Home cooks don't need a multitude of knives for the work they do in the kitchen. But for the knives you do have, it's important to care for them so that they last, and to minimize the chances of injury. Here are the most basic do's and don'ts when it comes to how to care for your knives.
Sharpening Your Knives
The single most important aspect of caring for your kitchen knives is keeping them sharp. Not only does a dull knife make your work in the kitchen more difficult, it also makes it more dangerous. It bears repeating: a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. A dull knife requires you to apply more pressure, which in turn makes it more likely to slip and cut you.
If you want to delve into the mysteries of knife sharpening, you certainly can. But if it comes down to using a dull knife because learning to use a whetstone is too daunting, do yourself a favor and have it sharpened by a professional. A cutlery store will probably be able to do it while you wait.
What is Honing?
Honing is another matter. Sharpening involves grinding away small amounts of metal to reshape the edge of the knife. Imagine having to grind a U into a V. Honing, on the other hand, is about aligning the edge of the knife. The edge is there, and it's sharp, but because it's so thin, it has a tendency to fold itself over after a period of use. Honing simply uncurls that edge and restraightens it.
Unlike sharpening, honing is something any home cook can and should do themselves. A honing steel or rod is a simple tool that will realign the edge of a knife with just a few strokes. It's good to hone before each use (as opposed to sharpening, which you might only do once or twice a year).
Honing really helps when slicing tough-skinned items tomatoes (although a serrated knife for tomatoes is not a bad idea.)
Choosing (and Using) a Cutting Board
So your knife is sharp and the edge is honed to perfect alignment. It's time to work! But what surface you cut on is another major factor in keeping your knife sharp and prolonging its life.
You should always cut on a cutting board. That means one made of wood, plastic, or bamboo (which technically is a type of grass, not wood).
For the sake of your knife, your cutting board should not be made of any material that is harder than the knife itself. That means no glass cutting boards. Nor should you chop directly on your granite or marble countertop. Or any countertop. Cutting boards are cheap. Use one!
Bamboo is the hardest material of the three types mentioned, so it's probably your third choice, at least as far as what's best for your knife. Plastic ones are easier to keep clean since they can go in the dishwasher, and you can throw them out when they get scarred. But a softwood cutting board like larch, teak or Japanese cypress will be best for your knife.
Whether to prioritize the life of your knife versus the life of your cutting board is another matter, and hardwood cutting boards like maple and walnut have much to recommend them. Moreover, you can sharpen a knife much more easily than you can replace a high-end cutting board.
Cleaning Your Knives
Cleaning is another area where kitchen knives are subject to terrible abuse. By far the worst thing you can do to your knives is to wash them in the dishwasher. With the amount of rattling that goes on in there, the blade is certain to bang against another knife, the edge of a plate, or even the rack itself, which will dull and possibly damage the blade (to say nothing of what the water and heat do to the grip).
No, for any knife worth owning, hand-washing is the way to go. Soap and hot water are all you need, and be sure to dry it right away rather than letting it air dry.
Carbon steel knives are a special case (as opposed to stainless steel, which is far more common). Carbon steel is a great material for making knives, since it holds its edge for a long time. On the other hand, it is prone to corrosion and rust—not unlike cast iron skillets. Therefore, it's also a good idea to lightly oil your carbon steel knife after drying it. Do consult your owners manual, though.
Storing Your Knives
With your knife clean and dry, you can now put it away. But where? Stowing an exposed knife blade in a drawer full of other kitchen utensils is both bad for the blade and for you, as you run the risk of cutting yourself while rummaging around.
Some knife aficionados swear by the magnetic strip affixed to the wall. Your knives simply stick to the strip where they don't move or get knocked around.
For some, the ability to display their knives is a bonus, but it might not be to everyone's liking. Moreover, you always have to be on your guard around these exposed blades, and remember that a strong enough bump might be enough to knock one off the strip and send it flying.
Wooden knife blocks are another option, but be sure to slide the knives into the slots upside down, so that they're not resting on the sharp edge of the blades.
Of course if someone only has one or two knives (and it's questionable whether the typical home cook needs more than three), either magnetic strip or dedicated knife block might be overkill. What then?
One simple solution is to purchase a plastic knife guard and slip it over the blade of your knife. Then you can store it in a drawer if that's your only feasible option, without worrying about cutting yourself or about the blade being damaged by other utensils.