How to care for a chef's knife
It's arguably the single greatest tool one can have in the kitchen, so treat it with respect!
Years ago, in university, I had a roommate whose father owned a Japanese restaurant. When she moved into my apartment, she brought along a magnificent sushi knife that she said I could use, as long as I cared for it properly. I became obsessed with that knife. It was the first time in my life that I was able to cut food with ease, slicing through onions and carrots and green peppers as if they were soft butter. Eventually the roommate left and the knife went with her. It was a sad day, more for the loss of the latter than the former.
In the wake of the knife’s departure, cooking became a dreaded chore. I had no desire to fight with an awful, dull blade that took twice as long to do the same task. My boyfriend and I lasted less than a week before heading to the kitchen store and dropping $175 on a beautiful Japanese MAC chef’s knife. The purchase felt utterly extravagant at the time, but that knife is now eight years old and still as beloved as the day it came home with us.
For years, we used only that knife. It was sharp enough to do every task, even slicing bread. Five years ago, we added a Wusthof paring knife to the collection, and eventually, a serrated bread knife. But that’s all we have in our house – not a single blade more – because these three meet all our needs. In fact, I've called it one of the 3 essentials in my kitchen, featured in a post several years ago. You can see it below:
© K Martinko
We had to learn how to care for our chef’s knife from the very beginning – not a difficult task, since we’d spent so much money on it – but it did require a mental shift from how we’d treated knives up until that point.
#1: No dishwasher
The knife had to be washed by hand with hot soapy water and dried immediately, so as not to rust along the edge. The dishwasher can be very hard on knives because of the intense heat, particularly if handles are made of wood and could separate from the blade, and because a dishwasher tends to jostle items against each other, which chips away at the blade. For this same reason, you shouldn’t drop knives into a sink of soapy water, since it can hit against other objects (not to mention slice a finger when you reach in).
#2: Careful storage
“No knife parties in the drawer,” the salesman insisted. Since we didn’t own a knife block, he sold us a plastic sheath that locks onto the blade and keeps it protected from all other utensils in the drawer where it’s stored. The same goes for our little Wusthof blade, always kept in a velvet-lined sleeve when not in use.
#3: Always cut on wood
Wooden cutting boards are an ideal surface for knives; glass and plastic cutting boards are not. Resist the urge to cut on a granite or marble countertop, which may sound crazy, but happens surprisingly often, according to chef David Lebovitz.
#4: Chop smartly
Just because a good knife can cut through anything doesn’t mean you can cut mindlessly. Especially with my Japanese knife, it’s important not to twist the knife when cutting a hard food such as winter squash or watermelon. This could actually break the thin steel.
Some chefs recommend trying to keep the blade on the cutting board as much as possible, rocking it back and forth. Avoid the up-and-down motion of chopping, which can damage a blade.
#5: Keep it sharp
A sharp knife is a safe knife. Maintain sharpness by honing regularly, ideally every time you use it. This means using a steel to straighten out the blade’s edge. (Check out Melissa's method for sharpening a knife without a sharpener.)
Sharpening is something different. That’s when material is removed from the blade to regain a sharp edge. It happens much less frequently, whenever cutting performance has significantly decreased, which depends on usage; if you need to apply pressure to cut or if it’s difficult to slice through a tomato skin, then it’s probably time to sharpen.
Some people send their knives away to a manufacturer to sharpen, or purchase a tool like the AccuSharp or Furi Knife Sharpener to do it. Others use Japanese whetstones at home, but you have know the proper angle, depending on the type of steel.