The Difference Between Chef's Knives and Santoku Knives
Both serve as general-purpose knives used in the kitchen, with a few distinctions between the two. Understanding the differences will help you choose the right knife for chopping, slicing, and dicing.
An Introduction: Chef's Knife vs. Santoku Knife
One big difference between the two knives is their origins. The chef’s knife is western, coming from Germany and France while the santoku comes from Japan.
The History of the Santoku Knife
The history of the santoku kitchen knife began in the mid-1940s, towards the end of World War II. During the war, the Japanese picked up certain western cooking techniques. These techniques involved a different style of chopping, cutting, and slicing. Back home, they couldn't make some of these meals with the nakiri, a traditional vegetable cleaver used for cutting and chopping.
They needed an alternative.
This led to the innovation of the santoku knife. The Japanese introduced the ‘santoku bōchō’, which means ‘three virtues’ or ‘three uses’. The new knife retained the nakiri’s height and straight edge while adding a friendly ‘sheep’s foot’ tip.
The meaning of ‘santoku bōchō’ changes depending on the user. Some say it refers to the knife’s ease at cutting through meat, fish, and vegetables. Others point to its ability to chop, slice, and dice.
The History of the Chef’s Knife
The chef’s knife traces its origins to Solingen, Germany, which was once rich in iron and coal. The area was originally famous for sword production; however, knife production began in the early 1730s.
Trade between the French and the Germans led to a culinary exchange. The French centered on the food while the German blacksmiths focused on crafting the necessary tools. This cultural exchange led to the modern-day chef’s knife made for chopping and cutting, particularly meat, bone-in meat, and vegetables.
Chef's Knives vs. Santoku Knives: Style and Performance
Image source: foodfirefriends.com
Shape and Design of the Blades
The chef’s knife features a longer blade at about 8-12 inches. The longer blade makes it easier to slice using just a single stroke.
There are two main variations in the shape of the chef’s knife blade, the German and the French version.
The German version of the blade comes with a curved section at the front of the blade. This gives you more control and stability when using the ‘rocking’ motion to cut.
The French version is straighter with a more triangular front. This makes it better for a ‘slicing’ motion, particularly with meat.
Both versions have a sharp and sword-like point, which is ideal for puncturing before cutting.
The santoku knife, on the other hand, is shorter at about 5 to 7.9 inches. Because it originated from the nakiri, which is a chunky knife, it comes with a boxier build. This shape works best on a shorter 5” santoku as it holds the extra weight needed to balance the knife.
Additionally, the Japanese steel seen on the santoku is heavier. This gives the santoku knife an elegant, heavy feel, ideal for chopping.
The santoku blade has a straight edge on one side with a less obvious point. This gives you a clean slice without the risk of piercing food accidentally. This shape makes it the best choice for swift, downward cutting tasks, especially when you need repetitive slicing.
Blacksmithing in both the west and the east was key to the development of the kitchen knife.
Swordmakers needed to make tougher swords. But, using harder steel resulted in a brittle sword. It would keep its sharpness but break easily in battle.
The Germans resolved this by creating softer, tougher steel. It would dull and lose its edge but was tough enough to survive combat.
In contrast, the Japanese demanded elegance and grace on the battlefield. This led to the discovery of a technique of hammering together several layers of steel with different degrees of hardness. A blacksmith would weld this several times, folding the materials over and over. They'd reheat it until the blade had thin layers of several metals at varying degrees of hardness. This one change created a hard metal with a razor-sharp edge that was still soft and elegant.
This Japanese technique advanced to the modern-day use of several layers of steel. As an industry leader, Dalstrong uses 66 layers of high carbon steel to achieve scalpel-like sharpness and long-lasting edge retention.
Most santoku knives still use high carbon steel. Chef’s knives, such as the Crusader, are made with ThyssenKrupp German stainless steel.
The handle affects control and comfort while preparing food in the kitchen.
At Dalstrong, both the santoku knife and the chef’s knife have an ergonomically shaped handle. This gives you a better grip and maneuverability. You’ll also enjoy additional properties such as anti-slip and water/stain resistance.
The main difference in the handle is the bolster. A chef’s knife comes with a bolster, which helps new chefs gain better control of the knife.
A santoku knife’s blade connects directly to the handle with no bolster.
Caring for a Santoku Knife vs. a Chef's Knife
Proper knife care includes sharpening, cleaning, and storage.
With either type, you should hand wash your knives and dry them with a soft, clean towel.
For storage, invest in a quality knife roll that is easy to carry and will protect your knives.
The biggest difference in caring for both knives is in the sharpening.
Sharpening will help you restore the angle of a blade and is important for the proper care of your knives. Sharpening allows you to:
- Reduce the risk of accidents associated with using a dull knife in the kitchen. A dull knife forces you to use greater pressure, increasing the risk of slips and injuries.
- Preserve the integrity of your dish. Using a dull edge damages food cells, which can affect the aesthetics and taste of a meal.
- Work with ease and enjoy the process of food preparation. A sharp knife enhances the cooking experience.
Sharpening a Santoku Knife
The best santoku knives feature multiple layers of steel and come with a single edge. The single bevel makes it easier for you to sharpen the blade.
- Submerge the whetstone in water and let it soak until the bubbles disappear.
- Start with the coarse side and tilt the knife at an angle with the blade facing away from you. You will need to maintain this angle.
- Run the knife up and down the stone while exerting a little pressure on it. Make sure you cover the entire length of the blade.
- Turn the whetstone to the finer side and repeat the process. After about two minutes, your knife is properly sharpened.
- Wash and dry the knife. It is ready for use.
Since Japanese knives feature harder yet thinner steel, a sharpening tool might damage the blade. You should always use a whetstone.
Sharpening a Chef’s Knife
As with the santoku, a whetstone will work well to sharpen a chef’s knife. You will use the above method but pay attention to the second side as you’re working with a double-edged knife.
You can alternatively use sharpening or honing steel, which requires a little practice to master. If you use honing steel, make sure you:
- Hold the knife in your dominant hand and the sharpening tool with your other hand, both pointing upright.
- Bring the two together to meet in a V-shape.
- Place the blade’s heel about half an inch from the top of the honing tool.
- Draw the knife down the honing tool toward the tip with medium pressure. Move the knife and ensure it touches the steel. Repeat this 5 to 10 times.
Your knife is now ready to use.
Which is the Best Knife Option?
Ultimately, the best choice for you will depend on your experience, personal style, and preference.
The objective is to find the best quality knife.