Honing vs Sharpening

Today I hope to dispel a common kitchen myth, a culinary urban legend that misinformed cooks everywhere have taken to heart. Countless times I’ve witnessed cooks – beginners and experts alike – run their knives back and forth over a steel, a long, thin, metal rod usually with a plastic or rubber handle, thinking that they are in fact sharpening their blade and I can’t take it any longer. So, here goes. (Clearing throat).

Running your knife over a honing steel does NOT sharpen your knife. There, I said it.

Sharpening a knife can only be accomplished by actually grinding or shaving off tiny bits of the blade’s metal, giving the blade a completely new edge. You need professional sharpening equipment or a whetstone, literally a piece of stone with a grainy surface that you wet before running the blade across it to sharpen a knife’s blade.

What your honing steel does is help keep the blade straight. Every time you cut, chop or slice, the blade of your knife is bent ever so slightly as a result of coming into contact with the food and your cutting board. The more you use your knife, the more tiny twists and turns for your blade. A honing steel literally moves your blade back into place. It straightens the blade, but doesn’t sharpen it.

Cooks are not totally to blame for buying into the confusion. I’ve seen many steels actually marketed as or called ‘sharpening steels.’ And according to logic and reason, what else would a sharpening steel do, but sharpen?

So remember, a steel by any name (sharpening, honing, etc.) will help maintain your blade’s straight edge, but it won’t sharpen it.

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3 comments to Honing vs Sharpening

  • […] learn until years later is that the steel does not sharpen the blade, it straightens it. (Read this for a better […]

  • ggb

    I understand the difference, but when I hone my blade it does work better. I haven’t had a particular knife sharpened in a couple of years. If I don’t hone before use it does not slice well, if honed it works beautifully. Is it the straightening of the blade that makes it seem sharper? I can’t imagine how sharp the knife would be after having it sharpened.

  • I am the creator of TOG Knives. I’ve read your article but I’m afraid I don’t quite agree with it! Yes, the main function of a honing rod is to bend tiny bits of the edge back and repair damage, but the majority of steels and rods do also have a finely abrasive surface, some more than others, that performs a second function of sharpening the blade (removing steel). If that didn’t happen, then you wouldn’t get the hollow shape that is ground into really old knives by constant use. Some rods have grooves or are covered in tiny diamonds and these sharpen the blade.

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