stainless steel knives vs carbon steel knives

Stainless Steel Knives vs Carbon Steel Knives

(Last Updated On: July 30, 2021)

Steel is steel. I mean, no one asked Superman if he was the Man of Carbon or Stainless Steel. Steel is strong. Steel is good. What more do you need to know? So many choices in life, and here’s yet another one: stainless steel knives vs. carbon steel knives. What’s the difference, and how much could it matter? 

In the 1950s, Julia Child famously chose to use carbon steel knives because she couldn’t find a stainless steel knife that performed to her liking. OK. Good enough for Julia, good enough for me.

However, much has happened in the world of metallurgy over 70 years, and the steel used to make stainless and carbon steel today are more high-tech and make each metal suitable for kitchen knives.

That brings us to the question of which is better: stainless steel knives vs. carbon steel knives?

The answer is: ‘It depends on what you’re going to use the knife for and how dedicated you are to maintaining them.’ Clear as mud.

Read on as we first go back to the basics and then discover the differences between stainless steel knives vs. carbon steel knives. After that, we’ll discuss which is better for specific purposes regarding cooking and maintenance.

Steel 101 

First, before we talk about stainless steel knives vs. carbon steel knives, let’s talk about steel. Steel comprises both iron and small amounts of carbon, which makes it an alloy. An alloy is when two or more elements come together, with one or more being metallic, making the item better than before adding other elements.

Any steel has to have a little bit of carbon in it. The only difference is the amount. For our purposes, a carbon steel knife has a high amount of carbon; stainless steel has carbon and other elements.

The steel composition will affect the sharpness of the blade, its edge retention, and its toughness. This composition will also affect how the knife holds up to corrosion and everyday wear and tear. In addition, the steel’s profile, edge geometry, weight, and balance will determine how well the knife will function and how comfortable it is to hold and use.

The Rockwell Scale

High carbon means that the steel is much harder. As a result, carbon knives are much more durable. Metallurgists use the Rockwell scale to define just how hard the steel is. A metal’s rating is important in knifemaking because harder steel will hold an edge better than softer steel. HRC refers to the Rockwell Scale of Hardness, part C. Almost all consumer-grade knives will have an HRC rating of 54-65. For example, a steel knife with an HRC of 58-62 will hold its edge better than softer steel. However, the same harder steel is less durable and prone to chipping or even breaking. Softer steel may be more durable, but it won’t maintain an edge as long as harder steel.

Finally, the Rockwell test helps knifemakers balance the three most important factors that can affect the quality of their knives: hardness, flexibility, and toughness. When these factors are in balance, the resulting blade will take a sharp edge and then keep that edge under a range of conditions without damaging the knife.

Carbon Steel Knives

Carbon steel knives may be stronger, but they also require a lot of sharpening because they don’t hold their edge for long. In addition, the blade is more likely to rust because it has a low resistance to it. However, you can avoid this with proper care.

Carbon steel is used for combat and hunting knives in addition to kitchen knives. These high-carbon knives sharpen very easily to the point of extreme sharpness.

Stainless Steel Knives

Stainless steel knives still have some carbon in them, but much less. These knives also have chromium, which gives stainless steel its silvery sheen and makes it resistant to tarnishing. Chromium also has a high melting point which is also why stainless steel is more rust-resistant. A knife must contain at least 10.5% chromium to be considered stainless.

A stainless steel knife will last you quite a bit longer than a carbon steel knife. However, stainless steel knives are more malleable and springy and not very brittle. These knives are harder to sharpen and are more likely to lose their shape. However, stainless steel knives are less likely to chip or break. They can hold their edge much longer compared to carbon steel knives. Of course, the iron content will cause it to rust, but these knives will last much longer before they do. Exposure to humidity or water will make any iron rust quicker, especially if you don’t properly care for it.

High Carbon Stainless Steel Knives

This is a metal alloy containing high amounts of carbon. As a result, these knives combine the best of both worlds – high carbon stainless steel blades do not discolor or stain, and they retain their sharp edge longer than regular carbon steel.

Stainless Steel Knives vs. Carbon Steel Knives

Typical Use

Carbon and stainless steel knives are both used in the kitchen. However, they have different traits that make each suitable for various purposes. For example, professional chefs prefer carbon steel due to its strength.

For precision work, a stainless steel knife is the best. They may not be as strong as carbon steel knives, but they bring out the finest cuts. So if you want a smooth sushi slice or fast shopping, go for a stainless steel knife.

Boning and steak knives have stainless steel content. However, high-density foods are not suitable for carbon knives due to their brittleness.

Design

Stainless steel knives have a distinguishing shine on the surface due to the chromium that carbon steel knives lack. In addition, it is lightweight, and the rigidity tends to be zero, which adds more to the usage process.

