Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knife Care & Maintenance Pt 1

Okay, at long last, care and maintenance of those very important kitchen tools, your knives.

First off, let's address some common misconceptions regarding knives.

Misconception One: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the heat of the dishwasher will ruin the temper of your blades.

This is just silly. In order for this to happen, the temperature in your dishwasher would have to get up in excess of a thousand degrees fahrenheit. And if you think about it, it would be pretty amazing if your various plastic items could survive temperatures that would ruin steel. If your dishwasher could get hot enough to anneal steel of any sort, it would be a smoking ruin by the time it had washed its first load.

Misconception Two: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the soap will damage the blades.

Well, the only reason I can think of for this one is that people had to make something up, because they knew they shouldn't put their good knives in the dishwasher, but didn't know why. Soap, even citrus-based soap, as some contend, will not harm your knives. Steel would have to be pretty fragile stuff if dishwashing soap could harm it, and as to citrus, would you hesitate to slice an orange or lemon with your good knives? Well, there you go. And if you do hesitate, stop it, you're being silly. Yes, yes, acid will discolor high carbon blades, but chances are yours are high carbon stainless. If you have a high carbon blade, it's gonna be next to impossible to keep it from developing a patina anyway, so you might as well give up and slice tomatoes and citrus with it. What good is a knife you can't use for all your veggie needs?

So, here is the main reason you shouldn't put most good knives in the dishwasher. It will ruin the handles. This may seem obvious, if your knives have wooden handles. However, what is perhaps not so obvious is that often the plastic material for the handles is chosen for qualities other than being dishwasher safe. You've no doubt seen dull and cracked wooden handles on old kitchen knives. And you may have seen plastic handles that started out being shiny black, but are now milky and dull. This is because they were put in a dishwasher. However, some knives, like the Forschners I mentioned in a prior post have dishwasher-safe handles. And yet, people will still say you shouldn't put them in the dishwasher either. Well, this is sort of true. The problem here is that if you put them in the silverware basket, they may be in contact with other metal items, and the water spraying around will cause them to collide with other metal items in any event, which will dull the blades.

Don't do this

So, here's the deal. The steel in your knives can't be harmed by the heat or soap in the dishwasher, but the handles probably can. Unless they are dishwasher-safe handles. And even if they are, the way most people would load them in the dishwasher would cause them to bang against other stuff and be dulled. So, you can put knives with dishwasher-safe handles in the dishwasher, as long as you take care not to put them where they will come in contact with other things. Where to put them, then? Probably the best place would be in the top rack, with the sharp part of the blade pointed up. and no way for the knives to come in contact with anything but the rack. However, you may find it is actually easier to just wash them by hand, after all. But, it is my feeling that you should know the real reason you are hand washing your blades.

Well, maybe this...

Misconception Three: The steel in your knife block is a "honing" steel, not a "sharpening" steel, and those two terms are completely different things.

Wrong, I'm afraid, although I wish it were right. It's so much tidier that way. "I use my honing steel to hone my knives, but when they need actual sharpening, I use..." Up until very recently, I believed this to be true. Then I encountered Murray Carter, 17th Generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith and Certified Master Bladesmith. Murray makes amazing knives, has demonstrated sharpening them to a point where he could shave with them, by using only a cinder block, some cardboard, and a 2x4. Obviously, the man knows knives, and not just how to sharpen them, but just about all there is to know about sharpening them. So, I wrote to him asking about honing vs, sharpening. And he very politely pointed out that I was wrong to make that distinction. And how did he convince me that my ideas of honing vs. sharpening were wrong? By quoting a bunch of blade-making lore at me, or by telling me he ought to know, and so on? Nope. He merely invited me to look it up in a dictionary. And, he was right, by the way. Sharpening, honing, stropping, it's all sharpening. According to him, the best distinction that can be made is that a steel is used for "touching up" an edge. So, go ahead and think of one as honing, and the other as sharpening, if you like. It's still easier that way, if not entirely correct. Just don't tell people they are wrong to call a steel a "sharpening steel." They're not. And that, folks, is why manufacturers like Wustoff, Henckels, and well, just about all of them refer to their steels as "sharpening steels." Because they really are.

This, by the way, is a large part of the reason my posts on knife care and maintenance have been delayed. Murray pretty much took what I knew about sharpening, and knocked it into a cocked hat. Politely, and with great patience. I finally pestered him until he became annoyed, and rightly so. He has paying customers to communicate with, and here was this guy only trying to find the truth for his blog.

Also, his standards of sharpness are much higher than mine. I'm happy if my knives can slice tomatoes without smooshing or tearing them, he is only happy if his knives are, in his words. "scary sharp." And, since I can no longer shave with mine, apparently he has the right of it. If you are interested in learning the correct way to sharpen your knives, take a look at his site. He even has instructional DVD's that will show you how.

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