Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Keep Your Tools Sharp

Fair warning: I'm probably going to get weird. I feel like maybe I should just put that in the heading of the blog at this point. For those who don't know, I went to culinary school in 2001 - 2002. I developed a close relationship with my knives.

I was 17 years old when I bought my first knife set. It is still with me 12 years later. Of course, when I was 21, I lost the paring knife that came with the set. It was a great paring knife, too. It had a  four inch blade. It was very thin and agile. It felt like it belonged in my hand (one small caveat here - I am looking for different things to add to my amazon store and I stumbled upon an exact replica of the knife that I lost. Unfortunately, it is stamped steel and not forged. The search continues.). I haven't used one quite like it since it disappeared. The paring knife I currently own isn't horrible; and I've gotten accustomed to its feel in my hand, but it has never felt quite like it belongs there. The very tip of the blade chipped off. I don't hold that fact against the knife, though. It was like that when I found it. A few days earlier, I had actually broken the blade of the exact same model of knife. Then I just found this one sitting in the dish room at school. It seemed serendipitous, so I took it upon myself to borrow a new paring knife. The funny thing is that I never threw out my broken one. It still sits in my knife kit as if I will use it at some point. I won't. I know this. It has been there for ten years without being used. It won't be used in the next ten. I still can't bring myself to get rid of it.

I have only broken one knife in my life. It was the paring knife I mentioned above. I was in a pastry class where we were learning how to make plated desserts. Plated desserts are basically what you get when you order dessert in a fancy restaurant. They are desserts with a couple of components. An apple pie with cinnamon ice cream and a Grand Marnier caramel sauce, raspberry cheesecake with Sambuca ganache and a vanilla whipped cream; you get the picture. It was the first or second week of the class and we were learning how to temper chocolate (Here is a good link about tempering chocolate: In order to do this we had to shave chocolate off of huge five pound blocks, melt it down, and then play with it until it was tempered (btw, this process is a gigantic pain in the ass). I was a 19 year-old kid in a hurry. The method the teacher recommended to shave the chocolate off the block was taking too much time (he said we should take our French knives and just shave thin layers off of the edge of the block). So I decided to take my paring knife, jab it point-first into the block, then turn it like a key to break larger chunks off the block. This worked famously for about 90 seconds. Then, I twisted the blade and heard a snap. But it was not the snap of chocolate breaking from the block. It was the sharp ping of a half inch of steel breaking off of my knife. Then everyone laughed at me. I was heart-broken over the loss of my knife. I learned a lesson that day, though. If you're going to try to break chocolate off of a large block in the fashion that I described, don't use a paring knife. Use a knife that was designed to handle similar torque, like an oyster knife. Or, what is probably a more reasonable approach, use the method that someone with 20 years of experience has taught you.

A sharp knife is a safe knife. This is a rule that is taught to all culinary students on day one. You are going to cut yourself. There is no way around it when you use a knife for 40 or more hours a week. You get tired, over-worked, under-rested, drunk, hung over, and you are constantly in a hurry. If your knives are dull, they won't cut your skin so much as they will tear it. If your knives are sharp, the cuts will be thin and will heal quickly, even if they are deep. If your knives are dull, they will open wide, gaping wounds in your hands that are more likely to require stitches. No body wants stitches. Here is a two minute instructional video on knife sharpening (

I keep my knives very sharp. I would venture to guess that even when I let my knives get dull they are still sharper than 90% of knives in the world. A sharp knife becomes a point of pride amongst cooks. I used to run my knives over my stone once a week or so. Now, I am less obsessive about them (but still pretty obsessive - I will describe my process soon). I also use them a lot less than I used to, so they end up staying sharper longer.

When I do sharpen my knives, I do all of them. I lay them all out on the counter. I set up my stone and I take my time. I will often set aside two hours just to get my knives back into shape. I have a stone with three different grit sizes on it. I rarely use the side that is the most coarse. That side is sort of reserved for when there is a burr in the edge. I don't usually hack through things that are hard enough to chip the edges of my knives, so I don't use that stone very often. So I start on the medium grit stone. I use water on my stones because water is cheaper than oil. Some people like oil because it allows the blades to slide a little more easily. I have used both. It doesn't really make a difference in the sharpness of the blade in my humble opinion. When you sharpen your knives, you are essentially holding the blade at about a 20 degree angle to the stone (hold the blade perpendicular to the stone, tip it halfway, then tip it halfway again - close enough to 20 degrees). You want to have as much of the length of the blade contacting the stone as is possible while you are moving the blade across the stone (the gentleman in the video does a really great job of this). You can actually hear the difference between a smooth stroke and one in which you tip the blade forward or back. It is almost as if the knife tells you when you are doing a good job.

