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Chef Vs Santoku

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 

So the physical difference between a santoku and chef knife are fairly obvious. The question I have is application. What exactly is the santoku supposed to do that a chefs knife does not? I assume one could not rock the knife as easily w/ the santoku and it's shorter length would limit the usefulness in terms of size of items being cut. Just looking at the profile it seems it may be easier to sharpen as the blade is straighter and the tip is not as tapered, thereby making it easier to maintain angle near the tip. Not to mention the fact that it is shorter so there is less blade area to be sharpened. This is all pure speculation on my part of course. I have to say the santokus look modern and cool, but it's hard to imagine the movie Psycho being as scary if Norman Bates had traded in the 12" chef for the santoku; because we all know only pointy knives are dangerous.

Nurses, we're here to get our gloves dirty, and wash our hands frequently.
Nurses, we're here to get our gloves dirty, and wash our hands frequently.
post #2 of 15

I've read the word "santoku" translated as three blessings or three virtues. It is supposed to be for chop, slice and dice, roughly. Once someone becomes proficient at honing the longer curved tip of a chef knife becomes a non-issue. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.

post #3 of 15

Axel is right about almost everything.


Chris Lehrer has done something of a study on the history and sociology of the santoku.  If you read his "Japanese Knives 101," you can get some of it. 


The name "santoku" did not evolve naturally.  It was stuck on the knife by people trying to sell it.  Whatever the person who came up with it was actually thinking, the particular "three virtues" are lost in the history of advertising.  However, the internet ratifies idea by their popularity, the advertising continues, and at the current state of misinformation we seem to have settled on "chopping, slicing, and mincing;" and "fish, meat, vegetables."


Speaking of propaganda, the Wikipedia article on santokus is a mixed bag.  There's some useful information there mixed in with a sort of "push" in the direction of the Shun type of Japanese knife construction.  


Before thinking about whether a santoku has two, three or any virtues, bear in mind when you think about choosing a knife for a task:  Almost any sharp knife can do almost any knife task.  Almost any sharp knife will do it better than almost any dull knife. 


Anyway, the short length, wide profile at heel and tip, lack of belly (flattish edge profile), and the dropped (sheep's foot) tip make the knife very friendly for people who work on small boards, don't have or want developed skills, and/or are somewhat intimidated by big, pointy knives. More than a few people with good skills like them as well. 


The tip shape does make the knife useful for scooping cut food off the board.  It also allows the cutter to safely and comfortably  put her offhand on the front of the knife to help create a fulcrum for mincng.  And it's generally less intimidating.  


The flat edge profile does make "push cutting" (i.e., moving the knife in a straight up and down motion to chop) easier, without getting in the way of "rocking" or "mincing." 


The extra height of the handle helps protect a user with a "naive" grip from rapping her knuckles on the board while chopping.   


Compared to a sharp chef's knife a sharp santoku is less productive, slightly less versatile, and awkward for jobs that want a lot of length like portioning meat and fish.  Compared to a "petty," the santoku is so wide it sticks in the cut, too wide to be a good boning knife, not agile enough to make a good parer, etc. 


I don't recommend santokus to anyone who wants to learn good knife skills, but it's definitely good for people who don't want to take to learn them.


A phrase that's heard a lot is, "I like to use it instead of my chef's when I only want to chop a few 'veggies.'" It doesn't make sense to me, but doesn't mean it doesn't make sense.  Why anyone who has skills would want one is a mystery -- but some people do.  "Personal preference," there you go. 


And such a nice glass house, too.  For instance, I've got a 7" chef's knife in my block whose only legitimate purpose is fabricating smallish fish, but like it so much I invent reasons to use it.


De gustibus non disputandum,


post #4 of 15

Jeeze, bored-to-glaze... ;)


Ya know, I think it should be re-assigned the meaning:  Rachael Ray Knife. That would appeal to you, my porcine friend. I remember reading (years ago) that it was originally Rachael Ray who brought the santoku to the forefront of the trendy media cooking scene. She was originally tight with Furi with that. Don't be too down on the santoku, please. It's a manageable length with more flat than many chef knives. Some people like that. It is interesting that a chef knife with appropriate length (8+ inches) usually has enough flat to easily fulfill the chopping and slicing tasks of the santoku, but it's bigger overall. I personally like my 7" calphalon santoku very much, it's just that I rarely need to chop or slice or dice that much because I'm usually only feeding one person.


