Given its exotic-sounding Japanese name, the Santoku (sahn-toh-koo) knife could be taken for an ultra-specific utility knife made for some delicate task — the province of a professional chef. In fact, the Santoku is simply a slicing and chopping knife that can be used much like a traditional European (Western) chef’s knife.
Santoku knives are lightweight and finely balanced. They have no bolster allowing the entire blade to be used. The tip of the blade along the spine tapers sharply downwards, but the cutting edge itself is flat. They often come with a hollowed Granton edge which may help with fine slicing.
Is a Santoku Better than a Chefs Knife?
The Santoku is great for slicing vegetables, fruit, or chicken. It can be used as a general chopping knife. But, I have to be honest with you, most of what we’ve heard about this Japanese wonder, in my opinion, seems to be a Food Network creation. Rachael Ray, in particular, comes to mind. TV chefs “ooh and aah” about the knife: “Its the only knife I use! You can do anything with it!”
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Santoku Knife Use
Well, no, you can’t do anything with a Santoku knife. It’s a bit odd that this knife should become some elite and trendy professional tool. The knife was originally invented for Japanese homemakers. While most other Japanese knives have very specific functions, the Santoku was meant to be more all-purpose. In fact, the name translates roughly into “three uses.” Those uses were slicing fish, cutting meat, and chopping vegetables. While that may sound like a chefs knife, keep in mind that it was also invented for Japanese homemakers who wanted to cook Western style food. Specifically, the knife was meant for meant Japanese women and designed to be suited for small hands. On the other hand, there are very fine Western-style chef knives made in Japan, such as Gyoto.
The longest Santoku you are going to get is 7 inches. The blade, traditionally, has no curve. Japanese cooks tend to use forward or backward strokes, or a straight up and down chop. The rocking motion we employ with our chef’s knife is difficult to achieve with a Santoku. Ironically, the Santoku craze in the United States has led to most currently available knives being made with a more curved blade, making them more like the Western chef’s knife. French style knives have a straight blade that curves upward at the belly (see parts of a knife), while the German style has a blade that is curved along its entire cutting edge.
If you buy a traditional Santoku knife, which, as mentioned, are meant to use in a slicing or chopping motion rather than a rocking motion like we often use Western-style chef knives, you may find yourself uncomfortable. This does not mean that it cannot be used for much of the same tasks, but if you are used to using a rocking motion to slice or chop vegetables, with the occasional slicing motion when needed, you will have to adjust your style and get used to a new way of using a knife.
While the lightweight and delicate balance makes the knife much less fatiguing, the short length and lack of weight means the knife isn’t great for large-scale chopping. Those with large hands may find gripping the knife a bit difficult. If you have small delicate hands, however, you may find yourself in love with your Santoku. Regardless, you may still be limited by it. Looking through blogs and even books that mention kitchen equipment, I’ve noticed that completely novice cooks, when trying out chefs knives and Santoku knives, tend to choose the Santoku. I suspect that the small and lightweight design is a bit reassuring.
The typical chef knife has a heavy blade with a nice thick spine. The blade is longer, and its gentle curve allows for longer chopping without ever having to lift the blade from the board. While the utility of each for everyday slicing and chopping jobs is a matter of subjective experience, the chef’s knife can simply do jobs a Santoku can not.
For example, despite what some those TV chefs will tell you, you can use that thick spine to hammer and crack bones. The added weight and wide blade means you can use the flat of the knife to crush garlic, ginger, or anything else you want to render into a pulpy mess. Sure, you can try this with a Santoku, but you’ll have to do much of the work.
Santoku knives do not have bolsters although many chef’s knives do. Besides just being a guard, the inward curving design of the bolster allows you to choke up on the handle and place your finger along the guard giving you more control of the knife. Some may choose a chef’s knife with no bolster, though, which has its own advantages such as allowing you to use the heel of the knife to get better leverage for difficult cutting jobs. And, on a chef’s knife, you can grip the handle further back toward the butt to allow the weight of the blade to help you chop through tough items, including the occasional bone.
While many cooks may enjoy using a Santoku for everyday tasks, it is often claimed that the Santoku is more versatile than a chef’s knife. I’m afraid this is hype. If it comes down to a Santoku versus a chef’s knife, the typical Western chef’s knife is by far a more versatile tool for your kitchen. You may love to have both and may find yourself getting a lot of use out of a Santoku, but if you have to choose just one, choose a chef’s knife.
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