Published July 1, 2004. From Cook's Illustrated.
Is there something better than the classic chef’s knife? We tested 10 of these trendy Japanese knives to find out.
What is a santoku knife? Compared with a classic chef’s knife (see our related testing, link), the santoku is typically shorter and has a thinner blade, a stubbier tip, and a straighter edge. It is thought to have evolved from the narrow, rectangular Japanese vegetable knife and may be called an Asian or Oriental chef’s knife. But can it replace a chef’s knife?
To find out whether the santoku is in fact multipurpose, we bought 10 models and ran them through a series of tests, using our favorite chef’s knife for comparison. Prices ranged from as low as $27 to as high as $140. The blades were made from a variety of materials, from the conventional high-carbon stainless steel to the exotic, including ceramic and a titanium silver alloy. But the most evident difference between the knives was the range in blade size, from 6 to 7 inches. That single inch proved significant in test performances. In the onion test, the smaller knives verged on the ridiculous. The 6-inch blades were so short that the hands holding those knives ended up knuckle-deep in chopped onion.
The santokus really shined in tasks requiring more delicate or precise knife work, such as thinly slicing carrots. Compared with the chef’s knife, the thinner blade of the santoku was able to cut through the dense carrot more smoothly. The narrower the blade, the less food material has to be moved out of the way as the blade slices. A thicker blade requires more force, as it acts more like a wedge. The shorter santoku blade proved advantageous here as well. The tip of a chef’s knife often feels remote and somewhat out of control, especially for beginning cooks. In contrast, the closer proximity of the santoku’s tip (as well as its straighter design) gave our testers a greater sense of control.
The santokus were also well liked for butterflying boneless chicken breasts. Testers indicated that the smaller—but not too small—size of the santoku and the less tapered tip made the knife easier to manage. The narrowness of the blade also seemed to help reduce friction.
For mincing, the curve of the blade was the main factor mentioned by testers. Those santokus with straighter edges tended to feel more jarring, meeting the cutting board abruptly and interrupting the flow of motion instead of smoothly rocking back and forth. These knives were deemed more single purpose, best at slicing. Santokus with more curve could rock with more fluidity. A few testers preferred the curved santokus to the chef’s knife, but most testers gave the chef high marks for its fluid rocking motion, which is the essence of mincing and chopping.
The sliced tomato test revealed a lot about the sharpness of each knife. Testers found that the knives made of high-carbon stainless steel were sharpest. There was little trend in terms of the best handles. Unobtrusive designs that allotted a clean, comfortable grip were preferred. For most of the testers, the slick look of stainless handles translated to a slick grip as well.