Knife blog _2
 I was speaking with a local grocer yesterday who, even though his stores currently sell tomatoes and asparagus, still laments that people don’t buy more seasonally.  Grocery stores in a way prevent us from thinking seasonally by offering us everything we demand regardless of quality.

But you can still shop seasonally if not locally (in Cleveland).  Why are grapefruits twenty five cents a piece right now at my grocery store?  That’s really cheap, so they should be kind of crappy, right?  No, they’re the best ever.  Why?  Because it’s grapefruit season.  It wasn’t until I lived in Florida and I looked up one day in February and, Cleveland native that I am, thought to myself, “Wow, look at all those grapefruit.  I thought fruit was a summertime thing.”  And then I thought, “Wow, look at all those grapefruit—in somebody’s front lawn.  I wish I had a front lawn like that.”

Fortunately, I had a friend who had a grapefruit tree in their front lawn and I think I consumed 100 grapefruit that winter. Grapefruit nirvana.

I think about this now because most mornings I segment two grapefruits for the kids.  I love segmenting citrus fruits.  It’s meditative.  You get better and better at taking the pith off the fruit.  It’s fun to watch the blade curving along the perimeter of the fruit.  And all this fun results in the removal of the bitterness, leaving nothing but pure fruity bursts of flavor.

The thing is, segmenting citrus fruits is very unfun if you don’t have a sharp knife.  And here is the impetus for this post, sparked by morning grapefruit: one of the most important things you can do to be a better cook and to have more fun in the kitchen is to use sharp knives.  The thing is almost nobody does—not that I know at least.  I have never been in a home kitchen that contained sharp knives.  Never.  OK, a couple times I have but they were only sharp because they were never used.  This must change.  American home kitchens must have, to borrow from MFK Fisher, "knives sharp as lightning."

In culinary school, I learned how to sharpen knives on rough sharpening stones.  When I hung out at the sushi temple, Masa, the chefs sharpened their knives on smooth ceramic stones.  For years I sharpened my own knives, but frankly, I was never very good at it.  Not as good as a professional sharpener.  So I found a professional sharpener in Cleveland and I take my knives to him once or twice a year (fellow Clevelanders, it's at 1867 Prospect, across from the Convocation Center–says wet grinding on the sign out front, back of an antique shop).  It is what I recommend to all the people who ask me about the subject.  And learn how to steel your knives to keep them sharp.  They will stay sharp for a long time.

Guys, does the mother of your kids like to cook?  The best Mother’s Day gift you could get her would be sharp edges on her knives.

I repeat, a few of the best ways to improve your skills in the kitchen is, one, to use really sharp knives, two, to buy grapefruit in February, and three, to know why you buy grapefruit in February.

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71 Wonderful responses to “Of Grapefruits and Sharp Knives”

  • james

    A block of Shun cutlery was my single best culinary purchase to date. I take every opportunity to tell my friends and family how important sharp knives are to their kitchen happiness.

  • John D

    Could not agree with you more. I find that many people who state “I hate to cook” really mean “I hate to cut up ingredients with what essentitally is a butter knife”. Give these people a sharp knife, a few quick cutting lessons, and another avid home cook is born.

  • Joseph D'Antoni

    Not to shill too badly for a product, but I bought the Apex Edge Pro sharpening system about a month ago. I paid $120, and have since sharpened nearly every blade in our house to a level sharpness previously unseen. I’m terrible with a stone.

    The other tidbit I’ve picked up, is that steels are rather harsh on your edges, and ceramic “steels” are the way to go for touch ups.

  • lisaiscooking

    I have a great knife sharpist right in my neighborhood, and a lot of nearly locally grown grapefruit in my fridge! Love the ruby reds.

  • Allison

    Mmmm … grapefruit. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll pick some up tomorrow.

    I’m the sort of woman who would appreciate a gift like that, but I gotta tell you, many women would be offended by such a utilitarian present. Maybe the tools needed to do the job properly shouldn’t be a gift.

  • Marc b

    I was teaching one of the new interns how to make supremes last week and went off on a “how dull knives are worse than earaches and uncomfortable underwear” rants. I was lucky enough to learn sharpening from a woodworker who used chisels kept as sharp as any knife I’ve ever seen.

  • Heneage

    A question for the commenters: I received a Trident SuperSlicer for Christmas and want to keep it sharp. Will steeling it wreck the serrated blade?

  • Alex

    So true. Iyt’s amazing what a difference a sharp knife makes to kitchen happiness.

    @Heneage – don’t steel anything with a serrated blade.

