Much as we love ‘em, even our Best Chef’s Knives don’t stay sharp forever. They dull from use, and to keep their edge, they must be honed and occasionally sharpened. Learn the difference between Honing Vs. Sharpening.
Is honing the same as sharpening?
Sharpening vs honing vs stropping
Is there a difference between homing and sharpening a knife? Honing brings a curved blade edge back into alignment. Honing polishes the blade’s edge to smoothen the rough surface, which minimizes friction allowing the knife to make clean straight cuts. It’s fundamentally retaining an already sharp edge. If the edge has become blunt, however, no amount of honing will bring that back.
On the other hand, knife sharpening is the act of reshaping the cutting edge by grinding away tiny amounts of blade material. By grinding away bits of the blade you get new sharper edge. An expert normally does this with a whetstone but there are high-quality knife sharpeners for the home.
Stropping is just a phrase used to describe the finishing and polishing of the knife which does a bit of honing on its own.
What’s also confusing is when honing steel gets referred to as sharpening steel, or chef’s sharpening steel. The purpose of the steel is not to sharpen, but to maintain the edge alignment. Good honing steel is simply a rod made of ceramic or diamond-coated steel that is used at least once a month, preferably weekly. They are usually flat, oblong, or rounded in the cross-section and about a foot long. A proper chef’s steel should be at least as long as the knife, too, so if you have a MAC MTH-80 8″, your honing steel should be 8 inches or more.
Using honing steel – Do this every time you use your knife, if possible
Great chefs on TV and in the movies always steel their knives in the air and make it look impressive and effortless. That swish-swish-swish may look cool, but remember they’re pros. Until you get comfortable with what angle to work with always use a cutting board and go slow. Here’s how to hone your chef knives:
- Hold the honing steel straight down with the tip resting on the top of a cutting board. With your other hand, pass the knife down one side of the steel like you were trying to slice off a thin piece of the honing rod. Don’t push hard. Just let gravity pull the knife down. What angle should you use? The best chef knives are sharpened to an angle of around 15 degrees, but unless you happen to have a protractor ready, you’re not going to get that!
- Just eyeball it around the 20-25 degree mark. How do you do that? You can easily see what angle 90 degrees is (knife blade at a right-angle to the steel if it’s straight up and down). Cut that amount in half, which is 45 degrees, and half that again is 22.5. Close enough: the fact that you’re taking care of your knife by steeling it is an investment in its longevity.
- Pass the knife an even number of times on each side to keep the edge centered. Good Eats host Alton Brown recommends five passes on one side, then five passes on the other. Then do two passes on the first side and two on the other. Try to pull the knife through the entire edge from bolster to tip.
If you manage to do this every time you use your knives, they will reward you daily with effortless prep time. Do you still need to have them sharpened? Yes, but once a year should be adequate if you are honing them properly each time you use.
Choosing a honing steel
Great honing steel is an investment and should at least match the quality of the knife it touches. Don’t use a cheap honing steel on a great knife. Hey, show it a little respect. When you go shopping for a honing steel, look for ones that have a diamond grit or coating on the contact surface. The hardness of the diamond will contribute a little bit to the actual sharpening of the blade. Ceramic is a good choice, too, as it is harder than any steel.
However, bear in mind you cannot use a ceramic honing steel to hone a ceramic knife..