A kitchen do-all, the Santoku is a must-have for foodie pros and novices alike. Here’s what to look for to get the best, plus our top picks.
Santoku knives are becoming increasingly popular in the West, especially among foodies, passionate home chefs, and anyone who brings a knife roll to work in a kitchen. If you’ve been dying to learn more about this great Japanese knife, you’re in luck.
We’re going to go over everything you need to know about the Santoku, from its origins and design, to how to buy and use one in your own kitchen. We’re also going to go over the top Santoku knives on the market right now, in case you’re looking to pick one up for yourself (or as a gift).
Origin of the Santoku
Traditionally, in Japanese cooking, knives have different roles based on what you’re preparing, more than how it’s being prepared. Around 100 years ago, you would commonly see a Gyuto (basically what Westerners call a chef’s knife) used to cut beef, pork, and chicken, a Nakiri to cut vegetables, and a Deba to cut fish.
Each of these is designed for its specific task, and so they are specialized. Of course, they can be used differently, but the idea is to have a knife for every task, rather than a knife for any task.
Around the 1940s, as steel started to come at a bit of a premium due to some noted historical world conflicts, the desire for multi-purpose kitchen cutlery rose, and out of that desire came the Santoku, or “three virtues” knife.
The purpose of the Santoku, also translated as “three uses”, was to be able to handle most food prep duties with just one knife. To that end, it is designed to be able to handle chopping, slicing, and cutting tasks, which is another interpretation of the meaning of the name.
A Santoku typically uses a sheep’s foot blade and tip, which gives you a long, relatively flat blade edge and a tip that sweeps back up in a large radius towards the spine.
Most are between 5 and 7 inches and have an edge with a very Western-style bilaterally cutting edge with a 12 to 15-degree shoulder. Many Japanese knives are ground to a chisel edge, which is only sharpened on one side, but a classic Santoku has a more familiar Western-style edge geometry.
This does mean that, for those of us in the West, sharpening isn’t too much different than with any other kitchen knife, just with a different angle. It also means that Santokus are typically made of very hard steel to prevent damage to that thin wedge.
This makes them an absolute dream for slicing and chopping tasks. If you’ve ever wanted to reliably get those paper-thin tomato slices, you’ll have every advantage with a Santoku.
Most Santokus have no bolster, which may also take a bit of getting used to depending on your grip. However, many have a handle that tapers down towards the blade, making it very comfortable for the classic pinch grip most of us home cooks are probably used to.
Lastly, many Santokus feature a “Granton edge”, which you can recognize by the slightly scalloped sides of the blade that look like someone took an ice cream scoop to the steel and removed little bits of the blade.
These little scallops help sticky, wet foods like meats and certain vegetables from sticking to the side of the blade as you’re chopping. If you’ve ever tried to slice tomatoes quickly or dice something like a chicken thigh, you’ll know how helpful this feature can be.
What To Look For In A Santoku
Here’s a fun fact I don’t get to bring up in my writing career a lot: I’ve worked as a chef in kitchens all over the South for a good portion of my 30ish years on this planet. In that time I’ve held a lot of knives.
Cooking may not be my main gig anymore, but it is something I’m still passionate about. I cook most meals for my family, and I still help out with the occasional catering gig when my chef friends need an extra hand.
All of which is to say, I’ve got some battle-tested, dinner-rush-proven opinions about what to look for in a kitchen knife, and we’re going to apply those to our Santoku shopping.
While Santokus come in a range of lengths, for your first one I definitely recommend sticking to a 5 to 7-inch blade. This is a good range for all the common tasks you’d likely want a Santoku for and makes for a very handy blade.
This gives you a blade that’s most likely shorter than your standard Western-style chef’s knife (or Gyuto), but still more than sufficient for chopping large, hearty vegetables when needed. It’s also not too big to quickly filet a fish, or other delicate tasks.
Blade steel is an important consideration with any knife, but especially the Santoku. As we discussed above, a Santoku has a very thin edge and narrow blade geometry.
While the thin edge gives you immense slicing and chopping performance when we’re dealing with vegetables, it’s potentially a liability. Specifically, the edge is more prone to rolling if you’re doing something like hacking through a chicken carcass.
To protect against such occurrences, a typical Santoku—and Japanese knives in general—are treated to a higher hardness than Western-style knives. Japanese knives like the Santoku are also typically high-carbon steel.
Practically, this means that you’ll have to put in more work to sharpen a high-quality Santoku than a Western-style knife. On the flip side, the edge will likely last you a good bit longer. This makes the Santoku a good everyday kitchen knife, especially if you don’t love sharpening.
