The Best Knife Sharpener for the Chef's Kitchen
By Anthony Nicaj
The chef's knife is the most important tool in the kitchen. The home cook, line cook, or executive chef should take pride in having their tools perform at peak performance. Not only is it disrespectful to the ingredients to use a knife as dull as a baseball bat, but 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 miscalculation with a knife dulled by animal fat and sinew. This knowledge matters.
Cooks in the restaurant world are very protective of their knives because all it takes is a slip in focus for someone to break it or almost more annoyingly, chip it so that the original shape and feel of the blade is forever ruined. An alcoholic sushi chef 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 your kitchen. That's right, it isn't a very clear cut answer because there are many factors involved when choosing the right knife sharpener.
The Japanese have an unsurpassed command of the intricacies of knife sharpening. There are so many variations of knives and angles at which to sharpen them that it blows my mind. When I sharpen my knives at home, my goal is to have it be razor sharp, meaning it can easily strip hair from my arm if I try to shave with it. And since I don't currently have sushi to prepare, I'm usually content creating an even edge on my blade, or a 50/50 edge so to speak. Most gyoto blades or Japanese chef knives are sharpened at a 70/30 angle so one side is always a little more extreme than the other, further reducing the surface tension necessary to cleave whatever it is the blade is touching.
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.
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. I use my petty knife if I have to get in between bones and ideally I would use a workhorse knife with a thick spine and a mallet to break down the aforementioned squashes.
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, which is NOT the same as sharpening, I believe Bob Kramer, master bladesmith with Zwilling J.A. Henckels does it right.
Honing is the process of realigning 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. So if your knife is inherently dull, the honing steel will be a very temporary and rather ineffective way to to bring your knife up to cutting speed.
There are tools made to take the guess work out of sharpening a knife such as those quick sharpeners where you run your blade through a series of specialized channels a few times. These are good “pick me ups” for your edge if you’re not willing to spend 15 minutes or more on a whetstone or oil stone. I prefer whetstones since the oil is one less thing I have to worry about carrying/spilling.
There are also expensive vise-like appliances that allow for a very specific and consistent tuning of your bevel. But then you’ve got another appliance in your kitchen and more moving parts to haul along with your knife set, should you ever have to relocate. In my opinion, learning how to use a whetstone is a meditative practice that eventually yields considerable results. You'll need one bi-stone, a little patience and a willingness to learn. Get rid of the block of 14 different knives that you hardly ever use because they've gone dull ages ago. Buy yourself a solid chef's knife, bread knife, pairing knife and/or petty knife. Petty knives are also known as utility knives and are a handy go-to for small projects like intricate butchery or delicate produce work. Go to the store and feel them out--if you're not crazy about them at least you have a better idea about the style of blade that feels good and then you can investigate further online. I recommend the Japanese MAC series for people willing to go beyond the generic brands...but to each his hone.