  • Tim M

    Great post. I just bought a few grapefruit the other day and am loving them. As for the knives, I am guilty…although I use the steel regularly, I haven’t had them sharpened in a couple years. I need to find a professional sharpener in my area.

    My mom had an old set of Cutco knives that were as round as a baseball bat (“but they are supposed to last forever”, she would say) because the only cutting board she ever used was glass. So, I bought her a nice set of Henckels for Christmas, along with a solid wood board. And ever time I am over her house, I will put her knives to the steel.

  • MessyONE

    I keep all of our knives nasty-sharp, which isn’t as easy as it used to be. Getting them sharpened means a half hour drive to the South Loop and doing without them for a day or so. Still, they do keep their edges for a long time, so it’s well worth the hassle. It’s true that you can cut yourself more easily on a dull knife than a sharp one.

    The Boy is a fan of his antique Sabatier carbon steel knives. We were able to buy some from a company that purchased a knife factory that had closed its doors in the 1920s. They left behind barrels of knives packed in oil and the sale of these helped finance the re-opening of the factory. Gorgeous.

  • Richard

    It being winter time in Texas, we always get bags of Ruby Red Grapefruit from the Valley. They are absolutely delicious this year, but only if the grower you get them from had enough water to keep them growing this year.

    I take my knives to a professional sharpener every year, just before deer season begins. Then my knives will be sharp for the multitude of butchery and sausage-making that will be required of me.

    In addition to a sharp knife making jobs easier, it makes jobs SAFER. This point should not be overlooked.

  • Pierce Watters

    Several years ago a Japanese friend gave me a very nice Japanese chef’s knive and two splendid stones for Christmas. I added sharpening guides from Razor Edge in Minnesota, and now sharpening my knives has become as meditative as, well…segmenting grapefruit.

  • Scott

    Nothing is worse than a friend asking you to cook for them, and then pulling an old rusty knife as sharp as a spoon out of their block. My other pet peeve are little tiny cutting boards that are almost as prevalent.

    Hopefully the gospel spreads.

  • Marcy

    Michael, I love your writing and I almost always agree with everything you say…but I think that the vast majority of mothers, no matter how much they love to cook (and I LOOOOVE it) are going to be a danger to their husbands if their only Mother’s day gift is freshly-sharpened knives. :o)

  • Lisa

    I disagree with the previous ladies. If my husband was to sharpen my knives as a gift (or even better, add a new one to the collection!) he would be the recipient of much lovin’. And the lambchops he loves so much.

  • Rachel

    We are visiting Florida right now and have plans to pick citrus this afternoon. As a central Ohioan used to only visiting apple orchards, I am thrilled to see different fruit trees!

    My husband is a put obsessive about sharp knives. He was sharpening one Saturday years ago and proclaimed his knife was “sharp as the devil himself.” Then he took to cutting onions and promptly sliced the end of his thumb off. It healed well, in part because it was such a clean cut!

  • Natalie Sztern

    now, see, I would love a freshly sharpened knife for mothers day…hubby’s office is right across the street from a sharpener and i have to take the knives in when they need sharpening…(but i do get a free lunch out of it when i cross the street for a visit).

    I am a stickler for sharp knives that i have to send my kyoceras twice a year and wonder how they are allowed to cross the border? for those who do not own one – lucky you cause they are one big pain in the ass knives…

    I also found out from reluctant gourmet that my chefs choice electric sharpener was not ok for my asian knives and so now i have two of them on my counter not including the honing tool that i use each time i take a knife.
    ‘santo-k-you for that reluctant gourmet”

    and yet when i eat a grapefruit i cut in half and scoop it with my grapefruit spoon cause when i finish eating a half grapefruit, i can use it as a bowl it is so clean.

  • PeterMarcus

    I’ll second the Apex Edge Pro. I’ve never been good with stones, and I’m getting better with a steel, but the Edge Pro does a wonderful job keeping my knives amazingly sharp (and my parents’ knives, and siblings’ knives).

    It’s about the price of a nice chef’s knife, and I consider it a kitchen tool just as important.

  • dadekian

    Two things:
    1. I just bought some grapefruit at Trader Joe’s this morning. My one-year old enjoys blood oranges so now we’ll see how she takes to grapefruit.
    2. First thing I did once I realized I loved to cook was get some very nice Shun knives with a whetstone. I don’t always worship at the altar of Alton but these Shuns are brilliant. Once I met my wife and we started to spend time up at her uncle’s home in Maine I had to get a decent knife there too. Wow, you are right, some homes have such crap knives it’s amazing. I don’t know if any of his knives would even chop an onion.

