What is a Santoku Knife and How Do You Use It?

Posted by Tara Hohenberger on

The Santoku is an all purpose Japanese knife. The name santoku means ‘three virtues’ for the knife’s ability to cut fish, meat and vegetables equally well. Originally the santoku was more of a knife for home cooks, but thanks to its versatile straight edge it has been gaining in popularity with professional chefs.

The Santoku Knife vs Chef's Knife

Features of the Santoku Knife:

The main difference between santokus and chef’s knives or gyutos is blade length. Knife blade length for a santoku is generally 6-7” vs 8-9” for a gyuto or chef’s knife. Also the blade height on a santoku is a bit higher, giving the user’s knuckles more clearance off of the cutting board. The wide blade shape is sometimes referred to as a sheep’s foot. The cutting edge of the sanoku’s blade is flatter, better for vertical chopping versus a gyuto that can also be used with a rocking motion.

The Features of the Chefs Knife:

The Japanese chef’s knife, called a gyuto means ‘beef knife’. The shape is generally based on a western style chef’s knife. As mentioned above it has a leaner profile than the higher height found in the blade of the santoku.

How Santokus and Chef Knives Are Similar:

Purposes - As general-purpose knives, both santoku and gyutou are good for similar purposes. Mincing, dicing, chopping and thin slices of vegetables. Slicing and cubing raw meat and slicing and portioning cooked proteins. Both types of knives have a sharp blade with a lot of versatility and for this reason are some of the most popular knife shapes you can find.

Santokus come in all types of materials, stainless steel, carbon steel, damascus steel blades. They are available in western style or traditional Japanese wa-handles. Like all Japanese kitchen knives, knife sharpening on a whetstone is vital along with and keeping the blade clean and dry. They should be stored with a blade protector for safety and for the longevity of the blade edge.

How the Santoku and Chef Knives Are Different:

Shape, Size + Weight - As mentioned above, the biggest difference is the shape of the blade. Because santokus are smaller than chef’s knives, they are usually a bit lighter than a chef’s knife. When made in Japan from Japanese steel, the thinner blade will stay sharp for a very long time.

The Different Types of Santoku Knives

Blade: There’s not a ton of variation in the blade shape for santoku knives, but there is a kengata version which has a pointed tip that can be useful for scoring proteins and vegetables. Some manufacturers make blades with a hollow edge or indentations which can be useful for reducing friction, particularly for cutting very dense produce like potatoes.

How to Use the Santoku Knife

Best Uses:
  • Meat - Santokus are great for mincing boneless raw meat and poultry. They do excellent work for making cubes or thin slices for stir frys and other preparations. Santokus are also well suited to slicing cooked meats and poultry.
  • Seafood - The sharp edge of a santoku is great for portioning and filleting fish as well as mincing shrimp.
  • Vegetables - A high quality santoku blade is an excellent choice for prepping vegetables. It can do nearly all the cutting tasks in home kitchens that are performed by utility knives, nakiri knives, paring knives or other cutlery and kitchen tools.

Caring for a Santoku Knife

Like all Japanese knives, santokus should be kept clean and dry. Wash your knives immediately after using them, dry them well and store securely. Do not cut frozen food. Sharpen your knives periodically on whetstones.

What to Look for When Buying a Santoku Knife

The key features to consider when choosing a Japanese santoku or other cutlery are as follows:  blade angle, knife length, weight, steel type and hardness, handle type and price. 

Blade angle: There is a lot of confusion about Japanese knives being either “right-handed or left-handed” based on the angle at which the blade is sharpened. While this is true for traditional single-edged Japanese knives in styles like deba, yanagi, and usuba, where the blacksmith produces right-handed knives (meaning the cutting edge is 100% on the side that works when used in your right hand.  Santoku are generally produced to be 50/50 or 70/30 balanced.  If you are right-handed either of those would be fine.  If you are left handed, we recommend choosing something 50/50 or special ordering a left profiled knife.  

Blade Length: Santoku blades are usually between six and seven inches long. The knife that is right for you will be comfortable and easily controlled and more or less be able to cut your ingredient in one stroke.

Weight: Overall, most people find Japanese knives considerably lighter than the German- or French-made knives they have used before. This will come down to personal preference, but some blades are exceptionally thin and light, such as our Takamura, Takeda, and Shibata lines. The majority of knives will fall into medium weight, like those in the Sakai Takayuki and Chubo Inox lines. Lastly, some people are drawn to heftier knives where the natural weight of the knife can assist in cutting denser ingredients. For those situations, we recommend knives from Kazan and Glestain.

