Nakiri vs Japanese Santoku chef’s knife | Comparison & which one to buy

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  November 1, 2022

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Japanese chefs rely on a range of Japanese-style knives to prepare their intricate dishes. Two of the important knives are the nakiri knife and the santoku knife.

The nakiri and santoku look similar and can be used for cutting vegetables, but the nakiri is designed specifically for that purpose with a straight edge, rectangular blade, and blunt tip. The santoku chef’s knife is an all-purpose knife with a straight edge, a sheepsfoot-shaped blade, and a rounded tip.

Let’s dive into these differences even further, and try to figure out if you need a santoku or nakiri knife, or maybe simply both!

Nakiri vs Japanese Santoku chef's knife | Comparison & which one to buy

What is a nakiri knife?

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If you are a vegetarian, or even if you simply enjoy a lot of vegetables in your diet, you need a nakiri chef’s knife in your life!

A traditional Japanese nakiri knife has a rectangular blade with a straight, flat edge and a blunted tip.

With its long flat edge, the nakiri allows you to take a single thick vegetable or a long line of thinner vegetables and cut through to the cutting board, with one single chopping movement.

Because of the straight blade this knife is suited to cutting in an up- and- down motion rather than using the rocking motion of other knives.

Since it is designed primarily to cut leaves/greens, the blade is thinner, and the vegetables are cut cleanly, rather than torn.

The wide blade is useful for scooping up the cut vegetables once they are done.

Many nakiri knives have a hollow edge that prevents food from sticking to the blade.

Others are made of multiple layers of steel forged in the Damascus style (recognizable by the wavy light and dark patterns in the metal) which reduces drag when cutting.

Origin of the nakiri knife

When Buddhism was introduced into Japan, around 675 AD, it became forbidden to consume animals of any kind. Even fishing was banned.

Thus, the Japanese diet centered around rice and vegetables, and it was during this time that the nakiri knife was born.

This “leaf-cutting knife” was designed specifically for slicing, dicing, and chopping vegetables and it is still recognized as the most important knife in the Japanese kitchen.

What is a santoku knife?

While retaining the nakiri’s height and straight edge, the santoku knife has a “sheep’s foot” tip that curves down towards the edge to form a gentle point.

The typical length of the santoku blade is between five and seven inches and it is thicker than the nakiri blade, which makes it more suited to handling meat and chicken.

However, because of its sharp, straight edge, the santoku is also well suited to slicing and peeling delicate foods such as seafood, fruit, and cheeses.

The santoku has another distinctive feature- a row of shallow dimples on the side of the blade. These depressions, called kullenschliff, reduce friction and help prevent food from sticking to the blade.

Traditionally, the santoku knife has a single bevel, meaning that only one side of the blade is sharpened. But, as this knife has grown in popularity, some santoku blades are sharpened on both sides.

Origin of the santoku knife

The santoku chef’s knife first appeared in Japan during the middle of the 20th century as the home cook’s alternative to the traditional nakiri vegetable knife.

Japanese chefs began to explore Western cooking styles and decided they needed a more versatile, all-purpose knife, but one that was still suited the needs of Japanese style cooking.

Thus, the santoku knife was born. The name means “three virtues”, reflecting its three main functions: cutting, slicing, and chopping.

Nakiri vs santoku knife: comparing pros and cons

To compare the nakiri and the santoku knife, let’s look at some of their pros and cons.

Pros of the nakiri knife

The main pros of the nakiri are:

  • It is fast. It is designed for speedy chopping which is faster than the rocking motion of other knives.
  • It delivers even slices. When it comes to making ribbon or julienne vegetables, it is the king.
  • It creates clean cuts. The flat edge of the blade gives a clean cut with no torn or rough edges.

Cons of the nakiri knife

  • Designed specifically for chopping and slicing vegetables, it is not the ideal knife for cutting meat, chicken and fish.
  • Because of its specialized design, it does not have the versatility of some other knives.
  • The rounded tip means it is not good for making fine, shallow cuts.

