Hacking Your Kitchen Knife

Sometimes you’re not in your own kitchen, and you have to rely on whatever knife you can find.

Sometimes you can’t find your sharpener.

Sometimes you don’t own a sharpener.

Sometimes you’re camping, and you don’t want to bring your good knives.

Sometimes you find yourself living in a student dorm on the other side of the planet, cooking in a shared kitchen with medical students (I hope they end up being able to doctor better than they cook), fundamentally unequipped to do anything more complicated than heating up a bowl of soup due to lack of facilities and time.

(That last one might be me, and that ‘sometimes’ might be ‘right now’.)

So, after I make a lot of fuss about kitchen knives and how important they are, what am I to do if I have to live with myself? Because I have a cheap, mostly terrible knife, and all these things that need cooking.

Thankfully, two fairly obscure kitchen tricks stop me from going insane.

(How wonderfully clickbait is that? These two simple tricks will stop you from getting leprosy and make you rich!)

Seriously, they’re two actual, real tricks — and they both drastically improve your experience of working with a bad knife.

1. Pad the back of the blade. Just a little.

Here is my paw holding my awful kitchen knife. This is the classical ‘how to hold a knife’ grip you’re allegedly supposed to use. The only problem is — instead of having a nice, fat, stable chef’s knife I have this rickety piece of mild steel with a plastic apology for a handle. Here’s the back of the knife.

Ow. Nice, cheap, sharp edges that will start eating right through your finger, especially if your hands are wet. I had a lovely knife callus running diagonally across the bottom of the first joint of my index finger… the back of this miserable knife shaved most of the callus off and then starting to cut into my skin in the first twenty minutes I used it.

So, we pad the back of the blade near the bolster tip. Not much, just a little bit. The perfect tape for this is Leukoplast, the German-manufactured strapping tape which sticks and holds to damn near everything. I don’t have any, so I have to use what I’ve got.

Yes, it looks awful and it needs to be periodically replaced because your finger will smear it about and it will occasionally get food on it. But it gives you more control and lets you grip the knife properly, because it stops the knife from cutting into your finger.

This is something a lot of people complain about when using a cheap knife — “it hurts my hand holding it like that!” Well, not any more.

2. Use a cheap coffee mug / plate to sharpen

I love this.

Take any cheap plate, turn it over and look at the bottom. It has a ridge where it sits on the table, a ridge which isn’t glazed like the rest of the plate. It’s raw ceramic.

Know what else is raw ceramic?


Now, your ceramic plate doesn’t have a measurement of grit handy (the size of the particles which make up the stone, which determine how abrasive it is), so it will be somewhere between really coarse and really fine. This isn’t ideal, and you can’t get a really good result with it.

But it’s so much better than nothing.

Here’s how to use it.

1. Put your plate, saucer or mug (be careful with the mug, it’s less stable) upside-down on a towel, cloth, old t-shirt etc. so it doesn’t move around. Choose a section of the rim that’s nice and smooth, no pitting or irregularities.

2. Put a tiny smear of oil in the middle of your plate, and use your finger to run it around the rim a few times.

3. Hold your knife at about 15 degree angle to horizontal. Holding the knife in both hands, and keeping pressure between the knife blade and the plate at all times, run it down the oiled edge.

Because you don’t have a lot of control over what’s going to happen, I don’t see much of a reason to get precious about the difference between sharpening (towards-strokes) and honing (away-strokes), so I do both. You’ll need ten good ones per side.

You should notice a black line immediately forming on your plate rim— that means it’s working. Don’t worry, it washes off.

And does it sharpen?


It’s not exactly Gillette-sharp or sushi-knife-sharp, but it’s not bad either. Try this trick with a knife that’s truly blunt and the difference is night and day. With a little fiddling and experimentation, you should get a perfectly acceptable result and a huge improvement in the most important tool in your whole kitchen. And you don’t have to spend a penny.

I write about science. We can probably be friends.

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