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Santoku: The Japanese All-Purpose Kitchen Knife

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  November 2, 2022

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A santoku knife is a Japanese all-purpose knife with a curved blade and a pointed tip. It’s ideal for slicing, dicing, and mincing.

What is a santoku knife

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What is a santoku knife?

Santoku (三徳包丁), translated as “three virtues,” in Japanese, is one of the most popular knives in Japanese restaurants as well as household kitchens.

The knife is used for chopping, dicing, and mincing all kinds of foods.

It has a slightly curved shape in the spine and a wide sheepsfoot thin blade with no tip. This means you can cut, slice, and mince anything with smooth moves.

The knife has a very thin blade and a small angle, and a steep bevel, making it extra sharp. It’s also small and lightweight, which is why many people love it.

With its seamless design, it’s simple to adjust your grip and move your hand along the handle.

What about the blade?

As with most Japanese knives, the santoku has a thinner blade than the Western chef’s knife, so it’s better suited for precise, exact cuts.

Many of the designs feature a Granton edge which means it has small scallops on the blade, and it helps prevent food from sticking to it.

Also, the santoku knife can have a single or double bevel blade, and it is well-balanced and lightweight, so using it is super easy.

Traditional santoku knives are single bevel and require a special cutting technique when using them, but modern ones are a bit easier to maneuver.

However, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the santoku knife technique:

Santoku knife FAQs

Here are some answers and additional information about these handy knives.

What is a santoku knife best for?

A santoku knife is a versatile tool because it’s used to cut meat, veggies, fruit, and seafood with ease. But the main advantage of this type of knife is that it is extremely sharp.

Thus, it’s great for fine cuts, slicing, and chopping. If you know something about Japanese cuisine, you’ll know the foods are usually finely chopped.

The santoku knife is commonly used for sushi and cutting or slicing fish and other fresh ingredients. Since you can cut precisely, it’s best for paper-thin cutting of all Japanese foods.

The food doesn’t stick to the blade, so you don’t have to stop to move the food while you cut.

Here’s what to use it for in summary:

  • cut up the meat into fine pieces
  • mince meat
  • cut, slice, and dice vegetables
  • cut nuts
  • slice fish
  • slice seafood

What not to use it for:

  • peeling vegetables and fruit
  • cut bones
  • boning whole chickens

For boning knives, check out my review on the best honesuki Japanese boning knives

Santoku knife technique

So, is using a santoku knife just the same as a regular Western-style chef’s knife?

Well, not really. The santoku knife technique is not the same. The knife has a different shape compared to a chef’s knife which has a curved blade.

With most Western knives, the blade can rest atop the cutting board and then you rock it as you cut. The santoku is flat and the lack of curve means you can’t move it back and forth in a rocking motion on the chopping board.

Here’s what happens with the santoku knife:

The santoku knife doesn’t meet the cutting board while you cut, and instead only touches at the end of the cut. So, you must use more wrist action than with a regular knife.

The motion is rather simple: push down and then forward and when you finish the cut, the knife touches the board. Lift up and repeat the cut.

At first, the wrist action may seem more intense, but it gets easier as you practice cutting. But, the benefits are quite evident as your cuts will be more precise, finer, and more efficient.

What size santoku knife is best?

It’s best to stick to the classic knife and blade size. The Japenese have proved these knives are very efficient and great to use in the kitchen.

Thus the ideal blade size is 14 cm or 5.5 inches.

5.5″ is Japan’s standard santoku knife blade size because it’s small and sharp. Manufacturers often sell a larger-sized santoku, but these are less ideal to use.

The width of the blade and compact shape and size makes the 5.5″ blade the best for everyday use. Thus, this size makes the knife special!

But, you can buy a santoku knife with a size between 5-8 inches.

Where does the Santoku knife originate?

The Santoku is not an ancient Japanese knife, contrary to popular belief.

It was first designed and developed in the mid-twentieth century, sometime in the 1940s, for home cooks looking for a heavy-duty, multipurpose knife.

As I mentioned before, the name translates to ‘the three virtues’ which can refer to three ways of using the knife: for slicing, dicing, and chopping.

Or, it can refer to three types of foods you can cut with it, including meat, fish, and vegetables. Either way, the knife is versatile and good for cutting pretty much any food.

The cool thing about this knife is that it was made using traditional Japanese forging techniques that are also used to make katana swords.

Since the average person didn’t really want to invest in a whole knife collection, the santoku replaced other Japanese knives including Naikiri vegetable knives, the Gyuto for meat, and the Deba fish knife.

How do you care for and sharpen a santoku knife?

The main thing to note is that a santoku knife must be hand washed only, so keep it away from the dishwasher.

Santoku knives are sensitive to acid, moisture, and salt. Also, you should not use this knife to cut through frozen foods as the blade can chip.

After using the knife, it’s important that you wash the food off immediately with warm or hot water. Then wipe it clean with a kitchen towel or paper towel until it’s completely dry.

After drying it, every once in a while, you can spray the knife with some vegetable oil. The oil helps create a barrier so the knife doesn’t rust.

A good practice is not to keep the santoku in the knife stand for too long or it can become rusty and the handle can get damaged.

Sharpening

Knife maintenance requires occasional sharpening. When you use the santoku for cooking on an almost daily basis, the blade can get dull and it will lose its sharpness.

But don’t worry, you can sharpen it about once every couple of months and it will be as sharp as when you bought it.

You need a whetstone, like the KERYE Professional Japanese Whetstone Sharpener Stone Set. It’s good for sharpening all types of Japanese cutlery.

But then again, it works for a chef’s knife too as well as other Western-style knives.

Do chefs use a Santoku knife?

There is some confusion about a santoku knife vs a chef’s knife. I’ll admit they’re similar but chefs actually use BOTH types of knives.

The santoku is a multipurpose knife so it’s very handy and useful for chefs working in busy restaurant kitchens.

So, yes a chef gets lots of use out of this knife, especially when cooking Asian cuisine.

You’ll notice chefs using other knives, like an Hibachi chef’s knive, for cutting large cuts of meat but then switching to the santoku for fish and veggies.

The knife’s steep beveling makes it extra sharp compared to your regular European or American knives.

Check out our new cookbook

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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.