  • sygyzy

    I am pretty serious about my knives so I’ve only known sharp blades. When I went to someone else’s house and was asked to cook, I was so confused when their chef’s knife couldn’t penetrate the skin of a tomato. I thought it was user error til I realized *gasp* not everyone has sharp knives.

    Great post.

  • Tags


    Dull knife or sharp, one of the surest signs of love for another person is individual grapefruit segments sliced on their behalf.

  • mary

    reminds me of one of the ‘fig’s brunch cocktails. “the grapefruit,” fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, absolut ruby red, splash of soda and turbinado sugar on the rim. love ruby red grapefruit.

  • rockandroller

    But what if your knives are so cheap and old you’re embarrassed to take them somewhere to have them sharpened, for fear the sharpener would hurt themselves laughing at you, or go blind rolling their eyes at you?

  • Ben

    @Ruhlman: Care to make a knife related endorsement? Or even just some general tips & tricks?

    I received an especially sharp paring knife for Christmas, it definitely rocked my world. I try to use it for everything, but I’m sure you know how that goes…

  • Salty

    I’m tempted but I’ll only say a few words.

    Foodies need to know how to sharpen their own knives. Food is only one part of the equation folks. Know your tools. A sharp knife makes food more elegant and taste better. Period. Cut a vegetable or fruit with a dull knife then cut it with a very sharp knife. The flavor and texture profiles are very different. Get some stones, a video and practice. It’s also very soothing.

  • Christine

    For anyone who is a fellow west-coaster, Raley’s sharpens knives for free at the butcher counter. You have to leave them for 24 hours though. I have a sharpening stone, but have never been very good with it. For some reason I find it comforting that Michael Ruhlman has trouble as well. I always thought it was some sort of moral failing on my part that I was a lousy knife-sharpener.

  • acidspit

    In some cultures it’s bad form to give knives as gifts (unless compensated by the smallest amount of specie, in most cases). Something about severing one’s relation ship, I believe.

  • Kate

    I live in a small town and took my knives to be sharpened at a Bass Pro Shop. The Customer Service Rep told me that he could not sharpen my serrated bread knife. How do I get is sharpened? Also-what is the best way to clean my wood cutting board. I wipe it down with a damp cloth, but can never get the garlic smell out of it. Help!

  • cybercita

    when i lived in berkeley i used to have my knives sharpened by margery cohen at the berkeley bowl. how delighted i was to discover that she had moved to new york around the same time that i did. now she sharpens knives at the chelsea market. she’s there wednesdays and saturdays from noon to six and does a splendid job.

  • MessyONE

    I miss the guy with the push cart that used to sharpen all of my knives and scissors. This was in the late 90s by the way – I’m NOT that old! It was owned by a retired guy who bought it from another retired guy who bought it from another retired guy all the way back to the turn of the 20th century.

    He used to come by the store I was running every second Tuesday and would sharpen anything you gave him on the spot. It was wonderful – and I’ve never had sharper knives and scissors since. When he rang his bell, chefs from two restaurants, a barber, a hair stylist and the clothing store (that was me) came zipping out to use his services. We kept him well supplied with coffee from the messenger joint down the block and left him to his work, which generally took about three hours at a time on our block of Cabbagetown (that was Toronto).

    Even then he was an anachronism, and there were definitely higher tech and cheaper places to get the job done (he charged $12.00 per blade which meant that shears were $24.00 a pair). I hear that he couldn’t find a buyer for the cart when he really wanted to quit, which was a sad day for us all. We all lost something then.

    I have to say that this guy made me truly understand and appreciate the notion that we should keep our money local, using local services, buying local produce, and shopping at locally owned stores. I would rather have my money stay in my community than have it go to a behemoth chain store. We still try and do this as much as we can, and it’s getting harder and harder to do.

  • luis

    I too think sharp knives are a good thing. Sometimes they scare me a bit. It’s one activity that I focus on or don’t do it at all. Honestly one stupid move with sharp knife and its all over. Safety and precision are called for.
    I was out in the country with my bro yesterday looking at the tomatoes being harvesgted(you guessed it.. Redlands fl.) and pointed out to him a neat manual sharpener at the country hdw store. Accusharp thingy. He turned to me and said… I don’t want sharp knifes in my kitchen. Meaning “Out of his control”.
    So this is a double edge thing… the argument you pose Michael… pun intended.

  • janie in NorCal

    Michael,

    I am the truely luck out here in NorCal land. My husband not only sharpens all my knives (and tells me so I don’t do something stupid)he also goes around the neighborhood checking out the citrus crops. Most of the houses around us are over flowing with lemons, oranges, some kind of lemon/orange cross and grapefruits. It is a real shame they don’t get picked more because most of them are really good. The juice makes great dressings, marinades etc. The outside skins do tend to be thicker than the kind at the store but the lemon/orange thing growing in my neighbors yard is a true treasure. Hope to make some marmalaide out of it soon.

