Honing the tools of the trade

Professional knife sharpener Dave Blum checks the edge of an axe at his New Buffalo workshop.

NEW BUFFALO — A sharp knife may be one of the most important implements we need in the kitchen, but for most of us, myself included, it’s easy to let the blades get dull – making slicing and dicing a chore.

When slicing a tomato becomes more like butchering it, that’s an indication your knife needs to be professionally sharpened, says Dave Blum, owner of Cutting Edge Sharpening, noting a sharp knife should easily cut a piece of paper in half.

“If you have to puncture a tomato first to cut it, it’s time,” he says.

Describing sharpening as a science, Blum, a certified professional knife sharpener, takes his truck of professional equipment on the road. He can be found at Roger’s Foodland in St. Joseph the first and last Tuesday of each month, and at the New Buffalo farmers market every Thursday.

“People can drop off their knives, go shopping, and pick them up when they’re done,” Blum says. “Or, if they want, they can drop off their knives at New Buffalo Hardware and Milda’s Corner Market in Union Pier at any time for two-day turn around service.”

Blum, who lives in New Buffalo, previously worked as a chief technology officer for a New York City bank. Knife sharpening was a hobby that, once he retired, he turned into a full-time business.

It’s not a proficiency you develop easily. Blum honed his skills by taking courses with Steve Bottorff, author of the best-selling “Sharpening Made Easy.”

Based in Cleveland, Bottorff has a cult-like following for those who want to up their sharpening game. After the courses, Blum licensed Bottoroff’s courses so he can train others in honing techniques.

Honing the tools of the trade

Dave Blum sharpens the edge of a knife in his workshop.

“You can hone knives at home with a sharpening steel, and they’ll be sharper, but it also increases the edge angle,” says Blum, noting that under normal use and with proper care a knife edge should last between 3-9 months. “Over time, steeling or honing the knife will widen its edge angle, and it won’t cut properly any longer. That’s when it’s time to regrind or manufacture a new edge.”

To do so means relying on a pro – not only someone with the expertise, but also the equipment. For Blum that means such cutting-edge equipment as the Swedish-made Tormak T-7 Water-Cooled Grinder/Sharpener, an F Dick RS-150 Duo, paper belt and wheel buffers as well as sharpening stones and hones for specific procedures.

These types of precision instruments weren’t always part of his repertoire. His grandfather had a farm in New Jersey where he kept a pedal grinder in his barn.

“My cousins and I found it fascinating,” Blum says. “I ruined many knives trying to use it.”

Obviously though, the fascination remained.

“It’s time to sharpen when the knife stops working easily on appropriate jobs,” says Josh Donald, the author of “Sharp: The Definitive Introduction to Knives, Knife Care and Cutting Techniques, with Recipes from Great Chefs,” adding facetiously that cutting beef bones for stock doesn’t count. “As far as dull knives go, that standard can be pretty low for some though.”

I’ve helped with chopping and dicing at friends’ home with knives so lacking in a sharp edge I’d probably have better luck using a plastic knife.

Donald’s book is a comprehensive guide to all things sharp, providing step-by-step instructions and photographs showing a wide range of cutting techniques. He also provides recipes – and cutting techniques for preparing them – from such well-known chefs as Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions and Melissa Perello of Frances.

Besides that, his book includes tips on how to buy and care for good knives and sharpening techniques.

Asked what knives he’d recommend for home cooks wanting to upgrade their existing collections, Donald, the owner of Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco, laughingly cautions that he sells knives before offering suggestions.

Honing the tools of the trade

Dave Blum offers a variety of culinary knives for sale at his workshop.

“To start with, I think a good chef or shorter santoku knife, along with a utility knife, is a great desert island set,” he says. “Start with those and see what you need afterwards. Japanese chef knives, or gyutos, will generally have a longer sharpness but are thinner and harder, and can be damaged more easily with mistreatment. There are lots of Japanese knives in the $150-$250 range that are excellent.”

Make sure that the knives you buy are made in Germany or Japan, Donald says, and stay away from knives that have Japanese or German steel in them, because they’re most likely made in China.

“Knives made in Japan or Germany generally never say that. Those terms are a tip off to low quality, like ‘all natural’ on processed food,” he says.

It depends on what you want to spend, but Blum says knives made by Wüsthof and Victorinox are well balanced and made of high-quality steel. Blum also advises purchasing a stainless steel knife, noting they maintain their edge, sharpen easily and don’t rust or discolor.

Tim Ferron’s Beef Jerky

The knife cuts

To cut the ginger, peel the skin with a spoon. Using a pull stroke, cut broad, thin slices from the long side of the root. Stack the slices, and, using a pull stroke again, cut the pieces into long, narrow matchsticks.

To zest the lemon, rub the skin against a microplane, or other fine-rasp grater, being careful not to remove the bitter white pith with the colored zest.

To cut the beef, using a pull stroke and moving against the grain, slice the beef into thin sheets about 1/8-inch thick.

1 tea bag strong black tea

4 cups water, boiling

3/4 cup whiskey

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks

Zest of 1/2 lemon

1 cinnamon stick, broken into a few pieces

7 or 8 whole cloves

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

4 pounds boneless lean beef, in a single piece, thinly sliced

To make the marinade, place the tea bag in the boiling water and let steep until the tea becomes a little bitter, 5 to 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the whiskey, honey, ginger, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves and salt, and mix well.

When the tea is ready, discard the tea bag and add the tea to the other ingredients, stirring until the honey and salt are dissolved and all the ingredients are well mixed.

Add the beef slices to the marinade, submerging them fully. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.

Heat an oven to 150 degrees, or to its lowest setting. (If the lowest setting is higher than 150 degrees, prop the door open with a cork.)

Drain the beef, and pick off any stray pieces of ginger or other seasonings. Pierce the end of each slice of beef once with a toothpick, then hang the slices on the bars of the oven rack, using the toothpicks as supports and turning the slices perpendicular to the bars. Make sure the slices are not touching one another, and put a sheet pan in the bottom of the oven to catch the drips. Close the oven door and set the timer for 3 hours.

When the timer goes off, check the jerky. If the meat is leathery and firm but malleable, it is ready. If it is still soft and wet, leave it in the oven longer and set the timer for another 30 minutes. If it is crumbling or cracking, you’ve left it in the oven too long.

Let the jerky cool completely before eating. It will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few weeks, or vacuum sealed for a few months.

– Recipe from “Sharp”