Steel Types + Hardness: There are pros and cons to every type of steel, but the first consideration is choosing between a stain-resistant or a high carbon steel option. Carbon steel knives are popular with professional chefs, thanks to their ability to get super sharp and hold an edge through heavy use, but they need to be kept very clean and dry, especially when cutting acidic ingredients. Among the options for stainless blades, most every Japanese option will stay sharp longer than average. The options then come down to balancing different pros and cons like blade strength versus brittleness of sharpening. Generally speaking, a harder steel will hold an edge longer but can be more challenging to sharpen. Hardness (HRC) is judged on the Rockwell scale, with a higher rating corresponding to greater hardness. You can find the rating for each product under specifications, with most of our knives falling in the 59-66 range. We recommend people new to Japanese knives and sharpening to start with knives on the lower end of that range. For more information check out our complete guide to choosing a steel type. 

Handle: You may notice two major options for handles on Japanese knives. First, the ergonomic western-style, full tang is attached to the blade with rivets like you would expect with any high-quality knife. Second is a Japanese-style wood handle, either round, D-shaped, or octagonal and attached with a ferrule usually crafted from horn. Magnolia is the traditional wood used, but high end woods such as ebony, rosewood and walnut are widely available. This is mostly a matter of personal preference, but many find the natural wood of the handle comfortable, stable to grip, and versatile for various tasks and angles. 

Price: Lastly, price is usually a key factor in choosing a santoku. We have a wide range of options for all budgets. At the introductory level, lines like Chubo Inox or Tojiro are a great value for a knife that is made with a lot of attention to detail and care. High-technology steels and more valuable handle materials lead to higher prices like you’ll find in our Takamura and Makoto Kurosaki lines. Lastly, hand-forged knives from master blacksmiths and those made by knifemakers entirely by hand will be priced according to the materials, skill, and amount of time that it takes to produce. Knives from makers like Takeda, Saji Takeshi, and Kagekiyo are made in small quantities by true master craftsmen and are meant to last a lifetime, and the prices reflect that.

The Best Santoku Knives to Buy

  • Best Seller: Sakai Takayuki 33 Layer Damascus Santoku 180mm (7.1")
    • A top selling line from the beginning, the Sakai Takayuki 33 Layer Collection is crafted from folded damascus steel with a VG10 cutting core. The blades are stain resistant, hold a great edge and are hand-hammered for added blade strength and quick food release. They are medium weight and impeccably finished with beautiful mahogany wood handles.
  • Chef’s Favorite: Kazan Ginsan Nashiji Santoku 170mm (6.7")
    • Our newest addition to the Kazan collection are forged in Tosa, Japan out of stainless Ginsan (silver 3) steel. Ginsan is known for being a tough steel with excellent edge retention and easy maintenance. The blades are finished in the nashiji style, hand sharpened and fitted with octagonal oak handles. Kazan is made exclusively for Chubo.
  • Best Laser: Takamura R2 Santoku 170mm (6.7")
    • Takamura Cutlery is a second-generation workshop, highly regarded by chefs worldwide for producing top quality kitchen knives. Pioneers in the use of high performing powdered steels, their blades are renowned for their incredible edge retention and extreme attention to detail in every step of the crafting process.
      The R2 line is made from R2 powdered steel, known for its remarkable hardness and ability to hold an edge through the rigors of professional use. Featuring incredibly thin blades and steep grind angles, these knives perform at an exceptional level for a reasonable price point. Each knife is hand sharpened to ensure top-notch sharpness right out of the box.
  • Best Value / Great for Beginners: Tojiro Fujitora DP Santoku 170mm (6.7")
    • The Tojiro DP line offers exceptional value for the price. Clad in stain-resistant steel with a VG10 cutting core, these knives get razor sharp and have excellent durability. At 60 on the Rockwell scale, Tojiro DPs maintain a great edge even under professional use. The strengthened Eco wood handles offer greater water resistance than traditional wood and are very comfortable in the hand.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does Santoku mean? Santoku literally means three virtues and is named for its ability to cut meat, fish and vegetables equally well.
  • Should you buy a Santoku knife or a chef’s knife? - This is really a matter of personal preference – many people like to have both.  The choice ultimately comes down to blade width and length and chopping style. Do you prefer vertical (straight up and down) chopping? Then a santoku might be a better choice for you. A gyuto is better when you cut with a rocking motion.
  • How do I sharpen a Santoku knife? Sharpen your santoku on whetstones. Check out our guide to Japanese knife sharpening here.
  • How long are Santoku knives? Santoku are usually 6-7”
  • What is the benefit of a Santoku knife? A santoku is a versatile all-purpose knife, it’s not too short and not too long. Anyone can use a santoku and for that reason, it makes a great first Japanese knife.
  • What foods do you cut with a Santoku knife? A santoku is great for most vegetables and boneless raw and cooked meat.
  • What is the benefit of a Santoku knife?  The santoku has a bit more blade height than a gyuto and for that reason can be comfortable for people who find their knucks come in contact with the cutting board when chopping.

Conclusion

Santokus are great all purpose Japanese knives for precision cutting. The santoku’s functionality make it a great knife for home cooks or professional chefs alike. Shop our entire line of santoku knives here.

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