Honing a knife cares for the shape of your knife, while sharpening focuses on refining the dullness of the blade.
You may have seen a long metal or ceramic rod included in a knife block or in the hands of a professional chef as they sharpen their knives. This tool is called a honing steel, honing rod, or sharpening steel, and it's used to hone knife blades—not sharpen them. There’s a difference, we promise.
Honing and sharpening are similar in that they’re both techniques used to maintain the edge of your kitchen knives, but their practice and purposes are fairly different.
To get an expert’s opinion, we talked with Sergio Menchaca, who runs Texas Sage Forge. Menchaca has been making custom kitchen knives since 2015. He reworks steel and forges it into unique knives, so he is very invested in preserving the integrity of his blades to ensure they last as long as possible.
During the course of putting normal wear and tear on a knife, your blade will eventually start to develop dings and dents, even if you can’t see them with the naked eye. Beyond aesthetic issues, these dings prevent your blade from cutting properly.
Another way of thinking of this is that knives have microscopic “teeth” that make up the blade which get bent out of shape while cutting and slicing. This is a completely normal issue that happens with knives of any caliber, and honing helps to realign those “teeth”.
The process of honing a knife on a honing rod smooths out and realigns the blade's edge without removing material. In its essence, honing a knife restores your blade to its original smooth, straight form.
Knife sharpening is the process of using a sharpening stone, whetstone, or electric knife sharpener to remove steel from a dull knife blade. This creates a newly revealed, sharp edge to make cutting easier. In other words, you are filing the blade down and removing a layer of dull steel in order to make it sharper.
“When you think you need to sharpen, you probably just need to hone it on a steel. I would do that first,” says Menchaca. “When you sharpen, you’re actually removing some of that steel. Honing just realigns it.”
Sharp knives are easier and safer to use, but knowing when you should hone and sharpen your knives is important. Dull knives require more pressure to cut, which can increase the chance that the knife can slip and injure you. This is why sharper knives are actually safer to use than dull ones, as a sharp knife can pierce the surface with less pressure needed.
Properly cared for knives should be regularly honed and less frequently sharpened. You can hone your kitchen knives as often as you like—some chefs prefer to hone their knives before each use.
Since sharpening removes material from your knives, we recommend sharpenings only when honing no longer seems to restore a blade's sharp edge. Typically, knives need to be sharpened a few times throughout the year—this can be more or less frequent, depending on how much you use them.
“For most home chefs, you only need to sharpen your knives a few times a year,” says Menchaca. “Honing should be done 3-4 times a year.”
You can test your blades’ sharpness by slicing through a tomato or a piece of paper while holding it in the air (but be mindful of your fingers!). A sharp knife will cut right through the paper and slice through the tomato's delicate skin with such little pressure that the fruit won't be squashed or damaged. If your knife is dull and doesn’t pass either of those tests, it’s likely beyond honing and time to sharpen.
When you invest in a quality set of kitchen knives, it's important to protect and care for them.
With proper care, honing, and sharpening, a high-quality knife set can last you a lifetime.
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