The importance of Sharp Kitchen Knives

Keep Your Knives Sharp!

This is a life lesson that I’ll bet so few people do it’s not even funny. And the topic may even come across as funny. But it’s pretty serious, as someone who, like many of these “Life Lessons” has ignored them and paid the price. Chefs and serious cooks already know the fate that awaits those that don’t keep a regular knife-sharpening agenda. And I tend to think the general public that abide by this rule is looked upon as fastidious oddities that belong in a traveling show.

But it’s so important, no matter what your cooking skill level and desire to cook from home is. Unless you derive pleasure from removing digits, chunks of your hands, feet, fingers, and frequent visits to the emergency room complete with loss of plenty of blood. If you manage to hit an artery, yours or someone else’s, including the begging dog(s) below, death may be involved. It’s that serious.

There are 2 good reasons to keep your knives sharp. But first, you must at least have some knives worth sharpening. I also would like to state here that it’s very possible to learn to sharpen your knives yourself. I have access to whetstones and oils and the equipment to sharpen them myself. But I’d rather not use my precious knives as playthings to experiment on, when having professionals that can do it correctly, inexpensively.

Growing up, I learned to cook from my grandmothers and mother. And I can’t remember my grandmother who won 1st place in the family as “Cook Extrodinaire” having anything fancy whatsoever. Which stands to reason, seeing her sometimes humble, sometimes lavish background and that she was more farmgirl than cosmopolitan. And I still have some knives that were my mother’s, which are cheap wooden-handled things I’m sure she bought at K-Mart. They don’t get used much, if at all, but I don’t dare throw them out seeing as they were my mother’s. But wooden-anything tool-wise in the kitchen is a bad idea these days because it harbors bacteria so much and warps. (But yes, I admit I have a quiver of wooden spoons which hearken back to the 1960s and possibly 50’s and 40’s.) A well-maintained end-grain wooden butcher block is an exception to this rule.

When I was learning to seriously cook, in my early 20’s and beyond, there was an array of high-end cutlery that you could generally buy as a set or by the knife. The considerations you’d have were if the knives had a full tang, the length of them, their flexibility, and their purpose. That being to cleave, pare, chop, or mince. And your budget. Being just out of college back then, spending $150 on one knife was a lot to part with. Although I did it, and still have them of course. These days, thanks to globalism and the internet, you can find very good deals on exceptional cutlery. On the flip side, you also still can buy Japanese knives that cost $1000 that are 65+ temper (strong.) It depends on your budget and standards.

The material they’re made from is another choice. Stainless, ceramic, or even plastic, for cutting lettuces. I ended up getting a selection of different stainless Henkels knives and some Victorinox and a Misen chef’s knife. I also have a Victorinox Swiss Army knife, of course. Misen was a manufacturer that appeared on Kickstarter back in 2015 or so, and I thought I’d give them a try. It was not only worth it, but the company has had great success and made many more knives and branched out into making other cookware since then. And I’d put their chef’s knife right up beside the Henkle’s any day. At a much more affordable price.

kitchen knives
Some of my knives. Notice I also have a pair of Poultry Shears (I have several pairs, actually). These are far different from “scissors”

Learning all about cooking also involved learning all about cookware, tools, knives, materials, types of cooking(blanching, boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc…) and the many brands of ovens and ranges and anything I could possibly learn about. I learned about the science of cooking, which is really all cooking is. A type of science.

And during these decades of learning, I must have cooked a number and range of meals and dishes that I can’t even begin to count. I cooked everything I could get my hands on: whole squid and every other type of seafood at and, the most exotic to the most ordinary of ingredients, in the most exotic to the most mundane methods, and learning how to cook them properly, which is the “trick.” Most people don’t like a certain food because they were given it prepared improperly. Okra, eggplant, squash…lots of vegetables (and seafood) that were served to people as children by young mothers who weren’t the most skilled in the kitchen, but meant well, of course.

I even contemplated going to culinary school, as we had Johnson & Wales in Charleston, SC. But that route I could see more often led to a life of a very meager income, crazy hours and workmates who had sketchy backgrounds.

The point being, I’ve used knives a lot. A LOT. I grew up using knives, in fact. I’ve always liked playing with them and growing up mostly in the woods, having a knife was imperative as a young scout. An array of machetes. I’ve had and still have an array of pocket and hunting knives. And knives for SCUBA diving. Always kept razor-sharp. Which, admittedly after a lengthy introduction, is where this is leading and why.

