If you happen to take an interest in or follow the history of, traditional Japanese knives, you’ll find that the Santoku and Nakiri are two of the most popular knives in Japan (with the Santoku knife being the most-owned knife in Japanese households).
While these two knives are very different from one another, it has become a common question as to which knife is actually best, the Santoku knife or Nakiri knife?
The best knife will depend on what your individual needs and purposes of the knife are.
The Nakiri is a specialist knife for cutting vegetables so would be the best option for those that do a lot of vegetable prep work whereas a Santoku knife is a general-purpose knife (similar to a Western chef's knife) and is, therefore, best for multipurpose use like slicing, dicing and chopping on a variety of food types including meat, fish, and vegetables.
Despite the fact that these two knives seem different in both design and purpose, the Santoku knife was initially considered to be a replacement knife for the Nakiri and this is where the comparisons and debate between which is best arose.
As Japanese knife enthusiasts, we’ve compiled all the details regarding these two knives in a bid to finally decide which knife is best and put them head to head in a number of categories to see which one comes out on top so read on to see how they compare.
Table of contents
Japanese Knives, Which are the Best, Santoku vs Nakiri?
Before we get into any head-to-head comparisons, it's important to first understand exactly what each knife is as understanding the knife’s purpose is halfway to helping you decide which is best.
What Is a Santoku Knife?
The Santoku knife is now the most popular knife in Japanese households as well as becoming increasingly popular in Western countries so we’ll cover this knife first.
The Santoku bōchō (三徳包丁) is a Japanese general-purpose knife that can be translated to mean “three virtues”. Three virtues have become quite a vague term over the years and have opened this knife up to many different interpretations with “three uses” or “three purposes” being commonly used to describe this knife.
These “three uses” have further been expanded on and can either be interpreted to mean how the knife is used for slicing, dicing, and chopping or how others claim that it is for the food types that the knife can be used on, namely meat, fish, and vegetables.
Regardless of the definition, the underlying use of the Santoku knives is that they are a general-purpose knife and is the Japanese equivalent of a Western chef’s knife, with many referring to it as being the younger cousin of the Western chef’s knife.
The versatility and ease of handling have led to the Santoku knives becoming one of the most widely used knives in both household and professional kitchens worldwide.
Santoku Knives, Advantages, and Limitations
Despite the Santoku knives increasing popularity, critics of this style of knife (many professional chefs) claim that they lack an all-round edge for handling more complex tasks like breaking down larger cuts of meat.
Another drawback is that it lacks a point making these knives less suited to piercing and finer slicing tasks. It also comes with a shorter blade than a full-sized chef's knife so it is not suited to certain chopping tasks either.
Santoku knife’s advantages are they are good all-around knives. They are lighter than chef's knives so they are good for people with small hands.
The Santoku knife also has an evenly tapering blade, which means that food will not get stuck at the front of the blade, making them easier to use.
A general rule of thumb is that if you buy a santoku knife, you should also buy a good-quality paring knife.
What Is a Nakiri Knife?
The Nakiri knife is a traditional Japanese vegetable knife that closely resembles a cleaver.
This knife has been notoriously difficult to wield as a result of its design and this is why people assumed that the Santoku was designed to be a replacement knife for the Nakiri knife when it was first manufactured in the late 1940s.
The Nakiri knife is a specialist knife and has a thin and flat blade with no point. This blade design means that the Nakiri is primarily used for chopping vegetables and push/pull cutting whilst the sharp edge is also ideal for peeling vegetables for decorative cuts (like those found with sushi dishes).
Japanese cuisine places a strong focus on the presentation of the food alongside the flavour of the dish and, while a Nakiri knife can be a difficult knife for novices to use, it produces exceptional cuts when used by a professional or experienced chef, and this is why it’s still a popular knife to use in the 21st century.
Nakiri Knives, Advantages, and limitations
A Nakiri knife's advantage is that it's very lightweight and easy to use. It also has a thin blade making it good for chopping vegetables and peeling them as well.
It does not have much of a point which makes it hard to do delicate work, like breaking down vegetables but because the blade is so thin, you can slice paper-thin pieces of vegetables.
The Nakiri knife's disadvantage is that you can't use it to chop bones, break down a chicken or do anything more than light vegetable work with it because of the lack of point and the thin blade.
Now that you know what each knife is, we’ll now put them head to head and compare the characteristics of each knife whilst also looking into the advantages and disadvantages of each knife.
Firstly, the Santoku does have some similar characteristics to the Nakiri. Both have a thin blade profile (though the Nakiri knife is the thinnest) which allows for very precise and thin cuts to be made.
This is of particular importance with Japanese cuisine as the presentation of the food is just as much a crucial component of a dish as the flavour.
These two knives also need to be used with a similar cutting technique. Both have a flat and straight edge with no noticeable tip which means that push and pull cutting is utilised ,as well as up and down chopping.
This has the benefit of producing clean cuts as the knife comes into contact with the chopping board fully with each cut.
It’s worth pointing out though that a Santoku can also be designed to closely replicate a Western-style chef's knife and can therefore have a more rounded edge and prominent tip in order to utilise a more common and versatile rock chopping technique.
