Steel is the core of nearly all cutlery. That’s been the case for almost 4000 years in some cultures. But like anything else, not all steels are created equal. Read on to learn a little about what makes or breaks a steel for knife making.
The Best Steel for Knife Making: The Basics
What is Steel?
If it’s been a while since high school chemistry class, here’s a quick refresher: steel is a tough metal made primarily of iron, but with a little carbon mixed in (0.002% to 2.14% by weight). The inclusion of carbon atoms in the iron structure has a surprising effect: it makes the metal tougher.
There isn’t an absolute answer to the best steel for knife making
Pure iron is very hard, but it’s also quite brittle. If you try to bend a pure iron rod, for instance, you’ll find it doesn’t flex much before it breaks. The breakage will take quite a bit of force, but it’s still a problem.
If you make a thin, sharp edge with that material, the edge is liable to crack or chip when it encounters a hard bone or solid surface.
The inclusion of a little carbon makes the metal much more accepting of bending forces. A steel rod will flex.
If you bend steel, for a while it will happily flex and then spring back to the original shape when released (engineers call this elastic behavior).
Bend it even further, and it will retain some of that bend permanently (odd though it sounds, the engineering term for this is plastic behavior). Pure iron gives you very little elasticity and almost zero plasticity.
Both those behaviors are important in the kitchen. When your blade edge hits something hard, it will flex just a little. Often, it will spring back to its original shape. Sometimes, it will plastically deform, reducing the sharpness of the edge.
You’ll need a sharpening stone or an electric knife sharpener now and then to put the edge back in order, but that’s better than a big crack or chip in your blade.
Obviously, steel is a good improvement over brittle iron. Simple carbon steel blades have been used for thousands of years and many people still swear by them. Properly cared for, one of these can last a lifetime!
The biggest danger is corrosion. If you live around high humidity or you don’t want the trouble of fastidiously maintaining your blade, what are you to do?
An alloy is a metal that is chemically combined with other elements. Technically, steel is already an alloy, but in practical terms, “steel alloy” typically means carbon steel combined with something else. This may be manganese, nickel, chromium, zirconium, molybdenum, or many other elements. Each one will alter the properties of the steel slightly.
Stainless steels are the most common alloys among cutlery. The addition of chromium and nickel protects the blade against rust. The downside is they make the metal a little softer; it will bend easier than basic carbon steel.
Knife producers have the difficult task of balancing the need for elasticity and plasticity with the demand for hard, long-lasting knife edges. The best electric knife sharpener you have may be effective, but it’s still annoying to have to whip it out on a regular basis.
Most high-end cutlery manufacturers now produce their own proprietary alloys. They almost all fall under the category known as “high-carbon stainless steel.” You’ll see this term plastered all over the advertisements for Wusthoff, Dalstrong, Mercer, Henckels, Shun, and many other brands.
The “high-carbon” content helps harden the metal, bringing it closer to the superior properties of regular carbon steel while still staving off rust. (It’s not too much carbon though – that gives you cast iron, which again becomes brittle!)
So, what is the best steel for knife making? As much as we hate to do this to you again, the answer is: it depends. Apparently, we’re not the only one who came to this non-conclusion: the cooks and experts from Healthy Kitchen 101 also agreed that choosing the blade’s steel is a matter of “personal preference and how you intend to use the knife.”
Image Caption: The type of steel used can affect the longevity of your knives
Old-fashioned carbon steel tends to give you the longest-lasting sharp edge while still readily accepting a good sharpening when it needs it. It’s durable and tough against just about everything…except moisture.
Carbon steel must be carefully maintained. Food and liquids should be promptly cleaned off and the blade immediately dried and stored in a dry place. Occasionally, it should be seasoned with food-grade mineral oil. Otherwise, it might start to rust.
If you think you can keep up the maintenance, seek out a carbon steel chef’s knife. It will reward your diligence.
If not, you need stainless! Here we can add even more qualifiers. If you’re after a chef’s knife, a santoku knife, or a high-quality paring, boning, or bread knife, you’ll probably want high-carbon stainless steel of some sort. Most of us aren’t metallurgists, so the minor differences between proprietary formulas won’t make a big difference. Find the high-carbon stainless knife that fits your hand and your needs.
If you’re after something more like a cheese knife or steak knives, the high carbon content may not be so important. There are plenty of good stainless options that won’t break the bank. Keep your knife sharpener handy for when they need a touch-up and don’t fret about the specific alloy. There’s more important fish to fry – like that salmon on your cutting board waiting to be sliced!
In the end, there is no best steel for knife making— each type of steels and alloys has its own pros and cons in terms of toughness, endurance, and ease of sharpening. The material your knife is made of should fit the materials you work with most often, and your style of cutting.