One of the most frequent questions asked about kitchen or chefs knives is “which is better: Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?”
There is a lot of information out there that says that a carbon steel knife will be sharper and hold its edge longer than a stainless steel knife. In the 1950’s that may have been a fairly accurate statement. Cut to today… the answer is more accurately answered with “It depends!” A better question would probably be which is best for you and what you want to use it for.
Today there are many types of steel that were not available in the 50’s when Julia Child chose to use carbon steel knives because she couldn’t find a decent stainless steel knife. Today both the steels used in carbon steel knives and stainless steel knives are high tech and more than adequate for the task of a kitchen knife.
I have other articles on the types of steels available for chefs knives but in this article I want to keep it pretty simple. The biggest problem with a carbon steel knife is corrosion. If you are a working chef and take meticulous care of your knife this may work for you. On the other hand if you are typical household chef, or someone that uses a knife only once in a while, carbon steel can be a big disappointment. If the knife was put away wet, it will almost certainly have rust on it when you go to use it again. The other issue related to corrosion is the staining that happens to carbon steel once you cut something like a lime or an onion. The acids in the food will cause the knife to stain. After years of this, the knife takes on a “patina” that some like better than a shiny new knife. But if you want to keep your expensive kitchen knife looking fresh and new, stainless may be a better choice.
So we know what the problem with carbon steel is, but an even bigger issue with all knives and kitchen tools is sanitation. Many of the high end carbon steel knives are being sold with the top-most part of the blade unfinished. This is sold as the rustic, hand-made, or hand-forged look. While I like the look, it can have it’s issues as bacteria can harbor in the unfinished areas of the blade. All of the little nooks and crannies can make it more difficult to clean properly. Again if you take meticulous care of your kitchen tools this may work for you. For most of us, it may be better to get a knife that is easier to keep sanitary. This again would probably be a stainless steel knife with a bacteria resistant handle. While there are lots of prettier knives out there, there is nothing more practical than a quality stainless steel with a Micarta handle and stainless steel trim. For the commercial kitchen, you would be hard pressed to find something better than S35VN Stainless with a Micarta handle.
So, it seems that I have totally discounted a Carbon steel knife. Not so – I like carbon steel knives and have several myself, including an old Sabatier from 1878. Carbon steel knives are more elegant and there is something to be said for owning a hand-forged and finished knife. Just know that you will need to maintain it properly if you are going to use it for food preparation.
So, is one really sharper and holds an edge better than the other? Again, it depends. Dirt cheap stainless steel knives are sold everywhere and yes, carbon steel knives are going to be sharper and hold an edge longer if they are made correctly. Even some of the higher end factory knives are not as good at taking and holding an edge as carbon steel. But when you make a knife out of a good stainless, it will perform every bit as good as a carbon steel knife. The performance of a knife is based on the type of steel and the process in which it was made. Look for stainless knives made from 440C, AEB-L, CPM154, Elmax, CTS-XHP, and S35VN. There are other super stainless steels out there but many are cost prohibitive. Good carbon steel kitchen knives are made from W2, 52100, 1095, CPM-M4, White Paper Steel, Blue Paper Steel, and Super Blue.
Most of all, consider a custom or semi custom maker for your knives. Factory knives just aren’t all that and they cost almost as much as some of the better custom knives out there. Custom knives are generally harder, sharper, and made with a lot more care than factory knives. Custom makers can personalize a knife for you as well as offer many more choices for handles and trim.