Carbon Steel Knives Pros and Cons

I usually find that the main marketing feature of standard kitchen knives is stainless steel, the kind of generic knives you’ll find in your local department store.

It’s the one feature that’s most highlighted for standard knives and especially cutlery. But if you start talking to chef’s, or anyone in the knives industry, much more focus will be placed on high carbon steel knives.

Indeed, if you start looking for a quality kitchen knife you’ll soon notice that often the first feature that’s mentioned is the high carbon content of the steel.

In this article I’m going to explain why that is and talk through the pros and cons of carbon steel knives, answer frequently asked questions about carbon steel and give my personal recommendation of three quality carbon steel knives and different price points.

Before digging into all the detail, here’s a brief summary of the main pros and cons of carbon steel knives.

Carbon steel knife prosCarbon steel knife cons
Harder than stainless steel means it can be sharperMore brittle than stainless steel means it can chip easily
Retains a sharp edge of longerCan rust more easily than stainless steel
Easy to sharpenTypically more expensive

Are carbon steel knives good

Carbon steel knives are very good if you’re willing to take care of them. Like many things that are high quality, they also need to be well maintained.

And it’s quite an important point to make. Frankly, if yours is a busy family kitchen where knives, pots and pans all get left to soak in the kitchen sink or are sitting in the dishwasher for hours then a high carbon knife might not be for you.

You might be better served with a knife that has been built for durability, such as the fantastically durable Global chef’s knife (view on Amazon).

But, if you’re willing to take good care of a high carbon knife (and it really isn’t that hard to do so) then what you’ll get is a sharper knife that lasts longer and makes food preparation a whole lot easier.

There are two things you need to know about with high carbon knives:

  • High carbon knives rust more easily
  • High carbon knives chip more easily

Why do carbon knives rust

The chemical name for rust is iron oxide. As the name hints, iron oxide needs three elements to come together, iron, oxygen and water.

Knives are made from iron, oxygen is of course always in abundance, so the last piece of the puzzle is water. When iron gets wet it begins to oxidize and rust (iron oxide) is formed.

The reason stainless steel knives are so resistant to rust is due to their high level of chromium. 

Chromium reacts with oxygen to create chromium oxide, this reaction typically occurs more quickly than iron oxide can form and as a result, the blade forms a protective layer of chromium oxide, through which water cannot penetrate. Pretty clever right?

So the higher the chromium content, the more quickly this reaction occurs and the better protected the knife is.

The issue with high carbon knives is that there’s a trade off, the higher the carbon content of the knife the less room there is for chromium.

Knife manufacturers are getting better at making high carbon knives that still have a high chromium content, but ultimately there will always be a trade off, and that’s why high carbon knives are more likely to rust.

Why do carbon knives chip easily

High carbon knives are very strong but they are also very brittle, that’s why they can be easy to chip.

It may seem contradictory, but actually materials that are very strong are actually quite brittle too. Imagine a slab of marble, it’s extremely hard, you couldn’t crush it with your hands, but if you dropped it it could easily break on impact.

Now, compare that to something like a plastic cup, you could easily squeeze and deform that with your hand, but if you dropped it, it wouldn’t be damaged at all.

That’s the difference between hardness and brittleness. Applying short sharp pressure to a hard, but brittle material can easily cause it to break.

Having said that, high carbon blades are not just going to fall apart as you slice through food. They are more brittle than stainless steel knives but they aren’t THAT brittle.

But you do need to be aware of foods that could damage them.

Foods with hard centers can be a risk, vegetables with stones, like avocados, or meats with bones, like chicken thighs will increase the risk of you chipping the blade edge of a high carbon knife.

It’s also a good idea to store a high carbon knife blade somewhere secure, like in a blade sheath or knife block so it can’t clatter against any other pieces of cutlery. 

How long does it take for carbon steel to rust

If left in high moisture air such as a dishwasher, or kitchen sink a carbon steel knife could begin to rust within 24 hours.

However; this is all down to you really. If you make sure the blade is never left wet for long periods of time then there is no reason your knife will rust.

You could own a high carbon knife for decades and never have an issue with rust, it really all comes down to how well you maintain the knife.

To prevent a carbon steel knife from rusting you just need to ensure it has been wiped down dry after every use.

Remember, it’s not just cleaning the blade with water that can get it wet. Residual moisture from food needs to be wiped from the blade too.

Food like potatoes and tomatoes contain quite a lot of water, and you’ll notice that on the knife blade once you’ve cut them, so always make sure to wipe down your blade after use.

Water is one of the key ingredients of forming iron oxide (the chemical name for rust), so without it there is no reason why your knife will rust.

Is carbon steel or stainless steel better

High carbon steel can be made sharper than stainless steel; however, stainless steel is more durable.

Which you prefer comes down to your own needs. For busy family kitchens where multiple people will use the knife and keeping it well maintained is difficult then I would always recommend a quality stainless steel knife.