Any discussion here on the six meter loop? A mathematical formula for determining the optimum blade edge geometry (in this case a mathematically derived curve) for ease of use. Once I read the "New Yorker" article on Robert Kramer and steel physics and properties I took out each applicable knife and carefully studied and compared them to each other. Lo and behold! My 6" wusthof chef knife (yes, I do enjoy short chef knives), 7" Tojiro DP gyuto, etc. all mysteriously follow this beautiful curve. It feels lively and wonderful on the board. They may have minor variations, most common at the tip. For instance, blades seven inches and under will commonly diverge from the formula in that they slightly increase the rate of the curve at the tip. But they all follow the formula for the most part. I have an eight inch Henckels friodur chef knife, the Twin Signature series. I like stamped blades because they don't have the bolster extending to the heel of the edge. This particular chef knife has a flatter profile and when I compared it to the santoku I noticed that there is a seven inch santoku hidden within the eight inch chef knife. I bought a "Amcutco" 10 inch chef knife (stainless Japanese chef knife, maybe from the eighties) for 3 bucks (a steal!) at a second-hand store and there is a santoku hidden within it.


When I look at the santokus, even those from real Japanese cutlers, it would appear there is some bastardization going on. They have more pronounced tips, perhaps to appeal to a modern crowd that wants some curve. I've also seen some Wusthof santokus that appeal to the traditionalist approach to the santoku, having a very flat design; they even have the bolster not extending to the heel. So blades,  as usual, vary.

post #5 of 15






Edited by boar_d_laze - 8/21/10 at 10:50am
post #6 of 15

The Boy Nurse:


The entire point of a chef's knife is to have one blade that can fill the roles of multiple, more specialized knives. As Axel said, you can find a santoku in a larger chef's geometry, but you can also find a clumsy sujihiki along it's edge, a thick paring knife at it's tip, and a rather flimsy cleaver at it's heel. The idea being you can slice, dice, rough chop, mince, do precision detail work, even open a can Bobby Flay style with your chef's knife... but there will almost always be a better, more specialized tool for whatever particular task you are attempting.


All that aside, a santoku is simply another design for a similar concept: the universal kitchen knife.  Unlike the chef's, though, it sacrifices a bit of it's utility in exchange for being smaller, safer, and more friendly and forgiving to inexperienced users. If you're going to use a universal knife at all--which isn't really a necessity if you have a good set of specialized knives, and don't mind switching tools while you cook--then I don't see why you would want one that performs less overall tasks, but to each her own.


(Another way to look at it:  many people say they prefer the santoku because it's "smaller and lighter and more comfortable."  If that's the case, you can easily find chef's knives in the 6"-7" range that will also feel smaller, lighter, and more comfortable, but still have more utility.)

post #7 of 15

Almost any sharp knife will do it better than almost any dull knife. 


Almost, BDL? Almost?


Come-on, you know better than that. Any sharp knife will do it better than any dull knife.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #8 of 15

KY -- The "almost" was for exceptions like choosing between an expensive yanigaba and a dullish cleaver to split a chicken back.   Sounds silly articulating it, doesn't it?  So alright already you're right already.


Boy Nurse -- Good way of putting a lot of it.  Worth saying that while there's really no single "everything" knife, a knife that does most prep jobs very well is a good thing to have.  Personal preference aside -- which can and should be determinative -- chef's knives fill the role better than santokus, but do come with a steeper learning curve.


Axel -- Even though the whole Rachel Ray thing is a staple of the knife forums, it's greatly overworked and implicitly sexist (unintended in your case, no doubt).  I'm less than convinced that Ray was the prime factor in the popularity of santokus. 


Speaking of Ray and santokus --  I'm not sure whether it's the alloy (they say a German, high Carbon, XCrMoVn but don't specify -- I'm guessing its one of several from the 440A family) or the hardening.  Whether caused by one thing, the other, or the magic of serendipity, Furi edges dull so quickly they're not worth the price even if you get them free.  Too bad, because Ozzi-Tech (Furi) does a lot of other interesting design stuff.



Edited by boar_d_laze - 8/21/10 at 10:48am
post #9 of 15



This is the second thread in which you chose to insult me.  Why? 




I'm sorry, boar. I only meant it in a light-hearted manner (I put in a winking, smiling emoticon for that reason). You take it very personally; I'll lay off you from now on. But the choice goes both ways, how you take it to heart. Let's be clear on that. My dig on santokus from the Rachael Ray angle was to appeal to your disenthusiasm for it that knife.


