Looking to buy your first proper knife or expand your knife block? It can be really difficult to decide between carbon steel knives and stainless steel knives. Unless you’ve done a great deal of research, you may not know the different characteristics of these two steel types. Let alone what each kind has to offer in the kitchen.
I’ve broken down the two types of steel knives, detailing the differences between them and the care and maintenance each one requires. I’ll get to why we consider carbon knives to be the better option – and why they aren’t always right for everyone.
First, let’s have a look at the different kinds of steel.
What is Carbon Steel?
All steel is iron that has carbon inserted into its molecular structure. All steel is, therefore, technically carbon steel. But what we usually call carbon steel is actually specifically high carbon steel.
Low carbon steel is more ductile and less hard – more like the original iron. High carbon steel is harder and more brittle. Although it can be treated to reduce brittleness.
So the real question here is, what kind of carbon steel is used for knives?
Kitchen knives will use grades with high amounts of carbon, to give the knife that hardness and strength. But this needs very good heat treating, to ensure that the knife is neither too brittle nor too ductile. After all, a knife that will either bend or break is not a very good one.
Any decent knife will have received this heat treatment, so you don’t need to worry about buying a brittle knife by mistake.
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel also has carbon in it. But the carbon is only part of a family of iron-based alloys that prevent corrosion (or staining) and protect from heat. All of which is important in a knife.
It’s the chromium in the steel which prevents the iron from rusting and prevents heat damage. Chromium isn’t susceptible to oxidation, which is the chemical transformation which turns hard iron into soft brownish iron-oxide, and eventually disintegrates it entirely.
Stainless steel forgoes some of the attractive material properties of carbon steel in order to be more corrosion resistant.
The Differences Between Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel
There are quite a number of differences between the two types of steel, and the kind of knife they produce. These are the most important for kitchen use:
- Stainless steel tends to be softer than carbon steel, which leads the knife’s edge to lose its sharpness quicker
- Carbon steel knives, therefore, keep their sharpness a lot longer than stainless steel and can go years without needing to be sharpened
- Carbon steel is easier to sharpen, needing a finer grit stone or sharpener and a lighter touch
- Carbon steel is more fragile than stainless steel and can chip if you drop or mishandle it
- While stainless steel knives stay gleaming, carbon steel picks up discoloration quite quickly, which isn’t a problem for most, but can be less than ideal if you’re looking for picture-perfect knives
- Stainless steel knives aren’t sensitive to acids (onions, tomatoes, etc.)
- Carbon steel knives have a ‘break-in’ period, while the patina is formed
Caring for Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel Knives
Stainless steel knives are lower maintenance knives. They’re like the work-horse of the kitchen – they work well in any condition, and can switch comfortably between hot, wet, or acidic ingredients. You can leave them in the sink or the dishwasher, and don’t need to bother with cleaning off food residue immediately.
Not so with carbon steel. You wouldn’t dream of it. Carbon steel knives feel as delicate as they are strong, and you need to take good care of them every time you use them.
Specifically, you should wash the blade as soon as you’re done using it, and then dry it with a cloth. The food residue, as well as the water, can stain and damage the blade.
The maintenance and care for your carbon steel knife can include rubbing it with mineral oil before storage. This will help protect it from rust. Oiling your blade may seem a bit absurd if you’ve only ever used stainless steel. But once you’ve handled your own carbon steel knife, you may feel that you’ll go the extra lengths to keep it safe.
You’ll also want to use the proper cutting board and stay away from hard boards like glass and marble that can damage the blade.
The Break-in Period of Carbon Steel
It may sound strange to say that your carbon steel knife has a break-in period. But much like a cast-iron pan, the blade needs to be seasoned. Keep it dry and well-oiled. A patina will develop on the blade, which is a slight discoloration, but also a protective non-stick layer.
If you don’t take very good care of your knife while this patina is forming, a corrosive reaction can slowly but permanently damage your blade and change the properties of the material.
Why is Carbon Steel Better for Kitchen Knives?
Many of the best swords and bladed weapons are made from high carbon steel, with the famous Japanese katana making use of a special type of carbon steel designed in Japan.
You (hopefully) won’t be using your kitchen knife to win a fight. But here’s something appealing about a knife so sharp that you won’t tell you’ve cut yourself until you look down!
Carbon steel knives stay sharp for longer than stainless steel. They’re less common kitchen knives, simply because they do require greater care to keep them from getting rusty. But if you want a perfectly sharp knife that can cut through bone – or slice right through a tomato without even pressing it down, years after buying – carbon steel is the better option.
High carbon steel makes kitchen knives feel, more than anything else, like chef’s tools.
When it comes to your kitchen knives, the right choice of steel for you may be different than the same choice for someone else – it has to match your lifestyle and priorities. Are you a meticulous person, or more spontaneous and disorganized in your cooking?
If you’re meticulous and careful in the kitchen, carbon steel should make the perfect knife for you. If you prefer to cook and go, without worrying about knife care, you may prefer a stainless steel knife.
Ready to move on to the next phase of choosing your knives? Check out our guide on the different types of kitchen knives.
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I’ve spent many years in the kitchen so I know how important it is to have good, sharp knives and tools to work with.