What's the deal with carbon steel?

I wanted to write this post - the latest in my series of “knife advice from someone who is only a page ahead of you” – because, on the face of it, why on earth would you buy a carbon steel knife? It rusts at what seems like the drop of a hat. You have to try and develop a patina (a what?). You have to care for it and wipe the blade if you cut anything remotely acidic, and don’t even think about cutting on anything other than a chopping board - no glass or stone or ceramic. You can’t bung it in the dishwasher, sling it in the bowl with the rest of the washing up, or throw it into your utensils drawer. Then there is the very real risk that it might chip.


So why on earth wouldn’t you just play safe and stick with something stainless steel? The thing is that carbon steel is seriously sharp. It stays seriously sharp, and when it does eventually need sharpening is easy to re-sharpen. Scientifically, it has a higher carbon content. While your bog standard stainless steel knives might seem like a winner, it is short-term gain for long-term pain. Your average stainless steel knife is pretty tricky to re-sharpen, giving it a limited shelf life.


But we sell stainless steel knives? Yes, we do. We sell either stainless steel knives at a low price point for general kitchen usage – for example your nifty Opinel paring knife – or we sell high end stainless steel, such as VG10. This high end VG10 has characteristics more similar to carbon steel and isn’t as tricky to re-sharpen but, and inevitably there’s a but, it comes at a price. A good quality stainless steel knife isn’t cheap.


But carbon steel still makes you nervous? Fear not, there are some compromises. A lot of knives are made of three pieces of steel – “san mai” – forged together. Some of the knives we sell have a carbon steel core, clad with two pieces of stainless steel. This means that you get the sharpness from the carbon core, combined with the protection of the stainless steel cladding, as only the very edge is the reactive carbon steel. Alternatively, a blackened kurouchi finish is very forgiving acting to protect the metal like you have already established a patina.


And if it rusts? A little rust isn’t the end of the world. We sell rust erasers and are happy to advise how to use them and, with a slick of camellia oil, your knife will be back as new. In my humble opinion, the advantages of carbon steel outweigh the need to take a little bit more care with your kit. My top tip is to keep a tea towel folded on the side of your board and it will soon become second nature to wipe the blade from time to time and, before you know it, you will be a carbon steel devotee.


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