A sharp knife is a pleasure in the kitchen. A dull knife is a danger. Here's how to maintain your knives with very little trouble.
First, you want good knives. They don't have to be expensive. Here is an article on how to select and buy knives: Nice Knives
The secrets to sharp knives with minimal hassle are:
- Religious use of a steel
- Occasional sharpening using a Chef's Choice sharpener.
Many experts recommend regular sharpening by a professional. It's probably true that a professional sharpener will deliver a -slightly- better edge. You can do pro-level sharpening yourself if you are willing to get the right gear and develop the right techniques. But here's the thing: How many people will send their knives out and take scrupulous care of them between times? If you're not that meticulous, then you won't do better than regular use of the steel and the Chef's Choice. It's a question of an A+ edge for a lot of money and trouble vs. an A edge for a lot less hassle.
Use a Steel
Every time I use the knife, I use a sharpening steel. It doesn't matter whether you do it before or after you use the knife. Make it a habit. When you cut, the very fine edge (at a scale smaller than you can see) is bent and the fine edge compromised. The steel tunes the edge by pushing the microscopic burrs of metal back into place. It takes off very little metal.
To use a steel, run the edge over the steel, with the steel matching the angle of the knife's edge. There are many ways to do this. The classic way seems insane to me: You hold the steel in one hand and the knife in the other and pull the edge along the way from tip to hilt — in other words, toward you. Hullo??
I do something similar but I stroke the knife away, with the edge away from me.
This video, by Alton Brown for Shun knives, shows another safe way. He holds the steel vertically with the tip against a cutting board and strokes the knife down.
Then every month or three, I use the Chef's Choice. It's the only home sharpener I have seen that delivers an excellent result without some practice and technique and is consistently top-rated. They make several models. I believe that all would work well, but for one little wrinkle: Asian knives use a 15-degree edge and western knives are made with a 20-degree angle. There is a new Chef's Choice model that accommodates both.
I have a Shun Santoku, a Henckels chef's knife, a couple of paring knives, a boning knife, all of which are in top shape thanks to the above routine. I even use the Chef's Choice on my small, 2" pocket knife.
There is another quick way to sharpen. Frankly, I was surprised when Cook's Illustrated gave a top rating to the simple, under $20 Accu-Sharp. In my experience, sharpeners that work by dragging the edge across tungsten blades are knife ruiners. But the Accu-Sharp really does work. I don't use it often because I find it hard to trust but used between sharpenings, it seems fine.
Testing the Edge
How do you tell if a knife is really sharp? Most people use a finger (possible ouch) but better is to use your fingernail. Using very little pressure, scrape the edge along the fingernail, as if you are trying to scratch paint off the fingernail. A sharp knife will grab the nail a bit. A dull knife will slide with little resistance.
This doesn't work so well if you are wearing nail polish.
Protect the Edge
One more tip with regard to sharp knives: A common practice when cutting is to sweep the board with the blade of the knife, to gather whatever you're chopping. Don't use the sharp edge for this. Instead, develop the habit of using the back of the blade.
I was skeptical when I first heard this and tested it. Sure enough, just a few sweeps dulls the edge enough to detect. It took very little time to build the habit of flipping the knife when I sweep material across the board.