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I've seen this question and obviously carbon steel (not stainless) knives look quite bad without extra care (picture from the linked to question)

not neat at all

Now my question is - why face the trouble? Why would I prefer a carbon steel kitchen knife over a stainless steel one?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Carbon steel is more malleable and less brittle than stainless steel. This means that it is easier to hone on a knife steel, to maintain an extremely sharp edge.

Some folks feel that the benefit of that sharp edge–for example, in easily slicing tomatoes, and other very fast prep tasks–is worth the compromise of more persnickety maintenance.

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Lots of opinins but not much metallurgical knowledge.....reminds me of hotroders thinking something is better if its made out of billet instead 6061 AL (same thing). Where's that crazy smilie?

Carbon steel is actually a misnomer, in many industries carbond steel is refered to a mild steel alloy that isn't stailness. What our knives are made of is a medium to high carbon tool steel with a enough carbon that it can be hardened (all steels have some carbon). Stick with asking for carbon steel at the kitchen store or they won't know what you're talkning about, but thats the truth of it

Hardening means heating it past the critical tempurature (roughly red hot) and quenching it (differently mediums for different alloys, ie water, oil, air). After hardening, the steel is 'tempered' which means its reheated to a much low temp to 'let down' the steel or make it less brittle. This also reduces hardness, so the maker wants to create the right balance - different tools get different tempers depending whats expected from them - ie an impact tool is tempered at a higher temp to let it down more so it doesn't shatter. Left dead hard after a quench, the blade would be too brittle - it could shatter if dropped sort of thing.

Incidentally, this is what the japanese laminated cutting tools are all about - leave the inner tool steek very hard and use soft outer ducticle steel to give it strength.

Carbon steel knives were not created for sushi. They predate any stainless knife which is essentially a perfermance compromise - not has hard a steel (which IS edge holding ability) but the don't rust.

Carbon steel can be made extremely hard. even slightly harder than HSS (high speed steel) whose advantage is hardness at heat (up to red hot). This is an important foot note as grinding does expose the steel to very high temps - not all over but where the steel molecule meets the abrasive. Temps are high enough to effect the temper. This is why HSS is preferable for say a drill bit or even a chisel so it can ground and why you have to carefull with carbone steel if you're grinding so you don't wreck the temper

Anyway, maybe more than you wanted to know, but thats facts around the differences.

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Carbon steel is much cheaper than stainless steel although that isn't the only reason.

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Carbon steel is, as you've mentioned, a lot harder to maintain than stainless steel. However, carbon steel is a harder metal than stainless steel, meaning that it will be less vulnerable to the physical stress of everyday use and will hold an edge longer than stainless steel. As such, carbon steel knives are generally regarded as better for heavy or extended use in busy kitchens, as the chefs won't have to stop and hone their blades quite as often throughout the day. Stainless steel knives, on the other hand, are much more resistant to staining and corrosion, but they are harder to sharpen and will require more frequent sharpening overall than carbon steel knives.

Each material has its pros and cons. In the end, you're really just trading one shortcoming for another—extra cleaning with carbon steel and extra sharpening with stainless steel—so the choice really just depends on what the knife will most often be used to do. If you frequently do a lot of hard chopping or slicing, investing in at least one quality carbon steel knife for heavy-duty applications may be a good idea. But if you're at home just cooking for your yourself or your family and will usually only need the knife for basic tasks and low-impact cuts, stainless steel will probably do just fine in most situations.

You can find more information on common knife materials in the following article:

Hope that helps, and good luck with any future knife shopping!

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I have one of each - I do a lot of general prep work with my stainless but prefer the Carbon for dismembering cuts of meat. The sharper blade tends to cut through ligament and tendon easier.

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Unless you're considering going into Sushi preparation where a razor sharp edge to your knife is required I'd stick to the easy to maintain stainless steel knives.

Carbon steel knives are primarily intended (but not exclusively) for sushi preparation. The Japanese are fanatical about sushi hence the whole carbon steel knife industry surrounding it.

No surprise that the majority of the best carbon steel knives originate from Japan.

Stick with stainless steel which is fine for all kitchen uses apart form sushi preparation.

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Not entirely accurate I'd say... I have a Chinese cleaver (such as the one in the picture in the original question) which is Carbon steel. I also can't think of very many cases where a sharp knife wouldn't be better. Though the maintenance is the biggest tradeoff – talon8 Jan 11 '13 at 18:47
@talon8 I said primarily intended (but not exclusively). Carbon steel knives and the associated hassle of looking after them is not required by your average home cook, unless you're doing sushi. I stand by what I've stated. – spiceyokooko Jan 11 '13 at 21:18
I was disagreeing with your statement about them being "primarily intended for" sushi. – talon8 Jan 12 '13 at 4:44

My three carbon steel knives are used constantly in my not-fancy home kitchen. Cut, rinse or quickly wash and drain cutting edge down.....very simple to maintain. I would use no other! The one SS knife I use is a small, serrated paring knife. It does the job pretty well. Part of the secret...maybe a lot of it, is the serration. In the case of carbon steel they are tiny...and effective. I should add I am one of those cooks who cannot cook W/o cleaning as she goes. It makes me crazy to have pots and pans strewn all over the kitchen. And most would be on the floor as country space is limited. So maybe that is why I do not mind the trade off of cleaning the knife. Happy cooking, whatever your comfort zone is. Linda

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Are you saying you are using serrated carbon steel knives? – talon8 2 days ago
Hello Linda, it is unclear what your answer is. Your answer just states:"I like them and they do the job pretty well." Other knives do their job pretty well, too and need less maintaining. – Lars Friedrich 2 days ago

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