Editor in Chief
The fact that santoku knives are skyrocketing in popularity is without doubt. Each year these Japanese-style knives have been growing more and more popular with home cooks and chefs. An avid cook need only turn on the Food Network to see evidence of this cooking culture phenomenon in action – there he will undoubtedly see a celebrity chef, santoku knife in hand, slicing his way through a mound of vegetables and explaining how easy it is to achieve culinary perfection. This trend away from traditional (read French) chef’s knives begs the question: If santokus are used by celebrity chefs does that mean it they are right for you? The answer to this question is extremely important because it depends not only on the physical attributes of a cook but also on his lifestyle and social self.
Which kind of knife to buy is the one question that every serious cook must ask. Why? Because a cook’s knife (whether it be a traditional Western chef’s knife or a santoku) is the single most important purchase that a burgeoning chef will make. Every other knife and every other cooking product is just an accessory (except perhaps the skillet and the Dutch oven). The cook’s knife is the utilitarian workhorse of the kitchen. A cook will use his knife for more than eighty percent of his tasks – chopping, slicing, and dicing his way towards his finished product. In essence, the cook’s molds into the cook’s hand and transforms into a unique entity. Without a quality knife that he finds comfortable to use, the cooking experience greatly suffers. Thus, the importance of choosing the right kind of knife cannot be understated.
Physically Comparing the Santoku and the Chef’s Knife
A santoku is one to five inches shorter than the traditional chef’s knife, which typically measures between 8 -10” in length while the santoku is traditionally 5-7”. Its shorter length equates to a lighter knife and a reputation for nimble movements and swift chopping on the cutting board. The santoku’s blade is also straight and is level with the handle instead of dropping down as is so commonly found in traditional chef’s knives, which also happen have curved blades. Finally, santoku knives made of harder steel than their Western counterparts.
Now that a basic sketch of each knife’s physical specs has been made, you must decide if the lighter, shorter knife with the harder, flat blade (the santoku) or the longer, heavier knife with the softer, curved blade (the chef’s knife) is right for you. This is where your cooking history and your physical/personal characteristics come into play.
Your Cooking History
Is this the first time you are looking into a buying a cook’s knife? Or do you have a lot of experience with one of the types of knives, are in need of replacing it, and thinking about switching types? Or do you have a high quality santoku or chef’s knife in good condition and are thinking about purchasing the other kind to compliment the one you already own? These three questions lead to two different answers. A first time knife buyer or a cook that wants to compliment the knife he already owns by adding his knife’s “cousin” to his collection need not worry about his history and can skip ahead to the next section of this article. However, if you are looking to replace the knife you already own because it is either poorly constructed and delivers less than optimal performance or because its blade was accidently chipped, then you should reconsider switching types. A cook who has spent a lot of time cooking with a particular cook’s knife style becomes very accustomed to its performance attributes. A santoku displays a markedly different behavior on the cutting board than that displayed by the chef’s knife. Switching from one to other might frustrate a cook for a long while. Re-training your hand and cutting techniques is not impossible but will certainly take time. And there is always the slight possibility that you will not change your technique and the new knife’s qualities will be wasted. If you have the patience to reeducate your hand and to put with uncomfortable use for a short while, you should proceed with the article. If not, I suggest that you stick with type of knife you have. Nevertheless, if your hands are either large or small, or if you are either a vegetarian or eat a meat-based diet, than I suggest you also continue reading because you might be using the wrong kind of knife and should think about switching regardless of inconvenience.
The Size of Your Hand
As you can imagine the size of your hand is a very important factor. A cook with larger hands will find the santoku uncomfortably short and light if he is not used to using one and should consider switching if the need to replace his current knife ever arises. The reverse is also true – a chef’s knife will seem ungainly to a chef with slight hands.
Do You Rock? Or Do You Chop?
The curve of the blades found on traditional chef’s knives is prized because it enables the subtle rocking motion so often employed to mince ingredients. This smooth back and forth motion is quite difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with a santoku. If you like to rock the santoku might disappoint.
Conversely, the santoku excels at chopping which is the prepping technique of choice in Japanese kitchens. If you like to rock, in other words, the chef’s knife might be the one to disappoint. This is because the santoku is light, nimble and has a flat blade. While chopping vegetables, the beauty of the santoku in action makes a chef’s knife look like an elephant on ice.
Do You Finger Your Blade?
Many cooks (including your correspondent) like to hold their knife almost as if they are shaking a hand. They finger the top of the blade (which is thankfully also the non-lethal part). The santoku is perfect for this holding technique because its blade and handle meld into a seamless line. Fortunately, chef’s knives with a blade than is level with the handle can be found. If you, like me, like to finger the blade and decide on a chef’s knife, you simply need to search out those Western knives with the Eastern-styled handles.
Fries with That Burger? Or Salad with Those Fries?
Believe it or not, your diet lifestyle should play a significant factor in deciding between a santoku or a chef’s knife. It is probably more important than the size of your hands, your cooking history or even your cutting technique. This is because the Brinnel, Vickers, and Rocknell ratings (these are the various tests that determine the hardness of steel) are much higher the steel that santokus are constructed of. This harder blade leads to a sharper blade when compared to the softer chef’s knife. The sharper santoku is not always to the home cook’s advantage though. This is because it is more easily chipped and harder to maintain sharp than a chef’s knife (whose slightly softer blade is more forgiving when subjected to a sharpening stone). Therefore, a cook should avoid using santokus while cutting meat and should never use it to cut through bone.
The santoku was created in the culinary culture of Japan where the diet consists almost entirely of vegetables and fish. It is somewhat marginalized in the United States by the Western diet. Many people who purchase santokus (chef’s included) become disenchanted with them the moment their blade becomes chipped – which will happen if you use it cut through a lot of red meat and poultry. They were simply not designed for our caveman-like diet and our caveman treatment of food on the cutting board. American’s thrash through their ingredients while the Japanese tend to skate through it.
Yet, if you are vegetarian, there is simply no better cook’s knife option than the santoku. Its sharp blade will dance through your veggies for years and years. You will be amazed at its nimbleness – how the food you are chopping just dances off the blade, and the precision that its physical characteristics afford.
The traditional chef’s knife is probably your best option if you have big hands, like to rock your blade on the board, and eat (and thus prepare) a lot of meat. Most importantly, if you are only going to have one knife and your prepare meat than the chef’s knife is for you. However, if you are a vegetarian, than the santoku is probably the right knife. The santoku outshines the chef’s knife with vegetables but is just not hardy enough to be the sole knife in a meat-eating cook’s cutlery repertoire.
You still might be wondering why so many TV chefs use santokus. This is because the only “prepping” they actually is always vegetable related. They chop a lot of soft stuff. Believe me when I tell you that their off-camera serfs did not use santokus to get those steaks you are watching the chef sauté off of the bone. Also, even if some TV chef’s cut meat with their santokus, there are hundreds of free new knives waiting for use when the one being used is chipped.
For your information, your correspondent uses a traditional chef’s knife. Why? Because I eat a diet that includes meat and right now I can only afford to have one premium knife. Although I finger my blade, I am also a rocker. In the end, I guess you can say that I have headed my own advice. Yet, I am planning on buying a santoku as soon as I can afford a really good one. Since vegetables take up the largest percentage of my diet, a santoku would really be handy and get a lot of good use in my kitchen.
Editor in Chief www.reviewfoods.com