In summary, the nakiri is a sought-after utensil for serious foodies and chefs, but perhaps less desirable for the casual cook.

Find my full review of the best nakiri knives here to see which one is suited for your needs

Pros of the santoku knife

  • Its all-in-one versatility is its strongest feature. It offers all of the three-in-one functions reflected in its name – cutting, slicing and chopping.
  • The sharp blade cuts meat and chicken easily and can produce wafer-thin slices. It is also ideal for dicing and chopping most vegetables and fruits.
  • Using the rocking motion of the santoku knife, it is good for mincing ingredients finely and precisely.
  • The slim tip is suited to precision work.

Cons of the santoku knife

  • The santoku does not have a bolster. This makes it easy to sharpen the blade, but it also means there is no protection to prevent your fingers from sliding onto the blade.
  • It is a very flexible knife which makes it unsuitable for tough jobs like deboning meat or slicing hard vegetables.

In summary, for the amateur chef or casual cook, who can afford to invest in only one high-quality kitchen knife, the santoku is the ideal purchase because of its versatility.

I’ve reviewed the best santoku knives here so you can check the optimal buy for you

What should I buy: a nakiri knife or a santoku chef’s knife?

Unless you are fortunate enough to be able to purchase a full range of specialized Japanese chef’s knives, you are probably, like most of us, looking to choose a single knife that would meet most of your cutting needs in the kitchen.

When it comes to the nakiri vs santoku, your choice of Japanese knife will depend entirely on what you need it to do for you in the kitchen, whether it’s a home kitchen or a restaurant kitchen.

Let’s look at them both in a little more detail.

Why buy a nakiri knife: professional veggie chopper

For professional chefs, having a nakiri knife could save you hours of work

If you work in a professional food environment where time is of the essence and where quality is the prime concern, then a nakiri knife is almost essential.

Professional chefs use their knives upwards of 40 hours a week and no other knife can match the nakiri when it comes to preparing vegetables quickly and efficiently, especially in large quantities.

Because of its unique design and straight blade, this knife cuts vegetables quickly, cleanly, and precisely, using a single chopping movement.

There is no need to push, pull or rock the knife, just use a straight up-and-down chop!

The straight edge allows you to maximize contact with the cutting board making it easy to chop large bunches of vegetables at the same time.

If you regularly need to prepare large quantities of julienne or ribbon vegetables, or if you need to chop large amounts of leafy greens without tearing them, the nakiri is the knife you need.

It really is a vegetable chopping machine!

However, even if you are not a professional chef but a home cook who prepares mainly vegetarian meals, the nakiri can save you time and effort.

Need to slice up a large amount of onion for soup? Need to prepare a bunch of scalloped potatoes for a big family get-together? Need to whip up a small stir-fry for two?

The nakiri can tackle all these big and small jobs in no time.

Perhaps the only drawback of the nakiri is that it is designed for a specific application and so it is not a versatile kitchen knife.

While it remains the king of vegetable knives, it should not be used for cutting meat or chicken and it is not ideal for making fine, shallow cuts.

Why buy a santoku knife: the perfect ‘all-rounder’

If you are a casual cook who enjoys cooking at home for friends and family, the santoku knife is the one to look at, simply because of its all-around versatility.

Owning a santoku is almost like having a whole knife set in one tool. It is a multi-purpose knife that is equally good at cutting meat and chicken, as well as vegetables.

The typical length of the santoku blade is between five and seven inches and it is thicker than the nakiri blade, which makes it more suited to handling meat and chicken.

This knife is ideal for producing wafer-thin slices of meat and chicken. It is also an excellent knife for chopping and dicing most vegetables and fruits.

Using the rocking motion, the santoku is also good for mincing ingredients, like garlic and herbs, and the blade’s slim tip means it is suitable for precision work.

Since the top side of the santoku blade comes to a curved end, rather than a pointed tip, you can press down on the top of the dull length of the blade, quite safely, while you cut, dice, or mince.

