A High-Carbon Steel Knife or a Stainless Steel Chef’s Knife – How to Choose?

Whether you’re a professional chef or a food enthusiast who enjoys whipping up gastronomical delights for friends and family, a good chef knife is a must if you want to get the most out of your time in the kitchen. 

A knife that may feel like an extension of their body in one person’s hand may handle awkwardly for someone else. There isn’t one single knife that will make slicing and dicing in the kitchen a pleasure for everyone. In this article, we will get down into the finer details of what makes a great knife and what you need to consider when making your decision. 

In the rest of this article, we will discuss the differences in knives and why you should choose one design over another, including:

  • The differences between carbon steel and stainless steel
  • Blade shape
  • Blade thickness
  • Blade length
  • Double bevel vs. single bevel
  • Hidden tang vs. full-tang handles
  • Knife balance
  • Advantages and disadvantages of bolsters

Knife Blade Steel

Manufacturers create blades from either high carbon steel, or stainless steel, but one is not necessarily better than the other, as both have their pros and cons.

All steel chef’s knives will contain some amount of carbon, but anything over 0.8% will put a knife in the high-carbon steel knife category. 

Why Choose a High Carbon Steel Knife Over a Stainless Steel Knife

Carbon steel knives will react with the environment, which can give the blade a lot of character. Over time you will notice a patina of light and dark developing on the knife blade. There is also the potential for rust, so carbon blades typically require a little more care when stored away. 

The most significant advantage of a high-carbon steel knife is that they hold their edge for much longer. If you need to go all day in a busy kitchen without taking time out to sharpen your blade, then a high-carbon steel knife will be the way to go. 

Many chefs enjoy a blade that shows physical changes in appearance as it adapts to its environment. In short, a high carbon steel knife will react to its environment over time and require more maintenance than the stainless-steel versions. It’s also worth pointing out that rust will dull a high-carbon steel knife, but proper care will prevent this from happening. Once you have cleaned your high-carbon knife, apply a thin sheen of oil onto the blade to give it a protective coating against moisture. 

Steel Hardness and Blade Sharpness

The hardness of the steel is managed by heat-treating the blade. Heat causes a chemical bonding that makes the metal a lot harder. Not only do you get a more robust blade, but a high-carbon steel knife will also hold an edge much longer than stainless steel. 

Hardness has a downside because it creates a more brittle blade. Hardened knives are prone to damage from rough handling and dropping. A softer blade may get bent out of shape after a drop, but it will easily bend back into shape.

Chef’s Knife Blade Shape

A blade’s shape will determine the type of work for which it is most suitable. Many German-style knives feature a rounded belly that is well suited to the rocking style cutting technique, where the blade is rocked along the curved belly of the knife.

The Japanese style of chef’s knives, which typically feature a flat profile along the edge, are better suited to slicing and cutting on a cutting board using push cutting techniques that use up and down motion.

Some French chef’s knives could be considered a hybrid between the German and the Japanese styles. The blade features a slight curve towards the front, which flattens out towards the back. These knives can be used for either cutting method, but the flat edge suggests that this type of blade is better suited to push cutting. 

Considering Blade Thickness in a Chef’s Knife

Thin knives are excellent for most cutting tasks, and the thinner the blade, the better it will slice. However, thin knives can be too delicate for more substantial jobs, such as when you might be cutting into bones.

Thicker blades have the extra weight and heft for getting through meats and any cutting where the knife might have to endure stress or have some pressure applied. 

One blade isn’t necessarily better than the other, but in general, if you’re cooking is more on the delicate side, then a thinner blade will make you more efficient. Also, if you’re in the kitchen for a few hours, a heavy blade will take a toll on your arms. 

Single Bevel Versus Double Bevel Chef’s Knives

The bevel is the part of the knife that is ground down to a cutting edge. If you look at a single bevel knife, you will notice a defining line where the cutting edge transitions into the rest of the blade. A single bevel knife is ground down to a cutting edge on only one side of the knife, while the backside is left flat. 

