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Restaurant Resource Center

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Proper Knife Care & Maintenance for Chef's Knives & Other Cutlery

“A kitchen without a knife is not a kitchen.”
—Masaharu Morimoto, Iron Chef and restaurateur

It's hard to imagine running a restaurant kitchen without good chef's knives, serrators and other slicing and carving knives. That's why most cooks have their own, and care for and maintain them with almost fanatical devotion. Here are some tips for taking care of the cook's best friends.

Using Blades

Like any high-performance piece of commercial kitchen equipment, good knives require special care. “Keep your knife away from acid,” cautions Timothy Fischer, executive chef at the Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, NJ. “If left on there, it can slowly deteriorate your knife. This can happen when cutting things such as lemons and tomatoes and then leaving your knife to sit for an extended period of time.” It's also a bad idea to let salty or sticky substances languish on blades. If you can't wash the knife immediately after use, at least wipe it down to remove harmful residue.

And don't forget to wipe down handles frequently, too, particularly when working with greasy or moist foods. A slippery handle reduces accuracy and cutting quality—and increases the likelihood of dropping the knife or cutting yourself.

Cleaning Knives

“I wash my knives every time I use them,” says Francois de Melogue, chef at Figue Mediterranean in La Quinta, CA. “That is common sense.”

Knife manufacturers provide specific cleaning instructions for the metals they use. Regardless of the blade type, skip the dishwasher. “The dishwasher can dull knife blades when they rub against each another or cause small cracks in the handle over time where bacteria could get trapped,” says food safety expert Cheryl Luptowski of NSF International in Ann Arbor, MI. Instead, wash knives in hot, soapy water and dry with a clean cloth or paper towels. “They should be regularly sanitized by wiping down with a standard bleach solution, typically one cap of bleach per gallon of water.”

Sharpening Blades

“There is not a time limit on when you sharpen your knives,” de Melogue says. “It depends on when it is dull.” In a commercial setting, this translates simply to “often.”

James King, chef and owner of The Frying Scotsman in Portland, OR, hand cuts about 100 pounds of potatoes each morning. “I sharpen my knives about 12 times in a typical day, and I'm only open during lunch hours.”

Some kitchens have industrial-grade knife sharpeners on site. If that's out of your budget, pick up a tri-stone or diamond steel to bring back existing edges, and then see a pro regularly. Every six months, King takes his knives to a professional sharpener who puts them on a stone or machine to restore the blade.

Storing Knives

“Storage is tricky,” says Josh Jones, executive chef and partner at Madison & Rayne in Chicago. “You do not want to just chuck them in a drawer since every time the blades contact metal you risk dinging, nicking or bending the edge. Also avoid the magnetic strip. The magnets can actually misshape the edge. I usually roll my knives up in a kitchen towel.”

That's a bare-bones version of the traditional chef's knife roll. “They are small, store well and are very movable so you can bring them with you to different kitchens, and to and from home with ease,” says Fisher, who prefers rolls with plastic sleeves for blades to prevent cutting yourself on one knife while taking another out. “Storage space is always at a premium and the roll is very compact.”

Honoring Blades

Because of the important role knives play in the kitchen, many chefs hold mandatory training sessions to reinforce best practices in use, care and safety. “Caring for your knife should be second nature, and I think all staff should be trained to appreciate what a good knife can do for you in the kitchen,” says Bob Simontacchi, executive chef at Brick & Bottle in Corte Madera, CA. “Knives are what voice is to your favorite singer. You have to train and commit to caring for what you have to be the best at your position in the kitchen.”

Carrboro, NC-based Margot Carmichael Lester grew up in a gourmet grocery and parlayed that into a career writing about food, drinks and business for a variety of outlets, including in-flight magazines, consumer titles and Web sites. She has owned her own business, The Word Factory, for two decades. A devotee of dining at the bar, she favors sparkling wines and anything with bacon.

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