Category Archives: best kitchen knives

The Dirty Little Secret That Lives In My Knife Drawer

One of the benefits of getting older is having more life experiences. Not only unique adventures but also repetitious ones. Repeated activities can be exciting and educational if you allow yourself to learn from them. 

You know that I can cook, and I have been cooking for many decades. My friends know this too, so it is not uncommon for me to participate in meal preparation when I’m invited over for a casual dinner.  

I’ll often be given some sort of slicing-and-dicing job, and because of this, I have used many different knives. In my younger years, I chopped with castoffs and Goodwill bargains. In later times I have used knives that bear brand names like Chicago Cutlery, Cutco, Global, Henckels, Shun, and Wusthof. Frankly, most of these knives have been pretty crappy to use—more on that.

My ex got everything when we divorced in the mid-1980s. I moved into a basement apartment in Skokie and furnished my new life with handouts, second-hand store purchases, and things I found in the trash. I had a desire to establish myself as an adult, and for some reason, I thought that I needed adult kitchen gear. Unfortunately, I worked as a resident physician and had little to no cash after paying rent and child support.

During that time, there was an emphasis on having good kitchen knives, and in those pre-internet days, there were several magazine articles on the topic. What should I buy? The articles told me I should buy forged, not stamped knives, resin (which is plastic), not plastic handles, exotic-sounding blade steel instead of steel that sounded less fancy, full tang instead of partial tang, bolsters instead of no bolsters…and so it went. I took every word as the Sunday gospel and followed their collective advice. Please note that I would like you to forget all of this advice as it is not essential; it turns out that it was primarily fake news for home cooks. 

In the end, I went with Consumer Report’s recommendation and purchased Gerber Balance Plus knives. Due to my finances, I bought my 4 Gerber knives individually over six months, starting with an 8″ chef’s knife, which cost well over $100. The blades were good, and I used them until I married Julie in 1993. By then, my knives were dull and dangerous. She relegated them to basement storage and bought an inexpensive Farberware Santoku-style knife from Target. The Santoku was pretty dull out of the box, so I taught myself how to reprofile its knife-edge, and with some effort, I ground it to an acceptably sharp angle.

This knife is similar to the one that Julie bought. The blade was pretty dull right out of the box and I had to spend some time reprofiling the edge to an acceptable sharpness.

I learned cutting skills using a standard chef’s knife, and because of this, I was never thrilled using a Santoku-style blade. Then, one day I was roaming around Sam’s Club (now vacated from our area), and I came across a chef’s knife that I impulsively bought. That was over 25 years ago, and we still use that knife every day. What is this excellent knife, and what is our secret trick to keep it paper slicing sharp after all of these years? All will be revealed later on in this post.

First, let’s look at some case scenarios. (doctors love case scenarios) 

The professional chef

These guys and gals are trained to be expert knife handlers. They know how to extract every ounce of a knife’s potential. They can slice at blinding speeds. They can chop with their eyes closed. Then, they can professionally sharpen their tools to a razor’s edge using a whetstone.

They need knives of the highest performance. Knives that can hold an edge for a day of endless slicing, chopping, deboning, and cutting. Knives are their most essential tools, so money is no object. If they have to pay 50% more for a 5% increase in performance, they are happy to do it. They have the skill and ability to maximally use that slight benefit.

Since they are so knowledgeable, they are the ones who are consulted about consumer knife advice. They are experts, but their cutting needs differ from most home cooks. Unfortunately, the knife attributes that they need go wasted on us.

The commercial cook

Most of us don’t frequent Michelin-rated restaurants, but we do like to eat. We dine at family restaurants and chain establishments. We might frequent school or work cafeterias. Our foods may be prepared by an outside service like Blue Apron or Meals on Wheels. These places employ countless cooks, and one of their main jobs is to cut up things.

Bushels of potatoes, bags of onions, and bunches of carrots all have to be processed daily. These cooks may or may not have formal training, but they are expected to perform professionally. 

Chefs purchase their knives, but an employer supplies a cook’s cutlery. Their blades have to be comfortable, non-slippery, and sharp enough to hold an edge for hours of hard work before they can be resharpened. Form follows function, as these knives have to be as inexpensive as possible while still being capable of safely getting the job done. Foodservice knives won’t win any beauty contests, but they do what they are supposed to do.

