When buying a kitchen knife you want the best bang for your buck. Everyone wants the best material available for their knife; who wouldn't? Steel is still the king of knives, and Ceramic and Titanium remain drastically inferior. But how do we go about finding the best kitchen knife steel?
Ready for the bad news?
Unfortunately there is no ultimate steel for knife blades, no superior, magnificent, ultimate blade material. This is really important to remember. Every steel has its pros and cons, its advantages and disadvantages.
First I feel I need to cover some of the basics lest I confuse people.
What is Carbon Steel and what is Stainless Steel?
All steels are carbon steels. In other words they contain Carbon (C). Pure Iron (Fe) is way too soft to be used in a knife.
What are commonly referred to as High Carbon Steels generally contain just Iron and Carbon.
Stainless Steels are somewhat more complex. They also contain Carbon but also contain a high percentage of Chromium (around 15%). The Chromium when heat treated is what gives the steel its stain resistance. In most Stainless Steels there are a number of other elements that are added to the recipe to bring out various qualities.
These various elements (Carbon, Chromium, Manganese etc.) plus correct heat treatment give the steel its properties.
High Carbon is a wonderful knife steel to use. It takes a wicked edge and is easy to sharpen. The downside is that it can be hard to maintain and can corrode easily if left with moisture on the blade. What I recommend for the user is to cook with a tea towel nearby and give it a wipe down as you cook.
High Carbon tool steel will have a particular look and feel that is unlike traditional knives. High Carbon Steels will tell the journey of your kitchen experience in the changing face of the blade. It will take on stains and discolour from every recipe you cook.
My interest in this material is for its otherness, its personality. I encourage you to experience these knives as living art that transforms over time. I give the steel a patina before I send it out to my customers to further limit corrosion that will happen with this type of steel. A patina forces oxidization of the steel to limit further corrosion.
What's not to like about something that is shiny and sharp!
I use the Stainless Steel 12C27, AEBL and RWL because they are proven to work well, limit corrosion, and be tough and hard enough for the kitchen, yet within the sharpening and service factor of most owners. They make an excellent kitchen knife steels and are used in products as varied as razor blades through to ice skates.
All knives will need sharpening, the time that the sharpening takes will depend on the steel. With High Carbon taking slightly less time than most Stainless Steels* to get a hair raising edge back.
I like both Stainless and High Carbon Steel. It is not subjective, it is not objective. Finding the right blade for you is interactive.
Ultimately, when it comes to the steels that are used in high end knives it is actually not about which steel is better but about your relationship with that kitchen tool. Choose a blade steel that is going to reflect how you like to interact with your kitchen knife and how you like to maintain it.