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Many knife manufacturers provide the hardness value for the knife blade in the specifications - like 53HRC or 57 HRC.

What's the optimal hardness for kitchen knives? Do I always prefer the ones with higher hardness all else being equal?

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Unfortunately, even hardness is a trade-off, all other things (like maintenance, appearance, balance, thickness, and so on) being equal:

Harder

  • Pro - Holds edge longer
  • Con - More difficult to hone on a steel
  • Con - More brittle, so more likely to chip

Softer

  • Con - Doesn't hold edge as long
  • Pro - Easier to hone on a steel to an extremely sharp edge
  • Pro - Less likely to chip
  • Con - More likely to get little dings and dents

I think the manufacturer's indicate the type of alloy they use to help indicate the quality of their product, as opposed to more generic knives. Things aren't always equal, though--in choosing a knife, I would not consider this fact one of the more important ones compared to how it feels in your hand, the thickness of the blade, how much maintenance it requires (for example, so-called carbon steel knives need more loving care).

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Is there any threshold such that I shouldn't consider knives with lower hardness? –  sharptooth Jan 18 '13 at 10:53
    
I am not aware of any knife that would be sold commercially that is TOO soft. All steel is pretty hard compared to say, food. The only exception would be cleavers (the kind used to break up bones, not the oriental style which is essentially a differently shaped chef's knife in purpose), where the sharpness of the edge isn't all that important anyway. Perhaps someone more expert than I am in metallurgy (which would be anyone expert at all in that science) can chime in. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 30 '13 at 0:47
    
Well, I'm aware of a local knife model, hopefully discontinued years ago, that used steel so soft it would never hold edge. It just makes no sense to sharpen those knifes, because if you do you find them dull an hour later. –  sharptooth Jan 30 '13 at 6:22
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