Friday, April 27, 2012

How to Steel a Knife Video

"Just please don't do the Gordon Ramsey thing," said the rep from DMT when I called her to ask a few questions about my ceramic steel.  "That's how people hurt themselves, their knives, and their steels, and then they call us to complain."

Ok.  No Gordon Ramsey thing.  Here is Helen's version.

YouTube Link: How to Steel (Hone) a Knife

As I was making this video, I noticed that it's much easier to align the knife to the guide if you can see it in the camera screen (mine swivels so that I can see what I am recording).  I am not suggesting you buy a video camera, but placing a mirror in front of you the first few time you steel might be helpful.

Here are some frequently asked questions from my Knife Skills classes about steeling knives.

How often should I steel my knives?
At least every day you are going to cook.  Additionally, I steel after very hard vegetables (butternut squash, parsnips, sweet potato), and right before cutting tomatoes.  I know this sounds like a lot, but the more you do it, the better you'll get and it shouldn't take you more than 10 seconds.

What steel do you recommend?
I love my DMT ceramic steel.  It's exceptionally smooth (2200 grit), which produces a nicely polished edge. Your steel should be at least 1000 grit according to Patti Small from On the Edge Knife Sharpening and if there is someone who knows her knives, it's Patti.  I also love that this steel is long (the rod length is 12 inches).  The length of your steel should be at least as long as the length of your knife's blade.  

How do you take care of a steel?
Normally, you don't have to do anything to a steel.  Just be careful not to bang it on anything (including your knife) so that it doesn't get nicked.  Most of the complaints on amazon are from people who don't know how to steel.  Don't apply much pressure and don't do the Gordon Ramsey thing.  If you nick the steel, there is no way to fix that.  Fast chopping is efficient.  Fast steeling is showing off.  Because this steel is round, you'll be holding it differently each time, which gives you plenty of new surfaces to work with.  A few times a year, I scrub it with ajax or bar keeper's friend using a sponge (don't use steel wool).  This removes the trace amount of metal that gets embedded in it.

How long does a steel last?
This depends on a steel.  Round steels last a lot longer than flat ones because you have more surfaces to work with.  My last ceramic DMT steel lasted at least 3 years (might have been even 5, but I don't remember exactly when I bought it).  The way you know you need a new steel is that it remains shiny smooth even after you scrub it with ajax.

Do you need to wash a knife after steeling?
Ceramic steel is so smooth it barely removes any metal, so I don't bother washing my knife after steeling.  Just make sure your knife is clean before steeling.  You don't want to clog your steel with food.

What if I have Japanese knives?
Steel is not the right tool for one-sided Japanese knives (their edge is like a guillotine with an angle only on one side).  But I've been using it with great results on my Japanese hybrid knife.  That's what most home cooks have when they buy Japanese knives (Shun, Global, Mac, etc).  These knives are shaped like Western knives, but their edge is two sided with 15 degrees on each side.  I steel my Mac just like a western knife, but use a slightly more shallow angle.  Most Japanese manufactures say that you shouldn't steel their knives.  I wonder if the reason for this is that most steels are very coarse.  But since my ceramic steel is 2200 grit, it seems to work well.

I tried steeling my knife, but it didn't get much better.  Why?
Most likely your knife doesn't have an edge.  The steel can only bend an existing edge back into alignment (that's called honing), it doesn't remove enough metal to give you a new edge (that's called sharpening).  To get a new edge, you can take your knife to a professional sharpener or buy yourself a new knife.  Here is a great chef's knife for about $25.

Should you steel serrated knives?
No.  Serrated knives don't need regular maintenance.  Take them to a professional every 2-5 years.

How is a steel better than AccuSharp?
AccuSharp produces a wider angle (about 22.5 degrees).  Wider angles last a bit longer, but make you push harder when you cut.  If you took your knife to Patti and she put an 18 degree angle on it, AccuSharp will get rid of it pretty quickly.  Since AccuSharp removes metal, you need to wash and dry the knife after using it -- extra step.  AccuSharp works great when it's new, but wears out pretty quickly.  If you cook regularly, you need a new one every 6 months or so.  But AccuSharp actually sharpens, so it will work on a knife that's been somewhat neglected, while a steel won't.

If you are a passionate cook who doesn't let other people mess with your knives (put them in the dishwasher, cut with them in glass dishes, bury them in a sink full of dishes, or kitchen drawers where they bang on other utensils) you might want to learn to steel.  If your life is a bit hectic right now, and you have little control over who uses your knives and how, I would order a few AccuSharps to have on hand for resuscitating your knives.

Here is a video on how to use AccuSharp and general information on how knife sharpening works.

34 down / 16 more to go


Rick said...

I certainly applaud anyone who encourages the proper maintenance of knives but I think you've overstated the importance of the steel in the process. The purpose of the steel is to plastically deform and straighten the material of the blade's edge. Only when the knife is already sharp can the edge be bent by normal cutting. I use a GATCO Edgemate sharpening system to keep my knives sharp, the steel to keep them straight, and a leather strop (just an old belt) for the finishing touch.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Rick,

Couldn't agree with you more. The steel doesn't actually sharpen. See my FAQ section after the video. I explain the role of steeling there. Just wanted to keep the video short and sweet and not get into the stuff I can easily explain in writing.


tangawk said...

great blog and article. I use chinese style rectangular blades ranging from a 'fruit' knife about 2 x 6 ” to a heavier 4x12” blade for cleaving meat on the bone. I get reasonable results from sharpening by hand on a flat stone (?grit 2-300) but find I need to sharpen the smaller blade every 4-5 uses and have probably taken about 5mm off the main blade so it's almost like a scimitar (hand grind oblique to blade so stop at heel). With this knife I mainly cut cabbage or boneless meat on plastic board. Is this frequency of knife sharpening normal? Or if I had a better knife would the edge last longer (current blade not professional quality)?

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Tangawk,

I don't know much about chinese knives, but I do my Japanese knife on a wet stone and it's much finer grit (2 sided with 1000 and 4000 sides). You definitely don't need 300 grit on regular basis. Try using a much finer grit stone (the stone I use is fine to use as frequently as you want). Japanese chefs often sharpen daily, so there is no problem with your frequency, just the grit. Steeling them is not traditionally done, but it works. Try it between sharpening on the stone -- you might not need the stone as often. Though after cutting through bone you need the stone. Steel won't fix that.


Dean Valente said...

Hi Helen,
Great article. I am considering the accusharp. Would it make sense to use an honing steel along with the accusharp?



Helen Rennie said...

If you are using accusharp, you can skip the steel. Not that the steel would hurt if you are doing it correctly and maintaining a perfect angle, but I am guessing the reason you'd want to use accusharp is because a perfect angle might not be that easy for you to judge (at least not yet ;) If your goal is to learn to steel, and to wean yourself off accusharp, try getting an edge with accusharp once, and then maintaining it with a steel only (if you are steeling correctly, you shouldn't need accusharp for a few months). But if you screw your knife up with a steel, at least there is accusharp to fall back on ;)