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Santoku Knives

Published September 2017

How we tested

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?

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.

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.

Methodology

We tested 10 santoku knives and also compared their feel and performance to that of our favorite chef’s knife, the Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8" Chef’s Knife. We measured the knives’ blade length, blade angle, and spine thickness. All knives were purchased online, and prices shown are what we paid. Test results were averaged, and the knives appear in order of preference.

Performance

We minced fresh herbs, diced onions, broke down whole raw chickens into parts, and quartered unpeeled butternut squashes. To assess precision, we cut carrots into matchsticks and sliced slightly frozen boneless steak against the grain into uniform slivers (a technique used when preparing beef for Vietnamese pho). Knives that sliced smoothly and helped us complete the tasks with crisp cuts and neat results scored highest. We also assessed the sharpness of each knife before and after testing by slicing sheets of copy paper; blades that started sharp and stayed that way rated highest.

Ease of Use

Throughout testing we rated the knives on how comfortable and easy they were to hold and use, evaluating the handle shape, spine sharpness (if we used a pinch grip), weight, and balance of the blade. Six testers of varying heights and handedness, including three proficient with knives and three self-described knife novices, chopped onions and rated the knives. Knives rated higher if most testers found them comfortable and easy to use.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*