Knife honing explained

If you’ve purchased a knife block set, you probably got one of those rods that kind of looks like a light saber. But what is it and why should you use it?

Simple answer: It’s a tool used to maintain your knife’s edge.

But it’s not a sharpener. And you have to know how to use it.

Sure, some people refer to it as a “sharpening rod” but it doesn’t sharpen. It hones.

So when your knife starts to feel dull, why wouldn’t you just sharpen it?

Let’s pretend your knife’s cutting edge is like your hair. When you wake up and hairs are out of place, you brush or comb it. When it gets too long and unruly you (probably) cut it. If you cut the hairs that are out of place every time you wake up, you’ll eventually be bald.

Combing your hair is like honing and cutting your hair is like sharpening.

Your knife’s edge has microscopic burrs. When you use your knife, those burrs go from standing straight (sharp) to bending (starting to feel dull). You use a honing rod to “comb” or straighten those burrs. If they stay bent, they may curl or fall off and your knife will need to be sharpened. Sharpening removes a layer of metal to create a new cutting edge.

The reason why some people refer to the honing tools as “sharpening rods” is that they really do make your knife feel sharper. The best thing about them is they prolong the need for sharpening.

Once enough time has passed and your knife has seen a lot of use, you have to cut your hair — I mean, sharpen your knife. (And sharpening should really only be done once per year on a knife you use several times a day.)

How do you use this wonderful kitchen tool? First let’s look at the parts of the knife:

Knife

 

I’m assuming you know which part is the handle and which part is the blade. If you don’t, for goodness sake call for takeout.

Tips for using your honing rod:

  1. Apply a light amount of pressure. Think about combing your hair. If you put too much pressure it hurts. You could end up hurting your knife or your rod if you press too hard.
  2. Use the right rod for your knife. Generally speaking, Japanese knives have a harder steel than European blades. European blades use a stainless steel rod and Japanese blades use either a ceramic or a tungsten-coated rod. If you aren’t sure what knife you have, ask the experts at your local cookware store.
  3. You aren’t Gordon Ramsay. You may have seen his hands move a mile-a-minute as he uses his, but that takes years of practice using a honing rod multiple times a day. Focus on doing it right and I promise you will get faster.

If you’re new to honing, I suggest you hold your knife and rod like Mila. She was nice enough to model for me, so make her proud. Here she is holding her knife and rod against a cutting board:

Honing example

You can see Mila holding the heel of the blade against the honing rod. She is preparing to hone this European-style knife at a 20 degree angle. For Japanese knives, you want a 15 degree angle.

If the angle sounds confusing, don’t worry. If you take my previous advice and press lightly, you aren’t going to hurt your knife or your rod. Aim to do it right, but don’t worry if it’s actually at 22 degrees, etc.

The technique

Pressing lightly, drag one side of the cutting edge along the entire length of the rod.

While going from the top of the rod to the bottom, move the knife so it makes contact from heel to tip. (You don’t need to go right to the point.)

As best as you can, try to maintain the angle during the the entire length of the rod.

Repeat on the other side of the knife’s edge.

Some people do several drags on one side and then several drags on the other side. I don’t recommend this to a novice because you are aiming for symmetry.

Repeat the entire process 5 to 10 times per side.

You can do this every day, or once a week, whatever.

How do I know if I’m doing it right?

When you use a stainless steel rod on the proper blade, it makes a sweet noise. It sounds like the classic movie sound effect of a sword being unsheathed by a master swords-person.

I honed, but it didn’t do anything.

It’s likely one of these reasons:

  1. It’s time for the knife to be sharpened.
  2. It’s time to buy a new rod. They can get worn out. Look at the surface. A stainless steel rod should have small grooves. Ceramic and tungsten-coated rods change colour when they need replacing. These last two take considerably longer to wear out because they are harder.

There you have it. Keep on practicing and one day you might be as fast as a professional chef!

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