Stay away from stainless steel, unless you’re really on a budget and want to try the Santoku out on the cheap before committing to a more expensive model. (We’ll have some very good budget-friendly options below if you want to go that route.)
Stick to a high-carbon steel of Japanese or German origin if possible, and look for something with a Rockwell hardness of 57 or higher at a minimum. I like 60 plus but that starts to get expensive quickly.
When in doubt, when it comes to any kitchen knife really, buy from one of the countries that lost WWII and you’ll probably do alright (I have similar opinions about cars).
Blade length and width are familiar decision points when buying a knife, but for something like a Santoku blade height (the distance from the blade edge to the spine) is also important.
Because these knives are designed for slicing and chopping against a cutting board, you want to make sure the blade is tall enough to keep your knuckles comfortably off the cutting board when using the knife.
This tall blade also makes it easier to create nice, even slices. The edge is less likely to wander to the left or right as you slice, and you have a nice large flat surface to index whatever you’re cutting against as you’re slicing.
A Note on Scalloped Edges, or Granton Edge
You will probably notice in your Santoku shopping many of these knives, and Japanese knives in general, tend to have a Granton edge. You’ll see dimples on the side of the blade.
The idea behind these dimples is to relieve the suction effect when slicing through thick vegetables or meats and keep things from sticking to the blade. How much does that help? I’ll be honest, I don’t know.
A lot of it depends on the geometry of the dimples, what exactly you’re cutting through, and its moisture content. In other words, you may not see a huge difference, so don’t get too hung up on the dimples.
Done right, they can definitely help though, so don’t completely discount them either.
Using a Santoku
Actually using a Santoku is a bit different from a Western-style chef’s knife, but don’t let that keep you from buying one!
With a Santoku, the chief difference from the knives you’re probably used to for general food prep is the thickness and the angle of the cutting edge.
A Santoku has an edge that is ground to a much more extreme angle than most Western-style knives, and the edge of the blade is fairly linear compared to your average chef’s knife here in the US or Europe.
Why does that matter?
Where a knife with a pronounced belly, like a Western-style chef knife, will slice downward and then you rock the blade forward just a bit to complete your cut. With a Santoku, the motion is more of a flat downward chop, with very little rocking.
I promise, it’s not actually all that different in practice, but you will have to adjust a little bit when you’re first learning to use the knife.
The other thing to keep in mind is that a Santoku is more prone to chipping if you really hammer it into something hard like bone. This is not what you should be using to hack through carcass joints. Use a cleaver for that and leave the Santoku for slicing and cutting meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Santoku vs Western-style Chef’s Knives
The Santoku is a multi-purpose knife with a similar role to the Western-style knives you’re probably familiar with, but with a very different design.
Compared to a Western chef knife, it is typically shorter, thinner, and consequently lighter. The lack of a pronounced “belly” to the edge also means you will have to adjust your technique if you’re used to cutting with a Western-style chef
A Western-style knife, or Gyuto, is going to have an easier time with fine tip work, and will typically have more of a “belly” to the blade to make it easier to rock back and forth on a cutting board.
In my kitchen, I have both and use them regularly. Like most cooks, I find that a Santoku excels in slicing tasks, particularly if you’re trying to get thin, even slices. If you’re caramelizing onions, slicing tomatoes for a BLT, or dicing up chicken into bite-sized pieces, a Santoku is excellent.
If you’re doing something that requires more of a rough chop, such as dealing with a large number of fresh herbs, a Western-style chef’s knife is probably going to be a better option as you can simply rock the knife back and forth through the herbs and be good to go.
A Western-style knife is also much better for preparing heavier proteins, such as breaking down a chicken carcass or carving up a roast. For one, the blade is longer which makes long drag cuts and slices through thick pieces of meat much easier.
The edge profile of the chef’s knife also handles hacking through bones whereas you’re basically asking to chip or roll your edge if you do that with a Santoku.
For things like fish where you’re typically working with much smaller portions, and you have lighter, thinner bones to deal with, a Santoku excels. Its shorter length is a boon instead of a hindrance here, and the thin edge and blade profile keeps those thin slices of fish from sticking.
As a general rule, for something like fish, garlic, or very wet vegetables and fruits that like to stick to your knife, a Santoku is better. For heavier tasks that require a beefier edge, or a longer cutting surface, your Western-style knife is better.
The type of work you’re doing also matters, with a Santoku being much better for a straight up-and-down chop or slice, and a Western-style knife being better for a rocking slice.
Best Santoku Knives for Any Budget
Wusthof Classic Hollow Edge Santoku Knife
First up, we have a favorite of professional kitchens, the Wusthof Classic series Santoku. Wusthof, as you can probably tell from the name, is a German company, and they’re known for making outstanding cutlery. This Santoku is no exception.