"Axel -- Even though the whole Rachel Ray thing is a staple of the knife forums, it's greatly overworked and implicitly sexist (unintended in your case, no doubt).  I'm less than convinced that Ray was the prime factor in the popularity of santokus. "


I've read what I've read. She hip 'n trendy. She's admitted that she isn't a "cook." And Anthony Bourdain has critiqued her openly about some of the outrageously stupid crap she's said. Like supporting the purchase of peeled or pre-cut onions. "It's just a freakin' onion." And baby carrots. Seriously, she's a food-processor's dream come true. She's totally commercial and corporate. Everything she says should come in a plastic-sealed and cardboarded box.


As far as sexism goes... the comments and subject matter of her show would appeal to a sexists man's point of view. She's great for industry in that she keeps focusing on "women's issues" for self-image/esteem problems, weight issues, etc. She's very good for the industry. It's not the rah rah we're-all-okay discussions, it's all the undermining commentary while she's cooking that I've seen. A double message. I don't like her. And that's from my feminist perspective (I'm actually a masculinist, too).

post #10 of 15



Only too glad to find I got it wrong.  I'll take your posts in the spirit of playfulness from now on.  My previous post is edited so the whole thing will make even less sense. 


Good for us,


post #11 of 15

I'm less than convinced that Ray was the prime factor in the popularity of santokus. 


Me too.


I don't hang out at knife sites, so have no idea what they're talking about there. But what I do know is that a few years ago Santukos suddenly became the darlings of the celebrity TV chefs. Virtually all of the food network stars were using them. About the only difference between Ray's and the others was her insistence on those orange handles.


I would guess that, at the time, Emeril had more influence on what home cooks choose than did Rachael.


Most of the "stars" gave them up, and went back to chefs knives. She continued using the Santuko. Whether that influences their continued popularity among semi-cooks remains an open question. But I don't think she was initially responsible.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #12 of 15

Axel, for some reason, your profile is not accepting private messages. So I'll do this publicly.


Show more respect to others in your posting. While you and BDL may have an amiable relationship, I do not know. However,  the intentional misspeilling, rude adjectives and such only set a bad example to others and bring down discussion on the board.


I don't know if this started somewhere else and is carried over here, but if there are problematic posts from others, be sure and let me know. it's wrong from everybody.

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #13 of 15

BDL has rough-sketched some of the info I learned about santoku while in Japan. Let me amplify.


First of all, the word "traditional" should be avoided here. Of the various knife styles still in functional use in Japan, they basically come in three rough groups: seriously old, pre-Western, Western-influenced. (Butchering knives are a hideously complicated and ideologically fraught subject, so I leave them aside.) Since the earliest Western-influenced cutlery is somewhere a little before 1900, and new developments continue periodically, it's not really reasonable to classify Japanese knives based on whether they are or are not traditional.


The seriously old knives still used extensively are the nakiri and the deba. The nakiri is very similar to a Chinese vegetable cleaver: a rectangular blade, not terribly tall (by contrast to the Chinese cleaver we usually see), and usually with a slightly curved edge. The edge is usually ground on both sides, but they are sometimes found chisel-ground --- literally so, meaning that someone just grinds on one side until the edge is sharp, then deburrs, but there is no attempt to hollow out the back face as on a professional single-beveled knife. The deba is a fish-breaking knife, with a pronounced curvature, a somewhat curved and very thick spine, and a great deal of weight. The edge is normally single-beveled in modern times, but there is excellent reason to think that knives like this originated chisel-ground.


The pre-Western knives are essentially a development that arose with a rise in urban "pleasure culture" and the concomitant ability of cooks to command the sorts of money that would commission very good knives for their purposes. This led to better steels, better shapes, and the hollow-grinding we know in single-beveled knives today. The important knives that arose in this context are the usuba, deba (single-beveled), yanagiba, and takobiki. There are many regional and technical variations among these, but all have in common the true single-beveling method with a hollow-ground back. The usuba has a dead-straight edge and is used for vegetables, replacing the nakiri in a professional context. The deba is simply a technical refinement on its predecessor, and chisel-ground ones continued to be used widely. The yanagiba and takobiki are somewhat differently-constructed sashimi knives, associated with the Kansai (Kyoto) and Kanto (Tokyo) regions, respectively.


