Two of the most common kitchen knives today are the santoku knife and the chef’s knife. One of the most commonly asked questions is, what are the differences, and which one is better? These very convenient all-purpose knives have many similarities, yet there are some nuances that make their cutting features slightly different.
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The most significant differences between a Santoku and a Chef’s knife are size, weight, and angle. Also, the geometry of the blades is clearly different, which leads to two different cutting styles.
Probably just like everyone else you’ve first started learning to work with a Chef’s knife. This was the same when I was attending the culinary school, we all learned to cut with a Chef’s knife. Back then Santoku knives were not a thing yet, at least not in Europe and there is a good reason for this.
Chef knife is something that has been around for quite some time (1731s), the santoku, on the other hand, is something that only took off in the late 1940s in Japan.
Even though the two knives are both an all-purpose knife. Yet they are distinctive characteristics. If you are someone who is used to work with a chef knife and tries for the first time the santoku knife, you probably will notice that there are some significant differences between the two.
You’ll even start working differently because the shape of the knife is different. In this article, I will go through all of these differences between the two. Some of them are major and some small yet still significant.
Let’s talk about size first.
The conventional Santoku knife measures 5 to 7 inches. On the other hand, a chef’s knife is usually 8 to 10 inches. This makes the Santoku smaller than a chef’s knife. Having said that, it is becoming popular nowadays to find shorter chef’s knives or longer Santoku.
But when it comes to knives does size makes any difference? Well, surprisingly, it does! The shorter blade of a Santoku knife provides more control, which can be particularly useful for less experienced chefs. This does, of course not mean that having a larger knife is not as good.
A bigger knife is heavier which makes it much easier to do certain cuts using its weight and length. In case you wish to know what size is best, this is different for everyone. Depending on the size of your hand, it might feel more comfortable working with a larger or smaller handle.
So logically, if you have larger hands, you probably could easily handle larger knives. A quick tip: You should aim for a knife that has the same length from heel to tip as your wrist to your elbow.
If you do have one that is longer than your forearm, you might find it difficult to control. If it’s shorter on the other hand, then you miss out on it.
Looking at the thickness of the metal on both of these knives, it is evident that the Chef’s knife is clearly heavier. This type is better for people with bigger hands or those who want a heavier blade to work with. But also its massive blade gives you the advantage of cutting through tougher meat and even soft bones significantly easier.
On the other hand, the Santoku is thinner, shorter, and lighter blade, it is more fitted for people who want to work with a subtle knife. It is generally known people with small hands find handling a little more pleasant than the Chef’s knife. The reason for the Santoku to have this shape and weight comes from its origin.
This Japanese all-purpose knife (like most of them) are light in weight due to the fish and softer legumes in the diet of that specific region of the world. So basically, Santoku knives are made with thinner and sharper cutting edge angles; this way, it is more focused on finesse instead of power.
The edge angle
Western chef knives are cut at a broader angle, anywhere from 20-30 degrees, and are dual bevel. Dual bevel knives are perfect for daily use. They slice through with less friction, which makes it easier for general kitchen work.
They highlight a different bolster, which is designed to compensate the weight of the blade, guard the hand while chopping, and strengthen the entire knife.
In addition to thinner blades, Asian-style blades (like Shun brand knives) also mostly have sharper edge angles, commonly approximately 15 degrees. Compared to 20 degrees with most western knives (like Wusthof brand knives) like we would expect to see on most chef’s knives.
The geometry is arguably the most noticeable difference between both knives. Similar to the chef’s knife, the Japanese also have their own style of knife. The santoku knife has a spine of the blade that turns down at the tip (this is known as a sheep’s foot tip), this function is designed to facilitate the release of food.
Also, interesting to know that the lack of a tip on the Santoku knife means one can slice very quickly in a single downward cut.
The well-defined characteristic of a chef’s knife is its curved cutting edge and tapered shape.
Instead of having the spine of the blade curving downward as a santoku knife does, its bottom curves upward through the entire length. This feature gives it a subtle “belly” shape, which ends in a well-defined tip. The tapered shape and a beautifully sharp edge make cutting a child’s play.
A Chef’s Knife features a blade tip which naturally causes the chef to ‘rock’ the blade forward as they complete their cut.
As you have noticed these two types of shapes are also the reason for a different sharpening technique.
