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Santoku Knives

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2004

How we tested

What is a santoku knife? Compared with a classic chef’s knife, 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.

Methodology

Seven magazine staffers and one kitchen intern evaluated each knife for its performance in a variety of specific tasks as well as for its handle and blade design. The testers ran the gamut in terms of knife skills—from beginner to advanced—as well as hand size and strength. Only one tester was left-handed.

PERFORMANCE

Knives were used to chop and dice onions, mince and slice garlic, thinly slice and julienne carrots, slice tomatoes, and butterfly boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Scores from individual tests were averaged to create an overall performance rating.

BLADE

Testers rated blades for sharpness and curvature. Blades that were sharp and thin (but not flimsy) were preferred. Curved blades were able to handle a greater variety of tasks and received higher ratings.

HANDLE

Testers rated handles for balance and comfort. Snug grips that didn’t become slippery when greasy or wet were preferred, as were knives with handles that felt balanced with the blade.

BLADE MATERIAL/LENGTH

Most of the knives had blades made from high-carbon stainless steel. One had a ceramic blade, another a blade made from a titanium silver alloy. Testers generally found the high-carbon stainless steel blades to be the sharpest. Blade length was measured from the tip to the point where the blade meets the handle; longer blades were preferred.

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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*