Victorinox Swiss Army Knife
My Swiss Army Knife

The sharper your knives, the less likely you are to cut yourself, and if you do, the damage is much more likely to be less severe. The reason is that you don’t have to use as much force to cut whatever you’re cutting. And a sharper edge won’t slip off the item you’re cutting and is less prone to deviate from where you’re aiming, and onto your finger, thumb, hand, wrist, or cause you to drop the knife and send it flipping, spiraling down to land wherever. Some people try to catch a falling knife. Bad idea. Some people like to cook barefooted. Another bad idea. I have experience with that as well. I dropped a knife and it went in between my toes in the webbing while I was cutting something late at night barefooted. It was a terrible cut.

A dull knife requires more pressure and force to cut, meaning when the dull edge fails to take hold, it slips off with that much greater force. And usually onto and through a part of your body. And a dull cut is far worse than a clean cut. It takes longer to heal, is more prone to infection, and usually bleeds more and longer. The wound is more jagged and deep.

Hopefully, I’ve presented a compelling case to keep your knives sharp. So how to do that? It’s pretty easy, actually.

First of all, when you see chefs and cartoon characters using a “Steel” which is a ribbed rod kept with cutlery that the person usually is seen running the knife blade up and down rapidly in a clinky, clattery, show-offy way. That’s not how to use one properly at all. What that’s for is keeping the knife’s edge “true” and honing it back into being sharp when the finest part of the blade becomes bent over. You can hardly even see when this happens with the naked eye it’s so fine. But under a magnifying glass, you can. The blade, after being properly sharpened should be perfectly sharp and “true” Te blade being straight. But with use, it will become slightly bent over. A steel will fix this, done right, which takes practice and skill, as does anything. So that’s what a “Steel” is and what it’s about.

Here’s a video I found which explains the difference pretty well. I found more that were poor than good, but this goofball does a decent job of explaining it:

a honing steel
A honing “Steel” is different than a sharpening steel.

So say you now have some knives to be proud of. And they’ve become dull. Depending on where you live, you can look for knife-sharpeners a few ways. Those “knife sharpeners” in a box you see at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, Wal-Mart, Williams-Sonoma, or any other kitchen retail place? Garbage. They do more damage than good. Don’t buy them or use them. I have them because they were given to me as gifts over the years. I don’t use them. I’ve used them and can look down the blade at the damage they do. The blade is trashed. Go to a professional and have them use stones, oils and do it correctly.

If you Iive in a medium or large city, chances are you have a dedicated knife store that can sharpen them for you. Be careful transporting them, of course. Wrap them in a towel, newspaper, or anything you can and put them in a box, or else if you get in a wreck, you may have knives flying all around and into you. Not a good situation.

If you live in the country or a small city, your options may be more limited. Ask your butcher at your grocery store or butcher store or seafood market where they get their knives sharpened. Or ask the chef at any of your favorite restaurants. They know where the good stuff is and certainly get their own set of their own knives sharpened regularly.

As for storage of your sharp knives, the best way is in a wooden block with them inserted horizontally, not blades down. Not in a sheath in a drawer or on a magnetic strip along a wall. That’s asking for trouble. I have had a magnetic strip before and it took me one time of a razor-sharp knife being bumped off it to realize how dumb that method of knife storage is.

I don’t recommend putting nice knives in the dishwasher. The handles will eventually crack from the high heat and steam and sudden cold water. Hand washing and drying isn’t that much trouble, no matter what you just used them for. But if you just can’t bother, make sure you buy knives with handles that can go into the dishwasher. I believe Misen knives can, in fact. Henkle’s? No. At least not their higher-end ones, which sort of make you wonder.

Victorinox "8 inch boner"
This is a Victorinox Filet knife that only cost $20. I use it as much as anything. It has a nice soft non-slip grip. Funnily, it’s sold as an “8-inch boner”
OXO multi-purpose utility knife
Here’s another utility knife I bought on sale for $2.00 at Kroger by OXO, which means it has a very comfy grip, and a lifetime warranty. I don’t ever get it sharpened because f the type of serrated blade it has and it was so cheap. But it’s great for many purposes when I don’t want to use my more expensive and finer-bladed knives. It’s good for a variety of scenarios I encounter like pineapples and large cuts of meat and cheeses.

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