I stepped into my mum’s kitchen to the most curious sight. The metallic scraping noises drew me in. As I crept around the corner, I saw my mum dragging her cleaver over the edge of the sink into the granite counter. This memory floated in my mind a few weeks ago as I jabbed a drumstick, trying to separate it from a chicken thigh. Wrecked from many years of careless trackpad usage, my wrist struggled to carve a roast chicken. The problem, fortunately, had a solution right in my hand.
We busy parents don’t have much time to take care of household tasks. That’s why my living room looks like a tornado had traveled through Santa’s workshop, arrived at my dining room, ripped apart my fireplace while dragging construction materials along with it. Even though I love cooking, the prep and clean up often feel like a slog. Nicki, a mum with a toddler, shares my sentiments, telling me the most annoying parts of cooking are rinsing the vegetables, cutting everything, and cleaning up after dinner. Although buying pre-washed and chopped vegetables helps a bit, many times, I still prefer cutting fresh aromatics and garnishes because they contain the most intense bursts of flavor. Most meal delivery kits require chopping the ingredients. What if we could reduce prep time without diminishing our food quality? My goal is to save time cooking so I can spend more time eating slowly, playing with my one-year-old, and savoring “me-time”. Knife sharpening offers me these benefits, and the process became easier than I expected.
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In the past, I acted like a wimp when Alex sharpened our kitchen knives. I used to hide in the bathroom and plug my ears. The nails-on-a-chalkboard sounds made me shiver. I resisted knife sharpening for years, hacking away with blunt instruments. Alex told me he learned how to sharpen knives in Scouts. As a disciplined home cook, he made a point to hone our knives before any major cooking projects, like the time we braised a Costco chunk of beef brisket. But I shied away from touching a steel rod until I saw how my mum sharpened her cleaver and what not a big deal it was.
NOTE: Home cooks can sharpen knives in 2 ways: 1. sharpening a knife with a whetstone to grind away metal to form a new edge, and 2. straightening a knife’s edge with a steel/ceramic rod or polishing stone. Doing options 1 and 2 (grind and straighten) or option 2 (straighten) will make cutting easier. You can also skip the whetstone and get a multi-function tool to make the learning process easier.
As I gripped the chicken thigh, inspiration from my mum’s creative sharpening struck me. I reached for the coarse-grit diamond-coated steel card in my drawer. I went through the motions of what I remembered knife sharpening looking like. Holding the chef’s knife at an angle, I dragged the blade back and forth against the wetted card. I switched to the steel rod and did the same thing.
When I resumed my carving task, the knife sliced through the crispy skin like a snowboard carving powdered snow. Looking back, I made amateurish mistakes. Even then, it felt like one of the smoothest, easiest cuts I’ve made in years. Why had I been fighting to chop bell peppers and tomatoes because of dull knives? I updated my mental checklist to add sharpening as part of my cooking process, knowing 30 seconds sharpening could save minutes in food preparation.
TIP: From researching this article, I learned that dull knives are dangerous because they require you to push down with more pressure to cut, leading to a greater risk of the blade slipping. In addition to speeding up prep, safety is another incentive for sharpening.
Better tools exist than the diamond card to make sharpening easier, including whetstones and multi-purpose sharpening systems. Alex updated his technique with the benefit of YouTube 20 years after he first learned to sharpen. In the beginning, the effort to take care of my tools overwhelmed me. It felt harder than not sharpening at all. But after several weeks practicing, it requires less mental energy to do routine maintenance now that I take care of my knives once a week.
My father-in-law told me it’s unnecessary to grind the blades using a whetstone every time, but that I will feel a huge difference if I run my knife across a straightening rod before cutting with it. His sound advice reminds me of professional chefs on cooking shows who run their knife half a dozen times across a rod before they chop anything. In my kitchen, the only person watching me cook on most days thinks he’s hilarious when sticking his index finger up his nostril, so the stakes to impress are pretty low. But cutting with sharp knives does make cooking easier and more fun.
Because I own mostly Western-style knives, I run my knife against the straightening rod whenever I have to push down hard to cut vegetables or hear myself crushing green onions as I cut. I limit sharpening to one knife per day to keep the workload minimal, usually about 2 minutes (12 strokes on each side) as I loathe the noise. Last night, I learned that using a whetstone could reduce the nails-on-a-chalk-board sound, so I ordered my first ever Japanese whetstone. I woke up to an email message, “I am the seller of these items. I live in Japan. When you like this items, I’m happy.” I have a good feeling about this seller and whetstone. I’ll update you when it arrives (from Japan!) on whether it’s worth learning how to use one.
My final tip is to consider using an electric knife sharpener or taking your knives to the local sharpener. My friend Benjamin bought a whetstone a few years ago, but he discovered it posed a challenge to use and took more time than he wanted to spend. Since he switched to an electric knife sharpener, he sharpens his knives more often with less effort. At my local farmers’ market, a guy shows up with his trailer advertising knife sharpening services. Consider finding a similar service to get your knives to paper-cutting sharpness if you don’t have the time or desire to do it yourself.
Here’s a tutorial on how to sharpen your knives at home. I picked this video because the narrator is succinct and breaks the essential steps down in an easy-to-follow manner. It’s short, which makes it perfect to banish overwhelm.
NOTE: Remember we’re optimizing for efficient cooking, not professional culinary perfection. Following the video’s sharpening advice for a minute may be good enough. For the nerds, here’s a Japanese-style knife sharpening video explaining how to sharpen with whetstones, and here’s a longer video for people who want to get into the weeds.
Now that I’m accustomed to the sleek efficiency of sharp knives, I wonder how I ever prepped dinner with what felt like a butter knife. Hooked, I sharpened my pocket knife to efficiently open dozens of letters waiting for me when I returned home from visiting my parents. The whisper of my knife slicing through the creased envelopes made me want to sharpen all my knives right then.
Instead, I ate some dark chocolate, savoring my reclaimed “me-time”.
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