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What is a Santoku Knife?


The Santoku is a versatile multi-use Japanese knife, famous for the translation of its name, ‘three virtues’. The three virtues are said to refer to the Santoku’s versatility in use for chopping, slicing and dicing, or the primary range of ingredients that it can be used for: fish, meat and vegetables.

The Santoku is characterized by its straight cutting edge and wide sheepsfoot blade, with the spine curving downwards to reach its rounded point. The flat profile of the Santoku is well suited for tap-chopping or push-cutting techniques, however the absence of a curve on its straight-edged front blade does not allow for a rock-cutting motion. The Santoku is typically a single bevel knife, although double bevel knives are becoming commonplace due to the Santoku’s rising popularity in the western world.

The Santoku is the most popular knife in Japan, and can be found in almost every household. It is often recommended as the more compact Japanese alternative to the classic western chef’s knife, or the Gyuto. Compared to the classic western chef’s knife, the Santoku is shorter, lighter, thinner and uses harder steel.

What does Santoku mean?


Literally translated, ‘Santoku’ in Japanese means ‘three virtues’, giving a nod to its versatility. The three virtues are said to represent its multiple uses of slicing, dicing and chopping, or alternatively, the various types of produce that it is designed to handle: meat, fish, and vegetables.

The Santoku’s multi-purpose nature often leads it to be compared with a western chef’s knife or the Gyuto. However, Santoku's history dates back to the mid-20th century when it first appeared as a home cook’s alternative to the Nakiri, a traditional Japanese vegetable cleaver. Taking inspiration from the Nakiri’s tall blade height and straight cutting edge, the Santoku design added a downward curve of the spine toward the straight edge to form a “sheepsfoot” tip, and thus the popular multi-use Santoku was born.

What is a Santoku knife best for?

True to its name, the Santoku knife is best for chopping, dicing and mincing food such as meat, fish and vegetables. The sharp, thin blade combined with the Santoku’s straight cutting edge makes it the ideal tool for executing swift clean cuts in an up-and-down motion or using a tap-chop or a push-cut.

The tall and flat profile of the Santoku is complimented by the thin and sharp sheepsfoot blade, and excels at easily creating thin slices of meat, seafood, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. The wide blade is handy for scooping food off the cutting board.

Like other traditional Japanese knives, the Santoku is originally a single bevel knife, which makes it an ideal tool for achieving clean cuts that preserve the natural freshness, flavor and texture of the food as only the cutting edge of the blade touches the food. Nowadays, the Santoku is also widely available in double bevel versions, but maintains the signature sharp edge of Japanese knives as the blade is ground at a much more acute angle (usually 10-15 degrees) than a western chef’s knife.

Because the Santoku knife is usually shorter in length compared to a western chef’s knife, it is considerably lighter and easier to handle — especially for those with small hands.

Santoku knife characteristics

Size

The Santoku is relatively shorter than a standard western chef’s knife, with most blade lengths falling between 130-200mm in length — about the length of an average adult’s hand. Its compact length, combined with the thinness of the blade makes the Santoku smaller and lighter than a chef’s knife, making it an ideal choice for those with smaller hands or for minimizing fatigue and strain when using the knife for extensive periods of time.

165mm is recommended as the most suitable blade length for home cooks and professionals alike as it is a sufficient and comfortable size for handling most types of produce, while keeping the knife compact and easy to wield.

Shape

Based on its original inspiration from the Japanese vegetable cleaver Nakiri, the Santoku is characterized by a flatter cutting edge that is nearly straight from heel to tip. A gentle downward curved spine leads to its rounded point, and gives the Santoku its signature sheepsfoot blade shape. The thin blade may feature grantons (also called hollows, dimples or scallops) along the length of the blade to reduce friction and help easily release the food from the knife when dicing and slicing.

The flat profile of the Santoku makes it great for a swift downward chop and well suited for tap-chopping or push-cutting techniques, however the absence of a curve on its straight-edged front blade does not allow for a rock-cutting motion. While many western chefs are trained to use the rock-cutting method, the Santoku way of cutting is faster and more efficient.

Because the traditional Japanese diet consisted of mainly fish and softer vegetables in the past, Santoku knives were designed with thinner blades and a lighter weight to achieve more delicate cuts, prioritising finesse rather than the overall power of a knife. The modern-day Santoku incorporates a thin blade and is lighter in weight, but don’t be fooled — the Santoku is a capable multi-use knife, and is in fact the favored all-rounder knife used in lieu of a western chef’s knife in many Japanese homes. It’s said that almost every Japanese home has a Santoku.

