The creation of tools have been, through the dawn of history, the differentiation between human beings and our animal counterparts to establish our dominance. Humans have devised ways to create tools and weapons to defend themselves and to hunt both animal and fellow human. From the earliest of periods of time, man has crafted sharpened tools by banging rocks until they created a sharpened edge. Over time, the needs of humans have changed little but the technology they have created for these tools have varied tremendously.
From materials such as rocks to obsidian to bronze to iron and to steel there has been a trend towards making these knives, sometimes in the form of swords, stronger, lighter and more durable. Today, thankfully, there is less need for creating sharp objects for warfare, there is a strong need however to use these cutting edge wonders for a purpose that is still linked to our survival, that need is for food preparation.
Following the advances in technology brought about by warfare, steel has been the dominant material used for creating swords and knives in our modern world. Steel is created from an evolutionary mixture of iron, chromium, carbon and various alloys and has been touted for its toughness, lightweight nature and flexibility. The ultimate climax of steel’s use is widely romanticized by historical accounts in feudal Japan, where the legendary Samurai, a warrior class popularized the sword that wielded the same name as theirs. The steel blade of the Samurai was a product of pure perfection, sharp, light, flexible and capable of cutting through flesh and bone easily.
It comes as no surprise then that Japan also brings us a new innovation in the form of an even sharper and precise knife that carries the highest standard of quality in the battleground of food preparation, the ceramic knife. The ceramic knife is cast from a material called Zirconium Oxide or Zirconia. This material which has crystalline properties is second only to diamonds in hardness properties. The material is refined and baked in a kiln in temperatures reaching 1200 degrees Celsius to further bring out its hardened properties.
The spirit of the Samurai is then breathed into each ceramic knife with a master, descended from a long line of sword makers, personally sharpens each one by hand using a diamond stone to accomplish the feat. The end result is a knife like no other, ready to be used in kitchens everywhere and most importantly satisfies the precise needs that Japanese cuisine demands in the form of the Sushi and Sashimi they are known for.
Now bodes the question that has lingered in your minds since the buildup of this wonder. Is the steel knife, known in our kitchens for its stainless variant, headed towards the path of obsidian extinction? Let’s look at the tale of the tape as we look at the pros and cons of ceramic knives versus steel knives.
Steel knives, especially the high-end ones used by high-profile chefs made of carbon steel, can be very sharp and can do usually everything needed in our kitchens. However, the sharpness that ceramic knives bring are just astounding. They are capable of cutting fruits, vegetables and boneless meats into wafer-thin slices in an effortless manner. No question about it, ceramic takes the cut on this one.
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A chef needs to have different tools for his trade. The world of food preparation is not a one-dimensional zone. Several functions need to be fulfilled in the kitchen like filleting, chopping meat up, slicing and dicing, every person who has cooked up a killer recipe knows the drill. The ceramic knife is wonderful at slicing, but that’s about it. The chopping and sawing of hard bone is steel territory. There is a steel knife for about every kitchen function out there and so steel takes the winning pick on this one.
A misconception among people who haven’t used ceramic knives yet are that they are extremely brittle and will shatter like glass when you don’t handle them well. Technically, any material and any knife won’t be able to last a beating if you’re not careful with them. Dropping a steel knife from a significant height will result in the same thing as a ceramic knife, a chipped or broken piece that you get on your knees crying over. Steel, however, can cut through bone, does not need specialized sleeves or boxes like ceramic does and can be fixed easier with minor damage. Even though steel has a tendency to rust, technological advances has minimized instances of these. Steel wiggles out for the advantage on this one.
Steel can get the job done as far as slicing and chopping and all that good stuff. However, ceramic brings a certain level of art into the kitchen with the sharpness of its blade. You can make more beautiful art pieces, cut more accurately and present much better. An added feature, which many of us home chefs may not notice is, food odors from various oils won’t pass on from different meats and vegetables because ceramic knives are less porous. So quality and art of food, which matters a lot when you’re looking for a Michelin star, goes to ceramic knives.
It all boils down to the practicality aspect. Ceramic knives are a substantial investment upfront with knives ranging in the $300 to $500 ballpark. There are steel knives that are priced similarly and perform as well. Ceramic knives rarely need sharpening probably 10 times less than steel knives, but when they do, you’ll need to send them to the factory to get done. However, when you look at the overall value over versatility, the steel knife which can start at as little as $10 holds more practicality especially for the home kitchen. Sharpening it is easy and can be done at home, breaking a $10 knife won’t hurt as much and replacing it is relatively easy. Steel steals this one.
My conclusion for this comparison can be likened to this analogy, a ceramic knife is a high-performance Formula 1 race car and the steel knives are your road cars. The road cars can come in the form of sports cars like BMWs, Audis, Vipers or super cars like Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bugattis but can also come as an ordinary Ford, GM, or Toyota. You can use the steel knife across a wide range of purposes like off roading, daily driving, or racing. The Formula 1 car in its element is unbeatable and can really do wonders in the track, no doubt about that, but can’t be used as widely. So take your pick according to what you need and what you do most often but the bottom line is as impressive and awe-inspiring as a ceramic knife is, steel is here to stay.