  • joyciel

    Omg, a sharp knife is SO important. Never mind the Beatles song, happiness is a sharp knife. Once, I was cooking at my friend’s house and her knife could barely cut butter much less an onion! It was so frustrating I wanted to maim someone (so I guess in that respect, good thing it’s so dull It couldn’t cut skin).

  • Karin (Grew up in Cleveland and miss it in VA)

    Thanks for the address. Knives coming home with me next visit.

    There is no one in my region that does it.

    Gives us a good excuse to drop in a Lola’s.

  • marilyn

    @kate, For your wooden cutting board–clean with a 10% bleach/water solution. Rinse well. Dry and seal board with mineral oil. Continue to coat board with mineral oil every month to keep wood sealed.

  • Dede

    Okay, reading this made me smile. Maybe you should write a book on meditation through food preparation. Makes perfect sense to me. Mindfulness and Nirvana reached by cutting supremes. Many paths.

  • kayenne

    never give an oriental asian knives or scissors or any cutting device. that would tell the other person that you want to cut your relationship with him. ash them if they ahve a dollar instead. that you are selling them a very good knife for a dollar.

    lol

  • Laurence

    I agree that learning how to sharpen your own knives is a basic skill any cook should learn.

    Even though I’m a woodworker by vocation and take pride in keeping my edge tools sharp, I never managed to do better than maintaining a mediocre edge on my kitchen knives until I read Chad Ward’s new book, An Edge in the Kitchen. It’s a great resource for anyone wanting to select and maintain a knife that will make kitchen chores a joy instead of drudgery.

  • SauceRobert

    whats with this women hang up? i would love sharp knives for fathers day! or pots, pans, spoons, cutting boards anything for the kitchen!!! get with the program here ladies. haha j/k 😉

  • Tim M

    In my family, anytime someone gives another person a knife, they ask for a penny, as not to sever the relationship. Infact, if I remember correctly, when my mom gave me knives as a wedding gift, she asked me for a penny for them.

  • Franco

    Great article! I live in Brooklyn and shop only at corner produce and meat markets only to know how seasonal shopping can change up daily menus. As for knives, I couldn’t agree with you more on, the sharper the better. At the moment my MAC santoku is the newest blade to my collection, and I would highly recommend adding a japanese flare to your kitchen cutlery.

  • Dick Black

    Dude, you give us some real serious food shots here.

    If that photo isn’t enough to make someone go out and buy a bag of juicy grapefruit I don’t know what would.

  • Laura

    Oh I love to eat grapefruit this way…mostly because I hate the pith! But you are right, my knives are totally atrocious, I must remedy immediately. Any recs for good sharpeners in NYC?

  • Paul Camp

    You buy grapefruit in February because February already sucks so you can’t wreck it any further.

  • parkbench

    In my yard, it’s lemons and tangerines all winter long. And fortunately, we have a knife sharpener at the farmers market all year round. 🙂

  • Haley W.

    I admit, I love to eat grapefruit with a spoon.

    More relevantly, I discovered I was a much better cook when I got sharp knives. So much of the work disappeared, and I could focus more on the flavors and food – less on the process. Great advice.

  • Devon

    My knives are cheap, but I love them. I want to take them to a local knife sharpener, but I’m afraid they’ll laugh me out of the place.

  • luis

    Janie, if you do I hope you can it. I just got a new Fagor Duo and I have long wished to can/jar something good. I have a notion of how to do it but now that you bring this up… I wish Michael or some other bloger would do a primer on this thing. Man out in the Redlands… my bro and I could have picked a bushel of discarded great tomatoes…just turning red. I noticed the rigs all hauled off green tomatoes… any color got left behind…. The argument you pose about WASTE applies… everywhere I have been. Wether coconuts, mangoes..tomatoes…grapefruit.. you name it.
    enuff said.

  • sharon

    I have had incredible results from a 7$ ceramic farberware sharpener from WalMart.

  • Matt Sloan

    This is a subject that I get really worked up about. Other than my culinary school trained brother in law, most of my associates aren’t really into cooking all that much, and are especially disinterested in the techniques of cooking and it’s other associated “stuff.”

    Suffice to say, it cuts me to the bone (pun intended) when I see my well-to-do friends with their relatively good to high-quality knives, pulling out the ol’ glass or marble cutting board and start attempting to chop away. And they wonder why their 8″ chef’s knife won’t cut through tomatos.

