel is not a sharpening steel, and a sharpening steel is not a honing steel. I recommend a ceramic sharpening steel like this one, which will cost you $30 to $50. And don’t be confused by the fact that it’s called a ‘steel’ but is made of ceramic. Call it a rod if you want or just go with it.
Electric Sharpeners. I strongly recommend a high-quality electric sharpener like this one from Chef’sChoice (note this one sharpens to a 15-percent bevel). What’s a bevel? Glad you asked. Read our post on selecting a chef’s knife here.
Like a great knife, a high-quality electric sharpener will last you a long time and will help you care for your chef’s knife. Electric sharpeners are quick and easy to use, which makes it more likely you’ll plop it on your counter and run your blades through it once a quarter. The downside to most electric sharpeners is that they take off a fair amount of blade material, which can shorten the knife’s useful life. If you use a honing steel regularly and follow the electric sharpener’s instructions, this combination will give your treasured chef’s knife a keen edge and a long life.
So-called pull-through sharpeners. Typically inexpensive (i.e. cheap), these units can wreck a blade at the worst, and at best create an edge that only lasts a short time. Avoid the temptation to skimp on your sharpener. Invest in something that will help you maintain your knives for decades.
If you insist on this method, buy one from the same manufacturer as your knives.
Whetstones. This may generate a chorus of boos from one corner of the knife community. But hear me out. My recommendations are directed at the home chef enthusiast knife owner who would rather be cooking than slowly grinding their blade on a stone like they’re auditioning for a Freddy Krueger movie. While a whetstone will provide the keenest edge, the whetstone process requires skill and makes a mess, both factors that are likely to cause you to avoid sharpening your knife. Instead, get an electric sharpener and make the chore as easy as possible.
A professional knife sharpening can be worth the time and dollars. For example, Shun offers free sharpening if you ship the knife to them. The downside is the shipping cost and time without your knife. A mobile professional knife sharpener visits our local kitchen store several times a year and, for $8 per blade, makes a professional edge. Check your local shop for a similar service. I recommend this route for a “once-every-couple-years” sharpen, but I beg you not to outsource it each time. Learn how to keep your knives sharp. Take care of your investment.
5. Store your knives in a wooden block or in-drawer tray
You’d be surprised how many people simply toss their investment, I mean their knife, into a drawer and let it rattle around with ice cream scoops and melon ballers. In our house, we’ve got a block on the counter for our everyday knives and an in-drawer tray for our more specialty cutting instruments.
A proper block will keep your knives safe and in good condition and has the added benefit of making your knives handy. Over time, you’ll develop muscle memory for the block’s location. Once, Jill moved our knife block and I literally grabbed at air when I needed a paring knife to hull some strawberries.
If you’re drawer-rich and counter-poor, try a knife tray like this one. A tray keeps lesser-used knives away and safe and handy for whenever they’re needed.
I recommend against a wall-mounted magnetic bar. It may put your sexy knives on display, but the process of constantly snapping your blades on and off a strong magnet may cause excess wear and tear.
Products To Help Care For A Chef’s Knife
Wüsthof 8-inch Chefs Knife
John Boos walnut cutting board
OXO Good Grips Carving and Cutting Board
Wüsthof honing steel
Wüsthof ceramic sharpening steel
Chef’sChoice Trizor XV EdgeSelect Electric Knife Sharpener
Wüsthof In Drawer Knife Tray
If you haven’t yet, check out this post on How to Pick the Perfect Chef’s Knife.