Santoku knife features
- Knife’s origin: Japan
- Wide sheep’s foot blade with no tip (spine of the blade that turns down at the tip )
- Thinner knife than a Chef’s Knife allows for more subtle slicing
- Is mostly single (one-sided) but can be double (both sides) bevel
- has most of the time no bolster (the piece of metal between blade and handle)
- Balanced weight
- is much lighter to hold
- May have a Kullenschliff (also known as granton) edge
- From 5″ to 7.9″ in size
Chef’s Knife features
- Knife’s origin: Germany and France
- Has a broad blade that bottom curves upward through the entire length
- Comes in serrated varieties
- Can mostly be found with double bevel
- Has a bolster
- is much heavier to hold compared to Japanese knives.
- May have a granton edge
- Size may varies from 6″ to 12″ (8″ is most popular but many professionals opt for 10″ or 12″)
Maybe you have heard about the three virtues or the three uses of chopping when it comes to Santoku, this is one of the main reasons for these two knives to be used differently, and this is due to its shape, it forces you to cut by using a downward movement.
This is thanks to its wide and flat blade. It really does let you do an ideal job when it comes to chopping. Santoku knives are particularly proficient at producing very thin slices of foods, which improves the overall aesthetics of finished dishes.
On the other corner, we have the Chef’s knife blade, which is round and is very versatile, which speaks to their popularity in professional kitchens.
It’s mainly used to rock the blade back and forth on your cutting board, and it can handle a large variety of tasks. However, one should try to avoid using it for cutting large meat bones and or frozen products. Also, smaller or finesse tasks such as intricate peeling and julienning are not really suited for this type of knife.
I have made a list of best uses for the two knives below. I want to be sure that this does not mean you cannot perform the things with both of them. The thing is you can, its just easier for some tasks, that’s all.
|Best used for:||Santoku||Chef’s knife|
|Cutting foods that require a bit more complexity and versatile cutting||No||Yes|
|Cutting, slicing and disjointing meat (the tip is well suited to separating chicken parts)||No||Yes|
|Mincing meat or herbs||Yes||No|
|Scooping food off a cutting board due to wide blade||Yes||No|
|Slicing, chopping or dicing fruits, vegetables, and nuts||Yes||Yes|
|Cutting soft meat||Yes||No|
|Mincing meat or herbs||Yes||No|
|Creating fine slices, particularly useful for vegetables and seafood||Yes||No|
|Slicing meat, cutting meat, and separating meat from the joints.||No||Yes|
Here is a video that shows how the Santoku can be used:
It might be hard to believe as all steel blades may look and feel hard, but they are not all made from the same materials. Take the Kai company, for example. They are the leading Santoku manufacturer and produce its Shun Classic range of knives from highly refined corrosion-resistant V-Gold-10-series steel inside a Damascus cladding.
V-Gold-10-series steel is manufactured in Japan and is rich in high carbon steel, which offers the corrosion resistance of stainless steel as well. Santokus are often made out of “super steel,” which essentially is an ultra-hard steel metal that decreases the probability of a fracture taking place. This is a good reason not to be a cheap santoku knife.
Chef’s knives are mostly made from softer but tougher steel and mostly have thicker blades. You do, however, need to do more knife sharpening sessions, softer steel loses their edge faster. Yet, it has fewer chances to break and is much more durable in the long run.
In today’s world, things are changing, and this might not be longer the rule of thumb any longer. A chef’s knife can also be made of several materials, including carbon steel and ceramic, there are many options when it comes to the materials used in today’s cutlery.
Many, if not most of Santoku knives, are made from harder steel, which lets you create an easier sharper angle on one side of the blade. Santoku knives are, almost always, sharpened at an angle of 10 – 15 degrees. Also, Santoku knives rarely have a bolster.
That makes them much more comfortable to sharpen than other knives, and the fact that only side needs to be sharpened means you have less work to do.
The same things apply for the chef’s knife, as mentioned for Santoku, with only slight differences. For example, one of the most crucial things regarding this is that the sharpening angle should be in the range of 15 and 20 degrees.
It is also essential to know that honing your knife between different sharpening processes gives your knife at a great edge, at the same time maintaining its longevity. It is suggested to use honing steel as they provide the best results for these knives.
Another crucial thing is to follow the steps of honing a chef’s knife the proper way. If you are new to this, think of this as a much-needed practice.
Knives should serve you for a very long time, provided you give them the right attention, which involves proper cleaning, sharpening, and storage. This also includes for you to hone your knife regularly so it can keep its edge for a longer time. With all knives, washing by hand is recommended and drying it with a soft, clean towel.
Do not ever put them in a dishwasher or scourers and try to store them in a wooden box or block. I have written an article on things you should avoid at all costs in this article. You should check it as this is equally important as maintenance.