Edge

Traditionally, Santoku knives feature a single bevel blade, making the edge extremely sharp and perfect for creating extremely thin slices of food which is essential for many Japanese dishes. While single bevel blades naturally tend to be sharper than a double bevel blade, they require more skills in order to master the natural steer of the asymmetrical blade. Right-handed Santokus tend to pull to the left, while left-handed Santokus tend to veer to the right, so significant skill is required to cut straight down with a single bevel knife.

The Santoku is now also widely available with a double bevel blade, but maintains the signature sharp edge of Japanese knives as the blade is ground at a much more acute angle (10-15 degrees) than those of a western chef’s knife. The double bevel Santoku is also ambidextrous, allowing use for both left-handed and right-handed users.

Handle

Santoku knife handles can be categorized into two categories: the traditional Japanese ‘Wa-Handle’, or a Western-style handle.

The most common wa-handle shapes are the D-shape, oval, or octagonal. While some prefer the ergonomic grip of a D-shaped or octagonal handle, the choice of the handle comes down to personal preference.

How are Santoku knives made?


Santoku knives first appeared in Japan after WWII in the mid-20th century. They were designed as a home cook’s alternative to the Nakiri, a traditional Japanese vegetable cleaver. By retaining the Nakiri’s tall height and straight cutting edge but adding a slight downward curve from the spine to the rounded tip, the Santoku steadily became the most popular knife in Japanese homes as a nimble and compact all-rounder knife.

To this day, traditional blacksmiths in Japan still forge Santoku knives manually by hand, although many Japanese and Western knife manufacturers now offer their own versions of the Santoku knife as well. The most famous cities in Japan for their knives include Sakai (in Osaka), Seki (in Gifu), and Echizen (in Fukui).

To understand how Santoku knives are made and to decode the common phrases that are found in knife descriptions, it’s best to look at traditional Japanese knife forging methods and the materials used.

There are two basic categories of Japanese knives - honyaki and kasumi - which are defined by the materials and methods used in their forging.

honyaki (“true-forged”) knives are manually forged by hand following traditional Japanese blacksmithing techniques, and are created entirely out of one single material: high-carbon steel (hagane). The hagane is typically a type of White Steel (Shirogami) or Blue Steel (Aogami), and this style of knife blade is also called a mono steel blade.

The method of creating a honyaki knife is similar to how Katanas (Japanese traditional swords) were made in the past. Forging a Santoku knife is a lengthy and difficult manual process that begins with a single high-carbon steel blank, and involves multiple rounds of heat treatment, steel hammering, kilning, polishing and sharpening. This is done manually in the hands of skilled blacksmiths in Japanese cities famous for their knife production, such as Sakai (in Osaka), Seki (in Gifu), and Echizen (in Fukui).

Because honyaki knives are forged from high-carbon steel, its blade is extremely hard and can be sharpened to incredibly thin and sharp edges that will remain sharp for a long time. However, they are challenging to resharpen and prone to chipping, cracking, or breaking if used improperly. Due to the small-scale production and the highly-skilled artisan nature of the blacksmiths, honyaki knives are more expensive, and recommended for experienced and professional chefs who can maintain them.

On the other hand, kasumi (“mist”) knives are made by joining together a piece of soft iron (jigane) with a piece of high-carbon steel (hagane) to create a laminated blade. After forging, hammering and shaping, the carbon steel (hagane) forms the core and cutting edge, while the soft iron (jigane) clads the body and spine of the blade. The hazy appearance of the soft iron in contrast with the glossy carbon steel gives kasumi its signature ‘mist’ appearance, as referenced by its name. Thanks to the added soft iron, kasumi blades have reduced brittleness overall, and are cheaper and easier to sharpen than honyaki knives.

In relation to kasumi knives, Hon Kasumi or Hongasumi knives are also commonly found, and refers to a higher grade of kasumi knives. Although Hongasumi knives are made in the same way as kasumi knives, they are often made from higher quality materials and involve extra attention and steps in its forging, tempering, polishing and finishing processes.

For more information on how Japanese knives are made and the types of steels used, check out our blog on how Japanese knives are made. (link coming soon)

What are common variants of Santoku knives?

With many Japanese and Western knife manufacturers offering their own take on the classic Santoku knife, there are slight variations in the design of the edge among different brands. It is common to see knives that do not follow the traditionally flat profile of the Santoku, instead giving it a more rounded belly to allow for the rock-chopping motion that is a popular cutting technique in the western culinary world.

Alternatively, a Japanese variant of the traditional Santoku knife is the Bunka, also called the Bunka Bōchō.

Bunka Bōchō (文化包丁)

The Bunka is very similar to the Santoku as a multi-purpose knife that can be used for slicing, dicing or mincing meats, fish, and vegetables. However, unlike the curve of the spine on the sheepsfoot blade and the rounded point of a Santoku, the Bunka is much more angular and features a straight, sloping spine and an angled ‘reverse tanto’ tip. The sharp point of the Bunka makes doing precision work such as brunoise on vegetables much easier.

