Plus, how and how often to sharpen them
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Credit: annick vanderschelden photography

Quality knives are an important—and necessary—staple of any cook’s kitchen. But caring for them isn’t as straightforward or intuitive as you might think.

“Your knives should be treated totally separately and differently than other things in kitchen,” says Casey Easton, founder and creative director of Food Lab, a Boulder, Colorado-based cooking school.

A great kitchen knife is worth the price. Though these pieces of specialized cutlery can put a dent in your wallet, they play such an integral role in meal-making that you'll likely use them every day. But it’s important to give them the proper TLC they need—and deserve, so you can get years and years of use.  Here are four expert-recommended tips for keeping your knives in tip-top shape for the long term.

Wash them by hand

Sticking your knives in the dishwasher is never a good idea. That’s because dishwasher detergents are so powerful that they can easily pit the steel of knives. Plus, the jostling motion of the machine can dull and chip a blade and corrode the handle, explains Nolan Samuel Adams, associate buyer of cutlery at Sur La Table and self-described “resident knife nerd.”

The best case scenario, says Adams, is immediately hand washing, drying and putting away your knives after each usage.

When washing your knife by hand, use the “softest sponge you can while still ensuring the schmutz gets off,” says Adams. Avoid abrasive sponges or scouring pumices as those can eventually dull a high-polished knife and/or peel away any logo printed on the knife. After thoroughly (and delicately), washing your knife, safely dry it by running a towel along the dull edge, says Easton.

Don’t ever leave them in the sink

Letting a crusty knife soak in a kitchen sink overnight (or even for just a couple hours) may seem smart, but it is a bad idea on two counts.

The first is basic safety: you might forget about it and reach in and cut yourself. The second is longevity: a knife sitting in water can rust, and if it has an exposed natural wood handle (i.e. one that is not coated in resin), the wood could crack from the moisture. Instead, follow the instructions above.

Store them properly

There are many knife storage solutions, and magnets and blocks are both “equally protective,” says Adams. What’s not good: putting your knives in a loose bin where they could jostle with and wear against other knives and kitchen tools.

If you don’t have the wall or counter space for a magnet or block, consider getting knife guards, says Easton. These individual plastic or magnetic sleeves clip over knives and allow you to safely store them in drawers.

Cut on an appropriate surface

Not all cutting boards are created equal. Certain materials, like natural wood, composite wood and plastic, make especially great boards because the material gives slightly when cut into, which helps preserve the integrity of the knife blade. The one caveat about plastic: these boards are slightly more difficult to wash, as the slits created by cutting into them can be breeding grounds for bacteria, so if you have the option, a wood board (which is often naturally antibacterial) is a better bet safety-wise.

On the stay-far-away list: any board made of glass, basalt, ceramic, metal or stone. These may make fancy charcuterie platters, but “they are the absolute worst on your knife,” says Adams, “because they are harder than the knife itself, and don’t give on a microscopic level” when cut into, which can ultimately damage the blade.

A note on sharpening:

Regularly sharpening your knives won’t improve their longevity per se, but it’s an important part of kitchen safety, say both Easton and Adams.

First, some clarification on what actually constitutes sharpening. Running your knives against a steel rod (like the ones that come in many knife blocks) isn’t abrasive enough to actually sharpen them. Instead, this “hones” your knives, i.e. realigns the blade at a microscopic level, explains Adams. Doing this on the reg will improve a knife’s performance for a while (up to a year, Adams estimates) but once the blade has become rounded enough, it won’t make difference—and that’s where sharpening comes in.

To sharpen your knife, you need something abrasive enough to take off material from the knife and create a new bevel (that's the pointy edge), like an electric sharpener or a manual sharpening rod. If you have an electric sharpener, just be careful not to overuse it, warns Adams. “These tools have the potential to vastly over-sharpen knives by taking away too much material,” he says.

How often you should sharpen your knives has a lot to do with the type of knife and how often you use it. Most American consumers have Germanic or other softer steel knives, explains Adams, which as a general rule of thumb, warrant a sharpening about once a year. Japanese, Swedish and other harder steel knives stay sharper longer. But again, how often you should sharpen your knife will really depend on how frequently you’re using it.

There are a few ways you can tell if your knife is ready for a tune-up. Grab a cutting board and slowly run the knife from heel to tip. If you feel any vibration, chip or snag, it’s time to re-sharpen, says Adams.  

Another telltale sign: if chopping, slicing or otherwise using your knife has become more difficult.

“If you can’t easily push a knife through a tomato, you need to sharpen it,” says Adams. This is not only for ease of use, but for your own safety as well. A dull knife can slide off the object you’re trying to cut and knick your hand instead.