Best Steel for Kitchen Knives

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Choosing a kitchen knife is much more complicated than meets the eye. You’ll want a blade that’s sharp, durable, and long-lasting.

But that’s only possible if you choose the right material for the blade. So, let’s take a look at what the best steel for kitchen knives is.

2 Types Of Steel: High-carbon Steel And Stainless Steel

Steel knives come in two main types: high-carbon and stainless steel. They might sound the same, but there are some key differences that you need to be aware of.

Steel is made of two essential elements: iron and carbon. The percentage of these items determines how tough the knife is.

Pros and Cons of High-Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is made up of iron and has 0.12 to 2.00% of carbon. The benefit of high-carbon in knives is that these knives are hard, making them excellent at holding shape and not getting scratched up.

The downside is that these knives are more brittle. While other knives might be flexible as they cut, high-carbon steel will crack or break under enough pressure.

High-carbon steel also requires more maintenance. You need to be extra cautious with washing and storing these products, otherwise rust and corrosion could form.

But overall, more carbon means higher quality. Low-carbon steel is more common because it’s easier to produce. Low-carbon knives will become deformed after frequent use, so they’re less reliable.

Thus, many experienced chefs choose high-carbon knives due to the added strength, as long as they don’t need an overly flexible knife. But what can you find in stainless steel that you can’t in high-carbon knives?

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel

Like high-carbon steel, stainless steel still contains iron and carbon, but it also has at least 10.5% chromium. Chromium helps create a protective layer that makes the blade less likely to corrode, hence the name stainless steel.

The main con with stainless steel is that its quality could vary. Lower quality knives will keep the bare minimum chromium content while higher quality ones will have more chromium, such as 16%. Thus, it can be harder to tell which ones are the most effective.

While stainless steel is more rust-resistant than high-carbon steel, carbon steel is often more wear-resistant.

High-carbon knives will require more maintenance, but they’re often sharper, stronger, and longer-lasting. So, many professionals recommend high-carbon over stainless steel. But stainless steel can be great for everyday use.

What Makes Knive Steel Different?

At first, all types of steel might appear the same, but many qualities make steel different from similar types. Here are some features to consider.

Hardness

Hardness refers to how much the steel can resist bending and taking in permanent damage. You can measure hardness using the Rockwell scale.

Toughness

Measuring the toughness of steel isn’t as easy as measuring the hardness. Toughness is how much steel can resist force, such as how it can stand up to chipping and cracking after prolonged use.

Wear-Resistance

Some steel can withstand abrasion and adhesive wear better than others. Abrasive wear is when particles pass through a surface that’s softer while abrasive wear is when particles get lodged in another solid.

Corrosion-Resistance

Quality steel should be able to resist moisture and humidity. Otherwise, your knife will develop rust or corrosion over time.

Edge Retention

Blades are sharp, but not all blades can keep their sharpness as they get older. Steel with better edge retention will likely have better performance too.

Of course, all these features are crucial for a quality knife. But did you know that the specific steel the product is made of is what determines these factors?

The Most Common Steel Types for Kitchen Knives

Knives are often listed as “stainless steel” or “high-carbon steel” without giving further details. Yet, they’re made with specific types of steel, each with unique features. Here are some common types.

1055

1055 steel has about 0.55% carbon, along with some manganese. Thus, it’s one of the toughest steels out there. It scores 55 on the Rockwell Scale.

1095 High Carbon

 is the same type of steel as 1055 but without manganese. It also has a stiffer blade and slightly better edge retention. So, it scores a 56 on the Rockwell scale.

4116 Krupp

4116 Krupp steel is a fine type made in Europe. Its standards are so precise that the public doesn’t know exactly what it’s made of. It scores 57 on the Rockwell scale, and it’s tough, rust-resistant, and has good edge retention.

420J

420J is often used on lower-quality knives, but it’s very rust-resistant and requires minimal maintenance. Sharpening it can be a little harder than other types, and it has a Rockwell hardness of about 55.

440A and 440C

These steels are of average quality, with the perfect balance of rust-resistance, toughness, and edge retention. 440A is a little more rust-resistant, while 440C is a little harder. These steels score anywhere from 58 to 60 on the Rockwell scale.

ATS-34

ATS-34 is a premium stainless steel owned by Japanese company Hitachi. It has high-end toughness, rust-resistance, and edge retention. It has a Rockwell hardness of 58, and it’s most commonly used on high-quality knives.

154CM

154CM steel is simply the American alternative of the Japanese ATS-34 Super-Steel.

AUS-8

AUS-8 is another strong steel that’s a reasonable alternative to ATS-34. It’s still durable and rust-resistant with edge retention. Its Rockwell hardness is 58.

CPM S30V

This steel was created in 2002 as a more durable stainless steel alternative. It has extra chromium, vanadium, and molybdenum, making it one of the most rust-resistant options. It scores 60 on the Rockwell scale.

Sandvik 12C27

This material is a Super Steel that’s similar to S30V, but it’s made in Sweden.

