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Which Is Best Santoku vs Nakiri? Let the Battle Commence!

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 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 or Nakiri?

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 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 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

Which Is 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 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 this knife is that it is 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 this knife becoming one of the most widely used knives in both household and professional kitchens worldwide.

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 when it was first manufactured in the late 1940s.

The Nakiri 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 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.

Characteristic Comparisons

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 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

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.

Drawbacks of Each

We’ll cover the Nakiri first because the main drawback of this knife is quite clear and that is versatility. The Nakiri 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 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 is that it is 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.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line when it comes to comparing these two Japanese knives is 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.

FAQs

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 a Japanese chef knife 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.




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