Dice an onion
Break down a whole raw chicken
Quarter an unpeeled butternut squash
Cut a carrot into matchsticks
Slice a strip steak across the grain into slivers
Ask six testers, a mix of left- and right-handed novices and proficient users, to chop an onion
Santoku knives became an overnight sensation in the United States in the early 2000s, when Rachael Ray declared on TV that she loved her Wüsthof model. Sales shot up, and several knife manufacturers, both Asian and Western, scrambled to create their own versions or promote their models to Americans. The appeal was the friendly shape of the blade: 5 to 7 inches long, with a rounded front edge and a boxier build than the typical chef’s knife, which usually stretches between 8 and 10 inches long and has a sleeker profile and a sword-like point. The style was developed for postwar Japanese home cooks as a more versatile alternative to vegetable cleavers—santoku reportedly means “three virtues,” which are described variously as “meat, fish, and vegetables,” or “chopping, slicing, and dicing”—and quickly became the country’s most popular kitchen knife.
We, too, were fans of the santoku style when we first tested them; many of us still swear by our 2004 winner, the MAC Superior Santoku 6 1/2" ($74.95). But now that santoku sales in the United States are rivaling those of chef’s knives and all major knifemakers are peddling versions, we wanted to recheck the competition. We bought 10 models, priced from $24.99 to $199.95, focusing on blades that were at least 6 inches long, the size we previously found most useful. Some knife experts claim that santokus are suited only for cutting softer vegetables and boneless meat, not for thornier kitchen tasks such as breaking down bone-in chicken and hard vegetables. So our question was: Are santoku knives a viable alternative to chef’s knives, or are they in fact more specialized?
Santoku knives appeared in Japan after World War II as a home cook–friendly alternative to the traditional vegetable cleaver called a nakiri. Knifemakers retained the vegetable cleaver blade’s height and straight edge but made the santoku less intimidating by rounding down its top front edge.
To answer this question, we put every model through our usual battery of chef’s knife tests: mincing fresh herbs, dicing onions, butchering whole raw chickens, and quartering unpeeled butternut squashes. We also threw a ringer into the testing—our favorite chef’s knife, the Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8" Chef’s Knife ($39.95)—for comparison. Then, to see if santokus add unique value to a knife collection, we tacked on precision work: cutting carrot matchsticks and slicing semifrozen strip steaks across the grain into slivers. Finally six testers, including three self-described knife novices, chopped onions and rated the knives, including how well each model performed and if it was comfortable and easy to use.
How They Handled
A great kitchen knife almost leaps into your hand, feeling natural, ready to work, and effortless as it moves through food. Some of this is individual preference, but the knife’s handle, weight, balance, and blade geometry all contribute to the user experience.
For example, we generally preferred handles that measured no more than 3 inches around at their widest point. Any skinnier or thicker and testers strained to keep a secure grip. Big bumps, curves, and strongly tapered shapes also forced our hands into specific and uncomfortable positions, and handles made from all metal or smooth plastic slipped if our hands were wet or greasy. Then there was the portion of the blade’s spine that meets the handle. If that top edge was sharp, cooks who use a pinch grip—meaning that they gain leverage by choking up over the front of the handle to pinch the blade between their thumb and forefinger—felt the metal digging into their fingers. The bottom line is that the qualities you want in a santoku handle are no different from what you’d want in any knife handle: something that feels substantial but not bulky, is neutrally shaped so that it affords a variety of comfortable grips, and is made from lightly textured materials that offer good purchase.
Cutting Edge Features
A truly sharp blade is the key to any kitchen knife. And what helps determine the sharpness of that edge is the angle of the bevel—the slim strip on either side of the blade that narrows to form the cutting edge. Over the years, we’ve found that more-acute angles on the cutting edge make slicing easier, so we checked our blades: Nearly all were the expected 15 degrees, a standard angle for an Asian-style knife (and the angle increasingly found on Western knives such as our favorite chef’s knife from Victorinox), but a couple were even narrower—just 10 degrees.