    Add to that how my wife immediately took my hundreds of dollars worth of Shun Classics, and threw them in the dishwasher, just like you’re not supposed to do, but cest la vie. I finally took them in yesterday to get sharpened, and the sharpening maestro took one look at the nicks and dings in the blades and just shook his head.

    He did however talk me into buying a slightly more durable super sharp samurai sword, an 8″ Italian Due Buoi cullened santoku blade with a beautiful olive wood handle. It’s scary sharp. I might just go buy some grapefruits tonight and give it a go.

    (Why are they called grapefruit? They don’t taste a thing or look a bit like grapes!)

  • Lauren

    @ Laura, try the Brooklyn Kitchen at 616 Lorimer Street (two blocks north of the Lorimer St. L stop). They use a Tormek machine and have incredibly friendly/helpful staff.

  • paradigmq

    my grandmother just sent me 70 grapefruit from her tree.

    i am in heaven.

    (i hope i don’t get a kidney stone)

  • ntsc

    For the person who asked about old cheap knives. My favorite knive is an 8″ carbon steel chef’s knife that my first wife gave. I haven’t seen her in 30 years. Just before Xmas I took knives up to Warren’s north of Hyde Park, he charged either $2 or $3 each and no nasty comment about the four ancient carbon ones. He does a much better job than I do, and I do really well.

    You can do a lot more damage to yourself with a dull blade than a sharp one. A fast test is will it cut a sheet of copy paper held in one hand vertically or does it tear it?

    On a totally different subject I just hung two home salted hams in the basement. Thank you Mr. Rhulman and Mr. Polcyn.

  • 19thandfolsom

    I just moved in with roommates and was horrified by their knife block – not only the usual “you don’t need that many knives, and it takes up counter space,” but also “why are knives jammed in two to a slot?” I picked up the chef’s knife in the set and ran my thumb down it – so dull I couldn’t cut myself, let alone anything else, if I tried. I sharpen my knives on a wet stone (although I’m thinking of taking the paring knife to a professional) and will have to do the roommates’ knife next time as well.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Heneage

    You won’t wreck a serrated knife by sharpening it on a steel in the same way that you sharpen a regular blade, but it won’t sharpen well. You have to think of each tooth of the knife as a single blade and sharpen each with a very skinny steel. It’s a royal pain.

    The good news is that serrated knives almost never need to be sharpened unless they are made from soft, junky steel or you do something bone-headed like use it to saw through ironwood.

    I’ve got a serrated knife (a Wurstof) that is 20 years old, has never been sharpened and still does everything I ask of it.

  • Joanne

    I just recently purchased a new set of knives – nice and sharp. You can tell they are lovely and sharp because my fingers are a mess! But what a difference! By the way, if you give knives as a gift, make sure the receiver gives you a penny back otherwise they will cut the relationship. 🙂 Just an old wives tale for any superstitious readers.

    I just finished your book: “The Making of a Chef” – good book. Very enjoyable. I’ll be on the look out for that next one.

  • Ross

    There is no word for “yes” that’s strong enough for how much I agree with you about knife sharpness. My favorite kitchen purchase to date has been excellent knives. And while I’m not one for grapefruit, I am a good hand with a whetstone — much the same meditative quality, less sour.

  • Joanna

    My husband almost got thrown out of a family Thanksgiving a few years ago when he asked “didn’t they have a sharp knife” when he went to carve the turkey with the dull piece of metal they handed him, and this was in a household with a great cook! Thank heavens he sharpens my knives for me, he does woodworking and sharpens his own tools, I agree there is nothing worse than trying to use a dull knife.

  • janelle

    love MFK AND sharp knives. I am still working on figuring out the stone. Sometimes I come away with VERY sharp knives and other times… not.

  • Hank

    A dull knife is a lazy servant. I sharpen all of my knives four times a year, although my fillet knife gets twice that because of fishing season, and my boning knife is endlessly being sharpened during hunting season. I splurged and bought five gradations of Japanese water stones, and can definitely sharpen a knife — although I am not as good at Japanese knives as I am at Western ones. Obsessive? Maybe. But you get that way after working in a restaurant. Or at least I did.

    On a related note: In all the cooking TV I have watched over the years, why is it I have NEVER seen a chef use a real fillet knife to fillet fish? Even on Iron Chef I see them use chef’s knives or somesuch. Is using a fillet knife somehow looked down on in Chefdom?

  • suzanne

    a trip to my kitchen
    would remedy your absolute
    about home kitchens and sharp knives
    I have a sharpening stone
    purchased at the local hardware store
    for a buck or so
    and I enjoy using it daily
    and my knives are SHARP