How to Sharpen a Knife: Honing vs Sharpening

Honing and sharpening are distinct yet mutually beneficial techniques used to maintain the health of your knife.

How to Sharpen a Knife: Honing vs Sharpening
Chef's knife paring knife and honing steel
Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

A dull knife can be dangerous, but a little bit of knife maintenance goes a long way. When I first learned to cook, I purchased a mechanical sharpener simple enough to use each time my knife began to dull. 

Then, several years later, I heard the term "honing" for the first time and realized I had missed an entire portion of knife maintenance! 

Honing and sharpening are two completely different but critical components required to keep your knives in tip-top shape. Interested in learning more? Here's what you need to know about honing and sharpening.

Whetstone chefs knife honing steel sharpening vs honing
Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

What is the Difference Between Honing and Sharpening?

A newly purchased knife is razor-sharp and swiftly cuts through any produce in sight, from cucumbers to squash to tomatoes. Over time, the blade dulls with repeated use. That tomato doesn't feel as easy to slice into anymore. If your knife feels dull, it could mean it needs to be honed or sharpened. 

Honing is a process where you realign the edge of the blade by dragging your knife from heel to tip across a long, sturdy rod called a honing steel. It does not actually sharpen the knife, even though some honing steels are confusingly termed "sharpening steels." The natural wear-and-tear of the knife causes microscopic "teeth" on the blade's edge to bend or misalign. Honing steels help put these bent serrations back in place. 

We recommend honing your knife at least a few times a week if you cook regularly, and many chefs actually hone each time they enter the kitchen. Consistent honing prevents you from having to sharpen your knife too often. 

Sharpening is a process where you shave some of the dulled metal off your knife to expose a new, sharp edge. Sharpening is recommended when honing no longer works because the metal is too fatigued. Typically, sharpening is only required a couple of times a year. 

A sharp knife that has just cut through a sheet of paper
A sharp knife should cut through a piece of paper.Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

How Do I Know if my Knife Needs Honing or Sharpening? 

If your knife feels dull, most of the time, a quick hone will do the trick. However, your knife will need sharpening if, even after honing, it feels challenging to slice through a vegetable cleanly. A sharp knife easily cuts through a tomato, but a dull knife will struggle. 

Once you've sharpened your knife, you can test to see it's sharp enough by firmly holding a piece of paper and drawing the blade of your knife through the paper. If the blade feels resistant or cannot create a straight line, it will need additional sharpening.

Chef's knife and honing steel
Simply Recipes / Karishma Pradhan

What Kind of Equipment Do I Need for Honing?

For honing, you will want to purchase a honing steel, of which there are several different options. For more details on purchasing and using a honing steel, take a look at this article:

What Kind of Equipment Do I Need for Sharpening?

There are many different ways to sharpen a knife, from manual sharpeners to electric sharpeners to whetstones and water stones. Most chefs use a whetstone or water stone because they have complete control over the sharpening process, shaving off minimal metal. However, there is a bit of a learning curve. 

Manual and electric sharpeners are easier to use but shave off more of the metal. Additionally, if misused, electric sharpeners can damage your knife. On the plus side, electric sharpeners can sharpen knives in just a few seconds.

When in doubt, I recommend a professional sharpening service (especially if you only need to do this a couple of times a year). Many kitchen supply stores, such as Sur La Table, offer cheap sharpening services. You can also find professional knife sharpeners in your local area. Additionally, some companies, such as Misen or Shun offer complimentary knife sharpening services.

There are so many methods for sharpening a knife, so you can choose the one that works best for you! For more details on knife sharpening, take a look at the following articles: