There’s nothing that can ruin a chef’s day quite like a dull blade. Essential for preparing virtually any dish, knives are the workhorses of the kitchen, transforming raw materials and food items into culinary masterpieces.
But when dull, they can really put a damper on things. From increased safety risks, to imprecise cuts and unaesthetic slices, no chef wants to work with a dull knife.
This brings us to a question we hear often. What do professional chef’s use to sharpen knives?
After all, if it's good enough for the pros, its good enough for us, right?
In this guide we weigh in with the experts, covering the ways professional chefs keep their own blades razor-sharp and performing reliably with every cut and slice.
DISCLAIMER: Working with knife blades is always a dangerous activity, and sharpening your blades is no exception. Even a dull blade can cause serious injury with one false move. Always use extreme caution when dealing with knife blades, wear protective gear when appropriate, and never attempt to sharpen a blade when it is wet or slippery.
Professional Sharpening vs Honing
Before we dive in, professional chefs use two methods to achieve and maintain an optimal edge on their blades: sharpening and honing.
Although novices might use these terms interchangeably, in practice they are two very separate activities, each used for a separate purpose.
Honing is a gentle process, intended to ease the edge back into optimal position and to maintain a superior edge between sharpening. As such, honing is a much more frequently employed method of keeping a blade sharp than is sharpening.
This process involves a more abrasive approach, essentially grinding down the steel to form the bevel of the blade’s edge (usually between 15-20 degrees). Sharpening can also be used to straighten out or fix larger imperfections in the blade. Because this process is abrasive and can wear down the knife over time, professionals only sharpen when necessary.
What do Professional Chefs Use to Sharpen Knives?
The whetstone has long been the preferred sharpening tool of professional chefs the world around. Dating back centuries, the process of sharpening was once referred to as ‘whetting’. Despite the stone’s name, and the fact that it is indeed soaked in water, making it ‘wet’, the whetstone’s origin comes not from the fact that water is used at all.
Today, these stones may also be referred to as a:
- Sharpening stone
- Honing stone
- Diamond stone; and/or
- Ceramic stone
- Water stone
Regardless of the name used, all sharpening stones are ‘whetstones’, even those where water or other cutting fluids are not involved as part of the sharpening process.
The Japanese Water Stone
Among the most prized whetstones are those which come from Japan. Often considered superior in form, function and results, these stones meld ancient tradition with modern practice. There’s no denying the Japaneses’ prowess for sharpening blades
How to Use a Whetstone
The following is a brief (and generic) quick guide on how to use a whetstone. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines as these may differ from the below. And remember, it takes patience, persistence and practice to master sharpening with a whetstone.
- Place a damp towel on a flat surface. This will aid in preventing the stone from slipping on a slick wet surface.
- Soak the whetstone in water for a few minutes or until it stops bubbling. Some stones only need to be ‘splashed’, while others require soaking for a few minutes.
- Wet each side of the knife blade with water to reduce friction and heat.
- Place the knife blade at a 15-20 degree angle on the stone with the tip pointing away from you
- Rest your fingers on the flat side of the blade while keeping your thumb securely on the handle grip
- Gently and with consistent force, drag the knife blade across the whetstone in a circular motion (while maintaining the proper angle)
- Repeat this process an equal amount of times per side of the blade’s edge to create a proper bevel.
TIP: Most whetstones will have a coarse and smooth side. If your knife is excessively dull or if you need to smooth out imperfections in the edge, start with the coarse side and then fine-tune it on the smooth side. If your blade only needs a little maintenance, skip the coarse side altogether and use the smooth side exclusively.
Sometimes Pros Hire Pros
There is an art and a science to properly sharpening kitchen knives. It takes quite a bit of skill and practice to get it just right. Every blade ideally needs a unique approach based on its specific alloy composition and intended use, as well as that which will match the personal preference of the chef.
This, along with the fact that sharpening can be a time-consuming activity, is why professionals often hire this task out to a professional knife sharpener.There you have it. The whetstone is the ideal tool for the job. Although authentic Japanese water stones might set you back a bit, whetstones can be purchased for as little as $10-$15 online, making them an affordable accessory to keep your own blades in peak operating shape.