Once Western influence comes in, you get the Japanese knife makers experimenting with truly double-beveled knives, which had not been used to any significant degree, in culinary knives at least, for quite some time. The first step is simply to copy Western knives for the use of Western and Western-trained cooks. This is where you get the gyuto, for example --- it's a chef's knife. But then something odd happens.


Now speculation must come in strongly, because documentation here is scant and ill-researched. What I think happens is that knife-makers and non-professional cooks start noticing this odd (to them) thing, that Western knives are not strictly segregated. A Western vegetable knife isn't a "vegetable knife" in the sense that it can never ever touch any kind of flesh, but rather a knife that is particularly well-suited to cutting vegetables. By contrast, a nakiri or usuba never touches flesh, ever. (It's unclear whether this segregation also covered the use of the heel of a deba for heavy herb mincing.) The other thing that happens is that suddenly everyone can feel free to eat meat openly, and in fact all of a sudden it's stylish and clever to do so. The first chicken restaurant in Kyoto opens in 1880, I think, and by 1900 things like yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick) and teriyaki and sukiyaki and so on are all the rage. (If you've ever had tonkatsu --- crumbed and deep-fried pork cutlet --- and wondered why the sauce tastes so much like Worcestershire, that's because it is: katsu is an attempt to say "cutlet," thus "pork cutlet," and the sauce is supposed to be the Western universal sauce sort of like the East Asian soy, and they thought that sauce was Worcestershire, because who were they talking to?)


So now, roughly 1900, the housewife needs a new knife, one for cutting (eek!) meat. The thing is, her mother never had such a thing. And you know what? Knives aren't cheap. So somewhere along the line somebody says, "hey, ladies! You don't need all that junk, the nakiri and the deba and all that old-fashioned nonsense. You're young and hip and chic and Western! You need a Western knife, one that can cut anything! And here you have it!"


What gets sold this way is sort of like an unholy marriage of a chef's knife (gyuto) and a nakiri. Presumably it was thought that this shape would be reasonably comfortable to a lady who'd grown up with a nakiri, but it was truly double-beveled and curved and pointed like a Western knife and could thus be used effectively for meat as well as veggies. Fish, well, the deba still reigns, but two knives isn't half bad, and after all you can buy cut fish from the fishmonger.


This knife eventually settled down with two principal names: santoku and bunkabocho. "Santoku" does indeed refer to the three Buddhist virtues (of which there is more than one set), and seems to have been a marketing device: "this knife is thrifty and Japanese as well as clever and Western!" Bunkabocho literally means "cultural knife," but actually the term "bunka" had in the 1910s-20s a connotation of "clever, modern, Western," and thus this is the "clever, modern, Western knife!" Competing marketing terms, really.


In many respects I think Rachael Ray is pushing the knife precisely as its inventors would have hoped, as a thing for up-to-date would-be-chic middle-class housewives who (want to imagine themselves to) have better things to do than futz around with knives. She was hardly the first: my sense is that these knives first made significant inroads through Global knives in professional kitchens, and eventually word leaked out. People in that context were captivated by the knives' durability, sharpness, and lightness --- qualities that actually had 99% to do with their being decent-quality Japanese knives rather than santoku as such. Now the upper-middle-class is hot to trot on santoku, and there are even people who think the nakiri is really the cool kids' thing, where the professional kitchens have been discovering good-quality gyuto and single-beveled knives --- and thus get pleasure out of sneering at whatever their fashion-conscious customers buy.


I hope this historical context is of some value to all.

post #14 of 15



First of all - thank you for that great insight into the topic. Honestly never really was that up to date with all these terminologies.


Now, in my humble little opinion over here, the Santoku really got a much worse reputation in the professional world than it actually deserves.

I know - it definitely cannot compete with a proper chef's knife in the hands of an actual chef (or trained cook) - but, after having used one from time to time, it really is quite versatile and will in most cases not set back the buyer a too great amount.


I had the pleasure of working several years in Tokyo and later on in Niseko and this is actually where I stumbled across the santoku for the first time.

It has its faults, no doubt about this, and the versatility issue as raised in this thread numerous times is what fundamentally disqualifies it as a true chef knife.

However - it is light, durable and "easy" to use, even for someone with limited knife skills. For someone who has enjoyed the proper training and has spend a good portion of their life perfecting these skills the santoku offers a truly easy handling.


That said - I still swear by my chef's knife but have started a small collection of santoku knifes (they do after all look pretty)



post #15 of 15
I think it is like a home version of a deba, much like a nakiri is supposed to be a home version of the most badass usuba. It's a non specialized specialized knife.
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