I once got a job as a cook on a 4WD tour of outback Australia (the Kimberleys in the North West of the country to be exact). There was a driver and me, and fourteen passengers. The first thing the driver – who until my arrival had been doubling up as the cook – asked was: how are you with knives?
No, he didn’t want to know could I floor a ‘roo from 20 feet with a well-aimed cleaver. Nor could I skin one if he caught it on the hop.
What he wanted to know was: do you know how to treat a knife properly, avoiding any unnecessary blunting of its carefully filed edge? Activities that might cause such premature dulling of blade include (a) scraping matter such as chopped onion off the board with the sharp side rather than back side of said blade; (b) throwing the knives into the wash-up bowl to have a little illicit party together under the suds; likewise in cutlery drawers, particularly within moving 4WD vehicles; and (c) forgetting to sharpen with a steel on a regular basis.
The above list is not exhaustive. There are many ways to abuse a knife. Bad sharpening habits can be as bad as irregular sharpening habits.
And this outback Aussie driver-cum-cook was not the only one to be precious about his knives. Chefs know that the right knife can be for life – if you mean to keep it keen. Some brands, such as Wusthof (favoured at Dublin Cookery School), have a reputation for longevity and ease of sharpening. Others, such as the ceramic knives available for around €40 a pop from IKEA (thanks for the tip Tom!) are super sharp and will never need sharpening – though sadly, ‘never’ can be a short timespan for a knife that shatters if dropped on the floor.
To keep your knives sharp, invest in a steel – a long, rounded metal instrument which you can run either side of the knife blade along several times every time you go to use it. A ‘diamond steel’ is a premium version, its edges reinforced with diamond particles to refine the edge even further.
Sometimes however, through neglect or abuse of one kind or another, your knife may need some extra special attention.
There are people in this world for whom this is a call to heaven – amateur-enthusiast, knife-sharpening anoraks for whom I would highly recommend a hot cup of cocoa and a long read of the following link on eGullet: http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/topic/26036-knife-maintenance-and-sharpening. For the rest of us, this lengthy diatribe on all things blade-related is worth a brief browse – particularly the section about 5,000 words (or halfway) in, containing a step-by-step guide to sharpening technique.
(This is preceded by an interesting section on choosing between coarse or polished edges, depending on how you’re planning to use your knife most. It’s certainly worth thinking about having different knives for different jobs. A short sharp utility knife might have a highly polished edge so that it can press through, say, the fibres of an apple peel, pushing them to either side as it goes. A carving knife wants to sever rather than push through the fibres of, say, a hunk of roast meat or a soft, juicy tomato. And a flexible filleting knife is handy for such duties as following the line of a chicken breast against the curve of it ribcage, as we discovered today in class when filleting an 8oz breast to stuff with leek and tarragon and roast until tender. Different jobs, different knives, and different edges.)
If you think life’s too short to read a 10,000 word essay on sharpening your knives, I have two more words for you: sharpening stones. That’s what your knife will need when you’ve really let it go too far for the steel to make an impact. The crude advice is to oil it up, and sharpen up by running the edge of the blade at an angle of about 22º along the stone, applying light pressure as you go.
Of course, there’s far more to it than that, which is why there are professionals for the job. One such fella can be seen cycling around Dublin city, tools in tow, from back door to restaurant back door where he will apply his expert angle to all dulled blades within the building. The problem is, you’re unlikely to come across such a fella in the outback of North Western Australia, which is why my driver-cum-cook of a colleague was so uptight about me treating his knives right.
And quite right he was too. A dull knife needs more pressure to cut whatever it’s cutting, making slippage more likely. And passing flying-doctors are nearly as rare in the outback as cycling knife-sharpeners.