Welcome to day one in my four-part series on the best kitchen knives, a very basic introduction to the finer points of cooking cutlery. First things first: many people ask me, “What kind of metal are the best kitchen knives made of?” This question doesn’t just come from those learning to cook – I also get asked this question by professionals who have been cooking for years.
When learning how to cook, your knives are one of your most important assets. So this seems like a good place to start this series. It’s actually a lot more interesting that it sounds. I promise. It’s useful, even if the most you use your kitchen knives for right is now chopping celery.
Today we’re going to start at the very beginning: metals. You might not be overly concerned with the metallic makeup of your knives; but if you own nice cutlery and you want to take care of it, this is a really important thing to know. If you want the very best kitchen knives, well, then this is really important stuff for you to know.
Kitchen knives can be made of a range of materials, and if you’ve ever shopped for cutlery, you’ve probably read a billion different metal-related buzzwords. Stainless, carbon, high carbon… what’s the difference? What are the best kitchen knives on the market made of? Here are some of the most common metals you might hear of when researching kitchen cutlery.
What are the best kitchen knives made of?
Kitchen knives have been made from carbon steel for centuries. Carbon steel is essentially iron with a little carbon added in, which makes for a stronger blade that keeps an edge much longer than a solid iron blade. While these knives are known for being solid workhorses, they also rust easily and don’t stand up very well to acidic compounds. If properly seasoned, carbon blades become more resistant to breakdown.
Still, a good carbon steel knife will last forever if properly cared for, and some folks relish the dark stains they develop as they would stripes on a military uniform. Even though the market has been taken over by newfangled stainless steel cutlery, carbon steel knives are still treasured by chefs who appreciate a solid kitchen tool. They’ll fare you well in making either standard home cooked meals or a restaurant dinner service.
This is what most standard household knives are made of. In the early 20th century, stainless steel was developed by adding chromium to carbon steel to make it more durable and resistant to rust. Stainless steel is also much slower to corrode when exposed to acids (hence the name stainless steel, duh). It’s important to note, though, that no steel knife is completely invincible – they all break down when exposed to acids, salts, and moisture. This is why you’re supposed to wash and dry your knife immediately after using it, but you already knew that, right?
Other factors: stainless knives don’t take an edge as well as carbon steel blades, and they’re more of a bear to sharpen. This is why knife manufacturers are always futzing with their metal mixtures, trying to come up with the perfect balance of strong/sharp/soft/etc. Recipes for steel are almost as prolific as recipes for cookies, and they’re kept under lock and key.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel
High carbon stainless steel is basically stainless steel with a little more carbon added (get it, high carbon?). This is supposed to make the knife both stain resistant and more capable of holding an edge, though the jury is still out as to how effective this is in practical, every day use. While high carbon cutlery may hold its edge a little longer than standard stainless steel, it’s not by a huge margin. I find that these knives are more of a gimmick.
Damascus, or pattern welded steel, is more of a process than a type of metal. By taking a few different kinds of steel and layering them together, artisan knife-makers achieve unique patterns in their cutlery. Take a peek and you’ll notice that Damascus knives have interesting-looking patterns throughout the metal blade, and these patterns actually go all the way through the knife. Anything called “Damascus-look” isn’t really damascus at all; it’s most likely a superficial pattern in the surface of the metal that just looks pretty.
Damascus knives are super expensive but woo-wee, are they gorgeous. Someday I’ll get my mitts on a custom Bob Kramer knife… once I’m rich and famous. Actually, pattern welding is something I’ve always been interested in. I’d love to actually make my own someday.
Knife manufacturers put all sorts of metals in their steel mixtures. They can contain such compounds as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and others, each having their own properties. There’s no such thing as “the perfect knife” – each manufacturer will tell you that their steel recipe is the best for X and Y reasons. In the end they’re all pretty similar, and unless you’re interesting in becoming a major metallurgy geek, the only way to truly understand which knives are stronger and sharper is to use them yourself.
Clearly this isn’t a metal at all, but when asking what the best kitchen knives made of, we need to discuss this awesome material. Ceramic knives are becoming more popular these days, and they’ve got a few advantages: they’re super lightweight, they keep an edge for an extraordinarily long time, and they don’t stain, rust, or react to acids. The downside is that they can chip or shatter if not cared for properly, and that’s a big bummer. When you’re working on your grand ideas for dinner, the last thing you want to worry about is your ceramic knife shattering into your potato salad. But ceramic knives have a big up-side, too.
Ceramic knives are a lot of fun to use. They cut through veggies like a light saber and their lack of heft makes them feel like an extension of your arm. Plus, there’s just something really satisfying about a super sharp white blade. It kind of turns me on. You just have to be careful to not lop off a digit, because they are sharp enough to cause serious damage to fingers. Unlike metal knives, ceramic knives don’t wear down so quickly and it’s easy to forget they stay sharp – for a very very long time.
Now that you know what kitchen knives are made of, let’s move on to part two of the series: Different types of cooking knives.
If you want to know more about kitchen knives and all other cooking topics, check out the Ninja Cooking Community of Facebook, where you can get free kitchen coaching and chat in a vibrant community!
This content was originally posted on FearlessFresh.com.