When you use a sharpening rod on a knife, you're reshaping the knife's cutting edge slowly over time, grinding away nearly-microscopic amounts of metal to form a new, consistent, sharper cutting surface. Unlike a whetstone, a sharpening steel (also known as a sharpening rod) is the best way to ensure a smooth, straight edge.
Step One: Position Sharpening Steel
Take the sharpening steel and hold it with your dominant hand. Turn it so its tip is resting firmly on a dry non-slip surface (like a cutting board). You want the steel rod to be roughly straight up-and-down, as if you were going to fly a flag from its handle.
Step Two: Place Blade Flat Against Rod
Place your blade flat against the rod, with the hilt of the blade resting parallel to the rod's core. You want the blade to be positioned so that you will be drawing it toward you.
Step Three: Set The Knife Angle
The idea with sharpening correctly is to maintain the proper angle between the blade and the sharpening steel. Tilt your knife away from the rod so that the edge of the knife and the steel form a roughly 22° angle. Think of it like this: 90° is a right angle, 45° is half of that, and 22.5° is half of that again.
Step Four: Pull The Knife Toward You
Now that you have your 22° angle solidly found, you want to pull the knife toward you and at the same time, glide it downwards along the entire length of the rod, for the entire length of the blade. Do this while maintaining a 22° angle, 10 times per side. Done! If it's not sharp enough, repeat again until desired edge is achieved.
Some things to consider when performing this process:
Just one minute of ordinary slicing on a wooden or synthetic cutting surface can knock your knife's edge out of alignment! It's hard to notice right away if you're not used to using a properly-sharpened knife, but once you become accustomed to it, it's hard not to notice. A few strokes of the sharpening steel will help to put things right.
It's important to wipe the sharpening steel and the knife with a towel to ensure that bits of metal are kept out of the food preparation process. Metal filings in the carrots are a great way to ruin someone's evening.