Santokus are Thanksgiving cutters, Japanese style. A design that originated in the Land of the Rising Sun, the santoku is a specialized tool well suited to preparing holiday meals. From cutting meat to dicing veggies and cutting fruit for creative holiday salads and such, santokus are perfect for Gobbler Day.
Santokus have a wide blade sometimes with scallops, which are supposed to create less friction than a solid blade, a sheepfoot tip, and are lighter and thinner than a French or German chef’s knife. Their length runs between 5 and 8 inches. The Thanksgiving cutters do not have a bolster. They have a straight edge with no curve.
San-to-ku is Japanese for the three cutting tasks for which the knife is designed: slicing, dicing and mincing. It is a specialized knife that, in the Japanese view, is optimized for the three aforementioned tasks. The straight edge of a santoku does not allow for the rocking motion commonly used with a French or German chef’s knife.
Cuts are made straight down with little or no forward movement, almost a guillotine action, which, again in the Japanese view, allows slicing very thin pieces of whatever’s being cut with precision. The Thanksgiving cutters are not meant to be all-around kitchen knives. An all-around knife used to cut many things is not a Japanese concept. The Japanese chef will typically have a vast array of knives, each one designed for a specific function.
Japanese kitchen knives typically have a chisel grind, which also contributes to cutting very thin slices with precision, as you may have seen sushi chefs do. The chisel grind is optimal for slicing, say, very thin slices of turkey, with the caveat that there are left and right grinds. If you are right handed you’ll need a blade ground on the right side. The chisel grind doesn’t work well for cutting through thick media, such as roasts and ribs because the chisel grind—since the edge is off center—will cause the blade to cut off center, and to wander. Also, the thin edge of a Santoku should not be used to cut through joints or bones, or to disjoint, say, a chicken.
With its hefty blade, full tang, nicely sculpted bolsters and maple scales, the Boker Forge Santoku Maple is a happy marriage of a classic santoku and a German or French chef’s knife. While it lacks the acute point of a chef’s knife, the slight point is usable. The edge does have somewhat of a curve, which allows the rocking motion Western-trained chefs, and many domestic home cooks, are accustomed to using. It is the only one of the four knives reviewed that I would use to cut through pork rib joints, chicken backs, etc. The Boker is almost a mini cleaver as well as being an excellent slicer. It is a handsome knife and comfortable for long periods of work.
With its walnut scales and full tang, the Case model is also a sturdy example of a Santoku. It has a barely perceptible curve to the edge and a scalloped blade. The Case looks more like a classic santoku than the Boker, but like the Boker has a thicker blade than a standard Japanese santoku. It felt solid in hand and while not as sculpted as the Boker, the traditional American handle was comfortable during extended use. The Case sliced, diced and minced as well as thin-bladed Santokus while giving the impression that it would be up for harder work if need be.
With its wide blade, classic Santoku profile, comfortable, molded grip and graceful overall appearance, the Spyderco K08 looks like a 21st-century interpretation of a classic—which is pretty much what it is. It is a very lightweight knife with an extremely thin blade, which is optimal for doing what a santoku is supposed to do. The Spyderco does have a slight curve toward the tip, which I think adds to its smooth lines. Since I am accustomed to using a French or German chef’s knife, the curve also made it easier for me to work my way through piles of squash and mushrooms, especially mushrooms, which I find hard to slice. The blade also made it easy to slice salmon smoothly and evenly.
Victorinox makes the knives The American Culinary Institute gives to its students: chef’s knives, paring knives, bread knives and, yes, santokus. Pro chef Shawn Carlson’s first professional knife roll contained only Victorinox knives. So, he was familiar with the Victorinox characteristics: thin profile, very sharp, fairly soft steel that requires frequent steeling but which comes back to a fine edge quickly, and which does not chip if dropped on a kitchen floor. It has the standard santoku shape: flat edge and sheepfoot tip rather than a curved profile and pointy tip. I missed a curved edge and had trouble adjusting to the flat straight edge. Shawn did not—again, a pro is a pro. It is an entry-level professional knife.
If you enjoy cooking and take pleasure in using specialized tools, you’ll find a santoku a welcome addition to your quiver of Thanksgiving cutters—keeping in mind that a santoku is a specialized tool. If you like to keep things simple, an 8-inch chef’s knife and a 4-inch paring knife will do most any kitchen job—if not with the flair of a santoku.–By James Morgan Ayres