Benefits of Each
Nakiri and santoku are two of the most used knives in the kitchen, and for good reason. They are both versatile, all-purpose knives that can be used for a variety of tasks.
So, which is better? Well, it really depends on what you need it for.
Each knife has some very specific benefits to its use. If we start with the Nakiri, this knife is known to be a professional quality knife that is often favored by professional chefs for vegetable prep and sushi dishes (to name a few examples).
The profile of the blade means that vegetables can be cut quickly and accurately which helps to maintain the flavor of the food whilst also being able to create decorative and eye-catching cuts.
The clear benefit of the Santoku, as summarised by its very name, is versatility. The Santoku is the workhorse of any kitchen, whether it be a home or professional kitchen and the almost unrivaled cutting uses mean that this could be the only knife that many users need.
Another benefit of the Santoku is that it is a hybrid design blending both Western and Japanese methods and characteristics.
Not only is the Santoku already a hybrid knife (which has resulted in its global popularity) but manufacturers are now creating Santoku knives to have any characteristic that a customer needs.
This level of customisation means that a Santoku could easily be the only knife that you own and yet it could still do 90% - 95% of your cutting needs.
Which is better: Nakiri vs Santoku
Determining whether a Santoku or Nakiri knife is better for you will really depend on your own personal preferences and needs.
If you are looking for a versatile all-purpose knife that can handle a variety of tasks, then the Santoku is probably the better choice. However, if you mainly prepare vegetables and fruits, and are looking for a lighter knife Nakiri might be a better option.
A Nakiri knife is also a great choice if you are looking for a knife that can create very thin, precise cuts.
So, what’s the verdict? Well, both knives have their own specific benefits that make them great at performing different tasks. It really comes down to what the Santoku is better for slicing and dicing where more precision is needed, whereas the Nakiri is better for chopping vegetables with an all-in-one smooth action.
The Nakiri is also slightly easier to sharpen than the Santoku.
Drawbacks of Each
What is the key difference between Nakiri vs santoku, we’ll cover the Nakiri Knives first because the main drawback of this knife is quite clear and that is its versatility.
The Nakiri knife is a specialty knife and while its greatest advantage is that it can cut clean and precise slices with vegetables, the disadvantage is that this knife can only perform this function.
A Nakiri knife is designed to be used on vegetables only, its flat edge and square tip mean that attempting to use this knife on any other food type (like meat or fish) would only end in a poor cut, or worse, can cause damage to the knife.
A Nakiri is also notoriously difficult to handle and use, especially for beginners. When the Santoku was first introduced, many people assumed that it was created to be an easier-to-handle alternative to the Nakiri and it’s for this reason that you will mostly only see a Nakiri knife used in a commercial kitchen by a professional chef.
The Santoku, due to its versatility of use and multiple design modifications, has noticeably fewer disadvantages when compared with the Nakiri.
One common drawback that comes with the Santoku Knives is that they are often on the shorter side when it comes to blade length. While you can certainly buy larger Santoku knives, the average blade length of 5” - 8” means that it’s not well suited to working with larger meats, vegetables, or fruits.
A Santoku knife will also typically require more maintenance to keep the edge sharp. Whilst a Santoku is designed for use on a variety of foods, this general purpose means that a Santoku is used far more frequently than a Nakiri and therefore requires more frequent honing and sharpening.
The bottom line when it comes to comparing the Nakiri vs santoku, these two Japanese knives are that they are very different tools that each serve their own specific purpose (or general-purpose as is the case with a Santoku!).
As soon as you get a better understanding you’ll see that comparing a Nakiri and Santoku is like comparing apples with oranges, they are both great knives in their own right and neither one can be considered better or worse than the other.
If you frequently prep vegetables then the Nakiri offers almost unrivaled precision and chopping speed whereas if you need an all-rounder for general kitchen use, the Santoku is the obvious option.
Q: What does nakiri mean in English?
A: The word "nakiri" comes from two kanji characters, 切る (to cut), and 料理 (cooking). This is expressed by the use of 料理 as the first syllable and 切る as modifying this meaning. Hence 中切り or middle-cutter."
Q: Is Nakiri a cleaver?
A: Nakiri isn't a cleaver. It is used in Japanese cuisine for slicing vegetables finely and helps to create interesting textures that you can't with say, a French chef knife. The blade on this knife is typically short and wide, like an usuba or Santoku Knife.
Q: How do you hold Nakiri?
A: Nakiri knives are Japanese chef knives and they should be held in the same way you would hand a regular kitchen knife. The good thing about Nakiris is that because their blade is curved, they can rock back and forth on ingredients as opposed to cutting through them like other knives. This makes them perfect for chopping small pieces of onion or grating ginger.
- Place thumbs of both hands on either side of the spine opposite the cutting edge and grip firmly until your fingers contact with the heel guard (or bolster). This will prevent any accidental slippage during use.
- Grip may also be modified for combinations such as push cut where one pushes down with two fingers while simultaneously driving towards the target object with another.
Q: Should I get a Santoku or nakiri?
A: If the chef's knife isn't available in your area, then it is probably better to get a Santoku, but if you already have a chef's knife both are great choices.