Honing your blade is one of the main aspects of good knife care. But it often gets confused with sharpening, even though they’re not the same thing.
To break it down to first principles, sharpening is taking away material, and honing isn’t. Instead, honing is straightening out the edge of an already-sharp blade.
That’s it. That’s the difference.
Never mind that some people call the stick-with-a-handle stuck in your knife block a “sharpening steel”. Some others call it a “honing steel”, and that’s far more on-the-mark. Mind you, it’s also a “honing steel” if it’s made from ceramic, but we’ll get back to that later.
One of these things is not like the other.
As I said, to sharpen a blade you take away material, often by grinding. Some chefs say you should send your knives out to be sharpened by a pro, and Heather talks about how to sharpen your knives here if you don’t want to send them out, but whichever way you slice it (I’m so sorry) sharpening only needs to be done every 6-12 months, depending on use and your knife.
Honing, on the other hand… People smarter than I suggest that you hone your knife each time you take it out to use it. Hone, wash, use. Why?
When you use a knife, the edge will eventually be knocked microscopically to the side, curled over, out of alignment. Out of “true”. That nice straight edge you had when it was freshly-sharpened isn’t so straight anymore, and that will reduce its effectiveness as a cutting implement, and will cause your blade to become dull quicker.
Honing isn’t sharpening, remember, so you’re not removing material. What you are doing is pushing that edge true again, back into alignment, so when you cut you’re using the nice sharp edge instead of the wibbly-wobbly, curled-over travesty you might have been using before.
Why should I bother?
A sharp knife is a safe knife, because accidents happen when you have to push so much harder to get the knife through the food. You push hard, something slips, and there’s blood.
Even a nicely-sharp cheap blade is better than an expensive blade that’s dull. If you like the way your $25 IKEA full-tang knife feels in your hand, keep it sharp and honed and use it. Save your money and use it to replace that glass cutting board that’s ruining your blade. (Or you could use it to pay bills. Whatever shakes your boat.) The benefit to a high-quality knife is in the steel it’s made from—good quality material will stay sharp longer. But it still needs to be honed.
So what am I doing, here?
Honing is super-easy, and safer than the crazy chefs on television make it look. Forget about waving steel in the air like an extra in a 1970s Kung Fu film. Think safe, sane, controllable.
Place the tip of the honing steel on your countertop and hold it vertically. Grasp your knife comfortably in your hand, the way you do when you’re cutting something, and slowly draw the knife down the steel from heel of blade to tip, in one, smooth, movement, angling the blade toward the steel at about a 20-degree angle.
(If you don’t want to pull out your protractor, just get a sheet of paper with a 90-degree corner, like a sheet from your printer. Fold it in half, to make a 45-degree angle, then fold that again. Now you have a 22.5-degree angle, which should give you an idea of the angle at which you should be honing your blades. If you don’t want to be too fussed, just pretend you’re cutting off a wee thin slice of your honing steel, and you should be close to the correct angle.)
Do that about five times on one side, five times on the reverse side, then twice on each side again. Don’t push—just let gravity do the work for you. There. You should have a nice, honed, edge. Easy-peasy.
Now wipe down your steel and wash any metal grit off your knife, and you’re good to go.
What if I don’t have a honing steel?
If you’ve purchased your knives piecemeal, or if you inherited your knife set from Great Aunt Goodwill, you might not have a honing steel. That’s not a problem. Amazon has a selection for you, ranging from the less-expensive steel or ceramic ones to those coated in diamond grit. Choose a steel that at the very least matches the quality of your knife, and is as long as (or longer than) your longest knife. Some chefs recommend good quality diamond grit steels from reputable companies, saying that they are worth the price because, being of such hard material, they may take off a little bit of material and so sharpen slightly as well as hone. If you’re going to go with one of those, be absolutely sure you’re honing at the right angle or you could ruin your knife’s edge. Ceramic steels are becoming more popular as well, but remember that ceramic steels can’t be used to hone ceramic blades. And if I were you, when choosing a steel I’d weigh price and material over the customer reviews; most of them seem to need to read this blog post to learn the difference between sharpening and honing.