Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | March 2, 2009

Your chef’s knife 3: stainless and forged

About steel

Stainless knives are easier to maintain – there’s no fussing around with rust, drying, or oiling the steel. However, they tend to be more expensive (after a certain point), are harder to sharpen, and generally speaking, have a shorter life span.

Carbon steel is certainly niftier, and has a certain cachet and heirloom quality that many find appealing. FWIW, I have 5 carbon steel knives and something like 20 stainless ones. So I’ve got issues, ok? My recommendation is, if you’re going to buy one knife and not collect them like some kind of junkie (problems, like I said), get a good stainless knife. It’s just easier.

If you choose to make your life difficult, there’s a couple of things to consider. First, feel free to check out the Kitchen Knife Definitions page over on Knife Forums. That page talks at some fantastic length about steel and steel types, but I’ll summarize some points here. First, there’s carbon steel and there’s carbon steel. Generally, all carbon steel knives are high carbon steel knives. The differences generally are in the additives. And each additive is intended to create a blade that has some balance of the following four categories: wear resistance (abrasive wear), strength (ability to resist deforming or rolling), toughness (ability to resist chipping or breaking) and stability (ability to hold an edge). Unfortunately, a knife that has all of these qualities is rather difficult as raising one might well require a commensurate lowering of another.

Again, over-simplifying, there are three primary steel types you’ll find in good, high quality Japanese knives. The first is yellow steel (shigami). You won’t see this much as its generally considered inferior to the following two. Next is white steel (shirogami, also called shiroko), which has low wear resistance, poor toughness but high stability. Last is blue steel (aogami, also called aoko), which has better wear, better toughness and high stability than white. Blue steel comes in three grades, #2, #1 and super. #2 has higher toughness, #1 better wear, and super has the highest stability and wear of all three, but has the lowest toughness. Metalurgy is fun!

For what it’s worth, white steels are generally considered to be able to take a finer edge (but this might be splitting hairs), blue to be able to hold it far longer. That said, blue steels are far more expensive — edge retention is king, I guess.

Most Japanese knives will use a mix of steels in their knives, kind of like a metal sandwich. When forging, the hard cutting core (called the hagane) will be surrounded with some softer metal (called the jigane). Some smiths (like Murray Carter) hold that this layering of metals creates a far more resilient blade. The alternative approach to this kasumi-style (if single beveled) or san mai technique (if double-beveled) is to forge the knife from a single metal. This approach is called honyaki, and is considered the pinacle of craftsmanship. It’s also much more expensive. The only obvious benefit to me, other than those of artistic appreciation, is that the single-metal knife is unlikely to warp. Warp, you say? Well, yes, when you bond two different materials together at heat, they cool at their own rates, which is to say, differentially … which means the blade could warp. Whoops. Not fatal, and usually something one can rectify, but still.

Forged or Stamped

The practical difference between forged knives and stamped knives is largely a matter of cost – stamped knives are way cheaper. And that isn’t a bad thing – the chef’s knife that Cooks Illustrated recommends happens to be a stamped knife – the Forschner by Victorinox. Of course, Cooks Illustrated recommends the 8” – but we now know better, right? Anyway, their 10” chef’s knife costs $23 on Amazon, and for that price, you can’t beat it with a stick. If it helps, this is the knife that L’Academie de Cuisine (my culinary school) uses by the gross for their professional and recreational programs.

My problem with stamped knives is, while wicked sharp when new, getting that edge back is problematic. Like most stamped knives, sharpening is a problem. I think the point is that since they’re cheap, who cares? Still, it’s a nit. Not oerwhelming one, but my experience with these knives and others like them is that they simply don’t hold up, or more specifically, hold an edge. YMMV.

Forged knives are more expensive because they’re harder to make. They’re generally manufactured a bit more carefully, and generally speaking, will last longer, and will hold an edge longer. Generally. Of course, not all forged knives are created equal. And while the term “forged” may imply “hand-made”, this isn’t necessarily the case.

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