As versatile as it is, the santoku is not the knife for rough jobs like deboning or disjointing tough cuts of meat or chopping up large meat bones.

It is a very flexible knife that may be broken or damaged if used in this way.

As you can see, santoku and nakiri knives both have very different purposes, and each plays an important role in the kitchen.

Professional chefs should preferably have both a santoku and a nakiri knife in their arsenal of tools.

Different types of Japanese knives and their uses

The essence of Japanese cuisine is to make the most of nature. Therefore, the knives that slice the ingredients, which are considered blessings from nature, are important in themselves.

In Japanese cuisine, it is the chef who “cuts” the ingredients, rather than the chef who cooks them, who carries the greatest responsibility in the kitchen.

  • The nakiri or ‘leaf-cutting knife’ is for slicing, dicing, and chopping vegetables
  • The santoku knife or chefs’ knife is a multi-purpose knife that can be used for meat and fish, as well as for cutting vegetables and fruit.
  • The deba knife is a heavy knife used for gutting and filleting fish
  • The yanagi knife is specifically designed for slicing raw fish and seafood
  • The sujihiki slicing knife is used for thinly carving meats and slicing terrines

Origins of Japanese knife-making

The art of Japanese knife-making developed from the ancient tradition of sword making.

During the 12th century in Japan, there were a lot of conflicts and the demand for weapons was high, but when peace returned, sword makers turned their skills to knife making.

Japanese steel is known for having a high carbon content which allows blades to be hammered until they are very thin and sharpened at an angle of 15 degrees and less, compared to the 20 degrees of most other knives.

FAQs about nakiri vs santoku knives

Is a nakiri knife worth the cost?

If you are a serious chef or a vegetarian, the nakiri knife is almost an essential kitchen knife.

It is still the most important knife in a Japanese kitchen because makes the cutting process so much quicker and easier, and delivers clean, even slices without damaging the structural integrity of the vegetables.

How do you chop with a nakiri knife?

The nakiri chop is all about the up and down motion. It allows you to cut with one single chopping motion right down to the chopping board. There is no rocking motion involved.

What is a santoku knife best for?

The santoku knife, which translates as ‘three uses’, is the ideal knife for cutting, slicing and chopping.

It is suitable for handling meat, chicken and fish as well as vegetables, fruit and cheese. It is a good multi-purpose knife.

Why do santoku knives have dimples?

These dimples, called kullenschliff, are designed to reduce friction and help prevent food from sticking to the blade.

How do I clean my Japanese knives?

Japanese knives should not be washed in a dishwasher and they should never be left to soak in water for any length of time.

Hand-wash them immediately after use with a mild detergent and dry them immediately.

Store your knives in a cool, dark, and dry place. For long-term storage, wipe some olive on them and wrap them in paper.

Learn here how to deal with rusty patches on your Japanese knives

Takeaway

If you take your cooking seriously, whether as a professional chef or a home cook, you need at least one Japanese knife in your kitchen – these knives offer the ultimate in quality and performance.

And, yes, Japanese knives are not cheap, but, as I have pointed out, there are some quality knives out there that need not break the bank.

Two of the most popular and useful Japanese knives are the nakiri and the santoku.

The nakiri was designed specifically for cutting vegetables and it is still the most important knife in the Japanese kitchen, where the preparation of vegetables takes pride of place.

If vegetables take center place in your kitchen, this is the knife you need to own. It is superior in every way when it comes to chopping, dicing, and slicing vegetables.

The santoku is the more versatile knife. It is a multi-purpose knife that can be used for cutting meat and chicken, as well as for preparing vegetables.

It is really the Japanese equivalent of the classic Western chef’s knife and, apart from very tough jobs like deboning or disjointing, the santoku can handle almost any kitchen cutting task.

Your choice of which to buy will depend ultimately on what you need it to do for you in the kitchen.

Those looking for a great all-round knife that excels at fish prepping, check out my top 4 of the best takohiki chef’s knives

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.