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Santoku Knife vs. Chef Knife: When To Use Each Knife

Santoku Knife vs. Chef Knife: When To Use Each Knife

If you spend a fair amount of time in your kitchen, you likely have a trusty chef’s knife in your drawer, knife strip, or butcher block. You may even have a santoku knife. But what sets these two kitchen classics apart?

While both the Japanese santoku knife and the German chef knife can aid you in a wide range of cutting tasks, there are key differences between the two. Wondering what type of cutting techniques and ingredients each knife is best suited for? We’ve got your back.

What Is a Santoku Knife?

A mainstay in Japanese knife kitchen craftsmanship with a wide blade and ultra-fine cutting edge, the santoku knife has the chops to slice, dice, or mince your ingredients into beautifully shaped and uniformly sized perfection.

The blade of the santoku typically falls between five to seven inches in length. Forged from lightweight Japanese Damascus steel or high-carbon steel, the santoku is well-balanced and easy to control.

Much of the santoku’s allure comes from its super-sharp blade and scalloped or Granton edge. Santoku knives typically have a single bevel, resulting in a smaller blade angle and thinner edge.

Its thin edge allows you to create small and detailed cuts without damaging softer ingredients, while the shallow indentations along the knife’s straight edge help keep food from sticking to the knife blade as you work smoothly through your ingredients of choice. 

The santoku knife has a sheepsfoot design, meaning the unsharpened spine of the blade curves down to meet the straight edge at a low and rounded point, resembling the shape of a sheep hoof. 

This design helps you cut quickly through all sorts of ingredients without the risk of accidentally piercing the food as you go. The wide and pointless blade can also serve as a scoop, transporting your chopped ingredients from the cutting board into the pan.

Santoku knives are commonly used for cutting raw fish, but this multi-purpose knife can also slice produce and meat with ease. In fact, santoku translates to “three virtues” for this exact reason — its ability to work elegantly through ingredients in these three food groups.

Whether you're slicing, dicing, deseeding, coring, deveining, or deboning, the thin and light santoku knife can make the process clean and quick. 

What Is a Chef Knife?

Versatility is the name of the game, and the chef’s knife is a committed champ.

Originating in Germany in the 1600s, the Western chef’s knife is typically heavier and longer than the santoku knife. While not as sharp or hard as the santoku, the chef’s knife has a double bevel, meaning the cutting edge is sharpened on both sides of the blade, rather than just one side. 

The added weight and double bevel allow the chef’s knife to more easily power through tough meats or thick, hardy skins while remaining well-balanced and easy to handle. 

A general-purpose knife, the chef’s knife has a curved blade and raised tip that meets the spine of the blade at a fine point. The curved shape of the blade allows for easy rocking back and forth across the cutting board (known as the “rock chop” technique) to quickly complete cutting tasks. 

Designed to cover all of your kitchen bases, the fine point can pierce softer foods such as herbs or fruits, while the wide heel can break through thick meats and veggies such as squashes or potatoes.

When Should You Use a Santoku Knife?

The Santoku knife’s lightness, razor-sharp edge, and dimpled blade make it the ideal prep work partner for a range of different tasks. 

Slicing Cheese

A cheeseboard is a delightful addition to any party or gathering. It’s also the perfect midday or late-night solo snack, but slicing cheese can be a pain. 

Because the internal structure of most cheeses is porous and moist, it easily forms a suction that can cling to the blade as you cut, so trying to curate the perfect platter quickly becomes a sticky situation. 

Here’s where a santoku knife can come in handy. Because this popular Japanese knife sports a thinner blade, it can cut a narrower path through the cheese, creating less damage and less opportunity for the cheese to stick. 

The indentations along the blade’s edge also provide some texture that reduces the chances that your cheese will cling to the blade. While the flat blade of the chef’s knife provides the perfect surface to suction to, the scalloped edge of the santoku knife helps dissuade even the stubbornest of cheeses from sticking.

Semi-firm cheeses can also pose a challenge for most knives, as they are prone to losing their shape and squishing down as you cut them. But, this wimpy response doesn’t intimidate the santoku knife. Sharp and steady, its thin blade can slice through such textures without requiring much pressure, therefore causing less damage. 

With the santoku knife in your corner, you’re sure to wow your guests with a stellar cheese platter presentation.

Chopping Fruits

Fruits can be particularly pesky to work with, as they are often small, round, slick, and juicy. However, the sharp and slim blade of the santoku can cut precise slices through even the smallest of berries, while the thin edge limits messy juice spills as you chop.

The indentations on the blade come in handy here, too, as the moisture in soft and fleshy fruits tend to cling to the flat blades of other common kitchen knives.

Whether you’re halving cherry tomatoes, slicing berries, peeling mangos, or cubing kiwis, a santoku knife can limit the mess and elevate the artistry of your fruity creations. 

Cutting Meat

While shorter and lighter than the chef’s knife, the santoku knife can still hold its own against many cuts of meat. 

Thanks to its thin blade, the santoku is a pro when it comes to precision and detail work. This knife is the go-to option when it comes to thinly slicing tender meats for sandwiches or cutting flesh neatly off the bone. 

Mincing Herbs

When mincing delicate herbs, you can’t go wrong with the santoku knife. The slim and straight blade can handle fine and even cuts, while the Granton edge helps create small pockets of air between your blade and the herbs to reduce clinging and sticking.

As you pile your herbs on your cutting board, you can move the santoku knife in a repetitive forward and down motion across the pile until the herbs reach their desired size. 

The thin and precise blade of the santoku knife can mince your herbs of choice into smaller and more refined pieces than many other types of kitchen knives with thicker edges. 

Finely Slicing Seafood

The santoku knife is what the pros use when it comes to slicing seafood.