Single bevel knives are excellent cutting tools and the preferred choice for sushi chefs. A single bevel chef’s knife will be more delicate than double bevel versions because of how thin they are. They are also more difficult to sharpen as they use a completely different technique than double bevel knives. Learning, practice, and experience are essential to keeping single bevel knives sharp. 

If you are leaning towards single bevel knives, you should also be aware that the handles are shaped to accommodate a right or left-handed user. For instance, a right-handed blade will have the bevel on the right side of the knife. If you are a leftie, then you will need a knife with the bevel on the left-hand side. 

Some practice is also required when using single bevel knives. The cut will tend to wander away from the side of the bevel. It takes a little while to adapt and adjust your technique for cutting straight down. 

Double bevel knives are ground down evenly on both sides of the blade to form the cutting edge. This technique allows for more metal right at the edge of the knife to lend it extra strength and durability. Double bevels are also a lot less complicated to sharpen.

Finding the Ideal Blade Length

Most professional chef’s knives range between 9 and 10 inches in blade length. A reasonably long blade is more productive because you can line up more food underneath the knife. 

Long blades create heavier knives, which can be a drawback when you’re cutting all day. Also, if you’re short on cooking space or tend to work on small cutting boards, a long knife may get in the way. 

An excellent compromise is the 8-inch chef’s knife. It’s long enough to get everything done relatively quickly, and it doesn’t require such a large workspace. You will often see chefs using 8-inch knives in restaurants, but some chefs prefer to go even smaller. 

Six-inch knives are great for chefs working in very tight spaces, but there’s also something to be said for the level of control a 6-inch chef’s blade can deliver. 

This feature is especially true if you’re working the tip of the knife to do some delicate work, but you will still have a blade capable of cutting carrots and mincing shallots, plus everything else you need to do. If you aren’t spending hours in the kitchen, then don’t discount the value of a smaller blade. 

Hidden Tang and Full Tang Knife Handles

The tang is the part of the knife that extends beyond the blade and is an important consideration when choosing a chef’s knife, whether it’s a high-carbon steel knife or stainless steel.

A knife with a hidden tang is one with a tang that extends part-way into the handle, and the blade is secured there by glue or some type of adhesive. 

In contrast, a full tang extends through the handle, which is finished off by affixing two flat scales to either side of the tang with glue and rivets. 

Full tang chef knives are heavier, with more mass situated towards the back of the knife. Hidden tang knives have more of the knife’s weight distributed towards the front. 

As you would expect, deciding between a full tang and a hidden tang will come down to the type of work you are doing with the knife. 

Hidden tangs are not as well suited to heavy work where you are hammering down into the cutting board. You can treat a full tang knife pretty rough and be confident that it won’t break under pressure. 

For most kitchen tasks, however, there’s not much difference between a quality knife made with a hidden tang or full tang, and it will mostly come down to your personal preference.

Materials for Chef Knife Handles

Manufacturers can use any number of different types of materials on a knife handle. Most importantly, the knife’s handle material needs to suit the environment in which it will be used. 

Fibrox is a popular material for creating knife handles. It gives a soft feel to the knife, while also being easy to wash. It’s also certified to be resistant to bacteria, which is essential in a commercial food situation. 

Wusthof uses a hard black plastic material on their knife handles. It won’t warp, crack, or change in dimension. It helps give you a firm grip on the knife for excellent control and is very easy to keep clean. 

If you’re one who can appreciate natural materials’ beauty, then wood is a great choice. Wooden handles allow you to own a chef’s knife that is unique, as no two pieces will be exactly alike. Wood does require some maintenance, but the unique and natural beauty it instills in the knife may be worth the trade-off.

Handle Shapes

Finding the perfect shape for your knife handle may be a little tricky if you’re shopping for knives online. The only real indication of whether you can appreciate the shape and feel of the handle will come from physically holding it. 

