Stainless Steel, what is good for? Absolutely Everything, Say it again!
September 27, 20233 min read
Well-cared-for tools are a point of pride for many in the trades—an organized workbench or roll of glistening knives—especially those that take a little extra effort. The carbon steel knife is one such tool of the trade that requires a little extra care. Carbon steel is a hugely popular material for knife making in Japan; it is easier to sharpen, gets sharper, and historically stays sharpest the longest. It’s the traditional choice for many blacksmiths, as it was for those who came before them. White carbon steel, or shirogami, is often touted as the best choice for knives by strict traditionalists, and their opinion is often, “If you can’t care for it, you don’t deserve it.” But what if you aren’t trying to earn your place among the halls of Culinary Deities and Kitchen Knife Arcanists? What if you’re just trying to get school lunches out of the way so you can drink a beer and get caught up on The Mandalorian?
Knives made from stainless steel are the right choice for many people. Rusty knives create a lot of stress for kitchen lifers, embarrassed that they let something so terrible happen to their cherished tools. Some people are convinced that Fujiwara-san will show up to repossess a mistreated Maboroshi. Don’t let an internet gatekeeper tell you what’s right for you. I have plenty of knives that require less care, and they are amazing.
Japanese stainless steel differs from what you’ll find in a generic knife from Home Hardware. It’s harder; it’s going to get way sharper and stay sharp for a helluva lot longer. Steels like AUS-8, AUS-10, and Molybdenum Vanadium will blow most European/Western choices out of the water while being relatively easy to care for. These steels are usually less brittle than carbon steel and make a solid choice for hard-working chefs and those who don’t want to baby their new knife.
Crank the hardness up a tick, and you get into VG-10 territory, a serious steel designed to make a high-performing yet easy-to-maintain knife. You know who loves VG-10? Katsushige Anryu, that’s who. He has over sixty years of steel hammering under his belt, and I am prone to trust his opinion on this. Some comparable choices might be Ginsan, Cobalt Special, and SLD (depending on the maker).
Since Toshiyuki Takamura threw himself into working with high-speed powder steels decades ago, we have seen the rise of some really amazing materials. Steels like R2, SRS15, SG2, and SLD make knives that push expectations, even when you take the more traditional carbon steels into consideration. They are sharper, thinner, and freakishly smooth when slicing. Best of all, you need to be atomically negligent to even let these rust. A dirty Akagouhan on the counter until well after dinner is no big deal.
Enthusiasts who like to sharpen their own knives sometimes come down pretty hard on stainless steel, but that should just be a consideration, not a deal-breaker. Carbon steel does wear more easily while sharpening, but that is only an issue if your knives are getting damaged often and you want to tackle that yourself. You don’t need to be an excellent sharpener to enjoy excellent knives. Just because I drive a car doesn’t mean that I do my own oil changes… Most folks just let us sharpen their knives.
I exclusively used carbon steel knives until kids outnumbered the adults in my house, and everything I knew about food went out the window—ketchup goes on everything now and the greenest thing anyone will eat is a cucumber. My new favourite knife is a Kokuto 210mm gyuto; it’s been sharpened once in the last four years, does everything I want it to do and then some, and keeps smiling when I forget to wipe it clean. Being a chef gave me time and focus on a daily basis to keep my tools tip-top, which I don’t get as a laptop cowboy and father.
Sometimes, the easy way can be the best way.
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Chris is a relocated Maritimer that can be found slinking in and out the back doors of Ottawa's restaurants, often with his daughter in tow. Chris has been a fixture in the Ottawa food scene for the past 10 years and has recently laid down his apron to learn the ways of Knifewear. Chris loves cooking big pieces of meat over a live fire and spends his summer feeding wood into his BBQ, Lemmy Smoke-mister.
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