The host of the Bravo Channel's Top Chef series, Tom Colicchio, was interviewed about what mistakes home chefs make. The famed chef thought that the biggest mistake is not properly sharpening knives. He said that chef knives should be sharpened prior to each use. Most home chefs find it difficult to sharpen their knives once a year, much less each time they are used. Knowing how to sharpen a chef knife and keeping knives sharp is as an important part of cooking as any other aspect.
Sharpening includes the usage of a dedicated sharpening tool and actually re-aligning the blade of the knife. Honing is a less aggressive sharpening ,that just re-establishes an edge to a knife.
Cooks Illustrated, a monthly periodical that tests and rates recipes and kitchen equipment, found that there were a plethora of electric knife sharpeners on the market for home chefs that provided as good an edge as a professional sharpener. Many of these sharpeners use several different grinding wheels that are used from the coarsest (roughest) to the smoothest in order to grind away knicks and notches on chef knife blades. However, many of these can be cost prohibitive for homemakers. The good news is some handheld versions can be just as effective and cost as little as ten dollars. Twenty strokes with a handheld sharpener can provide as sharp a knife blade as a professionally sharpened knife, providing it is done correctly.
Honing or steeling a knife is what most people think of as sharpening a knife. A sharpening steel, chef's steel or honing steel is a large rod of steel that does not truly sharpen the knife so much as it re-establishes the point that runs along the edge of the blade. As knives cut, particularly if they are used on hard surfaces such as marble or formica, the edge of the blade wears down. Where using a sharpener will grind a new edge to the blade, but a sharpening steel will merely smooth the edge. To use a sharpening steel, place the steel rod down onto a stable, non-slip surface and run the blade of the knife down the steel, pulling on the knife so that the entire surface area of the blade touches the steel. Alternate the motion to work both sides of the knife and try to maintain a consistent knife-to-steel angle. Using a sharpening steel is difficult and requires much time, practice and attention to get it right - but once you have it down, you'll find that your knives cut much more smoothly and easily.