My wife says I’m the biggest kid she knows on Christmas morning. I’d have to agree with her, but I would add Thanksgiving Day to that list as well. The difference is this big kid is allowed to play with knives.
I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Aside from the “real reason for the season,” for me it’s mainly about the food and giving gifts. For my wife it’s about dinner parties and making memories around the dining room table.
My job as ‘man of the house’ every Thanksgiving and Christmas is to carve the turkey and ham, respectively. I like to think it’s because of my precision slicing artistry with a knife and carving fork. More likely it’s that I’m not much help otherwise in the kitchen and with the entire food preparation process, so cutting the bird or ham is at least one way I can help my wife out. So, she strokes my ego a bit by insisting I handle the carving duties.
THE RIGHT TOOL
But just like stuffing, buttering and basting the bird for the correct number of hours, there’s preparation that goes into a good bird carving. You need the right tools for the job, and need to make sure they’re up to the task at hand.
The same holds true for meat carving knives. I own a half-dozen or so, with my favorites being a Chef’s knife, a cook’s knife, and a favorite Old Hickory boning/meat trimming knife. The cook’s knife is used mainly for chopping vegetables (my only other job in the kitchen), but it works for carving meat as well. I really like the thick, wide blades both a chef’s or cook’s knife offers. The Old Hickory is a narrower blade but reminds me of the little paring knives my granny Smith used to use in her country farm kitchen. At Lehman’s you can find entire lines and sets of Old Hickory, Rada and Wusthof knives, as well as high end Damascus steel kitchen knives which are both tool and art.
A CUT ABOVE
I keep all our kitchen knives sharp using a combination of a stone, strop and steel. Once a knife has a good edge you can usually maintain it with the butcher’s steel only. But if you happen to cut through some bone or use the knife on a cutting board, or you’re starting with a knife which was dull when you inherited or purchased it, then you’ll want a good stone and strop to work it into shape.
I’ll not bore you with the science of blade angles with the exception of saying I usually sharpen and hone kitchen knives at a 25 to 30 degree angle. More utilitarian knives used in the outdoors or workshop are honed to a 30-40 degree angle.
As for stones, the types are as varied as the knives they can sharpen. But a good Arkansas stone does fine for maintaining kitchen cutlery. If the blade needs some serious dressing up first give it several passes on a kitchen stone of scythe stone. Either have a more coarse grain than the typical Arkansas stone. A few drops of hone oil on the stone will also make the process go better as it helps to lubricate and wash away tiny metal shavings and stone dust.
The key is holding the blade at a consistent angle while making the same number of passes on each side of the blade. First dress the blade with one of the more coarse stones and then switch over to the finer Arkansas or a diamond-infused stone. Use a lighter touch with each subsequent set of strokes on each side, and reduce the number of strokes each time until you make only one or two passes on each side.
With the blade formed to a good sloping point on the edge, it’s time now to switch to a leather strop. Drawing the blade edge backward across the strop cleans the blade of tiny metal fragments clinging to and contaminating the microscopic edge. Using a little strop paste on the leather strap will speed the process. If you ever find yourself in need of a strop but without one any leather belt, shoe, glove or other piece of leather will work. I’ve often used the sheath of my hunting knife as a strop when touching up the blade edge while dressing game.
So using a stone and strop will get you the sharp blade you need for carving that Thanksgiving bird or Christmas ham or goose. You can maintain the razor edge with a butcher’s steel. A “steel” is a rod of hardened steel with a handle to hold it. The knife is worked in one direction against the steel as if trying to shave a thin layer off the steel rod. But in reality what you’re doing is straightening the super-fine edge of the knife blade which is so thin that normal use causes the thin metal to roll over on itself.
A butcher keeps a steel close at hand and revisits it with his knife after every few cuts when he senses the blade is not cutting to its potential. The knife blade is not losing its edge, but the thinnest point of the edge has simply rolled over to one side or another. The steel quickly straightens it back out and readies if for fine cutting again. While a butcher often keeps his or her steel within arm’s reach, I keep one in the butcher block on the kitchen counter, another in my box of sharpening supplies, another in my camping gear, still another in the door pocket of my old pickup truck.
And if you don’t want to keep a full-sized butcher’s steel close by, consider picking up one or more of the new compact handheld sharpeners that offer ceramic sticks or industrial-grade diamond sharpening edges. Most fit in a pocket, backpack or kitchen drawer for easy and fast access.
As I said at the start, carving the family’s Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham is something I really enjoy and look forward to each year. It’s my contribution to the feast. While you could hack through the meat with any old knife – or even an electric knife, which goes against everything within me – there’s a sense of accomplishment when you pick up that knife and carving fork and start shaving off “cut to order” thicknesses of delicious bird or ham for a hungry audience gathered around the table. Stay sharp!