Sharpen Up

Of all the pointless macho posturing that still happens in professional kitchens, showing off with knives ranks as perhaps the worst.

You’ve no doubt seen some evidence of this on TV. A chef picks up his knife with one hand and a sharpening steel—that rough metal rod with a handle—in the other. He starts clanging away as if he’s re-enacting a scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s an abomination to the knife, arguably the most important tool to a chef.

That TV chef isn’t really sharpening; steels are meant to straighten knife edges, because blades start to curl with everyday use. It’s imperceptible to the naked eye, but not to a ripe tomato, which will stubbornly refuse to yield to what looks to us like a razor-sharp edge. Using a steel will bring the edge back to center again, but it’s a mellow endeavor, not something out of an action flick.

Actual knife sharpening is a m├ętier so precise that unless there is a serious metalhead on staff, even many of the best restaurant kitchens send their knives out. At Ducasse in Paris, we had a guy who came in and picked up our knives about once a season, after lunch service, then delivered them back sharpened just in time for dinner prep. In the hands of an unskilled amateur, going all out with a sharpening stone or electric sharpener can file away a beautiful blade unevenly and excessively.

For professional knife sharpening, call restaurants in your city and ask what service they use. In Chicago, Northwestern Cutlery sharpens knives for only $3.50 each. It’s first come, first served, but usually no more than a 15-minute wait. You can also ship your knives to the company.

In the meantime, two products can improve your daily knife life. If you use it every day, a steel will realign your blade’s edge well. You’ll still need to sharpen your knives professionally if they’re really expensive, or truly dulled. But for tiny tune-ups, and when you just can’t get to the knife shop, you can sharpen lightly at home. For this, you’ll need the manual AccuSharp. While it does remove more metal than a steel, it will not take out nicks and bent tips—and that’s a good thing. Leave that to the pros.

Ceramic Steel
By Edge Pro, $20–$30

A steel is usually a metal rod, but it can be made of ceramic, as is this one by Edge Pro. It’s not as odd as it seems: We see ceramic knives and vegetable peelers. The white ceramic rod’s surface is 1,200 grit, an ultrafine measure that feels smooth but is still abrasive. And unlike classic metal steels that can take off too much of a knife’s blade, this one works precisely, removing a bare minimum of material. The wooden handle has a ring on the end so it can be hung for convenient access, but the steel also fits into most standard knife blocks.

To correctly use this steel, and most steels, grab the handle with your nondominant hand and place the steel tip down vertically on your countertop, ideally on a silicone potholder to keep it from slipping. Take your knife by the handle with your dominant hand, hold the blade down and angled against the steel at about 20 degrees. Because the ceramic is so smooth, it won’t file down your blade like a coarse metal steel, so getting the exact angle isn’t as crucial. Start with the heel of your knife at the top of the steel, near the handle, then simply draw the entire length of your knife down in a single fluid motion. Don’t saw or clang. The weight of your knife alone against this ceramic steel is enough. Repeat the gesture about three times, alternating on each side. As you do this, the edge of your blade is being realigned.

Edge Pro’s ceramic steel is available in 8-, 10-, and 12-inch lengths. Get the one that’s long enough to draw your knives down in one move.

A drawback of ceramic tools is that while they’re sturdy, they do break more easily than metal ones, so don’t play lightsaber with them.

They say you should hone your knife on your steel every time you use it. Well, we’re supposed to brush our teeth after every meal too—just try to make it a habit. The ease with which you’ll thinly slice fragrant, ripe heirloom tomatoes will remind you that it’s a good habit to keep.

AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener
By Fortune Products, $11.79

For gentle knife sharpening touch-ups, when you need a little more than your steel’s realignment, the AccuSharp is a simple, manual tool to use. It has a plastic handle and a small, v-shaped blade notch that fits over your knife.

To use the AccuSharp, place your knife on your countertop with the blade facing straight up, holding it firmly by the handle. Fit the sharpener’s blade, which resides inside the notch, over your knife near its heel end, by the handle. Using only light downward pressure, run the AccuSharp across the entire length of the knife in one smooth pass. It may freak you out at first to move your knuckles over the upright blade, but there is a plastic band on the AccuSharp that acts as a guard. Repeat a few times as needed.

The AccuSharp is not for your high-end Kill Bill knives: The best blades require intimate knowledge of the correct angles for their material, and this sharpener is not adjustable. It is, however, a terrific, inexpensive manual knife sharpener that produces fast, easy results for amateurs and pros alike on everyday knives.

The sharpener is also lefty friendly and dishwasher safe. Reversible replacement blades are sold separately. And if you need more encouragement, it’s even got a testimonial by legendary rocker/hunter Ted Nugent (“This is the best *$@#% knife sharpener on the market!”).