If those kitchen knives aren't slicing like they used to, a few easy steps will bring your best blades back to life.
David WatskySenior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's logged more than a decade writing about all things edible, including meal kits and meal delivery subscriptions, cooking, kitchen gear and commerce. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the eats business from slicing and dicing as a sous-chef in Rhode Island to leading complex marketing campaigns for major food brands in Manhattan. These days, he's likely somewhere trying the latest this or tasting the latest that - and reporting back, of course. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
ExpertiseKitchen tech, cookware, small appliances, food innovation, meal delivery and meal kits.
If you don't have a chef's knife you love, it's time to invest and we've sliced up a storm using all the top brands to find the best for 2023. If you do have one you cherish, that affection will wear off quickly just as soon as the blade begins to dull. Trust us on this one.
Dull knives aren't only less effective at dicing, slicing and mincing, but a dull blade requires extra force and is far more likely to slide off and not through food, potentially injuring your hand.
To keep your kitchen knives sharp and in good condition, a regular routine is necessary and you want to start as soon as possible. There's also proper knife care, cleaning and storage to consider, as well as breaking bad habits that will ruin your chef's knife.
What's the difference between honing and sharpening knives?
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they're actually different. Honing refers to the act of straightening a blade's existing edge. Over time, and through ordinary use, the edge of a knife blade will curve over slightly or bend out of its original position.
When you hone a knife, you coax its pointed surface slightly back into position. It's a gentle fix but when done often, can prevent more serious blade damage.
The most common way to hone a knife, is with a honing steel. These inexpensive tools, starting at around $12, are essentially steel rods with a handle. The surface of the rod is coarse, and scraping a blade across the rod (at the proper angle), on both sides nudges (hones) its edge back in place.
Sharpening is the practice of aggressively polishing a knife to reform its edge. You'll need to do this for very dull knives only. In the process, bits of metal are actually shaved away. That's why sharpening a metal blade calls for material harder than steel -- stone or ceramic. It's also why you should hone often, but sharpen rarely.
How to hone a kitchen knife
A honing steel, relied on by many professional chefs and cooks, is a common tool for honing kitchen blades. Using a steel properly though takes practice to get right, so don't be discouraged if your first results aren't obvious. Here's how to hone your knife:
Start by placing the end of the steel's rod on flat surface (table, counter, cutting board).
Next, while holding the steel's grip with your non-knife hand, place the heel edge of your knife onto the steel. Make sure to angle the blade between 15 to 20 degrees --- in relation with the steel rod. Also rest your fingers (holding the knife), safely on the knife grip (behind the heel).
Now drag the blade downward along the steel. At the same time, pull the knife carefully toward you. The motion should move from the back edge of the knife to its tip. Maintain the same angle throughout your stroke. Repeat this action three to four times. Next do the same on the knife's other side.
Best ways to sharpen a kitchen knife
To reform the edge of your knife blade, you'll need a tougher tool. The old school way is with a whetstone. The good news is whetstones are relatively affordable. You can find them for between $10 and $40.
To properly use a whetstone, place a square of damp paper towel on a flat surface. Rest the whetstone on that, it'll keep it from sliding. Wet the knife blade with a little water. This lowers friction. Next, place the knife on the stone (its coarsest side), at a 15 to 20 degree angle. The tip of the knife should point away from you. Rest your fingers on the flat of the blade (except your thumb). Your thumb remains on the handle grip.
Drag the knife across the whetstone in a circular motion, making sure to keep the angle constant. Do this three to four times. Flip the knife over and repeat. Next, follow the same procedure but on the whetstone's smoother side. Your once-dull kitchen knife should now have a sharpened edge.
Electric knife sharpeners
You can use an electric sharpener, too. The process is much the same, with the added benefit of speed. Instead of a whetstone, these products have both honing and sharpening slots. Dragging a knife through the slots accomplishes the same task.
Grinding wheels spin inside the slots, and they're spring loaded. That means they should polish knife edges at the correct angle automatically. Be sure to follow instructions laid out in the manual carefully. Incorrect use of electric sharpeners may damage blade edges. Common mistakes include twisting, pressing downward or pausing the stroke of knives as you pull them through the sharpener slot. This can cause over sharpening (loss of too much metal) or result in an uneven edge.
Expect to pay a little more for a motorized sharpener, for around $40 (like this one on Amazon). The company also sells a line of kitchen knives, under the same EdgeKeeper brand, with sleeves designed to "sharpen" their blades every time you use them. Most likely they're honing, not sharpening, their knives but it's helpful nonetheless.
Use the bottom of a ceramic mug to sharpen a knife
It sounds crazy, but we've tried this ourselves. Flip a ceramic mug over, so its bottom faces upward. Place it on a flat surface. There should be a ring that's raised, and unglazed. The ring's surface is rough and is harder than steel. Use it as you would a whetstone. But be aware that if things go badly, you might scrape and mangle the blade edge useless. Try this on a cheap knife, not fancy cutlery.
Call in the pros to get your knives sharpened
For some, sharpening cutlery is too much hassle. Many premium knife brands such as Mac offer sharpening services (Mac brand only). With fees ranging from $8 to $25 per item, it's reasonable too. Still, you will have to ship knives back to their facility. That means you'll have to do without it for as long as seven business days.
KnifeAid is another sharpening service that will send your knives back razor-sharp. You'll pay about $13 per knife, but must send a minimum of four knives to be sharpened.
Some local grocery stores and supermarkets will sharpen your knives too -- and often for free. Usually, you can ask at the butcher counter, preferably during off-peak hours. Like any untried sharpening method though, try it out on a knife you could live without first.