Foodservice knives aren’t much to look at, but they are designed to get the job done as cheaply as possible.

The home cook

Most home cooks don’t have formal training, yet they have to perform many of the same tasks as their professional counterparts. However, they have time on their side. They don’t need to chop a bushel of onions rapidly; they can take their time chopping half of an onion. Despite this difference, they still need good tools, not for speed but for safety.

Home cooks fall into three general groups:

The “It will do” group.

These folks get by with as little equipment as possible. They cook because they have to and would rather spend their money on other things. They are happy to use castoff knives or inexpensive ones purchased from their local big-box store.

The “Thank you very much” group.

These cooks were given their cookware, including their knives. Often such gifts were wedding presents, and they continue to use these items decades later. Classic knife blocks adorn their countertops, often filled with 10 or 12 cutting instruments, most of which go unused.

You can buy a block set of knives for less than $100 or spend much more. This one cost over $1,200. I’m sure that the knives are very nice, but do you realize that you are spending over $80 per piece? That is $80 for the block, $80 for the scissors, and $80 for each steak knife! In addition, there are probably some knives that you will never use.

The “Look at me” group.

These folks have cash to burn, and they burn it. They buy high-end cooking equipment, including knives. Spending $400 on a single general-purpose knife is not out of the question. 

This chef’s knife sells for over $200 and it looks pretty cool. However, if you don’t maintain it the blade will become dull and dangerous.

——

I have sliced and diced in friend’s kitchens from all three of these categories, and I have encountered crappy knives everywhere. Yes, I have the solution to this problem, but first, you need to understand just a little bit more about cutlery. 

Some more stuff about knives.

Kitchen knife blades can be made from several different materials. But, go with stainless steel and make your life easier. 

The cutting part of a knife is called the edge. In most cases, the knife’s blade is ground down until it becomes a triangular point. Knives are ground at different angles. A knife designed for heavy, rough use may have a broader inclusive angle of 50 degrees (25 degrees per side). In contrast, a knife designed for more delicate work, like cooking, may have an inclusive angle of 40 or even 30 degrees (20 and 15 degrees per side, respectively).  

A knife’s edge is ground to a specific angle depending on its use.

Narrower angled edges are perceived as sharper by the user. However, a thinner angle means that these knives will dull quicker and suffer from more edge roll. Knife manufacturers use more rigid steel for these blades to compensate for this. However, harder steel is more likely to chip, and it is more difficult to sharpen than softer steel. Because of this, knife manufacturers compromise to find the best angle of the edge and the best steel hardness for the knife.   

In the past European and American kitchen knife manufacturers used an inclusive edge angle of 40-degrees (20 degrees per side) and moderately hard steel. Japanese manufacturers used an inclusive angle of 30-degrees (15 degrees per side) and a harder, more brittle steel. The Japanese configuration has become popular in the US during the last decade, and European and American knife manufacturers are now making some of their blades using the Asian 30-degree parameter. 

Both 40 and 30-inclusive degree knives are capable of effortless cutting if they are maintained. Maintaining a knife includes honing, which smoothes out micro-burrs and bends on the knife’s edge, and sharpening, which involves removing metal to return a dull knife to its former self. 

Classic steels don’t sharpen a knife, they hone it-they remove little burrs and other imperfections in the edge’s surface. You can do the same thing with a knife sharpener by making your final passes very light. In addition, many multi-stage sharpeners have specific honing slots.

It is best to resharpen a knife at the angle it was designed for. For example, a knife created with a 40-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle, and one with a 30-degree inclusive should be resharpened at that angle. It is possible to reprofile a knife’s edge to a different angle, but it is often more practical to stick with the manufacturer’s intended design. 

So why did all of the knives that I used suck?

The bottom line is that most people don’t properly care for their knives. It doesn’t matter if you have a $20 knife or a $200 knife; if you don’t properly care for it, it will soon become trash. Remember, a dull knife is much more dangerous than a sharp one. 

What are the most important factors to consider when buying a kitchen knife?

I told you to forget all of the exotic handles and fancy-sounding steel information. Let me reinforce this… That stuff may be necessary if you are a professional chef, but it is not important to the home cook. However, there are a few essential things: the knife’s ergonomics and the style of the knife’s blade.

Ergonomically, a knife should feel reasonably balanced in your hand. The handle should feel comfortable, and (most important) it should be secure when wet or greasy. Knives come in different styles, and styles come in different blade lengths. Therefore, it is important to find a knife that works for you.   

