Carbon Steel 101
As "Knife-Enthusiasts" we love carbon steel. We love the unique patinated patterns that tell stories of onions diced, garlic minced and lemons sliced. A well crafted carbon steel blade is the workhorse of many home cooks and professionals alike, so why do so many knife-makers stick with the stainless stuff?
Lots of people don't know the advantages of carbon steel as opposed to the stainless stuff. Some people didn't know they had another option. In either case, we think carbon steel should get some of the love it deserves.
Different steels have different recipes, just like cakes have different recipes. Just as with cakes a little bit more flour, or a bit less egg can make enormous differences in the end result, not to mention cooking times or temperatures. The same rules apply to steel production. A half of a percent of Chromium may make the difference between rust and no rust, and a bit more time in the heat treating oven may make for softer steel and lower edge retention.
The types of carbon steel that NHB uses most often are 1095 and 52100. Both of these steels contain a relatively high amount of carbon (about 1%) and a bit of Manganese. Carbon makes a knife take a keen edge, and harden nicely, and Manganese gives a bit more strength and wear resistance. What carbon steel doesn't have that stainless does is high percentages of Chromium. Chromium is an element that, when blended into knife steels, increases corrosion resistance and helps a knife stain less. That sounds fantastic right? A dash of Chromium into the steel "batter" and boom rust free, right? Not exactly. Chromium has an adverse effect on a blades ability to hold and edge, meaning by definition a steel recipe with a bit more Chromium, i.e. stainless, will retain its cutting edge for less time than a recipe with less Chromium. Also, stainless steel is almost never "rust-proof." Our friends at Blade HQ have made a couple real world test videos that prove just that.
To combat corrosion of your carbon steel the maintenance is relatively simple. Keep your knife clean, and oil the steel before you store the knife. Keeping the knife clean will prevent pitting and rusting from food and moisture from sitting on its' surface, and a film of oil will protect the knife from humidity during storage.
As far as Stainless Steel goes, there are a few reasons for its popularity. In today's fast-paced, drive thru world, Stainless Steel is easy. A quick wash and its done, no oil necessary. It's easy! Not better, not sharper, not longer lasting, just saves a few seconds. I for one, choose to enjoy the journey. I choose to savor the time I spend in the kitchen with loved ones, cooking meals to be shared and don't mind the extra 45 seconds oiling my knife.