Among the many variations of the chef’s knife in existence, the largest single divide is the material of the blade itself: carbon or stainless steel. It’s often said that real chefs prefer carbon steel knives while casual cooks are better off with stainless — why? Here’s all you need to know before picking a side.
Carbon steel knives are noted for their exceptional hardness, an attribute measured on something called the Rockwell Scale. More hardness means less wear and tear on the knife’s edge. Regular knife work will dull any blade’s edge over time, but it wears more on stainless knives because of the presence of softer metal. So long as the blade isn’t dropped at any significant height (carbon steel is more brittle than stainless), carbon steel blades will keep their edge for far longer than stainless steel.
Performance in the knife world comes down to how well and for how long the knife can optimally cut food. This means a knife’s performance is partly a function of its hardness, as harder metal knives (those made with carbon steel) hold their original edge far longer than softer metal knives (stainless steel).
The second half of knife performance is the angle of the blade edge — a bigger edge angle doesn’t pass as easily through food as a smaller edge angle. Carbon steel blades typically sport a smaller angle edge than their stainless counterparts thanks to finer grain steel. This is because carbon steel lacks Chromium (the star ingredient in stainless steel), an element that creates extra-large carbides in an alloy that, if ground to a tight angle, make the knife too brittle for regular use. Thus, stainless knives typically sport wider-angled edges.
What stainless steel lacks in durability and performance, it makes up for with easy maintenance. Leave it on the counter or throw it in the sink or dishwasher, stainless steel is both rust and stain-resistant (carbon steel owners would rather call this a patina). These attributes are brought to you by the presence of Chromium, a shiny, brittle, no-bullshit chemical element that makes up at least 13 percent of every stainless steel blade. There is no Chromium in carbon steel, thus carbon steel will corrode and stain without prompt cleaning and care.
By and large, carbon steel kitchen knives are more expensive than stainless steel kitchen knives. There are exceptions aplenty, but with ultra-popular budget knives like the Victorinox Fibrox knife (and its many, many copy-cats) floating around, it’s difficult to deny stainless steel’s superior affordability.
If you value performance and durability, regardless of the maintenance and cost, then carbon steel knives are the way to go. But if you’re someone who just wants a sharp blade that won’t break the bank, you have plenty of options — just make sure it’s stainless steel.