Both a Santoku and chef’s knife are versatile, jack-of-all-trades kitchen knives.

If you only want one kitchen knife…

The most used and most versatile knife in any kitchen is either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. Both form factors do the same thing but originated from different parts of the world (Europe vs. Japan). Both styles are manufactured in different blade lengths, but most prefer an 8″ chef’s knife or a 7″ Santoku knife. Very experienced cooks use longer blade lengths, and smaller ones work better for people with smaller hands. However, if you go too short on blade length (for instance, less than 6″ on a chef’s knife), much of the knife’s versatility is lost, and it becomes more of a utility knife than a jack-of-all-trades device. 

Both styles are equally versatile. Some newer cooks find the blunted nose of a Santuko less intimidating, while others like the rocking action of a chef’s knife.  

A classic chef’s knife has a triangular shape with a rounded cutting edge.

I am most comfortable using an 8″ chef’s knife. I have used one to do just about everything. I have carved 18-pound turkeys, hulled strawberries, and cut crusty French bread. Over time, Julie has also converted to using our 8″ chef’s knife. 

If you want to own only one knife, it should be either a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife. These blades can do about 90% of all kitchen cutting tasks.

If you only want two kitchen knives…

Start with a chef’s knife or a Santoku knife, and add a paring knife.

A paring knife is a small knife with a blade length between 3-4.5 inches. Most folks find 3.5-4 inches a good length. The shape of the blade may vary from design to design, but the job remains the same…small tasks. For example, mincing shallots, hulling strawberries, and peeling potatoes are easy to do using a paring knife.  

Paring knives are 3-4.5 inches in length. Their blade shape may vary, but they all do the same task, cutting up small things.

If you only want three different kitchen knives…

Go with the above two knife styles and add a serrated knife. Serrated knives come in a variety of lengths and styles. Serrated knives that are 8″ -10″ in length are the most versatile. A serrated knife is more of a saw than a knife. Serrated knives are great for foods with a tough or slippering surface and a tender interior. They bite into the food and force you to use a sawing action, preventing crushing. Serrated knives are suitable for foods like crusty French bread and ripe tomatoes. I have cut these foods with a sharp chef’s knife, so a serrated knife isn’t indispensable. 

Serrated knives come in a variety of shapes, the above is a classic. They are good at cutting foods that are tough on the outside and tender on the inside.

What about all those other knives?

There are different specialty knives designed to do a variety of tasks. You can buy blades designed for filleting fish, boning chickens, slicing roasts, and cutting grapefruit, to name a few. Each specialty knife will perform its task better than a generalist knife. If you are constantly filleting fish, buy a knife for that purpose. However, if you do specialty tasks rarely, you can get by with the primary three. 

So what is the big knife secret that has allowed me to use the same knife for over 25 years?

Decades ago, I purchased a foodservice-type chef’s knife from Sam’s club. It cost less than $10, and it was etched with the Tramontina brand. It had a stamped blade and a black textured polypropylene handle. I have no idea what type of steel was used or if the tang was full or partial. None of that made any difference. It was comfortable to hold and non-slippery when wet. It was designed to work.

It came with a sharp edge, and it had reasonably good edge retention. However, all of those things only go so far. The knives that I used at friends’ places had one unforgivable flaw; they were never adequately cared for. As a result, even the most expensive were dull and hazardous.   

For the last 25 years, I have run a small, handheld sharpener 5-6 times over the blades of all my smooth-edged cutting knives every single time that I have used them. If I’m sharpening the edge and it feels rough (you can recognize this feeling in short order), I may make 10-12 passes. I start with light pressure, and my strokes become very light as I get close to the end of the process. Phase one sharpens the knife, and phase two hones the blade.

I like using these small hand-held sharpeners. They are inexpensive and they do a good job.

I’m the only one in the house who does this, so in reality, our knives are getting sharpened every 2-3 times they are being used. I do this with all of my straight-edged knives, and they have remained paper-slicing sharp and a delight to use. I believe that Accusharp makes the best version of a small manual sharpener, and it costs around $10. Recently, I gave my Accusharp to my daughter and picked up a similar sharpener by Smith ($7). It does the job, but I think the Accusharp was better. 

