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Culinary Lesson #30 - Honing a Knife

Friday, December 04, 2015

[Information referenced from Kitchen Knife Guru and Good Eats].

This past week, I made the decision to graduate on to a different chef's knife...and with that decision brought up the question of whether or not to upgrade my honing steel as well.

I've briefly brought up the topic of honing your knife in previous culinary lessons (#1 and #8), but I've never gone into specifics.  By understanding the basics of what a steel actually is as well as its purpose, you'll be able to improve your knife skills dramatically.

So what is a honing steel?  Physically speaking, it's a rod made from steel (although it can also be ceramic or diamond-coated steel) that has varying degrees of fine longitudinal grooves.  Although it is also (correctly) referred to as a sharpening steel, a honing steel does not sharpen a knife.  Rather, it realigns the blade on a microscopic level so that the edge of the knife (the sharp side) is on the same axis as the thickest part of the blade (the spine).

Sharpening a knife involves removing material from the edge of a knife to create a new blade.  Since honing a knife simply straightens steel that has become angled through typical use, rather than removing material, honing does not (technically) sharpen a knife.  A honed knife just appears to be sharper since you're cutting with a straighter edge, rather than a jagged blade.  For a quick but effective visual, let's check out some Good Eats.

So now that we know the purpose of honing, let's talk about the actual process.

  1. Angle.  Assuming your knife is a Western make (most are, unless you're the lucky owner of a Shun, Global, or MAC...which are Japanese), a widely accepted angle between your blade and steel is 20 degrees.  You'll eventually get used to how this angle should feel, but an easy way to learn the first few times is to align your knife perpendicular to the steel (90 degrees), cut the angle in half (45 degrees), cut the angle in half again (22.5 degrees), and then estimate 20 degrees from there.  The steel can either be rested vertically on a non-slip surface on a table (as Alton does in the video above), or held perpendicular to your body if you're more comfortable that way.  If you aren't confident in your angle, it's better to be slightly under 20 degrees than being over 20 degrees.
  2. Motion.  As you're undergoing the process, start with the heel of your knife against the heel of the steel, and time it so that you end up with the tip of your knife sliding against the tip of your steel.  If you're propping your steel vertically on a table, start "the swiping motion" with the tip pointed 45-degrees above the horizontal, rather than parallel to the ground.  As you finish the motion, your knife should be 45-degrees below the parallel to the ground.  If you prefer to hold your steel "free-form", the same concepts apply.
  3. Pressure.  A common thinking is that the harder you press the knife against the steel, the better the end result will be; this is wrong!  Rather, you should apply slightly more than a light pressure for your first few swipes, and a light pressure for your final swipes.
  4. Repetition.  Each knife will be different (both because of the type of knife as well as how bad it needs a honing), but generally you'll want to swipe both sides of the knife five to eight times.  In addition, you should hone your knife each time you use it if you're an avid cook, or at least once a week if you don't use it that often.
  5. Length.  At the very least, your honing steel should be the same length as your chef's knife, but preferably, should be two inches longer (I have a 10-inch chef's knife and a 12-inch steel).
  6. Cleaning.  This is one area that most people don't think of, but one that makes total sense.  Although honing doesn't remove material like sharpening does, there still are microscopic "teeth" that come off during the process and end up in the fine ridges of your steel.  After each use, take a clean cloth to the steel to remove these bits.  If this is ignored, your ridges will plug up eventually and become a useless solid rod.
So now that you have the basic process down, how do you know if your hard work has paid off?  There are two main tests that cooks do.  The first is to hold up a piece of paper and try cutting through it at an angle.  If it slices through with no issue, you're in good shape.  If it has troubles initially cutting into the paper, your knife isn't as sharp as it should be.  The second test is to slice through a tomato.  Your knife should glide through it like butter, without squishing the tomato at all.

Now if you're positive that you've done all of the steps correctly and still feel that your knife is dull, you might need to get it sharpened.  I have this done professionally to my knifes 2 to 4 times a year since I use my knives all day, almost every day of the week.  If you only use your knives a couple times a week, you might only need one sharpening each year.

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  1. Thanks for posting. I've been meaning to buy a honing steel for a long, long time. I didn't realize that my lack of one was to blame for my knives not staying sharp.

    1. Glad the post helped out :) When you do get one, I'd get your knife sharpened first, and then start with the regular honing. If you're in Madison, I recommend Wisconsin Cutlery on University; $4 per knife.