How To Choose Kitchen Knives
Stainless Vs. Carbon Steel

Page 1
Tweet ThisShare On FacebookStumbleUponDigg itShare on

Home > Knives > Kitchen Knives > Miscellaneous > Articles > Choose The Right Kitchen Knife

Technically, to begin with, this is not a correct question, more on that below. Although, the answer is easy, at least, for most of the people out there - Stainless. Kitchen is very tough environment for any knife, stainless or not. Various types of food are acidic, knife is often wet, oily, temperatures are high. In short, not too many friendlies to your knife in there. Stainless steel will resist elements better. Also, most of the folks don't bother to wash their knives right away after using it, one more reason to get the stainless blade. By no means I condone such negligence though. It takes 5 seconds to wipe your knife before putting is down. If iron chefs wipe their blades during the competition cooking, so can you. They have to cook 5 complicated meals in one hour! I doubt most of us ever become under such pressure in our kitchens.

Like I said, the question above is incorrect, for two reasons:
    1) There is no such thing as stainless steel. All steels will rust if left unattended. So, what we can talk about, and what is the correct term, beginning to appear in industry is stain resistance. Different steels have different level of stain resistance.
    2) All steels are carbon steels. In other words they contain Carbon(C), otherwise pure Iron(Fe) is way too soft to be used in a knife. Carbon, and some other elements plus heat treatment give the steel its properties.

It is the percentage of Chromium(Cr) that defines whether the steel is stainless or not. For the record, the steel alloy must contain 14%, or more of Chromium to be considered truly stainless. High amount of Chromium in simple alloys increases its stain resistance, but adversely affects toughness and in the end edge holding. By the way, no steel is truly stain-less. Any steel knife will rust if care is not taken.

To illustrate what will happen to even the better stainless steel(154CM) when exposed to elements, take a look at this picture (copyright © Phil Wilson and Seamount Knife Works). This knife has been used in salt water environment, and wasn't properly cleaned, kept in the salt water saturated sheath. In the end the elements won and you can clearly see the rust and pitting of the metal. Now, some might think that ordinary kitchen is nothing that extreme, but in reality it can be worse. After all, salt water is not acidic, unlike so many types of foods. Pickles, pineapple, lemon, lime, even meat, just to name a few. Those are all highly corrosive, and will destroy your stainless knives, it just takes longer time. For the knife lowers, have to note that, the knife on the picture was saved by Phil. For the full article click here. So, there you have it. One of the premium stainless, steels pretty much destroyed by the environment and negligence. There are kitchen knives made out of less stain resistant steels, still called stainless and there are some made of more stain resistant alloys. In the end, the result will be the same, if left unattended they will all corrode.

Another term becoming incorrect is high-carbon. Earlier that was the common term to refer to non-stainless steel with Carbon content around 1%. Nowadays modern metallurgy has no problems producing stainless steels with Carbon content way above 1%. So, in general High-Carbon refers to quality steel, but not necessarily stainless anymore. Though more and more often you'll hear the term High-Carbon Stainless, which is a correct terms and refers to stainless steels with high Carbon content, above 1%. Although, some manufacturers cheat and label knives with 0.7%-0.8% Carbon as high Carbon, since there is no law for it I guess.

Basically, to me Stainless vs. non-Stainless translates into easy maintenance vs. performance argument. Overall, for most of the non-exotic alloys, stainless steels are lesser performers compared to carbon counterparts, given similar composition, proper edge and equal cutting medium. However, if you have quality stainless steel, properly heat treated it is more than enough for the kitchen needs for majority of home users out there. If you strive for maximum performance then non-stainless, high Carbon steels are the way to go. Yes, high quality carbon steel will outperform non stainless ones, mainly because of higher wear resistance(although there are several stainless alloys with exceptionally high wear resistance) and what's also very important their ability to take keener edge.

The main problem with non-stainless knives is that they rust very fast if proper care isn't taken. The rust on microscopic levels attacks the delicate edge first causing it to dull and carbon steel edge especially high performance edge (something like 10°-12° per side or lower) will get damaged a lot faster. Because of that in the kitchen you need stainlessness more than extra toughness or wear resistance if you're not willing to spare a few seconds to wipe your knife dry during the use, whenever you have to put it down for a few minutes and washing and drying them thoroughly before putting them away.

Although, all of the above is not said to discourage folks from non-stainless steels. If you clean your knife promptly and maintain it properly then carbon steel will outperform Globals and Henckel and most of the stainless steels many to one. If you take care of your knife then why not, go for it. It'll last you longer and perform better. Again, this is not a general rule, depends on the steel composition and heat treatment.

Then there's the realm of modern exotic alloys. Powdered Metallurgy(PM) steels, CPM(Crucible Particle Metallurgy) and such. Basically it allows very high carbon content along with high content of other elements. Under normal conditions those elements won't blend in those proportions. Alloys like: Cowry-X, ZDP-189, SRS-15 are stainless, and can be hardened to 64-67HRC, still being absolutely usable in the kitchen, with edge thickness around 8°-15° per side. Not all powder metallurgy steels are stainless, and there's differences in steel behavior based on composition, but more on that later when I update this section.
    As you can guess, higher performance comes with higher prices. Price increase isn't linear either, and that's nothing knife industry specific. Exotic alloys listed above, are causing quite exotic prices on the knives. 270mm gyuto(chef's knife) made by Hattori out of Cowry-X will cost you around 1900$. Sweet huh? On the positive side 210mm Henckel Cermax in MC-66 steel which isn't semi-custom knife like Hattori will cost you 200$ in plain incarnation and 350$ in damascus. ZDP-189 kitchen knives from W. Henry will be in the same range as Hattoris. Those knives hold the edge incredibly well and are stainless at that, like I said upper limit is pretty high these days.

Prev - Western Vs. Japanese Knives, Pg 2    Next - Stainless vs. Carbon Steel, Pg. 2

Last updated - 05/19/19