Tried & Tested: Sharp practices - To give your cooking an edge, you need a good knife - which also means a good sharpener. Our panel tries out nine

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The Independent Culture
A GOOD set of knives is the most prized possession of a professional chef, but most of us pay more attention to our microwave or food processor. These most basic of culinary tools often lie neglected, left loose in a cutlery drawer and getting blunter.

If you want to give your cooking a sharper edge, an effective knife sharpener is a necessity, not a luxury. The sharpening steel is the traditional method of the chef, but there are many other gadgets on the market which aim to achieve a similar effect without demanding the same level of skill.

We asked the Tante Marie School of Cookery to help test a selection of sharpeners costing from a few pounds up to pounds 20 or more. A group of students at the school, with more than a few years of catering experience between them, tried out the sharpeners on different types of knives. They gave their recommendations for the most effective for use in the home.

THE PANEL

Jenny Frances-Fockema, Daniel Saltman, Lorraine Piper and Wendy Archer (students at the Tante Marie School of Cookery); John Childs, managing director of the school.

THE TEST

The panel gave the sharpeners marks for how effective they were, how easy they were to use, safety and value for money.

***HENCKELS CERAMIC STEEL

FROM DIVERTIMENTI

pounds 22.95

You may have seen abutcher using a traditional sharpening steel, and this is a version of it. Each side of the flashing knife blade is drawn repeatedly against a metal spike. The panel described this, unusual in that it is ceramic, as a 'superb' instrument - but it takes practice to master using a steel. The blade and steel must be kept at the right angle to one another, which can be tricky. For those who have the skill to use it, this steel came highly recommended. 'The best I have come across,' said Wendy Archer. Professional chefs will have a grindstone to do the basic knife sharpening; the steel is used to hone the blade of an already sharp knife.

*****PHILIPS ELECTRIC KNIFE AND SCISSORS SHARPENER HR2571 pounds 16.95

This was a rare occasion when one electric gadget really did prove significantly better than all the rest. The Philips HR2571 was our clear winner. 'Easy, very easy to use,' said Daniel Saltman. 'It produces a good sharp blade at the press of a button. After trying out the rest, this is bliss. Recommended for everyone.' Wendy Archer also found it a 'neat and effective gadget'. It sharpens scissors as well.

**SALMEN OILSTONE FROM

DIVERTIMENTI

pounds 4.15

Since it comes without instructions, or even a label, most people are unlikely to know exactly what to do with this slab, a back-to-basics method of sharpening. The stone should be covered with a layer of oil and, like the steel, used to hone the blade. Our panel found so many disadvantages that it is hardly surprising these oilstones have become pretty much a curio. 'Too cumbersome, not very effective, and safety is dubious as there is no grip or handle,' said Jenny Frances-Fockema. It was the hardest of all to use. One panellist, Lorraine Piper, did like it, however. 'A little time-consuming to use, but gives results almost as good as the best and most expensive ones.'

***KITCHEN DEVILS

SHARPENING STEEL

pounds9.25

Another classic steel, this was not quite as effective as the Henckels ceramic one - but it costs less than half as much. 'Lightweight, dishwasher safe, very comfortable and easy to use,' said John Childs. 'Not too expensive, a worthwhile kitchen investment,' said Daniel Saltman. But the same warning applies to this steel as to the Henckels: it's not a tool for beginners.

****CHANTRY KNIFE SHARPENER

pounds 22.99

This was the runner-up to our winner on performance, but though it is good quality it does not come cheap. The knife is passed through two crossed mini-steels. 'It will put a new sharp edge on the dullest of blades. Very well made and safe to use,' said John Childs. 'Simply the best] Very heavy, strong and I imagine it would last for years. The results were outstanding, there are good instructions and this is the only sharpener that could be attached to the worktop and so used with one hand. Definitely the one I would buy,' enthused Lorraine Piper. It can also be used for serrated knives. Worth spending the money, if you use knives a lot.

****KITCHEN DEVILS CERAMIC KNIFE SHARPENER

pounds 5.99

A popular choice, this sharpener is a lot cheaper than most and is a good budget buy. The blade is sharpened by passing it over a ceramic wheel. It has the advantage of a guard to protect the hand. 'Of the small lightweight plastic sharpeners, this gave the best results,' said Lorraine Piper. There were no obvious drawbacks, though the plastic housing of Lorraine Piper's split after being used.

***LEIFHEIT SELECTA KNIFE

SHARPENER

pounds 7.80

This has the advantage of having different settings so that it can be used for serrated knives and scissors as well as for straight knives. The panel found that, without instructions, it was difficult to work out exactly how to use the settings. It was still a popular choice, however. Most panellists found it easy to use, effective and safe. 'Effective, but a bit rough on some of the blades I tried,' said Wendy Archer. It was Jenny Frances-Fockema's choice for 'the average housewife', but Daniel Saltman, the panellist who was least keen on this one, said: 'It did not sharpen well, except for the scissors, and it was expensive. Not recommended.'

BRABANTIA KNIFE

SHARPENER

pounds 5.92

One of the cheapest, this has two metal discs forming a V-shape through which you draw the knife. This lightweight implement picked up no merit points despite its price. It was the least effective and raised the most fears about safety. 'Too flimsy to get a real grip on it,' said Wendy Archer, 'which makes it awkward to use.' It also has no guard to protect the hand holding the knife. The panel were not impressed with the little whetstone on the end. 'A gimmick and totally ineffective,' said John Childs.

*PRESTIGE KNIFE

SHARPENER

pounds 3.99

The packaging for this sharpener, another metal disc variety, claims that it 'reproduces the action of a steel'. In terms of effectiveness, however, it didn't come anywhere close. 'Not as stable as some of the others; I found it rough on some blades,' said Wendy Archer. 'Uncomfortable to hold, and the result does not compare to the others. Even at this price, this is a waste of money,' said Lorraine Piper.

NEXTWEEK: HALLOWEEN TRICKS

(Photograph omitted)

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