How to Sharpen Knives

Dr. Phil Bass talks knife sharpening skills.Dr. Phil Bass is a meat scientist. It should come as no surprise that given his trade of meat science, the good doctor has a natural propensity to learn as much as he can about all things involving his craft — including knives.

Making certain you have a sharp knife — whether you’re working with a $300 Miyabi chef’s knife or some plastic-handled piece you won at a county fair ring toss — will make life much easier when slicing into roast beef before a captive audience.

“You can have the most expensive knife out there, but if you don’t treat it right you really just have a pointy stick,” says Dr. Bass.

If you’ve read this blog for any time, you probably know the name Adam Perry Lang. He’s a barbecue guru who makes his own knives. And it’s a combination of science and craftsmanship that make knives truly valuable. Most of us, even many seasoned chefs,  aren’t quite as knowledgeable about knives and knife sharpening as Dr. Phil or APL, so here’s a quick tutorial to get your prepped for the holiday feast.

There’s a difference between a honing steel and a steel.
Confused? Sharpening actually shaves off bits of the blade to produce a new, sharp edge. Typically this is done with a sharpening stone, a honing steel (see below) or even an electric knife sharpener.


A steel — different from a honing steel — realigns the microscopic bits at the edge of the blade into the proper position for maximum sharpness.

honing steelTips for using a steel

  • Using gentle pressure, move your knife at a 20-30 degree angle with the blade forward over your steel.
  • Don’t try to dig into the steel; a gentle slicing motion that moves your blade across the knife from heel to tip is all you need.
  • Take about a half dozen alternating passes across the full length of your blade.
  • Always use equal strokes on each side to maintain an even cutting edge.

Testing sharpness
Dr. Phil typically tests knife sharpness on his own skin, gently feeling the blade with the ridges of his fingertips. Perhaps, though, there’s a less “cutting edge” way for the rest of us.

  • Test the sharpness of your knife by taking a piece of paper and cutting it cross-ways. If the cut has a nice, smooth edge, your knife is pretty sharp. If it’s somewhat serrated, perhaps it needs more work. And if you failed to cut the paper at all, you’re probably using a butter knife.

Sharpening frequency
How often should you sharpen your knives? “As often as they need it,” says Dr. Phil. There is no timer that goes off telling you it’s time. When your knife gets dull, sharpen it. Use the steel more often than a sharpener or honing steel, though. Sharpening will wear down a knife over time.

Knife care
Knives should always be washed by hand and dried immediately. Running your knives through a dishwasher will inevitably dull the blade. And, if you have a knife with a handle made of wood or other water-sensitive material, it can completely ruin it. Know that every time your blade bumps into anything, it will dull. So it’s a good idea to run your knife over a steel often while in use.

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Bryan Schaaf

Bryan is a modern-day Hamburglar, minus the mask and kitschy catch phrase. There’s not a burger on the planet he wouldn’t take on — even those token ones for customers with less-adventurous palates. In his spare time, he’s a soccer junkie, musician, husband and father of the most adorable little carnivores this side of Jurassic Park.