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High-quality kitchen knives can cost a hefty amount, and you don’t want them to pick up burrs and marks that blunt the edges of the blade and make it more difficult for you to cut tough and sinewy foods.
You also want to prevent the knife’s straight blade from becoming curved or contorted because when a blade bends, it becomes less safe to use. You’ll also find that bent steel is far less effective at chopping up vegetables and meat than straight-edged steel.
The best solution to these issues is to invest in a sharpening steel rod, also called a honing rod. Learning how to use this tool allows you to maintain, smooth out, and strengthen your prized kitchen knife over many decades.
1. What is a Sharpening Steel, and Why Should You Get One?
A sharpening steel is a durable and high-quality tool that you can use to round out or resharpen your kitchen knives when they become blunt. This product has a grippy rubber or plastic handle at one end and a long rod made of an alloy of carbon and iron at the other.
The rod doesn’t sharpen your knife; instead, it smooths the edge, correcting dullness and imperfections that happen in the kitchen over time.
If you use premium-grade kitchen knives to carve up and prepare your meat and veggies, then you need to invest in a good sharpening steel rod. This product hones, smoothes, and reforms a blunt or bent blade, allowing you to use your favorite carving, butcher, or Nakiri knife for decades without having to replace it.
2. How to Use a Sharpening Steel
Before you learn how to use a sharpening steel, it’s important to remember that you should avoid using this rod on knives with beveled edges. Several Japanese-style blades have chiseled edges, like the Deba and Yanagiba, and the sharpening process can actually ruin the form of these types of knives.
There are two primary methods that you can use when sharpening your kitchen blades. The first is the free-hand practice, and this is the method you’ll see celebrity chefs and butchers use. It’s a more impressive-looking process than the vertical style method, but it’s also less safe.
2.1. Free-hand method
If you want to try this method, start slow and steady. Don’t mimic your favorite TV chef by rapidly swiping your kitchen knife up and down the steel rod right away.
> Hold up steel rod and knife
Hold up both your sharpening steel and your knife so that you’re forming an upturned V with both tools in front of you. The heel of the blade should be just under 1” from the top of the rod.
> Find the right angle between the blade and the sharpening steel
Arrange the knife’s heel so that it sits at an angle of between 15-20° from the sharpening steel. If you’re using a knife with a thicker blade and bolster, like a Zwilling Pro or Meridian Elite, you’ll need to adjust the angle so that it’s wider. If you’re using a thinner, more delicate blade, like a KUMA chef’s knife or an Inox Steel Gyutou, opt for a smaller angle.
> Move the blade from heel to tip down the steel rod
Once you’re satisfied with the angle of your blade’s heel, lightly drag the blade down the rod toward the handle, moving across the blade from the heel to the tip. Be careful not to exert too much pressure on your knife because you could damage the edges or bend the blade. Keep your knife’s angle to the steel rod steady and consistent. If this is the first time you’re doing this, take your time. You don’t want the blade to slip and cut your hand.
Use this method to swipe each side of your blade down the steel rod between 8-10 times. After you’re done, put your knife under a stream of cold tap water to rinse away any steel dregs that might be stuck to the blade.
2.2. Vertical method
If you’re worried about cutting yourself when learning how to use a sharpening steel, use the vertical-style approach.
> Hold the sharpening steel in a vertical position with the end on the chopping board
In this method, you push the blade away from your hand rather than toward it. Position your sharpening steel tool so that you’re holding the handle directly above your chopping board or butcher’s block. Press the end of the steel rod down onto this board so that the tool is at 90° to the block’s surface.
> Hold the heel of the knife at the correct angle to the steel rod
Position your knife so that its heel is at an angle of between 15-25° from the steel rod. The heel should be an inch below the tool’s handle.
> Push blade downward toward the chopping board
Pull the heel of the blade towards you as you push the knife down the rod. Keep moving the knife across the sharpener until you get to its tip, pulling the blade out of the way before you hit the chopping board.
You must try to adopt a slow-and-steady gliding movement, making sure to consistently hold the blade at a suitable angle to the rod. If the angle becomes too small, you won’t smooth the edge effectively. If it’s too large, you’ll find it more challenging to move the knife down the rod continuously and fluidly.
> Repeat the method with the other side of the knife
Do this gliding motion 8-10 times on one side of the knife, switch hands and repeat the process on the blade’s other edge. Rinse any steel shavings off the knife after you’ve finished rounding it out.
3. Listen to the Blade
No matter which method you choose, a few swipes may be all you need to restore your knife to razor-sharp condition. Listen to the steel while you work. If you’re applying too much pressure, you’ll hear a harsh rasping sound. If you hear a quiet ringing tone, you’ve mastered the featherlike stroke you need for optimal results.
When you learn how to use a premium-grade sharpening steel rod, you can realign tiny burrs from your kitchen knife and add tiny indentations to its blade. These corrugated grooves make cutting tough meat and fibrous vegetables simpler.