See our complete guide to the Bunka knife here.

What are popular Santoku knife brands?

Santoku knives first appeared in the mid-20th century as a multi-use alternative to the Japanese vegetable cleaver Nakiri. Since taking over Japanese households as the most common all-rounder knife to have in the kitchen, Santoku knives are now made by a variety of Japanese and western manufacturers including:

  • Yoshihiro
  • Tojiro
  • Gesshin Uraku
  • Masamoto
  • Mercer Culinary
  • Shun
  • Wusthof
  • Zwilling J.A. Henckels
  • Victorinox
  • Global
  • Suisin

How to choose a Santoku knife

If you’re in the market for a Santoku knife, it can seem difficult to figure out which particular one will be perfect for you, especially if you haven’t had the chance to try out a few models in person to get a feel for what size and style of the Santoku feels the most balanced and stable in your hand.

You can see our best recommendations here, but here are some factors to first consider that will help you to choose your Santoku knife:

  • Types of steel
  • Handle styles
  • Ideal size
  • Your budget

Which steel should I choose for my Santoku knife?

Generally speaking, you have a choice between carbon steel and stainless steel when buying a Santoku knife. The type of steel you choose will determine the knife’s edge retention, how easy it is to sharpen, level of resistance to corrosion and rusting, and its overall durability. You can first evaluate which of these factors are the most important to you, and narrow it down from there.

Carbon-steel blades are easier to sharpen and maintain their sharp edges for longer, but require more maintenance as it is prone to rust and corrosion. Over time, a dark patina will form on a carbon-steel knife. Popular high-carbon steel options include White Steel (Shirogami) and Blue Steel (Aogami).

stainless steel blades are generally less expensive, tougher, less likely to chip and more corrosion-resistant, however are harder to sharpen and tend to dull quicker. Popular stainless steel options include VG-10, SG-2, AUS-10, Gingami #3 and Swedish stainless steel.

What size Santoku knife should I buy?

We recommend the most popular 165mm blade length as the best size for a Santoku knife. To help make your decision, you should consider factors such as the size of your workspace, the size of your hand, and the size of your most commonly used ingredients or produce.

What is the best handle for a Santoku knife?

The handle of your Santoku knife will determine where the balance point is in your knife and how comfortable it feels to use in your hand.

Consider your usual grip on a knife. If you mostly hold the knife by the handle, a shaped or tapered Western-style handle will feel most comfortable and familiar to you. The balance point of a Santoku with a western handle tends to be near the center of the blade.

If you hold the knife using a pinch grip, a Santoku with a traditional Japanese-style handle (‘wa-handle’) will feel great in your hand. The most common wa-handle shapes are the D-shape, oval, or octagonal, and while some prefer the ergonomic grip of a D-shaped or octagonal handle, it all comes down to personal preference. The balance point of a Santoku knife with a wa-handle knife is a little further forward towards the tip.

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How do I take care of a Santoku knife?

When purchasing a Santoku knife, it’s important to think about how you will care for and maintain your Santoku knife. Santoku knives should be sharpened with water whetstones, and always hand washed and dried after use to prevent rusting and corrosion.

There are lots of detailed videos on YouTube that show you step-by-step how to sharpen your Santoku knife. Otherwise, some Santoku knife sellers offer a paid sharpening service by trained Japanese knife sharpeners, which can be an easier option.

How much should I spend on a Santoku knife?

There are countless options for a Santoku knife, starting with budget-friendly Santoku knives to traditionally hand-forged honyaki Santoku knives for over $500. Setting your own spending limit will help narrow down your hunt for the best value Santoku knife.

If you’re looking for some tried and tested Santoku knife recommendations, this Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Santoku Knife, 7 Inch is an absolute steal at less than $35 for a beginner who wants to try out the signature flat profile and curved tip of the Santoku knife.

If you’d like to invest a little more and are looking for trusted and reputable Japanese knife manufacturers, you’ll do well with a Tojiro DP Santoku 6.7” (17cm) or the Mac Knife MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, 6-1/2-Inch, Silver. Both options offer easy maintenance with stain-resistant yet strong steels, and Tojiro and Mac are well-known Japanese knife manufacturers for their affordable yet high-quality range of Japanese knives.

Frequently asked questions

Should I buy a Santoku knife?

The Santoku knife is a great alternative to the western chef’s knife, and is often hotly contended against the Gyuto as the perfect gateway into the world of Japanese knives.

Santokus are a truly versatile and multi-use knife in the kitchen, and are lighter, thinner and more adept at producing perfectly thin slices than a western chef’s knife. While the lack of the rocking motion favored by many western cooks can take some time to get used to, the up-and-down tap-cutting motion used by the Santoku is more efficient and quicker.