This is getting into the upper end of the Santoku market (there will be cheaper options below, never fear) but it is still an excellent value if you’re looking for a durable, well-designed option that’s going to see some heavy use.
I’ve personally used this knife for years, and have one in my personal kitchen at home. In my experience, this is the best-slicing knife out there for vegetables and fish, and I use mine several times a week.
It has a 5-inch hollow-edge blade made of X50CRMOV15 high-carbon stainless steel, making it perfect for home cooks and pros alike.
Tojiro 6.7-Inch Santoku
If the thought of paying more than $100 for a kitchen knife makes you a little itchy in the wallet area, don’t worry. Tojiro has you covered.
This Santoku is a bit on the longer side, making it a great choice for almost any kitchen task. I’ve personally used these knives for a number of years now, and I find them to be a bit chunky, but then I’ve got short sausage fingers. Your results may vary.
Even with my diminutive digits though, this knife absolutely sails through fish, chicken, and other light proteins, and slices fruit and veg like a dream. It has a bolster, and an evenly ground edge so it’s perfect for those used to more Western-style knives.
This knife has a 6.7-inch blade made of cobalt alloy steel clad in VG10, which is high-end Japanese steel with high chromium content. This makes it a great budget option for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time sharpening.
Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Santoku Knife
For the even more budget conscious, the Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged series is a great place to start. Yes, you can absolutely get an entire knife block for $40, but they’re going to be less than stellar.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on cooking gear, but there are some places where you definitely get what you pay for. With this knife from Mercer Culinary, you’re getting a solid knife that will last for years, without breaking the bank. This is about as cheap as I’d go, personally, but it’s no less effective for that.
The Genesis Forged Santoku has a 7-inch blade made of X50CRMOV15 high-carbon stainless.
MAC Professional Santoku Knife
This is another staple of professional kitchens and a great option for passionate home cooks, as well. MAC’s Professional line is a great option for foodies and pros, and their Santoku is no exception.
I actually think I like the handle on this knife the most of any on this list, but that’s down mostly to personal preference. The blade has a 15-degree edge that slices like a dream. The high-carbon alloy is sub-zero tempered to increase hardness and wear resistance.
The handle is made of a very lightweight wood laminate that is very tough and grippy in the hand. The blade is 6.5 inches long and is made from MAC’s Sub-Zero alloy steel.
Miyabi Birchwood Santoku
If you’re looking for something that really reflects the Japanese heritage of the Santoku, a knife that has an aesthetic as nice as its cutting performance, this Santoku from Miyabi’s Birchwood line is a great option.
With a blade made from powdered high-carbon steel that’s been folded over a hundred times and a handle made of a beautiful Karelian birch (the only wood to ever be used in a Fabergé egg), this knife is a serious showpiece that you’ll want on display somewhere.
It also cuts like Wolverine’s claws.
Seriously, if you want a beautiful gift to give that special chef in your life, or you just want a super high-end knife that looks great and slices even better, this is a great option.
The Miyabi Birchwood Santoku has a 7-inch hand-honed blade made of G2 micro-carbide powdered steel in a folded, flower pattern Damascus.
J.A. Henckels Zwilling Hollow Edge Santoku Knife at Amazon
Our last two knives are from the same manufacturer, J.A. Henckels, possibly the biggest name in kitchen knives (with good reason).
The Zwilling Signature series is one of its higher-end options, featuring a hollow-ground edge and a very comfortable handle with a very minimal bolster. This is a good cross between a traditional Santoku handle and a more modern Santoku handle design.
The 7-inch blade is made of an ice-hardened (Friodur) steel that is proprietary to J.A. Henckels that lasts for a very, very long time in between sharpenings. For a bonus, you can get it custom-engraved for basically nothing since J.A. Henckels does everything in-house.
J.A. Henckels Zwilling Pro 7 Hollow Edge Rocking Santoku Knife
Lastly, we have a very similar knife to the one above, but with a more Western-style edge profile geared more towards the familiar rocking motion most of us know already. It still has a relatively flat edge, so you do get all of that Santoku performance, but with a little more versatility when it comes to a rocking chop.
Like the model above, it features a very comfortable handle, but the Pro series features a more pronounced, Western-style bolster, ideal for the pinch grip that we use here in the West.
It has a 7-inch blade made of proprietary high-carbon SIGMAFORGE steel (I don’t know what SIGMAFORGE means either, you’ll have to ask Henckels about it).
Learn More About Culinary Knives:
- Best Meat Cleaver Options
- Best Chef’s Knife Options Available Today
- BLADE 101: Types Of Kitchen Knives
- Best Nakiri Knife: What To Know About This Japanese Kitchen Classic
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