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TECHNIQUE, REFINED | THE CUTTING EDGE | TOOL DEPARTMENT

Seeking -- and finding -- knife nirvana

Super-sharp blades remained maddeningly out of reach. But then he found a new gadget.

March 21, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

I am a pilgrim on a journey. My destination is nebulous -- sometimes the closer I seem to come, the farther it recedes in the distance. For now, I'll just call it the Scary Sharp Knife. But as with all spiritual goals, it's not the actual arrival that really matters nearly so much as the process of getting there.

Though I'm still on my path, my knives are already so much sharper than they've ever been. But so far that's just Amazingly Sharp; I know Scary Sharp is still out there somewhere.

And while it may be true that there are no shortcuts to enlightenment, I've certainly found one for the journey that is knife sharpening: a really cool device that simplifies the process so much that even a neophyte can reach Amazingly Sharp amazingly quickly. But more about that in a minute.

I've always been a cook who cares too much about his knives. Others indulge themselves with fine copper pans or the latest electronic wizardry. For me, it's always been the cutting edge.

I've got two knife blocks full and more carefully wrapped in a drawer -- and yes, I do understand (as my wife reminds me regularly) that I really use only two or three of them. Still, when I see a good knife, I have a hard time resisting its siren song.

But just beneath the surface of my cutlery obsession, there has always been a secret shame. I love my knives, but I don't take good enough care of them. In particular, I've always entrusted their sharpening to others.

It's not that I haven't tried -- I've got one of those electric knife sharpeners in my pantry someplace. I just could never get it to work as well as I wanted. And I've used those little gadgets you roll along the blade too. I picked up one of those angled rod sets; it worked better, but still didn't give me the results I wanted.

Several years ago I even tried sharpening by hand a time or two. But it always seemed so messy and, frankly, I never could get it to work very well. Maybe I was holding the knife at the wrong angle; maybe I was pressing too hard; maybe my heart was not yet truly pure.

Whatever the reason, sharpening a knife this way seemed to be a lot more than I was up for.

The edge of reason

FOR a long time, I tried to assuage my guilt by telling myself that even a geek needs to recognize his limits. I don't need to do everything myself, right? After all, I love coffee, but I don't roast my own beans. Isn't that the same thing?

Well, no, it isn't. I can buy really good coffee beans from a store. I can't get really good sharpening done for any price. Sure there are commercial sharpeners -- some supermarket meat counters will even do it for a nominal charge. And truth be told, some of them will do a perfectly adequate job for most purposes.

But they'll never get you to Scary Sharp -- and even the best of them will rarely get to Amazingly Sharp. To get there, knives have to be sharpened by a knowing hand on a polished stone, not by a butcher with a belt grinder.

So I set out to learn how. I found an enormous amount of great information on the Web (see box), and even better, the amazing tool that brought my goal within almost embarrassingly easy reach.

At its most basic, sharpening involves nothing more than using rough stones to remove metal from a knife blade at the correct angle to wind up with a cutting edge. You want the angle to be thin enough that it slices easily, but not so thin that the metal is weakened. For most kitchen knives, that's between 15 degrees and 22 degrees per side (commercially sharpened knives are rarely less than 24 degrees).

There is much mystique about what is the perfect angle and almost as much about what are the right kinds of stones. (You'll want more than one -- a coarse stone to do the rough shaping and then a finer stone to finish and polish the blade.)

All of that sounds complicated, but the tool I found eliminated most of that confusion. The Edge Pro works kind of like training wheels for knife nuts, ensuring that the angles are correct. Invented and manufactured by Ben Dale, a professional knife sharpener in Hood River, Ore., it is absolutely ingenious. It is a rack that holds your knife in place and a graduated set of sharpening stones that are clamped at clearly marked angles.

You place the knife on the rack and pull the stones across the blade, working with each stone until the knife is sharp enough to proceed to the next. You're practically guaranteed the right stone, the right angle and even the right amount of pressure.

Even better, it also gets your knives, really, really sharp. Actually, unless you're totally into the whole "communion of hand and steel" thing, it's all you'll need to achieve an Amazingly Sharp and, perhaps with practice, even Scary Sharp knife.

The Edge Pro is not inexpensive -- the full kit costs $185; you could get a comparable set of waterstones for about half that. But it does eliminate the geometric guesswork, and it is a pretty cool introduction to the Zen of knife sharpening.

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