So here we are, knives all laid out on the counter, stone set up and wet down. I like to do this when the house is completely silent so I can hear the blades running across the stone. I find a slow, smooth rhythm while moving the knife across the stone, flipping to the other side of the blade and moving it back across the stone the other way. Sometimes I close my eyes and just listen to the scrape and feel the gentle vibration of the knife as it makes its way along the stone. I always start with my French knives, then move along to boning knife, then paring, and I finish with my fillet knife. I go this route because the shape of the blades of the French knives, boning knives, and paring knife are similar and therefore, require similar motions when sharpening. The fillet knife has a more curved blade and so the motion has to be adjusted midway through in order to sharpen the entire length of the blade. I run them individually over the medium grit stone, wipe them off, then move on to the next blade. Once they have all been passed over that stone, I repeat the entire process on the fine grit stone until they have an acceptable edge on them. An acceptable edge, to me, means one of two things: I can gently tap the knife onto one of my finger nails and it sticks, or I can gently lay the sharp edge of the blade across my fingers and feel it "grip" the first few layers of skin (don't try the second method unless you have cut yourself a lot - it isn't the safest method of inspecting your blades). Then I wipe them all off again, dry them thoroughly, and clean up my stone. Then the blades go back to their homes either in the knife block on my counter, or in their sheathes in my knife kit.

And since this post has the attention span on a first-grader, I'm going to talk about cutting myself. I have done it a lot. Almost immediately after you buy a new knife, it gets you. For some reason, this (almost) never happens when I'm using a knife that someone else owns. It is almost as if your new knife needs to taste you....feel you out so to speak. There is an inevitable nick that comes when you buy a new blade. I've never cut myself on purpose, but I'll be damned if I didn't know that a couple of them were coming. For example, the worst cut I ever sustained, I knew was going to happen about 30 seconds before it actually happened. In an interesting turn of events, I was using someone else's knife. It's a good thing I was, too, because my knife was not sharp at the time and the cut I would have sustained would have been exponentially worse. Anyway, the cut, the worst one. I was in my first ever final practical of culinary school, Culinary 101, Basic Skills. My risotto was on the stove and I was stirring furiously and the little bastard just wouldn't thicken and get creamy (the heat was too high). I hadn't had time to go get myself some parsley for garnish because of the risotto debacle. Luckily, my friend, George, (I think it was George, he was only in culinary school for that one class) had gone and gotten a bunch of parsley that was conveniently laying on his cutting board next to his freshly sharpened knife. George was at the stove with me. So I looked at him and made a deal, "George, if I chop all that parsley, can I use some of it for my risotto?" George was agreeable to my offer, so I turned my risotto down to low (which allowed it to thicken) and got chopping. A quick note about cutting things in the kitchen: the proper method is to curl your fingertips back on top of what you are cutting and hide your thumb behind it. I knew this. I know this. Parsley doesn't like to stay in one uniform, compressed bunch so you can chop it easily. It flops all over the place so as to make it as difficult on you as possible. So I started chopping with my fingers aligned properly. The parsley started acting like parsley. Not wanting to waste time (I was already in the weeds), I just started to corral the parsley back into a bunch with my thumb as I was chopping (I was going as fast as I could at that point, which, at that point in my knife skills, required me to slam the blade down with the full weight of my arm). As soon as I started moving my thumb, I knew what was coming. There was no doubt in my mind that my thumb was to become fodder for a freshly sharpened blade. And it did. I slammed the knife down and I felt it stop at the bone of my left thumb. I immediately screamed the "fuck" word. The whole class turned and looked at me. I was already on my way to the sink to rinse out the wound. I put a bandage and a glove over it and fought on to finish. That first glove filled with blood pretty quickly. I asked my friend, Joe, for help. We went back to the sink, washed it up, but on another bandage as tightly as possible, and then another bandage "upstream" from the wound to act as tourniquet, then, another glove. The bleeding stopped. I aced the practical portion and then went on to ace the written portion as well.

There are two funny things about this story. The first is that I apologized to my chef instructor when I brought my risotto up for her to grade. On the first day of class she told us that we were not allowed to cut ourselves in her class. I had broken a rule and so I apologized. The second is that I can still think about that moment and actually feel and hear the knife as it cut through my finger and finger nail. The nail made a very distinct "pop" as the knife cut it. Every time I think about it, it makes me shudder. Also, every time I am chopping any kind of herb, I think about it.

The sharpening of my knives has become a meditation for me. It was the first truly meditative experience of my adulthood. It is mundane....and boring. And I often times put it off so I can do other, more interesting things with my time, but it has become this really beautiful moment of solitude that I often long for. There is sound and movement and touch. And there is pay-off, as well (yes, I enjoy playing with my freshly sharpened knives). The next time I use my knives, I inevitably feel the ease of the newly sharpened blade. Cutting becomes effortless. Rather than having to exert down-force on the knife, I merely have to lift it off the cutting board, simply guide the blade to where I want the next cut to be, and relax my hand as the blade slips through whatever I happen to be cutting. It is poetry.

So keep your tools sharp. Regardless of whether your tool happens to be a knife or your mind or your body, keep it sharp. Do the scheduled maintenance and it will last you a long time.

Peace and Love,

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