San Mai III

San Mai III is laminated steel from Japan. It has a layer of high carbon steel in between two layers of strong stainless steel. Thus, it has the toughness of high carbon, but the edge retention that stainless steel is known for.

SK-5

SK-5 is the replacement for Carbon V steel, which has now been discontinued. It has incredible toughness and edge retention. It’s considered high-carbon steel with a score of 63 on the Rockwell scale.

Finding a knife that’s made with specific steel is the best way to find the product that fits your needs the best. But not all products will mention specific steel names like this. So, what will you see instead?

The Most Common Knife Blade Materials

Knife materials are chosen carefully based on what the knife is intended to be used for. These blade types aren’t quite as specific as the steel types, but they’ll still give you a good idea of the knife’s pros and cons.

Carbon Steel

Carbon is added to steel to make it harder and able to hold an edge longer. It can also be a thinner blade, which can create a blade that’s steeper and sharper.

But knives made of carbon steel are more likely to rust, and they’re more brittle. For many professional chefs, this material is worth it because of the sharpness, but it requires extra maintenance and care.

Damascus Type

The term “Damascus” doesn’t directly refer to a knife type, but instead, it’s the forging process used to make the blade. Damascus involves layering two or more types of steel, making a soft-but-tough result.

Not all Damascus knives are the same, so the specific qualities and maintenance of them will vary. But one notable feature is that they tend to have a gorgeous wavy pattern on the blade.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is likely the most common blade material, made of 10% to 15% chromium, nickel, or molybdenum.

They don’t have as sharp of edges as high-carbon steels, but they’re less likely to rust or corrode. Stainless steel blades often require less maintenance as well.

High-Carbon Stainless Steel

This is higher-end stainless steel with an ideal balance of sharpness, rust-resistance, and edge retention. These products resharpen easily too, making them a standard for kitchen knives.

Since they have high carbon, they’re a bit more fragile than other stainless steel knives. They must be stored carefully and hand-washed.

Ceramic

Finally, ceramic is a knife material that’s lightweight and extra sharp without needing to be sharpened at all. It’s the only common knife type that’s not made out of steel.

Ceramic knives won’t rust, stain, or corrode, but they’re more likely to break or chip. So, they should be handled with extra caution.

Now that you know all the main steel types and blade types, what are the next steps? Choosing the best kitchen knife is still trickier than it seems.

How To Choose A Great Steel Kitchen Knife

While many people love to choose kitchen knives based on appearance, the performance is just as important, if not more. There is no right or wrong steel kitchen knife. Instead, ask yourself which one will be best for the specific work needed.

Here are some aspects you may want to consider:

  • Will you need the knife for simple tasks like cutting vegetables and boneless meat or more advanced tasks like slicing and paring?
  • Do you want a knife that needs to be sharpened often or one with little maintenance?
  • Will you be using it frequently or just for special occasions?


“Super steels”, which are stainless steels with high wear resistance, are often the preferred option. They hold up to frequent use, and they’re not likely to rust or stain.

Yet, if you don’t mind a little extra maintenance for a sharper edge and better performance, a carbon or high-carbon steel might be better for you. These knives are extra sharp but need to be stored, washed, and sharpened carefully.

So, if you’re looking for a casual knife that’s easy to maintain, a stainless steel knife with an average score on the Rockwell scale should be just fine. But if you’re preparing more advanced meals and need a high-quality knife, consider carbon steel instead.

Are you still a little hesitant about which option to settle on? Let’s take a closer look at which properties affect a steel knife’s performance.

Must-Know Properties of Kitchen Knife Steel

Steel is made up of many elements that can’t be seen to the naked eye. Despite being microscopic, these elements can change how your knife functions.

Here are the elements found in types of steel:

  • Carbon – makes the steel harder and stronger. Any steel with more than 0.5% carbon is referred to as “high carbon”.
  • Nitrogen – an alternative to carbon, also increasing the hardness of steel.
  • Chromium – improves rust-resistance, hardness, and wear-resistance. Products with over 12% of chromium are “stainless”, but too much could decrease the steel’s toughness.
  • Molybdenum – makes the steel harder, stronger, and more rust-resistant.
  • Nickel – also increases the hardness, toughness, and corrosion-resistance of steel.
  • Niobium – forms small, hard carbides (carbon compounds) that improve wear-resistance while keeping grain small and refining the structure.
  • Vanadium – makes the steel harder, but also creates a fine grain structure.
  • Tungsten – the second strongest carbide after vanadium. It also has great wear-resistance.

These properties are obtained through a process called heat treatment. The steel is heated to a high temperature to change its structure. Then, using a substance like oil, water, or air, the structure is sealed that way.

This process is much easier said than done. It requires ideal planning and timing to make the perfect knife blade. From there, the shape, length, and thickness of the blade still have to be decided.

Now that you know all about steels, blade materials, properties, and characteristics, you’re ready to find the perfect steel kitchen knife for you. Pay close attention to each product’s features to ensure that the knife you choose will be the best for your needs.

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