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Maintaining your kitchen knives

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As the title suggests, this page is about the maintenance of your kitchen knives. Average kitchen knife (and I've seen a lot from different people) today is perhaps something bought in Wal-Mart or somewhere similar, price below 20$. Brand name is most likely unknown and not readily identifiable. Stainless steel, and serrations are too popular nowadays, probably thanks to those TV shows selling "wonderful" kitchen knives. After all who wouldn't want a knife that can shave metal from the steel wise and then slice tomato in the air.
   One thing even more common for average kitchen knives is the edge. To be precise, what's left of something once used to be the edge. Not that most of those knives come with great edges on them, but later on, one would hardly tell the difference between the edge and knife spine judging by its sharpness. As usual they're equal. Except the edge side has a lot more dents, chips and rolls than the spine. Although some folks definitely don't mind hammering the spine of the knife with various metal objects to keep both sides equally used :).
   Ok, I'll try to keep this page short. Few tips below to keep your knife regardless of its price in better shape, so it'll last you longer and cut better.

Regular Steeling

 - I can't emphacize enough the importance of steeling. You can read more about steeling on my Steeling Page. Get the butcher steel, but stay away from those grooved ones. Grooved butcher steel does more damage than good to the edge. What you need is a smooth steel. Use Butcher's steel frequently, ideally before every use. The metal relaxatoin effect can deform aligned edge overnight, so the safest way is to steel or strop before using the knife. Matter of fact, as Dave Martell, the sharpening guru pointed out, it's better to strop, than steel if the conditions allow for that. You can buy smooth steel from Dave's place. If you would like to learn more, then check out the article - Knife Steeling And Stropping What They Really Do, explains a lot about both procedures including micrographs of the edges.

Always Use The Cutting Board

 - Do not cut anything on marble, steel table, glass, ceramics, etc! All those materials are far too hard for the delicate sharp edge a good kitchen knives have. It doesn't matter that you saw your wonder knife banged against the steel pipe or similar thing on the TV show Ok? Kitchen knives are neither designed for that sort of abuse, nor they can handle it. Rephrasing Shepherd Book from my favorite Firefly series - You are gonna burn in a very special level of hell, a level they reserve for those who cut on glass, marble, metal and abuse knives otherwise. Use a quality cutting board. I myself, used to prefer flexible boards for vegetables and bamboo for everything else. These days, I have a very nice, custom Mahogany end-grain board from Dave. Much more friendly to the knife edge than plastic or even rubber. You can choose wood, plastic(not hard one), donno what else, but you got the point. Check out very good wood boards at Dave Martell's store from boardsmith Dave. fantes.com also has ok budget boards. And you do need at least two of them. One for meat, poultry, fish and another one for vegetables, bread, etc. Wood board is preferable for all types of meat for sanitary reasons. Ideally you need one separate board for poultry, that's the nasty one.

Use Sharp Knives And Keep them Sharp

 - For many reasons. One is obvious, sharp knife will cut better. Two, and perhaps equally important, sharp knives are safer to use, even if you think that sounds paradoxical. You need significantly more force to cut with a dull knife, hence control is worse, more chances it will slip, and go wherever it is not intended to. Most of the time, that is if you accidentally cut yourself, the wound inflicted by dull knife will be far worse than that by sharp one. Dull edge will rather rip the tissue instead of cutting. I assume when using a knife(especially a sharp one) you will exercise caution. Don't forget sharp things cut better ;).

Don't use the edge to scrape ingredients

 - I think this is the most common form of the knife abuse, right after(or with) using incorrect knives for the job. The edge, at least the sharp one is few microns thick, scraping the food sideways with it induces very high pressure on the edge, and the steel bends. In terms of the edge, it simply means dulling. It's very simple physics, steel resists vertical compression very well, but not so good with lateral loads. Thik of a nail, it can go through wood and concrete, but you can bend it easily. So, the bottomlline is, if you need to pick up food from the board, or just shovel around, use the knife back, but not the edge.

Don't Let Your Knives To Dull Significantly

 - This is probably continuation of the previous topic. Anyway, the point is that if you sharpen regularly, then:
  • Sharpening will be easier each time;
  • You will remove less metal because the edge deformation is less, hence your knife will last longer;
By the way, the amount of metal removed during regular sharpening in the end is less than that of removed from the very dull knife to get it sharp again. Hard to translate all that into numbers, but roughly... If you have a knife X which is sharpened 3 times a month and knife Y which is sharpened once in 3 months, at the end of those 3 months, you'll have X sharpened 9 times, Y sharpened once, correct? Now, dig this, Y will need more metal removal than X to become as sharp as X. Granted that both knives have identical steel, blade geometry and they are used to cut exactly the same materials, exactly the same amounts. The explanation is simple, dull knife needs more force to be applied to make the same cut, hence more metal is lost due to chipping, wear, because chiping and wear are more severe, friction is higher. Sharp one is the opposite.

Use the right tool for the job

 - This is rather from common sense category, but helps with maintenance :). Remember, a knife is a knife, nothing else. It is not a screwdriver, axe, hammer and so on. Therefore it[a knife] shouldn't be used as such[axe, hammer, screwdriver]. For, a) it won't do the job it wasn't designed for all too well, b) it's quite dangerous for you, and c) it'll damage the knife most likely ang burn in the aforementioned special level of hell for knife abusers. Apply the same rule to knife use for various cutting tasks, that is - use the right knife (if you have one) for the right cutting job. Don't use santoku which is for vegetables to chop bones (hint - a meat cleaver would be better) or to peel potatoes. Not worth it ;)

Clean The Knives ASAP

 - Even if they are stainless steel, still, clean them as soon as you are done using them, or have time for it. Don't let the used, dirty knife sit in the sink, or on the table for hours or days. Remember, those knives even though they're stainless, they are not truly stainless, they are stain resistant, no more than that. They will rust if proper care is not taken.

Don't Wash Quality Knives In Dishwasher

 - Well, for that matter, I wouldn't wash any sharp instrument I care about in there. Extremelly hot water, cleaning solutions, hot air, all that is too aggressive for delicate, sharp edges tools. Add there potential banging it might receive in there and you get the complete picture. Wash them by hand, and obviously be careful, use a brush with longer handle, hold back of the knife against the sink, etc. There is a belief that modern dishwashers, with their energyand detergent efficient technologies, especially the ones with dedicated cutlery trays solve the problems listed above, but unfortunately, they do not. I've specifically tested highly stain resistant X50CrMoV15 steel Wusthof knife in repeated high end dishwasher cycling and after only 6th cycle it got a rust spot. Details in the article - Stainless Steel knives Corrosion In A Dishwasher. Majority of mid and high end western kitchen knives are from that steel, or its variation. If you still use the dishwasher, use the cutlery tray and don't let the knives sit in there for the drying cycle.

Keep Your Knives Dry(and clean!)

 - Don't stick wet or damp knife in the knife block. It will promote rust, the knife will dull faster. Worse you can do is to put dirty knife in the block. And wooden blocks (the most widespread) are the worst in that regard. They keep moisture and provide good environment for bacteria to develop. Although, that is not to say wooden blocks are evil, you shouldn't be keeping unclean and(or) wet knives in them.

Keep Your Knives Separately

 - Don't put them in the drawer with other utensils and generally other objects where they can get bumped against them to prevent the edge damage. From this you can deduce that throwing your knives into the sink or a drawer or dropping them on the hard surfaces is dangerous and can damage the edge, may be you or someone else in the kitchen too.



Last updated - 09/01/11