The sharp moves of a knife aficionado

There's an unclear path toward cutting-edge satisfaction

May 02, 2007|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,Los Angeles Times

I am a pilgrim on a journey. Sometimes the closer I seem to come, the farther the destination recedes in the distance. For now, I'll just call it the Scary Sharp Knife.

Although I'm still on my path, my knives are already so much sharper than they've ever been. But so far that's just Amazingly Sharp; I know Scary Sharp is still out there somewhere.

I've always been a cook who cares too much about his knives. But just beneath the surface of my cutlery obsession, there always has been a secret shame. I love my knives, but I don't take good enough care of them.

I've got one of those electric knife sharpeners in my pantry someplace. I just never could get it to work as well as I wanted. And I've used those little gadgets you roll along the blade, too.

Several years ago, I even tried sharpening by hand a time or two. Maybe I was holding the knife at the wrong angle; maybe I was pressing too hard; maybe my heart was not yet truly pure.

Sure, there are commercial sharpeners. Some supermarket meat counters will even do it for a nominal charge. But they'll never get you to Scary Sharp - and even the best of them will rarely get to Amazingly Sharp.

So, I set out to learn how. I found an enormous amount of great information on the Web and, even better, the amazing tool that brought my goal within almost embarrassingly easy reach.

At its most basic, sharpening involves nothing more than using rough stones to remove metal from a knife blade at the correct angle to wind up with a cutting edge. You want the angle to be thin enough that it slices easily, but not so thin that the metal is weakened.

There is much mystique about what is the perfect angle and almost as much about what are the right kinds of stones.

The Edge Pro works kind of like training wheels for knife nuts, ensuring that the angles are correct.

It is a rack that holds your knife in place and a graduated set of sharpening stones clamped at clearly marked angles.

You place the knife on the rack and pull the stones across the blade, working with each stone until the knife is sharp enough to proceed to the next. You're practically guaranteed the right stone, the right angle and even the right amount of pressure.

The Edge Pro is not inexpensive - the full kit costs $185 at edgeproinc.com. You could get a comparable set of water stones for about half that. But it does eliminate the geometric guesswork, and it is a pretty cool introduction to the Zen of knife sharpening.

Although the Edge Pro was just the first step on my journey, it was an important one. With it, I learned a couple of things even beyond recognizing the angles necessary for sharpening.

The device taught me that I needed to take my time, that working slowly and smoothly was much more effective than trying to sharpen in a dash. Getting a great edge can take much longer than you might expect - 10 to 15 minutes is not unusual. (After a knife has been properly sharpened, it should take only minutes for the occasional touch-ups.)

There are several ways of testing a knife's edge - the one I prefer is slicing newspaper. With that first really sharp knife, I must have shredded an entire day's worth in happy amazement. And real food is even more fun than paper. Vegetables cut with only token resistance. Finely diced onions are sliced so cleanly they look almost manufactured. Even slicing my morning grapefruit brings a smile.

I'm still not as polished as I want to be. One of these days, I'll probably even learn to sharpen to exact angles, and maybe even double-bevel. The road to hand-honed Scary Sharp is long, but with a good set of training wheels, at least you can enjoy really good knives along the way.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Fine points

Here's what I found most helpful on my journey to sharpness:

The best sharpening guide for beginners I found was written by Chad Ward for the Web site E-Gullet (forums.egullet.org, on the last page of the E-Gullet Culinary Institute). It is complete yet surprisingly accessible; so much so that Ward spun his primer into a coming book.

Some things can be demonstrated much more easily than they can be explained. Knife sharpening is one. A half-hour of watching The Chef's Edge, a DVD sold by New York City knife mecca Korin and featuring its co-founder and in-house sharpening master Chiharu Sugai, is a better instruction than almost any manual. $29.95 from Korin: 800-626-2172, korin.com.

[Russ Parsons]

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