Cut Like a Pro: Knife Care 101

I get very excited about Thanksgiving, which has long been my favorite holiday. And though it’s a little early to start on the favorite (and new) dishes we will enjoy this year, it definitely is not too early to plan! I can drive myself a little batty with ideas for the table, and even if I set the menu today, the odds are good that I’ll change my mind a dozen times in a dozen days. So today, rather than continuing to wrestle myself over the food, I’m turning my attention to the other things in my kitchen that need some prep. That begins with my knives.

Of all these knives, I have two favorites, but it’s great to have all of them spiffed up for the holidays!

There’s something therapeutic for me in having my favorite knives professionally sharpened. It makes me feel—how shall I say it—like a real adult. It took me a while to get serious about choosing quality knives, so treating them as an investment feels like the right thing. Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to the guy who’s been helping me (or at least my knives) stay sharp in the kitchen, and he offers a simple tip about the importance of good knife care.

Your knives are your tools. Take care of them and respect them. You wouldn’t run your car 20,000 miles without oil changes or service, so why expect your knives to keep working well without regular care?

Chef Larry McFadden,
owner of Chef Sharp Mobile Sharpening

Larry McFadden knows his stuff. He spent more than two decades in service to our country, and after he left the U.S. Air Force, he followed his heart to pursue a passion for cooking, attending culinary school on the GI bill and then working in professional kitchens by way of Marriott International.

By the time he moved his family to North Carolina, Larry had come to recognize a demand for a knife sharpening service that wasn’t aimed only toward institutions and big restaurant chains, but for independent food businesses and home cooks.

Today, he runs a mobile sharpening service and was kind to let me interview him enough to shed light on what it takes to keep your edge in the kitchen. If you have noticed your own knives are smashing or crushing food more than slicing through them, you probably want to know what Larry has to say.

My grandma taught me early on that a dull knife is the most dangerous item in the kitchen. Would you say that’s true?

I think it is, because you have to put so much more pressure on whatever you’re cutting. If the blade is dull, it’s easier to have it slip off whatever you’re cutting. That puts you at greater risk of cutting yourself, and if do, it isn’t going to be a clean cut, so you’ll do more damage and you could really get hurt.

How do our knives get so dull in the first place?

When your knife is sharp, the blade edge has a bevel that comes to a perfect apex or peak, and it’s perfectly straight. With regular use over time, that edge starts to curl over in spots. The edge may feel dull, but it may just be that it is no longer straight.  

What can we do at home to keep our knives in shape?

I don’t recommend the pull-through type of sharpener. They can do more harm than good. But you can use a “steel” to help keep the blade straight every time you use your knife. Some people are intimidated by the steel, but if you learn how to use it, you can double the time between sharpening visits and extend the life of your knives.

These have been lurking in the back of a drawer for as long as I can remember. I never understood how they were supposed to work anyway!

Moment of truth: I’m one of those people intimidated by the steel, which is the long pointy thing that probably came with your knife set. But I learned a cool trick during my chat with Larry. Check the base of the steel, to see if it has a flat side with a slight angle. The angle is meant to help you position your knife properly for re-aligning your blade edge. Confused? Have a look:

My apologies for the low audio. Larry and I were outside amid some parking lot noise, but his demonstration tells the real story.

Do our cutting boards make a difference in the care of our knives?

Yes, and as a general rule, if the surface is too hard to cut, it’s too hard on your knives. Glass cutting boards are a definite no-no. Very hard plastics are also not good for your knives. Natural wood cutting boards are good, but bamboo is very hard and can be a little tough on knives.

End grain cutting boards are usually in a higher price range, and they are very good.

I guess I’ll be replacing my bamboo cutting board, too. I’ve wanted an end grain cutting board for a long time. They tend to be expensive, but they last a long time, and now that I know what’s better for my knives, I have good excuse to take the plunge!

Speaking of price range, we know that knives run the gamut in terms of quality and price point, and you should invest in the best quality you can afford, then take care of them with regular use of a steel and periodic professional sharpening. As for routine care, Chef Larry says you should wash your good knives in warm soapy water, then rinse and dry immediately before storing in a knife block or drawer insert. The dishwasher is not friendly to good knives.

It won’t be easy for some of my blog followers to catch up with you personally. What advice would you offer faraway friends for choosing a knife sharpening professional?

Try to find a provider who uses a whetstone rather than a belt grinder, and be sure you’re choosing someone who is established in their service. Look at their online reviews, and ask questions to find out how they learned what they’re doing, so you feel confident that they’re well-qualified.

Larry’s whetstone is made of aluminum oxide, the same material used to make sandpaper. That’s the surface he uses to sharpen the knives. Then he straightens and smooths the blades on a hard leather wheel. It’s mesmerizing to watch him work!

Larry sharpens both sides of the blade before checking for burrs.

The hard leather wheel smooths tiny burrs or nicks, even if you can’t see them.

Any wisdom to share on the importance of getting knives sharpened before the holidays?

There’s nothing worse at the holidays than not being able to carve your turkey into nice thin slices.

‘Nuff said. I’m glad to have this part of Thanksgiving prep in the “done” column! For more info about Larry, or to check out his local sharpening schedule, visit his website, Please let me know in the comments section if you learned anything new about good knife care, and also what steps you’re taking to get ready for the holidays. Thanksgiving will be here before we know it! Next week, I’ll be cooking up a storm, so get ready for a stack of fun, new ideas. 🙂

Oh, and…

You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

One thought on “Cut Like a Pro: Knife Care 101

  1. Pingback: Make-ahead Stock for Thanksgiving Gravy | Comfort du Jour

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