Sunday, April 26, 2009

Carbon Steel Geekery

Carbon steel is a gift from God.

Many years ago, when I began working in the restaurant industry, I purchased my first set of real working knives. Manufactured by Forschner, they were sturdy, dependable, and relatively inexpensive. Made of stainless steel, they served me well for many years (and in many kitchens).

A chef's knives, by the way, are his personal tools. In a professional kitchen, one never borrows a knife from someone else without asking. A chef's knife is akin to a soldier's rifle or a carpenter's hammer.

Every working day, I carried my knives in a long tool box. I kept the blades sharp, and protected the edges with plastic guards. You might say I was anal-retentive about them, but I know that a sharp knife is not only an efficient knife, but a safe knife as well. One does not need to use excessive force to "push" a dull blade, therefore reducing the chance of slipping. I was taught at a young age that "if you take care of your tools, your tools will take care of you."

While I had often heard of how wonderful it is to use a properly sharpened knife made of carbon steel , I did not know anyone personally who actually used one. The industry standard had long ago shifted to stainless steel, in professional as well as home kitchens, for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps the main reason is the "clean" look of stainless. It does not rust, and knives with synthetic handles may be run through the dishwasher without any ill effects.

Stainless does have its drawbacks, however. It is very hard, and once dull, it is impossible to re-sharpen without laboring at the honing stone. Little dings in the blade do not respond well to the sharpening steel. And a stainless knife does not cut as smoothly as a carbon steel knife, or so I was told.

A couple of years ago, I began my search for a true carbon steel knife. I found many that claimed to be carbon steel, but were really high-carbon stainless. I also discovered that the name "Sabatier" may refer to one of about 4 different knife manufacturers, which may or may not be the famed French cutlery manufacturer. And vintage knives, if they are not completely worn to the back edge by years of sharpening, are hideously expensive. New carbon steel knives, custom made to the user's specifications, can be had for a king's ransom.

One day, I was lucky enough to find a three-knife set, made by Henckels, still in its original box! The knives, a "chef," slicer, and parer, were unused and had only minor spots of surface rust. They were otherwise shiny, just like stainless, with a sheen of oil still clinging to the blade. Still sharp, I honed them further on an Arkansas stone, and finished them off on the steel.

I thought I had used sharp knives before. Wow. The first time I used my new carbon steel knives, I felt I had crossed over into a new world. These things were sharp, without any drag, and they sailed through any food I attempted to cut with them. I could make finer slices than I was ever able to make with my stainless knives.

Over some time, my carbon steel knives have developed a patina, a sort of brownish gray with fine-grained flecks of silver and gold. Is this the color that so many rejected as "dirty looking?" It is a shame that stainless ever gained favor over carbon steel.

I still use my stainless knives for certain things. Carbon steel does not like pineapple very well. And my long scalloped slicer (known as the "Light Saber") still comes in handy for large roasts. In my kitchen, the day-to-day work horse is the carbon steel chef knife. I think the greatest testimonial for carbon steel came from a friend, and fellow chef, while using one of my knives. She said, "Wow, this knife is so sharp, it's nearly effortless. Carbon steel is amazing!"

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