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Look Sharp, Be Sharp

May 30, 1996|PHIL ANDRES

"Hey, be careful with those knives; they're dull!"

Not very convincing, is it? Sure, dull people are to be feared, dull wits and dull writing, but dull knives?

Allan Wattenberg of Ross Cutlery says that's where the real hazards are. "A dull knife is the most dangerous tool you can have in the kitchen because you have to force it, and when it breaks through what you're cutting, you don't have any control over it."

Because most people don't know how to care for their knives properly, there are probably more dull knives out there than sharp ones. If you think your knives may put you in this risk category, read on; there are solutions at hand. And you can even use them yourself.

The best way to go, Wattenberg says, is the diamond-sharpening steel, because it's easy to use, highly effective and available at most knife shops.

"My mother was brought up in a kosher home," Wattenberg says. "She used a lot of knives and tried many, many different things to sharpen the knives on her own. She had a lot of difficulty with it. The diamond steel was something we gave her and showed her how to use. And even now that she's 87 years old, she can still sharpen her knives quite easily."

These special sharpening steels are composed of countless diamond granules embedded on the surface of a grooved metal rod. Don't worry, though; they're rated in terms of mesh, not carats, so they can stay in the kitchen and out of the jewelry box. "Mesh" refers to how many particles there are in a given area, like the grain size of sandpaper. The lower the number, the more coarse and abrasive it is. Most full-size diamond steels are 600 mesh, which is great for day-to-day use, but 300-mesh steels will be available soon for severely neglected knives.

The hardness and abrasive quality of diamond dust sharpen knives quickly and easily, unlike ordinary steels, which are not very abrasive and are used more for perking up a knife edge than for sharpening it.

You just have to draw your knife across the diamond steel on one side and then the other, repeating until your knife achieves a nice crisp cutting edge. It usually takes only a few strokes because the steel surface is so rough.

The tough part is to maintain the proper angle throughout each stroke so the edge is uniformly sharp along the entire length of the blade. It takes a little practice and requires getting to know your knife a little better.

"What you're trying to do when you sharpen any tool is hit the cutting edge itself," Wattenberg says. But that point is different from one knife to the next, so you have to find the correct angle for your knife.

"First lay it flat on the steel, then tip it to where you see that the metal on the very edge of the knife makes contact with the steel. From the side, you can see the angle at which the knife should be sharpened."

It's the first point at which the knife begins to bite against the steel. Any lower and the blade only slides across the surface. The angle for most home knives falls in the range of about 20 degrees to 40 degrees.

Next, position the edge of the knife nearest the handle against the top of the steel at the proper angle and draw the knife along the steel from hilt to point on one side and then on the other. Hold the steel steady and draw the knife toward you as you sharpen; this prevents injuries to those around you and keeps you from acting out any unconscious desires.

If you don't trust the steadiness of your hand, you can rest the tip of the steel on a table or counter top on a damp towel for stability as you hold the other end. In that case, the first knife stroke is the same, but the other side must be done by drawing the knife away from you. Remember to maintain the same angle throughout or you will end up rounding the blade off rather than sharpening it.

Another important point is that the knife should always be drawn across the steel from the blade edge toward the back of the blade, as if you were slicing through the steel. This ensures that the metal being sheared off is pushed back away from the edge.

"If you drag the blade the opposite way, the metal you remove from the edge curls up over the other side and leaves a rough burr," Wattenberg says. "But when you go across it the right way, the metal that you're removing pulls away from the cutting edge and leaves a crisp, sharp edge."

How often you sharpen your knife really depends on the amount of work you do with it.

"There's no magic time or anything," Wattenberg says. "Just when you see the knife is not performing up to your expectations." Professional chefs may use the steel once or more a day. Home chefs might do it once a week, more or less.

Even so, there is a limit to how long you can go on sharpening a blade with a steel, even a diamond one.

"As you wear [the edge] back further and further on the blade, it becomes like a wedge," Wattenberg says. "And it needs to be brought in and professionally done. The blade is tapered out to a thin cutting edge. It's very easy to maintain from that point on."

Professional help is needed because, as the blade is ground down on a wheel, it tends to heat up. If it gets too hot, the metal will fall out of temper--which means that the metal gets soft, not angry--and it won't hold an edge at all.

For ordinary usage, though, a diamond steel is all you really need. As for caring for your steel, just scrub it every once in a while with warm soap and water and let it air dry. It'll be ready to go again just like that. After all, diamonds are forever.

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