I prefer to use a simple handheld sharpener that I keep in our knife drawer for convenience. Since it is right there, it reminds me to use it. There are many different pull-through sharpeners, some of which offer several sharpening stages. These fancier devices could potentially refine a knife’s edge better than a single-stage sharpener. However, a simple device’s convenience makes it more likely that I will sharpen a knife. The best sharpener is drawer junk if you don’t use it.

This pull-through sharpener has multiple angles and multiple stages. However, it is on the bulky side making it less desirable for daily use.

Note: At the time of this writing, most straight edge foodservice knives are cut at a 40-degree inclusive (20-degree per side) angle. The exception is Victorinox, which uses a 30-degree inclusive (15-degree per side) angle. Some Mercer foodservice knives also use a 30-degree inclusive angle. Check with the store or the manufacturer when you buy your knives to determine the proper angle.

In addition, there are other ways to determine a knife’s edge angle, one is the Sharpie method, which is widely discussed on YouTube.  Another way is to use a laser edge meter.

Here is my laser edge meter. It works best on a new knife as once an edge is damaged the laser can’t refract cleanly off the blade. Write the angle down somewhere so you will have the angle value when you need it.

What about buying inexpensive knives from big box stores?

It is a mixed bag. Some knives are OK, some can be made serviceable if you reprofile the blade, and some are terrible. One of the most significant issues with many cheap knives is their handles, which can be extremely slippery when wet.  

Over the years, some of these knives have entered Kunaland. I already told you about the Farberware Santoku that my wife bought. Many years ago, I purchased a chef’s knife for 88 cents from Walmart to use in our former RV. It was made from super cheap stainless steel, had a slippery handle, and an edge with micro-serrations so it could never be sharpened. I left it in the RV over the winter, and despite being stainless steel, it completely rusted. It was a horrible knife. When I built out Violet the campervan, I bought a colorful five-piece Cuisinart knife set for less than $15 at Home Depot. The knives’ balance was slightly off, but they weren’t too bad. I used them for a couple of years, and about two years ago, I upgraded the set to a Victorinox foodservice chef’s knife and a house-brand foodservice paring knife. I didn’t need to do the upgrade, as I cooked simply in the campervan. I did it because… well, sometimes I just do stuff like that. The bottom line is that you may get an OK knife from a big box store or get a piece of junk. Foodservice knives will vary from good to pretty good, so you can’t go wrong by going the foodservice route.

I bought a set similar to this one for $15 to use in Violet the campervan. Honestly, they weren’t too bad but their foodservice equivalents were better.

Don’t listen to knife nerds!

Knife nerds will tell you that pull-through knife sharpeners don’t work and that they will destroy your knives. Of course, this is not true, but I understand how these ideas are promulgated. 

You can get a knife sharper using a whetstone or a fancy sharpening system, but you will not use one every time you use your knife. It is much better to have a sharp knife all of the time instead of a blade that is super sharp once a year.

Knife nerds love to set up demonstrations where they show how pull-through knife sharpeners destroy knives. They will start with a new knife and proceed to ruin its edge by repeatedly slicing into granite or some other hard stone; once the blade is completely trashed, they then vigorously run the knife through a pull-through sharpener using so much force that you can see chunks (not dust) of metal coming off the blade. After they do this for a minute, they will test if the knife is sharp by slicing a sheet of paper. The blade has improved, but it is still not very good. The nerd uses the metal chunks and the somewhat dull knife to prove their hypothesis.

This is NOT the way to use these types of sharpeners. I have sharpened my chef’s knife thousands of times over its life. Despite being a very inexpensive knife, there has been no apparent metal loss, and the blade is sharp enough to cut paper. Ten seconds of sharpening before every use makes all of the difference in the world. 

I have to go beyond my simple knife sharpener a few times a year, but this is because of knife abuse. If we were more careful with our kitchen knives, a pull-through sharpener would be all that we would ever need. I’ll talk more about knife abuse in a bit.

Proving knife nerds wrong.

Over the last 25 years, I have sharpened my kitchen knives with a pull-through sharpener. If you assume that I did this around three times a week, that is over 4000 sharpenings. I don’t have before and after photos, but the knives look about the same. They also feel sharp, and they are sharp enough to slice paper. However, those tests are relatively subjective. I like objective, quantitative data. Is there a quantitative way to determine the sharpness of a blade? The answer is yes. Can I access such instrumentation? This answer is also yes. I’m obsessive and trained as a scientist; of course, I have geeky testing gadgets!