The compact yet functional Santoku is particularly recommended for users with a limited workspace, or small handed cooks who find the western chef’s knife cumbersome and heavy to use. If you like the functionality of a Santoku but prefer a longer blade and want a more pointed tip, we recommend the Gyuto as an alternative option.

What’s the difference between the Santoku and a Western Chef’s knife?

Santoku Knife vs Western Chef’s Knife

Santoku KnifeChef’s Knife
OriginJapanGermany/France
ShapeStraight cutting edgeDownward curving spineRounded tipCurved cutting edgeSlightly curved spinePointed tip
Blade Length130~200mmMost popular: 165mm 150~300mmMost popular: 200mm
WeightVaries on model; typically lighter than a Chef’s KnifeVaries on model; typically heavier than a Santoku
ThicknessVaries on model; typically 1.5~2.2mm and thinner than a Chef’s KnifeVaries on model; typically 2~3mm and thicker than the Santoku
Suitable Cutting StyleUp-and-down choppingRock-chopping
Edge Grindsingle beveldouble beveldouble bevel
SharpnessUsually 10~15° Usually 15~22°
UseMulti-purpose Better for lighter, delicate foods
(e.g. soft vegetables, boneless protein, seafood, cheese)
Multi-purpose
Better for bulky, firm foods
(e.g. thick root vegetables, dense meats, deboning chicken) 
grantons (Hollow Edge)OftenRare
BolsterSmall, or noneThick

How do you sharpen a Santoku knife?

As a rule, the Santoku knife should only be sharpened using a whetstone when necessary, and never placed in the dishwasher. Here’s an easy to follow guide on how to sharpen a Santoku knife:

For more tips, insights and tricks, visit our page on how to sharpen Japanese knives. (link coming soon)

Who makes the best Santoku knife?

At Japanese Knives Guide, we believe that the best Santoku knife is one that fits your budget, grip style, expected steel type and your chosen size of the blade. Of course, everybody will have different resources and requirements, so our ‘best’ recommendations are always those which present great value for money.

If you’re new to the world of Japanese knives, our foolproof recommendation is this: before jumping at the first chance to own an expensive, high-end Santoku knife, why not try your hand at a budget-friendly Santoku knife to see if it’s the right fit for you?

Traditionally hand-forged and high-carbon steel Santoku knives can easily cost a fortune, and although beautiful, they require some training to get used to the high-maintenance care routine that’s required to keep them in their pristine original condition. It’s always better to first get a feel for the specific qualities of a specialized knife before committing to invest more. That way, you can spend some time mastering different chopping and handling techniques without the fear of damaging your expensive investment piece.

Amazon is an accessible and reputable retailer with plenty of Santoku knife options, a transparent customer review section and an incredibly generous returns policy, which makes it the perfect hassle-free and worry-free option for your first Santoku purchase. There are many specialized smaller retailers out there, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that can provide as much peace of mind with the same level of service and returns policy as Amazon.

With that said, our favorite entry-level Santoku knife is the Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Santoku Knife, 7 Inch which is an absolute steal at less than $35 for those who want to try out the profile of a Santoku knife.

If you’re looking to invest a little more, the Tojiro DP Santoku 6.7” (17cm) and the Mac Knife MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, 6-1/2-Inch, Silver are great affordable stain-resistant options for easy maintenance. Both Tojiro and Mac are well-known knife manufacturers in Japan, and the Mac Professional line in particular is regarded to have excellent knife balance and a comfortable grip in the handles.

Where to buy a Santoku knife

Amazon is an accessible and reputable retailer with many Santoku knives on offer. They also have a very generous returns policy for extra peace of mind.

If you’re completely new to the world of Santoku knives and want to try out the shape of the blade to see if it’s the right fit for you, this Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Santoku Knife, 7 Inch is the best value entry-level choice. At under $35, you get great blade geometry, a western-style handle that’s familiar and balanced in the hand, and although not from Japan, it’s made from durable high-carbon forged steel from Solingen, Germany. It’s a no-brainer choice when starting out with Santoku knives.

If you’re looking for a more traditional-style Santoku by trusted Japanese knife manufacturers, the Tojiro DP Santoku 6.7” (17cm) and the Mac Knife MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, 6-1/2-Inch, Silver get our vote.

The Tojiro DP Santoku features a stain-resistant VG-10 steel core, and is perfect for sharing among your household with its ambidextrous handle and an even double bevel blade. The Mac MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge Santoku Knife is also made in Japan, and features an impressively thin 2.5mm hollow-edged blade that is extremely sharp and holds its edge for a long time. The Mac Professional range is especially noted for its superior knife balance and comfortable handle grip.

Santoku Knife

Name: 
三徳包丁 (さんとく)
Rōmaji:
Santoku Bōchō
Best for:
Sizing:
130mm to 200mm
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