When I finally moved out on my own, I somehow got a hold of a Franklin Mint catalog, and what I saw inside delighted me! Daggers and swords adorned with dragons, castles, and jewels were so beautiful and irresistible that they birthed my love of them. I ended up collecting a few of those decorative pieces, and that love of knives seamlessly transferred into the kitchen when I started cooking regularly for myself.
When Doug from The Kitchen Professor approached me about writing a guest post all about knives, I was delighted! He has a wealth of information here of which everyone should take heed. Loved knives makes for a happy kitchen! Without further ado, I’ll pass it on to Doug!
As a foodie who constantly tries new recipes from all over the world, I have learned that well-maintained knives are vital to the smooth running of any kitchen.
In fact, if you want to minimize the crying onion syndrome, then keep your knives sharp and in proper working order.
Using knives that haven’t been properly cared for, or using the wrong knife for the job has landed many a person in the emergency room to get stitches and has frustrated countless others.
One of the most important aspects of knife safety and maintenance is choosing the right cutting board. An ideal cutting board will be easy to clean, won’t harbor bacteria, and won’t dull your knife.
Use the Right Cutting Board
For a very long time, I thought that plastic cutting boards were superior because they’re durable, dishwasher safe, and won’t dull knives as quickly. However, recent research has shown that the cuts created in the plastic actually provide breeding grounds for bacteria.
On the other hand, even though a wood or bamboo cutting board will require oiling and have to be hand washed, they don’t provide as friendly of an environment for bacteria and they won’t dull your knives. It is surprising, but the wood is an antimicrobial environment – even the New York Times agrees.
Glass cutting boards are dishwasher safe and are very sterile, but the hard surface will quickly ruin your knives and aren’t recommended. Don’t use stone, marble, or metal to cut on because they are very hard on knife blades, too.
Composite cutting boards are a great compromise. I have an Epicurean model that is a workhorse and can be cleaned in the dishwasher. It is very gentle on blades and is much lighter than wood.
My top choice is an end grain cutting board because the wood grain runs parallel with the sharp knife edge. What does that mean to you and me?
An end grain cutting board is even more gentle on your knives. It even feels “fast” to cut on… It is hard to explain, but if you chop a carrot on a bamboo cutting board and then on an end grain cutting board you will see what I mean.
I picked up this cutting board at a street market in Stowe, Vermont. A furniture maker built this beauty out of scrap wood and I expect it will last a lifetime. It was about $70 – a bargain for a hand-crafted piece of work.
Wash Knives by Hand
The next important thing to remember about knife maintenance is to never put your knives in the dishwasher. Yes, dishwashers are convenient and they kill germs, but detergents are abrasive and the high temperatures damage wood handles.
Always hand wash your knives in hot soapy water, then dry them by hand to prevent them from rusting.
Use a Honing Steel Before Cutting
The last key to knife maintenance is to use honing steel before cutting each time. Honing steels don’t sharpen cutlery, but rather bring the tip of the blade back into alignment, which is thrown out every time the tip of the metal comes in contact with a hard surface like a bone or a cutting board.
It only takes about 20 seconds to use the honing steel, and really extends the time between knife sharpening sessions.
I have a Shun Honing Steel to go along with my Shun Chef’s knife. It is on the premium end of the spectrum so it will last a lifetime under normal use.
Along with careful maintenance of your cutlery, choosing the right storage options is vital to protecting your blades while being safe in the kitchen. There are quite a few options for knife storage, but some have clear advantages over others
One method of knife storage that is growing in popularity is using magnetic wall strips to hold the blades in place. This method is my favorite and has the advantage of allowing a cook to see all of his cutlery options at once – allowing quick and easy access when a knife is needed.
Magnetic strips also have some drawbacks as they may not be great for households with young children because they place dangerous objects on display where they can become a temptation for curious little hands.
Knife blocks are a classic, safe, and often stylish way to store your knives. They have the advantage of coming with many knife sets and they keep the knives secure and in place. Since they’re stored on the countertop, they are typically quick and easy to access.
However, if you didn’t buy the storage block with your knife set, you may have a difficult time finding one that fits all of your knives.
You also have to be very certain that your knives are dry before you put them away, because a knife block can become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria if allowed to become moist. And, I am still baffled about how to clean inside the knife slots! If you have any tips, let me know.
Another popular option for storing your cutting utensils is knife sleeves. A knife sleeve will protect the blade from dulling while also ensuring that your fingers are safe from the cutting edge.
They have the advantage of being cheap and making it so you can safely store your knives in a wider variety of locations – including out of sight and reach of children.
I love knife sleeves for traveling and vacations. Once you get used to high quality knives, you will want to have them with you when you cooking in kitchens other than your own. Okay, maybe I have a little OCD about my knives.
Never Store Unprotected Knives in a Drawer
While we’re on the topics of things never to do with a knife, never place your unprotected knives in a drawer. Doing so will dull them quickly, and the exposed blades getting jumbled around when the drawer opens and closes makes it so you will cut yourself if you aren’t extremely careful when you reach into the drawer.
Sharpening your knives
It’s a sad fact of life that a knife that is too dull to puncture a tomato will still flay the skin off your finger without any effort. Because of that, you need to keep all of your cutlery so sharp that it cuts through the food with as little effort as possible. Dull knives are prone to slipping off of the food, often finding their way right into your skin.
You should sharpen your knives every 60 – 90 days. I usually sharpen closer to the 90 day mark, and I don’t sharpen all my knives at once.
Sharpeners are broken up into 2 basic groups – electric and manual.
Electric Knife Sharpeners
Electric knife sharpeners have the advantage of being very quick, effective, and user-friendly. They are also safer since there is less room for user error. However, electric knife sharpeners take up more room and do cost more. They can also strip away too much metal from your blade, shortening its lifespan.
If you are mainly sharpening kitchen knives, then an electric model is your best bet. It is more convenient so you will use it more often.
Manual Knife Sharpeners
Manual knife sharpeners, like a fixed-angle sharpener, are very inexpensive, easy to store because of their small size, and are easy to use. At the same time, though, they may take a lot longer to use, and because many people tend to use them incorrectly, they can present a safety hazard.
I have a fairly nice Wusthof model with a “Coarse” and “Fine” sharpening slot. It can handle minor sharpening efforts but I haven’t been able to effectively sharpen a dull knife with it.
Whetstones are considered by many to be the best option because they give the cook the most control over how the knife is sharpened. However, sharpening a blade with a whetstone is the most time consuming of the options and there is a learning curve in figuring out how to use them correctly.
Prepare Food More Quickly and Safely
Following the above instructions will not only help keep you (and hopefully others who use your kitchen) safer, but it will ensure that your cutlery will be as useful as possible, speeding up your food preparation, and allowing you to get those thin tomato or onion slices.
- Use a cutting board
- Hand wash and dry your knives
- Use a honing steel before each use
- Store your knives safely
- Sharpen your knives about once a quarter
- 10 Knife Tips from Alton Brown
- Economic Knife Sharpeners (under $100)
- Sharpener Buying Guide
- Maintaining Wooden Cutting Boards
Doug blogs at The Kitchen Professor. He tends to geek out on the science of kitchen stuff, and is a little obsessive about kitchen knives.
Thank you so much, Doug for this rockin’ post! I can’t help but add some of my favorite knife related products too, that help keep my kitchen working seamlessly:
Stay sharp, friends!