Food Tool Friday: Why Pros Use Carbon Steel Knives

A good, sharp knife is a cook's best friend, which is why there's so much passionate debate about what kind you should get. Most enthusiastic home cooks opt for a stainless steel knife, but it turns out there's a different option that the pros favor, and that's carbon steel.

This Damascus carbon steel chef's knife is a thing of beauty (and sharp as hell). Image via Wolf Mountain

Is Carbon Steel More High Maintenance?

In a word, yes. One of the reasons stainless steel is the material of choice for cutlery and knives is that it has chromium added to the mix, which makes it stain- and rust-resistant (but, as ZKnives notes, not entirely rustproof).

Carbon steel requires more care. Most chefs wipe down the blade with a damp cloth in between uses and always wash their carbon steel knives by hand with a mild soap (although, truthfully, you should do that with good knives no matter what they're made of—all that rattling around in the dishwasher can dull their edges).

Carbon steel knives develop a patina over time, as they're exposed to the elements and different kinds of food. (Some cooks really get into that aspect and even try to force a patina, similar to the way cooks obsess over seasoning their cast-iron skillets).

A carbon steel Carter Funayuki knife (top) compared to a stainless steel Carter Muteki knife. Image by Matus Kalisky/Flickr

Plus, carbon steel knives need to be sharpened regularly, usually after you've completed using them to prep a meal. It's a lot of maintenance, but many would argue that it's a much superior tool.

Why the Pros Opt for Carbon Steel

In a word, sharpness. Carbon steel blades are generally ground to a finer angle than most stainless steel knives and can take on a razor-like edge like nobody's business. I borrowed a friend's carbon steel chef's knife when I was debating what knife of my own to buy, and it was like driving an Audi after put-putting around in a golf cart. That thing slid through even the toughest root vegetables like they were room-temperature butter.

That slice of shallot is totally transparent, thanks to this carbon steel bad boy. Image by Vicky Wasik/Serious Eats

Over at Serious Eats, Daniel Gritzer puts forth passionate arguments in favor of carbon steel knives. He opines that their high-maintenance character makes cooks pay more attention to their knife skills as well as knife care, which ultimately benefits the quality of the food you get on your table.

Many also argue that carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless steel, once you know how. And sharper knives are actually safer knives, since you won't have to saw and hack away at your food. This prevents the blade from slipping, which keeps your fingers intact.

From the carbon steel knife-loving home cooks, culinary students, and pro chefs I've informally polled, the consensus seems to be that carbon steel is something that's a bigger investment of time and care initially, but that it rewards you exponentially, much the way cast-iron cookware does. It gets better with age and use (which is a prized quality indeed) and forces you to be a more aware, conscientious cook.

While carbon steel knives can be pricey, there are knives out there that perform well and are cheaper than their stainless steel equivalents, like this one. If you want the best of both worlds, this amazing Shun knife is made of stainless steel, but with a high carbon content, which allows for an incredibly sharp edge that retains its cutting ability.

How to Sharpen Your Carbon Steel Knives

If you want a great and super-thorough tutorial on how to sharpen your knives, stainless or carbon, check out the videos below by Richard Blaine. He covers various sharpening steels (aka honing rods) including steel, diamond steel, and ceramic rods. They're on the long side, but worth it.

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Cover images via Vicky Wasik/Serious Eats

1 Comment

Im a jeweler engraver and i can tell you the minute you take 20-30 cuts with your knife its not as sharp and needs resharpening to be 100%. . No knife stays sharp without resharpening constantly. I was a jeweler and all i ever did was constantly sharpen and polish my engravers to get the best cut and finish look and engravings on my work.

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