Here are the main two sharpeners that I’m using for my kitchen knives.

There is an international standard for knife sharpness called the BESS C scale that measures the amount of force needed to cut a piece of test media. This scale goes from zero to two thousand. The lower the number, the lower the force required, and therefore the sharper the blade. A double edge razor blade has a BESS score of 50, whereas a butter knife has a BESS score of 2000. High-end cutlery right out of the box scores between 260 (super sharp) to 350 (very sharp).  

The BESS C rating system.
Testing my 25-year-old, $10 chef’s knife on a BESS certified edge tester.

I took my 25-year-old, $10 foodservice knife and sharpened it as I usually would with a pull-through sharpener. Next, I took out my handy dandy Industrial Edge Tester and tested the knife. The BESS value was 250. That is sharper than the sharpest high-end cutlery right out of the box. I then took the same knife, ran it through my Chef’s Choice electric sharpener for a few passes, and repeated the test. That value came back at 191; the sharpness of a utility razor blade!

This reading was after I used a pull-through knife sharpener. At this point, my cheap knife is sharper than brand new high-end cutlery.
I then ran my cheap knife through my Chef’s Choice electric sharpener and got a value of 191. That is the sharpness equivalent of a utility razor blade!
Here is a macro-shot of the Chef’s knife’s edge. There are certainly cleaner knife edges. However, this does not look like the ragged messes that you see when nerds show shots of knives that were sharpened with a pull-through. In reality, the edge looks reasonably clean and totally serviceable.

How do you abuse a knife?

Earlier I mentioned that it is easy to destroy a knife’s edge. Here are some ways to do it.

Banging them around.

Don’t keep your knives in a drawer with a lot of other junk. First, it is dangerous to dig through such a drawer. Second, rubbing up against other hard stuff will damage your knives. There are many ways to protect your knives. Use a knife block, or get a magnetic strip for the wall. You can also use a sleeve to cover the knife’s blade. We have a narrow drawer that we exclusively use for knives. It is not ideal, but it works well enough.

Excessive hard use.

If you regularly use your knife like a chopping cleaver, it will quickly dull. Cleavers have thicker blades and blunter edges for this reason.  

Washing in the dishwasher.

Many years ago, this type of damage would happen in our home, but everyone is now trained to wash cutting knives by hand. Unfortunately, a round or two in a dishwasher will pit and dull just about any knife. So don’t wash your cutting knives in the dishwasher even if the manufacturer says that the knife is dishwasher safe.

Dried on food/excessive soaking.

Leaving food to dry on a knife can dull it. Washing a knife with dried food is more dangerous than immediately cleaning one. Also, soaking a dirty knife for hours can dull it. A brief soak is fine.

Cutting on a hard surface.

It would be best if you only cut on softer surfaces than your knife’s blade. This means you should only cut on a wooden or plastic cutting board. Never cut on a glass plate, glass cutting board, or (gasp) directly on a countertop. We cook pizzas on a pizza stone, and sometimes the snacker finds it easier to cut the pizza directly on the stone. This is a disaster as it immediately turns the knife’s edge into trash. I can sometimes reclaim the blade with a pull-through sharpener, but it is often easier to go with Plan B.

Plan B

What to do when you mess up your blade’s edge.

Simple pull-through sharpeners keep a blade sharp. These would likely be the only sharpeners that a home cook would need in a world of zero abuse. However, as mentioned above, there are many ways to damage a knife’s edge. Sometimes you need to go the extra step to keep your blades ready to battle with the next butternut squash. Here are some options.

Outside sharpener/professional sharpener

Some people sharpen knives for a living. In addition, some hardware stores have automated sharpening machines. For example, my local Ace Hardware will sharpen a knife for about $6. But unfortunately, they can only sharpen at a 20 degree (40 degree-inclusive) knife angle. The good news is that most kitchen knives still use this edge angle. 

Some hardware stores will sharpen your knives for about $6 a blade.

The electric knife sharpener

There are many of these on the market, some inexpensive. American Test Kitchens reviews knife sharpeners every couple of years, and one brand always comes up on top, Chef’s Choice. Typically their favorite model is over $150, so purchasing such a device can be costly. However, I have had one for more than 20 years. I use it 1-2 times a year to fix badly abused knives. In addition, I use it more frequently to sharpen entire sets of knives for friends and family. Chef’s Choice makes models that sharpen at 15 degrees (30 degrees inclusive) and 20 degrees (40 degrees inclusive). They also sell combo units that do both angles. 