Carbon steel knives are sturdier. The blade is stiffer and more rigid, which acts against bending. However, the knife is heavy to hold due to the presence of carbon.

The stainless steel prevents any denting or staining on the surface, to which the carbon steel knife is more susceptible.

A carbon steel knife has a thicker blade than a stainless steel model. However, you will see professional chef’s sets with carbon and stainless steel knives because each type of steel makes a knife good for a specific purpose.

Maintenance

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel knives need more maintenance than stainless steel for many reasons. First, carbon steel knives quickly lose their sharp edge and require more frequent re-sharpening. Second, these knives are more brittle and will break more than they will bend, and although they are sturdy, once broken, there is little that can reverse the changes.

Because carbon steel does not have chromium, these knives attract rust easier than stainless steel models. The other issue related to corrosion is the staining when you cut something like an onion or a lime. The acids in the foods will cause the knife to stain. After years of this, the blade takes on a ‘patina’ which some like better than a shiny new knife. However, if you want to keep your expensive kitchen knife looking new, stainless is likely the better option.

Carbon Steel Knife Care
  • Use on high-density food such as coconut shell or dense meat.
  • Canola oil or olive oil is good for an oil treatment on the blade edge. This will protect the knife from rust.
  • Using the knife on moist food or washing in a dishwasher may attract corrosion.
  • Immediately after cleaning, use a cotton cloth to dry it thoroughly.
  • It is better to hone a carbon knife now and then since the edge is less sharp.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel knives have their drawbacks when it comes to maintenance. It may not need a time-consuming and high-class maintenance procedure, but stainless steel knives are harder to sharpen once the edges become blunt.

The thin blades support home cooking at its best. They are lightweight and hassle-free to use. Stainless steel knives will contain their edges for as much time as possible. They do not break down easily due to the chromium content that adds extra shine. However, stainless steel knives still have a degree of carbon in them, which means that eventually, you will see rust.

Stainless Steel Knife Care 
  • Never wash in a dishwasher. The harsh chemicals and hot temperature will ruin the quality of the blade and deteriorate the handle.
  • Do not cut through bones, frozen foods, or highly dense items.
  • Dry thoroughly after hand washing and do not store until it is fully dry. Use a paper towel to dry because a cloth towel tends to leave the blade slightly damp.
  • Always cut with a smooth action and never twist the blade; lateral pressure will damage the blade.

 Stainless Steel Knives vs. Carbon Steel Knives Quick Guide

Carbon Steel  KnivesStainless Steel Knives
  • Contain iron and  high chromium content
  • Contain iron and high in carbon
  • Less rust resistance 
  • High rust resistance
  • Much harder and wear-resistant
  • Softer relatively to carbon steel but doesn’t stay sharp as long
  • Required careful maintenance
  • Very easy to maintain
  • Brittle
  • Non-brittle
  • Easier to sharpen
  • Harder to sharpen compared to carbon steel
  • Required routine application of  oil
  • Stainless steel also requires routine application of oil but shows rust quickly.
  • Less expensive than stainless steel
  • More expensive than carbon steel.

Why Chefs Prefer Stainless Steel Knives vs. Carbon Steel Knives

But do they? The priority for any cook is a good set of knives. But, as you’ve seen from reading about stainless steel knives vs. carbon steel knives, they each stand out in their way. Chefs will have preferences for the types of knife, and the knives’ material, depending on the job at hand. For example, you wouldn’t use a stainless steel knife to go through bone or joints because it lacks strength. Conversely, you wouldn’t use a carbon steel knife to slice fish for sushi because the blade is thicker, heavier, and less flexible.

So, in the end, it doesn’t matter which is better because there is no real winner. The only thing is what you need the knife for. If you’re an amateur cook who doesn’t want to do much maintenance on your knives, stainless steel knives are the better option. However, carbon steel knives are much sharper but require more maintenance. Nevertheless, they turn out to be the preferred option for professional chefs.

 

Leave a Comment:

Wilbur Clemens says

You’re right for the most part, however, you need to be more up to date on metalurgy. Me, as a metalurgical engineer studied knife manufacturing for years & have noticed that it depends on the usage of the type of cutting & later the care of the blade. For example, yes the carbon steel blade can be honed to a razor sharp edge & cut effortlessly, and like you have stated, will nick & chip more than regular stainless steel due to its being softer.

A lot of stainless steel blades, back in the day, were made of 303 stainless, rarely made of 316 stainless which have much more nickel in the composition than 303. Nickel, being an element that resists rust & oxidation. However, the 400 series stainless steel can be hardened to a degree where the 300 series stainless cannot.

It has been established over the years that the 400 series stainless steel has been advantageous in knife blade manufacturing because of its ability to resistance to rust and have the hardening ability.
It still remains that each usage of blade type & composition has its advantages over the other, but for the sake of “over-all usage” the 400 series stainless blade gets the nod.

 

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