Knife maintenance is absolutely crucial for ensuring workplace safety and for maximizing food preparation efficiency in the kitchen. Dull blades are a common cause of injury for kitchen workers, and such injuries could interrupt food service, generate health risks, and could even lead to a lawsuit if the knives were not maintained with sufficient frequency and care. Though many kitchens prefer to outsource knife sharpening and maintenance to various paid sharpening services, these services can be expensive for a kitchen just starting out, and in general, regardless of whether you make use of outsourced sharpening services, it is good practice to utilize in-kitchen sharpening tools to maximize efficiency and safety between more thorough sharpening sessions. Self-sufficiency is fundamental to proper knife maintenance.
There are three basic rules to knife maintenance:
- Clean and wash your knives with sufficient regularity (use warm water and soap, and make sure that the knife is completely dry before putting it away in storage.)
- Hone your knife with sharpening steel or with the honing function on an electric sharpener. Knives actually require honing more often than they require sharpening. Sharpening is necessary, of course, but honing guarantees that the cutting edges are aligned.
- Sharpen your knives with a knife sharpener, whether that is an electric sharpener, handheld sharpener, or sharpening stone. While some sharpening/honing steels allow for minor sharpening, don’t use sharpening-enabled honing steels as a replacement for a dedicated sharpener tool.
Sharpening stones are still a very popular method for sharpening knives in commercial kitchens today, despite the fact that they are a bit more difficult to use than more-user-friendly handheld and electric sharpeners. Sharpening stones come in various materials that range from fine to coarse. Coarse stones are better for initial sharpening of a very dull blade, while fine stones are better for sharpening a blade that is no longer dull (but that needs to be sharper).
Handheld sharpeners are more portable and easier to use than sharpening stones. They work by drawing the knife through the slots of the sharpener, which, depending on the slot, makes use of fine/coarse material to sharpen the blade.
Electric sharpeners are extremely fast and easy-to-use (for example, many have guides for helping you attain the correct angle for sharpening the blade), though the higher cost may turn some buyers away. Like handheld sharpeners, electric sharpeners have slots, and when the blade is drawn through the slots (with automated, spinning sharpening stones inside), each step in the process - from coarser to finer material - progressively sharpens the blade. Commonly, the last slot hones the blade.
What angle should you sharpen your blades at?
The angle at which you sharpen a blade is crucial in determining how effective that blade will be at a given kitchen task. As a general rule, the smaller the angle, the sharper the blade, but this comes with the disadvantage of creating a weaker, less durable blade. Thus, larger angles (i.e. 30 degrees and above) are used when sharpening chopping blades such as cleavers, balanced angles (i.e. around 20 degrees and up to 25 degrees) are used when sharpening versatile cutting, boning, and carving knives such as chef’s knives, and narrower angles (i.e. below 18 degrees) are used when sharpening knives that have to be very sharp, and that can afford to be weaker and less durable, such as with fillet or paring knives.