American Test Kitchens note that some other brands of electric knife sharpeners make knives duller, so I would stick with their recommendations.

Pros: Does a good job, and is very fast.

Cons: Costly

My Chef’s Choice model 130. I also had a model 100 that I just gave away to one of my nieces.

Lansky Sharpening System

This system has been around for ages and comes in various versions, the least expensive one costing under $40. It is called a guided system, as you use a guide to make sure that you are sharpening at the proper edge angle. The system allows for many different blade angles, including 20-degrees. Unfortunately, it does not have a 15-degree guide, but it does have one for 17-degrees, which is good enough (at least for me). This gadget does an excellent job.

Other companies (like Smith) make copycat sharpeners. I have also used the Smith system, which works well. Some of the copycats may be a bit less expensive than the original Lansky.

Pros: Easy to master. Does an excellent job. Can do a variety of sharpening angles.

Cons: Fiddly to set up. More time-consuming to sharpen than a powered sharpener. 

This basic Lanksy system can be had for under $40.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

This simple to use and compact knife sharpener is a favorite among many who say it gives their knives a razor’s edge. I can sharpen knives on this system, but never to the degree of sharpness that others seem to be able to—around $80.

Pros: Compact and easy to use. Does both 20 degree and 15 degree angles.

Cons: I can’t sharpen a knife on a Sharpmaker as well as I can using other systems. You may need to purchase coarser sharpening rods for badly damaged knives, which can cost almost as much as a whole sharpening system. Not motorized, so it is slightly time-consuming.

Many people love the Sharpmaker. Unfortunately, I am only able to get mediocre results when I use it.

Other manufacturers make similar systems at a lower price. However, the Sharpmaker is known for its quality build, compact size, and versatility. 

This is the Lansky clone of the Sharpmaker. It is a bit less versatile, but it is considerably less expensive.

Work Sharp knife and tool sharpener Mk2

Don’t let the looks of this gadget scare you; it is super simple to use. It is also fast and gives a very sharp edge. It can not only sharpen kitchen knives, but it can also sharpen scissors, axes, pocket knives, and even lawnmower blades—around $80.

Pros: Works very well and for many sharpening needs. Simple, almost foolproof to use.

Cons: Requires some setup, and you need to change belts during the sharpening process. Sharpening guards can only be set to 25 degrees (50 inclusive) used for pocket knives and 20 degrees (40 inclusive) used for standard kitchen knives. No 15-degree (30 inclusive) angle guide for Asian-style knives.

Don’t let its industrial looks scare you. This is the KO version, it is similar to the regular Mk2, but it has a few more bells and whistles.

You can buy the KO (Ken Onion) version of this sharpener, allowing many edge angles, including 15-degrees. But, unfortunately, that unit is more costly at around $120.

Work Sharp Precision Knife Sharpener

This knife sharpener mimics high-end sharpeners like the KME and the Edge Pro, which sell for hundreds of dollars. However, construction is lighter in weight. At only $49, it has a massive following among budget-conscious knife nerds, as it is possible to achieve a mirror edge on a knife. This is a manual system.  

Pros: Inexpensive and can sharpen a knife’s edge to a mirror finish. Similar design to pro units that cost hundreds of dollars. Does many edge angles.

Cons: Construction is more lightweight than similar but more expensive sharpeners. Non-electric so it will take longer to sharpen a knife than when using an electric device.

The Precision Knife Sharpener is a knife nerds dream at an affordable price.

The Precision Knife Sharpener also comes in a professional version for $120 that includes a wider variety of sharpening stones. However, the basic kit is more than enough for most users.

There are other quality sharpening systems, but I’m reluctant to recommend them since I have not personally used them. I would avoid using a whetstone. Professionals get the sharpest edges using whetstones, but it can take years to master sharpening techniques. Amateurs are more likely to mess up a knife’s edge using a whetstone than sharpen it.

What about sharpening serrated knives?

