Monday, February 21, 2011

Steel yourself

With so many more colorful and dazzling gadgets leaping off the pages of kitchenware catalogs, it's hardly surprising that I had a difficulttime generating enthusiasm for something as mundane as a sharpening steel.  But wow!  If I'd only known what I was missing...

I steel a knife a few times every time I pull it out.  That way, no matter what follows, at least I'm starting with a good, straight edge.  I've been using the same old sharpening steel for years - a standard round steel that came with some knife set or other.  It fits neatly into the little square hole in the knife block we use for the everyday knives.  And that, it seems, is part of the problem.  Because in a Tiny Kitchen, if there's already a tool doing the job AND it has it's own neat place in the overall storage system, why change?

An oval steel first caught my eye at a local kitchen supply store.  It's wide, flat profile and slightly dull surface was intruiging, and it struck me that I didn't know why you would want those qualitites in a steel.  After my usual flurry of research,  I came up with a less than satisfying answer:  Because that's the shape you like.  Is that a good reason to spend the money and find a place for it in the Tiny Kitchen?  There is that steel that fits so neatly into the little hole in the knife block, after all.  So it went on the back burner for a long time.

Then, while walking the floor of a restaurant trade show, I came across a cutlery vendor breaking down their booth.  And there was the oval steel, going cheap in the kind of cash-on-the-barrelhead I-don't-want-to-carry-these-home-wih-me kind of deal you only find in the final hour of a show.  It came home in my checked baggage.

Once back in the Tiny Kitchen, I faced the immediate and obvious dilemma - where does it go?  It has a nice sturdy ring at one end, so I thought about hanging it near the knife block.  But my wife took one look at it and pointed out that our seven-year-old would immediately use it for a toy sword and suggested it should live out of sight, like in a drawer.  And looking at it, she was absolutely right.  So into the tool drawer it went.  Even though I wondered if it would ever fall into regular use if it was out of sight, the idea of my son wielding it in a fight with his little sister was far worse.

Later, I took the steel from the drawer, pulled my favorite chefs knife from the block and gave it a few swipes on the steel.  The oval, flat shape took a little getting used to, but I was surprised how natural it felt.  I was equally surprised by the results - it was as if the knife had been waiting for this steel.  It went from it's usual pretty damn sharp to a whoa! dangerously sharp.

It turns out that oval is the shape I like.  And all the knives like too!  From paring knives to chefs knives to even the the impossibly long sushi knife, a few swipes and they all become action-movie sharp.  And since the tool drawer is near the chopping block - everything in the Tiny Kitchen is near everything else, but the drawer is right next to the block - I now find it instinctual to open the drawer, steel the knife, and put the steel away before turning to slice, dice, julienne, or carve.

In short, the cheapest and best way to quickly to upgrade your knives is to go get a good steel.

Here is my choice:

F. Dick 12" Sapphire Cut Sharpening Steel - Oval - At over $100 retail, this is obviously at the upper end of the price range.  So if you're not getting a super-duper-trade-show deal you may want to consider these other options:

Victorinox 12" Oval Sharpening Steel  - For the budget minded, Victorinox always delivers quality (and usually NSF compliance) at a good value.

J.A. Henckels 12" Oval Sharpening Steel - Henckel is a brand that's easy to find, though one needs to be careful as they produce both high and low end products.