Surprisingly, not all these extra-thin edges felt extra-sharp when cutting. In a few cases, that was because the knives arrived moderately dull or dulled quickly during testing—big drawbacks in our book. But it wasn’t until we measured the top edges of all the knives, pinching their spines with a caliper, that we understood why some of the seemingly thin blades also struggled: Our top-ranked knives were all thinner (2 millimeters or less) at the spine than lower-rated models that measured up to 2.6 millimeters. That might sound like a minuscule difference, but knives with narrower spines felt more like razors gliding through food and less like wedges prying it apart. This was especially true when cutting vegetables: Wedge-like blades crushed onions instead of slicing them, causing them to spray juices, and one model with a broader spine (and a duller blade) got stuck in a butternut squash—twice.
The Spine Matters, Too
We’ve long been fans of knives with ultrathin cutting edges, since the slimmer the edge is, the easier it will be for the blade to slip through food. But while testing santoku knives, we also came to appreciate slim blade spines—the top of the blade opposite the cutting edge. The reason is the same: There is less metal to push through the food, so the blade feels more like a razor gliding through food (dense vegetables in particular) than like a wedge pushing it apart.
From there, we took a closer look at the core traits that distinguish a santoku blade from that of a conventional chef’s knife, starting with its most recognizable feature, a turned-down “sheep’s foot” tip. This design is simply meant to make the knife look less intimidating and minimize the risk of piercing something unintentionally, but frankly we found it more of a problem than a perk. It puts more metal behind the tip than there is on a typical chef’s knife, which meant that we had to push harder when making delicate vertical cuts through onions or separating whole chickens into parts. In fact, one of the appealing features of our two favorite knives is that their tips curved less than those of other models, and thus they functioned more like chef’s knives.
Next was the traditional straight bottom edge—or lack thereof. Originally, santoku blades were modeled after Japanese vegetable cleavers and as such were conducive to straight-down slicing, not a Western-style rocking motion. But newer models, including most of the ones we tested, feature gently curved bottom edges that allow for a subtle rocking motion, which we found effective and comfortable for mincing herbs. The lone exception was our runner-up, a “rocking santoku,” which features a deeply curved bottom edge that permits a full rocking motion.
Finally, we considered Granton edges. These oval hollows (also called cullens) that run along the sides of the blade supposedly prevent food from sticking to the metal, but we didn’t notice any less sticking to the seven Granton-edge blades in our lineup; in fact, two of our top three performers lacked this feature, so we consider it unnecessary.
How They (Com)pared
By the end of testing, we’d found multiple santokus that we’d happily take home, most notably the Misono UX10 Santoku 7.0" ($179.50). That price makes it an investment, but its lithe, agile frame and neutral handle feel great to hold, and its edge stayed bitingly sharp throughout testing, even after separating chicken joints and breaking down butternut squash. But for less than half the price, you can do very well with the MAC Superior Santoku 6½" ($74.95). Its wooden handle seemed slightly bulky to testers with smaller hands, but slicing and precision cutting with it felt truly effortless.
What was the answer, then, to our primary question: Is the santoku a viable alternative to a chef’s knife? In the end, we decided that it’s really a personal choice. A good santoku can certainly mince, slice, and chop as well as any good chef’s knife (in fact, some testers even liked the Misono a tad more than our winning chef’s knife from Victorinox), and if you prefer a smaller tool, one of our top-ranked santokus might suit you just fine. However, if you’re comfortable with the extra length and heft of a chef’s knife and would miss the pointed tip, you might want to consider a santoku only as an addition to your arsenal, not as a replacement.
Santoku or Chef’s: Which Knife Is for You?
In many applications, a santoku and a traditional chef’s knife perform comparably. But there are design differences between the two styles that might make you prefer one to the other. Here’s how our two favorites compare.
Slim, sharp cutting edge that retains its sharpness
Slim tip for precision work
Narrow spine (top edge of blade), less than 2 mm
Handle of moderate width and length, and neutral shape, so it is comfortable in various hands and grips
Handle that doesn’t become slippery when hands are wet or greasy
Spine that isn’t sharp, facilitating pinch grip
Good balance between handle and blade