If you are shopping online, make sure you purchase from a retailer who has a solid returns policy. You don’t want to be stuck with an expensive, high-quality knife that you will never use because you don’t like how it feels in your hand.

You will see variations of shaped handles which have a small swell towards the middle, which then flares out at the end so it fits nicely in the palm of your hand and can keep it in place. 

Different handles can feature many subtle differences – they might be thicker or thinner, but the swell that ends in a flare is such a common feature that it will be rare to find a knife without it.  

To provide an example of the wide variation of handles that are out there, we’ll look at a knife created by Chroma. The knife has a distinctive look because the handle and blade are made from the same piece of steel. You will come across many exciting and unique knife designs which you may appreciate visually. Still, without holding them in your hand first, you can never be entirely sure about their usefulness in the kitchen.

Knife Balance

Most chefs will hold their knife in one of two ways, depending on the type of chopping they will be doing. A firm grip on the handle using the entire hand is the preferred way to do heavy-duty chopping. 

For more delicate work, the usual way is to grip the knife by pinching two fingers up against where the blade meets the handle. This position gives more precise control over more delicate chopping. 

The balance of a knife will depend on your preference as well as the type of work you do. When talking about balance, we are referring to where the point of balance is between each end of the knife. 

A heavy bladed knife will have the balance point further along the blade. A knife that balances in the front of your hand, close to where your first finger covers the blade, is considered by many chefs to be a well-balanced knife.  

If the balance of the knife is too far towards the front of the blade, it may feel top-heavy and difficult to work with. On the other hand, if the balance is too far back on the handle, it will feel like you need to make extra effort to make the chopping motions. 

Chef knives don’t need to be perfectly balanced in the middle to feel comfortable. A little off-center towards the front of the handle or just behind will still feel like the knife is well-balanced. 

In general, when considering shape and balance, choose a knife that feels comfortable in your hand and test it out before purchasing. 

Chef’s Knife Bolster

The bolster is the thick junction between the blade and the handle, and it has the job of creating a smooth transition from the blade to the handle. 

Bolsters add strength to a chef’s knife, as well as improve its durability. Since the blade of a chef’s knife is usually lighter than the handle, the bolster also creates a nice counterbalance to recover the knife’s overall balance and control over it. 

Most full tang chef’s knives will have a bolster, but they are also a common addition to forged knives. The thickness of the bolster will indicate the original thickness of the steel used to forge the blade. Stamped or laser-cut knives can also have a bolster added.

A full bolster is one that extends to the bottom of the blade. Larger bolsters may add some protection from the edge of the blade when using the knife to do the heavy cutting. However, full bolsters can make it challenging to use the full edge of the knife, and sharpening can be problematic. 

Some manufacturers will add a semi-bolster to create a knife with a more usable edge as well one that is easier to sharpen. 

Advantages and Disadvantage of Full Bolster Chef’s Knives

If you press the point of the knife into the ingredient, or you use the knife with a sawing action, such as when you are breaking up meat, bolsters add a level of protection for the fingers. 

This is why some chefs will prefer a full bolster for filleting and boning fish. The bolster helps them keep a grip on the knife when their fingers get slippery.

A bolster can also alter the angle required for cutting, and some chefs have gotten used to the way they work with a knife that has a full bolster or some other design. 

Knives with semi bolsters, or none at all, are still capable of performing well in the kitchen, and may even provide an advantage. When you have more blade to work with, you can line up more food under the blade and get more work done. 

Plus, if you are using your knife every day, you will be sharpening it a lot. This job will go much quicker if you don’t have a bolster to contend with, but you do have to be more careful when handling the blade during cleaning.

Bolsters and semi bolsters are a common addition to many chef knife designs, so it will come down to how you prefer your knife to feel in your hand and what you will be asking of it.

We’ve given you a lot to think about. Now that you know more about the advantages of a high-carbon steel knife over a stainless steel chef’s knife and the various designs, you should be in a better position to make an informed choice and get the best blade for your cooking arrangement.

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