Skill a Week: Knife Sharpening

The last set of knives I bought was probably 5 years ago. They were wonderfully sharp when I bought them, now they’ve become dull. After all, 5 years of wear is quite a bit (I also inherited a few cheap knives that probable hadn’t been sharpened in 15 years)! Of course, since I’m trying to cook more frequently, it’s important to have a razor-sharp knife.

So, it was either replace the knives or sharpen them. And if to sharpen, what method to use? Well, if you asked me 5 years ago, I might have just replaced them. I suspect a lot of people end up doing that. But these were decent knives, so I didn’t want to get rid of them. Then, the question became how to sharpen the knives. There’s a lot of options. For instance, I was considering this Accusharp knife sharpener.

I was really enthusiastic at first, but I also felt uncomfortable. There was a dissonance I felt when considering this purchase that made me uncomfortable. First, the reviews were mixed. The device sounded effective, but according to experts it was damaging to some knives. I didn’t want that – but then, if I sharpened by hand I’m sure I wouldn’t do a great job either. Worst than being semi-effective, it was a cheap, disposable solution for knife sharpening. It also wasn’t “traditional,” and in the end, even if I saved time, I wouldn’t learn anything that could be usefully applied to other edged devices. So – it was down to sharpening by hand.

I ended up buying a Japanese waterstone (I might also buy a sharpening steel next year). I’m not sure exactly what it’s made of, but it feels like a very smooth, dry, piece of fabricated stone. When I say it feels dry, I mean it – it’s as though it sucks the moisture out of your hands when you handle it. You have to let it soak before using it – hence the name ‘waterstone’.

I looked up a few Youtube tutorials, and found this one featuring an older Japanese chef the most useful.

I also learned a few things through experience. First, leaning over the stone is important to maintaining the right angle of the blade through the full stroke. Second, the slurry of stone powder generated by sharpening is critical – as it gets generated, the sharpening goes better and better. Maintaining that slurry on top of the stone is key.

I sharpened five knives, and it ended up taking me an hour. I bet after another few sessions of sharpening, I’d be able to do the same 5 knives in half an hour. The knives are delightfully sharp. To me, the best test is with a tomato. By the end of my sharpening, I could simply hold the knife on top of a tomato and it would be able to slice right through.

This is a skill that’s only periodically useful, maybe every few months. But I enjoyed sharpening. Once I got a rhythm going, it was almost meditative, and it also felt good to be doing something by hand.

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