If you search for kitchen knives online or at your local department store, you're likely to walk away feeling overwhelmed. There are so many vendors selling so many varieties of kitchenware. How can you tell true premium products from flimsy knockoffs backed up with marketing hype?
The answer is steel, the main material in every great kitchen knife. The metal used in knives comes in two varieties: stainless steel and carbon steel. The different properties of these two types of metal can make an enormous difference for a knife's durability, flexibility and overall usefulness. Understanding the pros and cons of both carbon steel and stainless steel is essential if you want to stock your kitchen with the right tools for the job.
The traditional building block for kitchen knives around the world is carbon steel. Carbon steel is produced by mixing purified iron with carbon and treating it with heat. The result is a strong, durable metal with surprising flexibility and resilience. Carbon steel's greatest strength is, paradoxically, its relative softness. That doesn't impair their ability to cut through any kind of food, but it has major implications for knife upkeep. Carbon steel knives are much easier to keep razor-sharp than stainless blades. Carbon steel is also more flexible than stainless steel, which makes carbon steel knives a bit more manoeuvrable and a lot less likely to break.
But carbon steel's flexibility and easy sharpening comes with a price: regular maintenance. A good carbon steel knife will come out of the box razor sharp, but it will lose that edge relatively quickly. Carbon steel is also very vulnerable to rust and to stains. These knives need to be washed and dried soon after every cooking session, and they need regular treatments of mineral oil, too.
Stainless steel is produced by blending iron with chromium, often with small amounts of other metals like manganese or vanadium. The addition of chromium offers protection against iron oxide, commonly known as rust. Since its invention in the late 1800s, stainless steel has become a staple material in all sorts of consumer products, including kitchen knives.
The first big perk for stainless steel knives is their ability to hold an edge. Blades lose their sharpness over time because regular use grinds down their fine cutting edges. Most stainless-steel alloys you'll find in kitchen knives are significantly harder than carbon steel, which means they are more resilient while slicing through touch vegetables and even bone. Consequently, a good stainless-steel blade will stay razor sharp through months of routine use.
Second, as the name suggests, stainless steel is resistant to rust and staining. While carbon steel discolors over time and eventually weakens, stainless steel holds its luster. Good stainless blades aren't completely immune to rust, but they're tough enough that you don't need to clean them immediately. They can even endure being put away wet every once in a while. That quality means stainless steel knives require much less maintenance than their carbon steel equivalents
But it's not all sunshine and roses for stainless steel knives. The same hardness that allows them to hold onto their edge also makes them more challenging to sharpen. You don't need to hone them very often, but when you do it will require a lot more effort. Moreover, stainless blades are more brittle and are thus more likely to break. Drop one of these knives edge-down on a hard stone counter, and there's a good chance you'll chip it.
Making Your Choice
Which kind of steel will work best for your kitchen? The answer depends on your lifestyle and your cooking style.
If you're a cooking enthusiast or a professional chef, carbon steel is probably right for you. Stainless steel simply can't match it in terms of manoeuvrability, control and precision. If you chop delicate slices of premium steak or divers of onion so thin they're translucent, carbon steel is the only answer.