A serrated blade is more of a saw than a knife. Some of the knife sharpeners listed above claim that they can sharpen serrated edges, but most only do a so-so job. I have experimented with sharpening such blades, and the process did improve their edges, but I think that such actions are unnecessary. Serrated knives don’t need to be sharpened as frequently as a straight edge knife because they don’t cut; they tear like a saw. I advise using your inexpensive serrated knife until you feel that it is no longer doing its job, then buy a new one. We have been using ours for decades, so don’t fret that you will need to run to the store every week. 

The bottom line

If you want the fanciest, sharpest, most extraordinary kitchen knives you will need to buy the best knives, invest in an excellent sharpening system, learn how to use that system, and sharpen your knives very regularly. It is doubtful that you will do the above.

Most home cooks do the opposite. They rarely or never sharpen their knives, making kitchen work more difficult and accidents more likely. Even an expensive top-of-the-line knife will turn into trash if you don’t hone and sharpen it regularly.

My solution to this problem is a compromise that works very well. I would advise buying three foodservice type knives-an 8″ chef or 7″ Santoku knife, a 3″ -4″ paring knife, and an 8″ -10″ serrated knife. Foodservice-type knives offer the best bang for the buck. They are not pretty, but they work hard and have very comfortable handles that are non-slippery. They must be able to do the job and to reasonably hold their edge. Otherwise, foodservice buyers would shop for a different brand. Their overall quality is a cut above a similarly priced big-box store knife, although they are less stylish. 

Big box store knives can also be pretty inexpensive. However, their quality is a mixed bag. Consumers are not knife experts and are more likely swayed by factors, such as name recognition, style, price, and packaging. A consumer may think, “Oh well, this knife is good enough.” In contrast, a professional cook has a working knowledge of how a good cutting tool should perform. 

I love my Tramontina, 25-year-old foodservice knife, but there are many other choices. You can get a decent house brand Chef’s knife for well under $10, a known name like Mercer or Dexter for $10-$20, or a popular brand like Victorinox for under $40. Paring knives often cost under $5. Just about any serrated knife will do, but buy one that is 8’-10″ depending on your needs. Expect to pay under $10.  A shorter serrated knife may be good for cutting tomatoes, but it will be too short to cut crusty bread, which is one of the main benefits of having such a knife. 

Foodservice knives are inexpensively bought at restaurant supply stores (in-person or via the internet). You can sometimes find them at warehouse clubs, and you can find some on Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.com. A quick eBay search yielded a knife similar to mine, along with a short serrated knife, and a paring knife selling as a set for less than $13. Shop around as some outlets charge inflated prices. We have a Gordon foodservice (restaurant supply) in our area, but their prices on cooking equipment are high. 

Recently, I found a knife similar to mine in a three-knife set on eBay for less than $13.

Buy a handheld pull-through sharpener. You can purchase them everywhere, including hardware stores, big box stores, and grocery stores. I like the Accusharp brand, but any brand name will do. Although multi-stage pull-through sharpeners may do a slightly better job, they are bulkier, and you are less likely to pull them out. I like having my little sharpener reside in the same drawer as my knives. If I see it, I will use it. Pull the knife through 6-12 times, depending on need. Start with light-moderate pressure, then hone with very light passes for your last few pulls. 

Currently, I am using a Smith’s handheld sharpener. It is pretty good, but I prefer the Accusharp.
This small sharpener can sharpen at three different edge angles.
The above sharpener in action.
I also found this Lansky D-Sharp that can sharpen at 4 different angles.

Because you are sharpening every time you use the knife, the quality of the steel is irrelevant. I have used my knife to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 19 on multiple occasions. Not only was the knife used for food prep, but it was also used to carve an 18-pound turkey. Its edge sharpness was perfectly acceptable during the entire process. It is hard to imagine that any cooking task that a home cook would need to do would be significantly more demanding. Your knife will always be sharp enough for any daily home kitchen task if you take 10 seconds to sharpen it before you use it.  

Protect yourself and your knives by keeping them in their own space: a block, a magnetic strip, a sleeve, or their own drawer.  

If you are human, you will likely mess up your knives on occasion, and they may need the additional attention that I mentioned in the Plan B section of this post.

Remember, home cooks don’t need to speed chop, and they don’t debone two dozen chickens in a single sitting. As a home cook, your cutting needs are simple. You always should use a sharp knife, but expensive, exotic knives are unnecessary. By spending an additional 10 seconds to sharpen your knife every time you use it, you will be rewarded with a tool that is a pleasure to cut with. The right tool for the job is a sharp knife, and you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to have one.

Mike