Unlike the Western chef’s knife, which is meant to rock forward and back on the cutting board, the santoku is crafted for a chopping motion, slicing clean through fleshy ingredients from the heel to the tip of the blade. 

The slim shape of the santoku blade is perfect for fileting salmon, cutting around bone while keeping the delicate flesh intact, and thinly slicing your seafood of choice without any breakage or mess.

Since seafood can be on the slick side, the scalloped blade of the santoku knife is particularly useful with these ingredients. Its design helps keep seafood slices from clinging for neater cuts every time. 

When Should You Use a Chef Knife?

A bit thicker, longer, and heavier than the santoku knife, your best chef’s knife can power you through your prep work in a variety of ways.

Slicing Herbs

While the Santoku knife is your best bet for finely mincing herbs, the rocking motion made possible by the curved blade of the chef’s knife is better suited for slicing herbs without bruising them. 

Simply dry your herbs well with a paper towel, bunch them together on the center of your cutting board, and rock your chef’s knife from top to bottom from one end of the pile to the other. 

Chopping Nuts

Fall is upon us, folks, which means that as you are cozying up in your best cardigan or sipping on your favorite fall drink, you may also start to crave warming, nut-filled recipes.

Whether you’re falling into the season with a pumpkin pecan pie, pistachio brittle, maple nut bars, or pumpkin pasta with walnuts (yum), there’s a good chance chopping nuts is on your agenda.

Their hard exterior, small stature, and funky shapes can make nuts a bit of a hassle to cut, but the chef’s knife can lend a helping hand. The thick and curved blade allows you to keep the pointed tip of your knife on the cutting board as you rock the heel of the blade across your nut pile. 

Since the butt of a chef’s knife is broad and slightly heavier, it provides more leverage to chop through harder ingredients, keeping you in control of the knife and limiting any fly-away nuts. 

And, as an added tip: rolling a towel around the edge of the cutting board can help catch any nuts that scoot around as you chop.

Dicing Veggies

Unlike chopping, dicing requires uniformly cubed pieces similar in shape and size across the (cutting) board.

A chef’s knife is your go-to for dicing veggies, especially harder vegetables such as squashes, carrots, or potatoes. The stable butt of the blade can cut through these hardy veggies without demanding much force, while the sharpened point of the blade can piece and slice through softer veggies.

The chef knife’s signature swift rock chop comes in handy again here, providing quick and even cuts that can turn even the strangest of shaped vegetables into neat cubes to enhance your dish. 

Cutting Most Meats

While santoku knives are the tool of choice for slicing meat into ultra-thin pieces, the chef’s knife is better equipped to tackle thick or tough cuts of meat. 

With a wide heel, added weight, and extra blade length, the chef’s knife can cut through most types of meat, including steaks, briskets, and pot roasts — you name it. 

The sturdy chef’s knife is also capable of deboning and disjointing meats such as whole chickens or turkeys. The pointed tip is particularly useful for this type of detail work.

What Other Knives Should You Own?

The santoku and chef’s knife can almost do it all — but having the best possible tools for each unique cutting task will serve up an even more convenient cooking experience. It can help you create even more delicious meals. 

Here are the other tools we recommend having in your cooking arsenal. 

A Utility Knife

This multi-purpose tool is like a shrunken down chef’s knife, similar in shape but even shorter and thinner than the santoku knife. With a sharp edge and pointed tip, the utility knife can conquer mid-sized veggies, small fruits, tender proteins, or sandwich crusts with ease. 

A Paring Knife

With a blade length of only three to four inches, the paring knife is like the runt of the kitchen litter. But, as any classic storybook will tell you, you’d be sorely mistaken to underestimate its ability and worth. 

Small but sturdy, the paring knife is easy to handle and ideal for precision cutting or close-hand tasks. Use this knife to peel small fruits and veggies, core tomatoes, deseed peppers, devein shrimp, or craft garnishes. 

A Bread Knife

The bread knife stands out from the rest with its long blade and serrated teeth running along the edge. This saw-like design is ideal for cutting through loaves of bread without crushing or squishing their softer centers. 

The serrated edge provides grip so you can saw back and forth through crusty or flaky loaves without the downward pressure that could cause the bread to lose its shape.

A bread knife can also come in handy when slicing other soft-interior foods such as tomatoes or sponge cakes. 

The HexClad Knife Set: The Essentials for Dominating Food Prep

When considering the santoku versus the chef’s knife, it’s important to remember that neither is better than the other. Both knives have an important role in the kitchen — making your prep work quicker and more enjoyable. 

Home cooks and professional chefs alike rely on both of these kitchen workhorses. The versatile chef’s knife is able to easily dominate thick-skinned veggies or tough meats, while the precise santoku knife is capable of finely slicing proteins and working with soft or juicy ingredients without the cling or mess. 

If you’re looking to upgrade your collection and experience the unique benefits each of these knives has to offer, our Essential Six Piece Japanese Knife Set here at HexClad can give you just that. And because the striking Damascus wave pattern and rare forest green pakkawood handles create a visually striking and beautiful piece, you may want to pick up the Essential Six Piece Japanese Knife Set with Magnetic Knife Block so you can proudly display your knives and have easy access to them on your countertop.

Forged from 67 layers of high-quality Japanese Damascus steel, our six-piece set includes a chef’s knife, santoku knife, utility knife, paring knife, and bread knife, plus a honing rod to keep your tools sharp.

The full-tang construction of our knives provides superior weight distribution and balance. The handles are crafted with striking forest green pakkawood that is sure to make a statement in any kitchen. Prep work has never looked this good.

Sources: 

The History of Japanese Knife Making | History 

Damascus Steel | Britannica

The Anatomy of a Chef's Knife | The Spruce Eats

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