You probably have a quiet reverence for Japanese knives and the craftsmanship behind them. They make some of the most versatile and astonishing knives that have been refined and perfected over centuries. The unfortunate truth is that many people miss out and their know ledge of Japanese knives starts and ends with either Sushi knives or Katanas.
Stereotypes aside, Santoku knives have a rich history and wealth of knowledge packed into their versatile and often understated designs. In this guide, we’re going to quench your thirst for knowledge and teach you everything you need to know. You’ll have a clear and concise answer to the “What is a Santoku knife” question – you might even end up getting one for yourself. Let’s dive in!
A Quick History of Santoku Knives
Japanese history in general is rich and enticing. They’re renowned and revered for their craftsmanship and dedication to art. That being said, Santoku knives have sprung out of centuries of learning and refinement, but aren’t very old themselves.
As Japanese life began to piece itself back together and return to normal, households saw the need for something more lightweight and versatile than the Nakiri knife (Japanese cleaver knife). They needed something that could have general kitchen tasks with impeccable accuracy and versatility. This is where to Santoku knife sprung to life.
It had nearly the blade height and straight edge of the cleavers, but with a twist. A “sheep foot” tip made the Santoku excellent for slicing, dicing, and chopping. The word “Santoku” means “three virtues”. This likely refers to its proficiency at slicing, dicing, and chopping – but the interpretation differs.
As Japanese culture spread around the world, so did their culinary excellence. Santoku knives have been adopted and have influenced many modern chef’s knives (and how they’re made). While there are quite a few differences – which we’ll cover later – Santoku knives have developed to perform pretty much the same kitchen tasks as modern chef knives.
What Is a Santoku Kitchen Knife?
As we’ve already touched on, Santoku knives are essentially the workhorses of the kitchen. Its Western equivalent would be the super-versatile and ever-present chef knife. The Santoku has a blade length of 5-8” and is roughly the size of your hand.
They’re generally made from high-carbon steel which tends to be stronger and stay sharper for longer. Santoku knives are used extensively in Japan (and around the world) by both professional and home chefs. They’re incredibly versatile and can handle most kitchen cutting tasks.
You’ll find these knives excel when it comes to “3-virtues” of slicing, dicing, and chopping. The flat edge of the blade is excellent and quick downward chops and extremely accurate slicing. Santoku knives are commonly single-beveled – meaning they’re only sharpened on one side.
They have a gentle tip to avoid accidentally piercing the meat. The spine of the blade tilts down into the tip to give the knife its uniquely functional design. These knives have a less-steep bevel which helps edge it above the rest for some cutting tasks – but we’ll talk more about this in a moment.
Santoku Knives vs Chef’s Knives
The first difference you’ll probably notice is the size. Santoku knives are between 5-8” long and chef knives are usually 8-10”. Santoku knives are therefore a little easier to handle for intricate and accurate cutting. This knives have a boxier build than chef knives. This was to keep the weights similar and as balanced as possible.
Santoku knives tend to have better weight distribution. As we hinted at earlier, Santoku knives have a flat edge. On the other hand, chef knives have a slightly curved edge that lends more to cutting by rocking back and forth on the cutting board. The tip on a chef knife is quite a bit more pronounced and “pointy”.
It’s better for piercing and tip-related kitchen tasks, but at the cost of occasionally getting the way. You won’t accidentally pierce the meat or vegetables with a Santoku knife. Japanese steel tends to be a little heavier than the steel used in many western chef knives. This gives the Santoku a hefty and full feel – exactly what you want in a balanced kitchen knife.
What Is a Santoku Knife Used For?
Santoku knives steal the show when it comes to slicing, dicing, and chopping. Their ultra-sharp single-beveled edge gives them almost unparalleled cutting accuracy. We love using Santoku knives for getting super-thin slices of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. Thanks to the bevel’s shallow angle, it’s easy to guide the knife through the cut without it veering off.
The shorter blade helps the Santoku for quick chopping, mincing, and dicing. They’re fantastic for cutting up herbs and other food without bruising and squeezing the juice out of them. You shouldn’t be using a Santoku knife for carving up thick meat (especially if it has bones) or working on bread. Overall, it’s a fantastic and versatile knife for handling a huge variety of ingredients and is exceptional for meal prep and light kitchen utility.
How to Use a Santoku Knife
Sharpness is your biggest ally here – and Santoku knives have class-leading sharpness. Bear in mind that you should always keep the knife as sharp and cared for as possible. You should be gliding through whatever you’re cutting. If you ever have to use an excessive sawing motion, you’re either cutting through something you shouldn’t be, or you need to sharpen the edge.
Many Santoku knives have a slight bulge in the section of the handle that’s closest to the neck. This is handy, but not essential. It guides your hand and fingers into a pinch grip and gives you plenty of control. You should always be using a well-placed pinch grip that is firm, but not like you’re holding a battle ax.
When you’re working on slicing and dicing vegetables, start your cut in the front third of the blade (tip side) and glide forward through the length of the blade. When you’re working on larger or denser food or cutting parallel to the cutting board (onions, fruits, etc.) you can start the cut in the base third of the knife and glide it toward you.
You’ll get a good feel for the balance point of your Santoku, so don’t stress if you can’t find the perfect grip just yet. Remember that it takes a little time, especially if you’re a beginner. Use the nails on your support hand to accurately guide the knife through the cuts. Unless you’ve got a Santoku with a slightly curved blade, you’re can’t rely on rocking-motion dicing as efficiently.
P.S. Make sure you have the right cutting board and sharpening tools for your knife. We love composite or wooden cutting boards the most.
What to Look for in a Santoku Knife
Choosing the right Santoku knife for you is essential. These knives are going to be your drivers in the kitchen, so it’s worth putting in a little extra effort to make the best possible choice. If this is your first Santoku or chef knife, you should reach out to a friend (enthusiast or chef) and pick off some of their wisdom.
Kitchen knives are highly personal, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. That being said, here are our recommendations on what to look for. You want an exceptionally well-balanced Santoku. This is where personal preference comes in as many chefs like a knife that’s slightly weightier on the blade-side. On the other hand, many would laugh in jest at this.
You should head down to a premium knife store and handle a couple of the knives. Get a feel for what works best for your hand size and skillset. Single-beveled edges are usually the go-to choice for Santoku knives. Get a Santoku that’s made from high-quality high-carbon steel as they can be sharpened to a razor’s edge and have impeccable edge retention.
Remember that the straight and flat edge (along with the lowered tip) is common on Santoku knives, so don’t feel pressured to go for any hybrids that mix western and traditional crafting practices. The final consideration will be the aesthetics of the knife.
While this isn’t the most important factor, it can make a difference in your experience. There are some gorgeous knives with stunning Damascus-style finishes. As great as these are, just make sure it’s not a coating and is produced by the natural working of the steel during crafting.
Santoku knives are incredibly versatile and functional kitchen knives that have been refined and perfected over decades. Whether you’re looking to get your hands on a Santoku or you’re just fulfilling your thirst for knowledge, we hope you’ve taken something away from our guide.
We’ve taken an in-depth look at the common “What is a Santoku knife?” question in the hopes of opening your eyes to the precision and excellent of Japanese knives. Don’t forget to share your knowledge with others and give them a taste of the rich and indulgent Japanese culture and history! Good luck!