If you know that you, and anyone else, using the knife is going to look after it properly by; wiping down after use and storing in a safe way so the blade doesn’t get chipped, then high carbon knives are a great choice.

Ultimately, high carbon knives have sharper blades, and so they do the actual job for cutting food better. If you can take the time to care for them they are a better tool than a stainless steel knife.

Is carbon steel safe to cook with

High carbon knives are perfectly safe to cook with. They don’t contain any toxic materials so there is no need to worry.

Carbon knives can in no way harm any type of food you cook with.

Can you sharpen carbon steel

High carbon knives are actually easier to sharpen than stainless steel ones. They can also be sharpened to a finer edge, which is their main benefit over stainless steel.

Sharpening is the process of removing a thin layer of the blade to unveil a fresh, new, sharp layer. 

Because carbon knives are hard, the edge can be sharpened to a more acute angle. Typically between 8 – 15 degrees. Most western stainless steel knives have edge angles of 15 – 20 degrees, any more than that and the blade edge would be too thin and would easily deform.

The best way to sharpen a carbon steel blade is using a whetstone.

How do you clean carbon steel

High carbon knives need to be cleaned by hand. They should not be placed in a dishwasher or left to soak in water.

The easiest and best way to clean a high carbon steel knife is to immediately wipe it down with a damp cloth or sponge after use.

Once all the food has been removed, which should only take one or two wipes, the blade should be wiped dry using a dry cloth.

Do not leave any moisture on the blade as high carbon knives often rust quite easily.

If you do that after each time you use the knife it will stay perfectly clean and will never rust.

My carbon steel knife recommendations

For my three recommendations I’m going to give you one very pure high carbon knife and two that strike a good balance of high carbon and high chromium.

Hopefully it should be a good demonstration of how the very high carbon knives are less durable due to their lower chromium content (and increased brittleness) but it’ll also be useful if you are after a knife with a good amount of carbon but are a little worried about the maintenance side.

 Carbon %Chromium %Price rangeCheck price
Yoshihiro High Carbon Gyuto1.35%0.5%£200 – $230View on Amazon
Shun Classic Chef’s Knife 1.20%16%$140 – $160View on Amazon
Dalstrong Quantum Chef’s Knife1%17%$110 – $130View on Amazon

Yoshihiro High Carbon Gyuto

View on Amazon (opens new tab)

Yoshihiro are a Japanese knife manufacturer, and if you’re going for premium Japanese quality they are pretty hard to beat.

This high carbon steel knife is a great example of traditional high carbon Japanese knives. The dull blade is typical of true high carbon knives.

This quality of steel could be sharpened to an 8 – 10 degree edge. Unless you’re already a knife buff, that’s probably a whole lot sharper than anything you have experienced before.

As a comparison, many standard chef’s knives will be sharpened to a factory edge of 20 degrees. That would be a perfectly sharp edge for most people.

Now think that this Yoshihiro can have an edge more than half the angle of that. It’s razor sharp, it’ll literally glide through a piece of meat like a hot knife through butter.

If you’re keen on getting a truly high carbon knife then Yoshihiro are the way to go. I’ve picked this 8.25 inch Gyuto in particular as most people are comfortable with a knife around 8 inches and it has a protective blade sheath.

But if you click through to the listing you’ll see a range of sizes and options at different price levels, so just find the one that works for you.

Shun Classic Chef’s Knife 

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Shun are another fantastic Japanese knife manufacturer but they have adopted a few more western traditions into their designs than Yoshihiro.

Their classic chef’s knife looks very eastern, but it has adopted a steel composition that is more attractive in western markets, mainly it’s higher chromium content which makes it less prone to rust.

The carbon level drops down from the Yoshihiro, but at 1.2% it’s still high.

Typically I’d say you can class a knife as having high carbon content if it’s above 0.6%. Knives below that often still market themselves as high carbon but frankly, they are not.

So Shun is well within the band and the higher chromium content makes it more suitable for those busy family kitchens whilst still being razor sharp.

Dalstrong Quantum Chef’s Knife

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This is a very innovative knife from the ever impressive Dalstrong.

It’s the lowest carbon content on this list but at 1% it’s still fairly high. The more impressive thing is the incredible chromium content, 17% in quite remarkable.

I mentioned earlier in the article that manufacturers are getting better at combining high carbon content with high chromium and thus improving the durability and this Dalstrong is a perfect example.

At 17% chromium you won’t really need to worry about this knife rusting.

Although I wouldn’t recommend you try it, I’d be pretty confident that this could be left in a kitchen sink overnight and then left to air dry and there wouldn’t be a spot of rust to show for it.

So whilst it’s very different to the traditional high carbon knives, I think it deserves a mention because it gives people who are worried about high carbon blades rusting a great option to still have a super sharp high carbon knife.

It’s also the lowest priced knife on the list. For the price it really is a brilliant piece of kit.

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