I’m just going to come right out and say this: carbon steel knives aren’t for everyone.
If you’re the sort of person who casually tosses your knives into the sink for later cleaning, or you live with someone who can’t be trusted not to send your spendy cutlery on a one-way trip through the dishwasher (Editor’s note: stop living with this monster), you should probably just stick with stainless steel. You’ll have knives that suit your lifestyle and you’ll be perfectly happy with the results.
See, carbon steel knives are a bit of work. Forget your knife next to the sink after cutting an evening’s worth of cocktail garnishes and, in addition to a hangover, you’ll be waking up to streaks and spots. Put it away while the blade is even just a little bit wet, and you can look forward to rust-orange drips. Slice a bunch of tomatoes or some citrus, and you’ll have instant (and permanent) whorls and spots.
That said, carbon steel holds a razor-sharp edge and is easy to sharpen when it finally does start to dull—which is why many professional chefs swear by it.
Any carbon steel knife that’s seen heavy use will be stained with a pattern of dappling, dark spots, streaks and lines. Like a dog-eared book or a worn leather jacket, it has the weight of history behind it. Gravitas, even. Etched on its blade is the story of every meal it’s prepared. That patina, acquired through years of use, doesn’t just look cool—it helps protect the blade from incidental corrosion.
But sometimes you don’t have years to wait. Maybe you live next to the ocean, where it’s hard to prevent rust. Maybe you just want a little more control over the process. Thankfully, you can control your knife’s patina to a certain extent. All you need is a little vinegar.
I could post an elaborate step-by-step, but it’s really not necessary. Simply heat up some vinegar (the microwave works fine, but be prepared for the smell), soak your blade or wrap it in a vinegar-soaked towel, and check it every 10 minutes or so. Then, just rinse and dry it completely once the blade has darkened to your liking. That’s it.
Don’t worry too much about what type of vinegar to use—some people swear by apple cider, but I’ve achieved decent results with bog-standard white. Also, this is a fairly messy process. You’ll probably want to put some newspaper down and maybe wear an old shirt, and you’ll definitely want to save those nice linen kitchen towels for another occasion—trust me, whatever cloth you use to wipe that blade isn’t coming back.
If you’re not a fan of this look, don’t worry—it’s really not necessary. You can still use carbon steel knives and keep that factory-fresh sheen by polishing them and oiling them regularly. Just, please, keep them out of the dishwasher.
All photos by Naomi Parker.
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