In college I was befriended by the only true playboy I’ve ever met. Roberto Cerinni. From Orange County, with an affected accent somewhere between Naples and Brooklyn, he presented himself as a foreign exchange student.

American folk hero and legend Joe Magarac. (Image courtesy of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

Joe Magarac squeezes steel rails between his fingers. (Image courtesy of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

While the college world outside our doors wandered from one humdrum kegger to another, Roberto was hosting dinner parties that I’ve never been able to replicate: course after course, beginning with oysters on the half shell, fondue, marching through to trout almondine and always ending with his signature banana flambé. Throughout these nights, the mess grew ever worse, pans atop bowls, which horrified his true foreign exchange roommates. Roberto — laughing with a cavalier flair — never cleaned a thing until the next morning once he’d pulled a few shots from his Pavoni Espresso machine. Except for his knives.

Roberto had a beautiful set of vintage Sabatier knives. Always carefully oiling, and constantly drying and wiping his knives after every cut, they’d taken on slight patina (which actually helps protect them from rust). He explained that was from the high carbon content in the steel. Making them thinner, sharper and better knives, but more susceptible to stains.

Set of Sabatier knives.

A set of Sabatier knives.

While all steel has carbon in it, typical knives have a lower carbon content – even many of the higher end drop-forged knives. This makes the steel more stain resistant, and more ductile, easier to bend and more resistant to cracking.

But while pluses to stainless knives abound, the beauty and craftsmanship of a higher carbon knife makes these the choice for the more patient and dedicated carver. Carbon steel knives can be sharpened to a finer point and can hold an edge longer. When needed, they’re easier to sharpen. Also, producers can make a thinner blade with carbon steel, resulting in a more ergonomic blade and handle.

Vintage shot of U.S. steel workers. (Image courtesy of Pullman State Historic Site)

U.S. steel workers at South Works. (Image courtesy of Pullman State Historic Site)

A stainless steel knife, the more common knives today, don’t rust and tend not to pick up stains. Anyone who has left a knife of any sort in salty water overnight, or gone to bed with out wiping the tomato juice and seeds off their knife left on the counter, can attest that even the most “stainless” of knives should rather be called stain resistant. That said, if this occurs with a high carbon knife, like those found in the Thiers Region of France, it would require ages of scrubbing and a healthy dose of mineral oil to remedy this mishap.

Because all steel contains carbon, there’s no hard and fast rule for what constitutes a carbon steel knife. If true strength and function is your aim, and you’re willing to spend the time wiping and drying these knives, then the best, like the classic French knives, have a carbon content above .60%. More commonly, well-made, high-end knives today will have a carbon content hovering between .55% and .60%.

– Sarah Jay. Knives Cooks Love: Selection. Care. Techniques. Recipes. Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2008.

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  1. KJL
    Posted June 21, 2010 at 1:48 PM | Permalink

    Carbon steel kitchen knives are the best. It's like using a razor blade.

  2. inka
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

    If you really take your time to take care and "cultivate" the carbon steel knives, you cannot make a better choice to buy and use them.

    Excellent! Thanks for the article.

  3. Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:17 PM | Permalink

    Nice post. I'm now obsessing over carbon knives. Definitely on my "wish list" this holiday! Thanks for sharing. Lisa

  4. Posted January 2, 2014 at 5:07 AM | Permalink

    Thanks, Lisa! Hope you got what you wished for this holiday!

  5. harshitgupta89
    Posted December 12, 2014 at 4:16 AM | Permalink

    Carbon steel knives are the best materials which are used for making good quality and durable knives which does not decay with time.

  6. Posted February 20, 2015 at 10:55 PM | Permalink

    These have become old now because now we no more sees the steel knives and just see the mixture of steel knives. Do you agree with me or not?

  7. Posted April 19, 2015 at 9:49 AM | Permalink

    Knives from carbon and damacus steel are the best.
    Nice article.

  8. Posted April 19, 2015 at 12:32 PM | Permalink

    Good article about good steel. Keep going!

  9. kaufmannmerc
    Posted May 28, 2015 at 2:13 PM | Permalink


  10. kaufmannmerc
    Posted May 28, 2015 at 2:13 PM | Permalink

    Thank you!

  11. Posted April 17, 2016 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

    Hi, Thanks for the info. Yes, carbon steel knives are really very good quality. Please check more High Quality Kitchen Knives

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