As Japanese style chef's knives continue to grow in popularity in the Western world, the range of options and specialist knives can be confusing for those that are novice knife buyers yet still want to build a functional and complete knife collection for their kitchen.
A starter option will always be a standard chef’s knife however once you look to expand your collection then it’s natural to start to compare knives. One of the most common comparisons that we’ve noticed is the difference between a Santoku knife (Japanese chef’s knife) and a vegetable knife.
When it comes to cutting vegetables, Japanese Nakiri knives (vegetable knife) and Usuba knives are the best options as their flat blade allows for more accurate and clean cuts. If however, you are looking for an all-purpose kitchen knife that you can use with vegetables, meat and fish then the Santoku knife is the better option.
While the Santoku knife has become the most popular kitchen knife in Japan and has seen its popularity grow just as much in the Western world to compete with European chef knives, it’s easy to assume that this is likely the best knife on the market.
Popularity does not always mean that the knife is the most suitable however and below we compare the popular Santoku with the common vegetable knife to see which comes out on top.
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What Is a Santoku Knife?
A Santoku knife as mentioned earlier is a traditional chef's knife that is designed for all-purpose kitchen use. The Santoku has a unique blend of Japanese design infused with some Western features to lend to its increased popularity worldwide and many consider the Santoku to be a must-own kitchen knife.
With that sort of reputation, it can be easy to assume that the Santoku knife is the best on the market however in order to see its suitability for kitchen work, it’s important to first look into the knife’s features.
Santoku translated to mean ‘three virtues’ or ‘three purposes’ gives a direct description for the purpose of this knife. A Santoku is well suited to dicing, slicing, and mincing with the three major food groups (particularly in Japanese cuisine) of meat, fish, and vegetables/fruit.
A Santoku knife is typically 5” - 8” in length with a 6” blade being the most commonly used. Due to its multi-purpose use, manufacturers now supply Santoku knives in almost any size depending on the user’s needs.
The blade is typically flat with a slight curvature to allow for a rock-chopping technique and the spine curves to meet the tip of the knife which is how you can differentiate this knife from a Western chef’s knife with a noticeably pronounced tip.
As with all Japanese knives, the Santoku can be made from a high-quality carbon-steel blend making it thin, light, and allows it to hold a much sharper edge for longer.
What Is a Nakiri & Usuba Knife?
A Nakiri knife is the most popular vegetable knife in Japanese kitchens and it’s also become one of the most commonly used vegetable knives in the Western world. As a result of this popularity, we will use this specific knife to be a comparison point against a Santoku and it will be our “vegetable knife” of choice.
Just to note, you may also see a petty or paring knife be referred to as a vegetable knife in the Western world however these are typically used as a small utility knife for multipurpose use (much like the larger Santoku).
The Nakiri knife or Nakiri Bocho as it’s more commonly known in Japan is a Japanese vegetable knife that can be translated to mean ‘cutting greens’. Much like the Santoku knife is named for its purpose in the kitchen, so too is the aptly named Nakiri.
An Usuba knife or Usuba Bocho meaning thin blade is a cleaver style knife that is used for making thin and decorative cuts with vegetables and fruits. The Usuba is a more difficult knife to wield as a result of its shape and is used by more experienced chefs whilst the Nakiri is more popular in households.
Both knives are noticeably different from a Santoku in appearance and if you weren’t too familiar with knives, you could easily mistake a Nakiri and Usuba for a small meat cleaver.
In terms of the design of the knife, Nakiri knives have a square blade typically short in length (5” - 7”) and will have a flat edge and straight end from the spine to the blade edge meaning that it has no point whatsoever. This allows the knife to be well suited to push and pull cutting and fine chopping work.
The Usuba is equally thin and shaped like a cleaver, though these knives are typically larger with their blades being 7” - 10” long on average.
Due to being a thin blade with a fine angled edge, these knives are not designed for heavy-duty work and will not do a good job when used on meat or fish, you could even end up damaging the blade with improper use! These blades are better suited to being used as a vegetable cleaver.
These vegetable knives are purely designed for finesse work to produce ultra-fine cuts with vegetables and fruits and is often a necessity for a professional chef rather than typical household use.
Santoku Knife vs Vegetable Knife
Both the Santoku and Nakiri/Usuba are traditional Japanese knives and as a result, you’ll find that they share many common characteristics in terms of Japanese design.
The blades will typically be ground to a fine point with a Santoku typically featuring a 10 - 15 degree angle on either side of the blade to form the edge (for double bevel models) and a Japanese vegetable knife typically having a 15-degree edge on either side as well.
This allows both types of knives to be incredibly sharp in comparison to Western-style knives and allows for more precise cuts to be made.
A Santoku can have the added feature of a Granton edge which allows this knife to pass through food cleanly for more precise cuts as well as enhanced flavor retention for the food.
Finally, you’ll find that the handles on these knives can be similar in both design and length. Both can utilize a rounded or octagon-shaped wooden handle that is designed to balance out the weight of the knife instead of purely being used as a method to grip the knife.
Both can also draw influence from Western design and therefore it’s not uncommon to see a Santoku or Nakiri knife that has been manufactured with a Western-style handle (less likely for a professional standard Usuba).
While these knives can be similar in some aspects due to their Japanese influence, they are significantly different in other aspects and uses.
Differences Between a Santoku and Vegetable KnifeThe key difference when comparing these knives is versatility. A Santoku knife will do a more than adequate job when working with vegetables however a vegetable knife like a Nakiri is designed to only work well with vegetables.
The cutting style is also a noticeable difference between these two knives, a Santoku is designed for mincing, slicing, and dicing and can also have a variation to the blade that allows for rock-chopping. A Japanese vegetable knife is more restricted in terms of cutting techniques and is predominantly used for push or pull slicing and chopping.
Therefore, if you had to pick one knife for your kitchen the Santoku would be a smarter option due to its versatility and functionality. When you are first building a knife collection for your kitchen, it’s important to work in order of useability and necessity depending on the type of food you will be cooking.
If you have a vegetarian household or cook predominantly with vegetables, then a Nakiri or Usuba would of course be an excellent option though for most people, a more versatile option would be the obvious choice.
You can find that these knives are similarly priced in terms of budget, mid-range, and premium options however the fact that a Santoku is an all-purpose knife means that this will initially provide better value for money.
We’d therefore recommend a Santoku or a Western chef’s knife to be a priority for your first knife with a vegetable knife being a much later requirement.
Final ThoughtsWhen it comes to choosing a knife, there is no such thing as ‘the best knife’, there is only the best knife for a specific purpose. If you cook with mostly vegetables and require accuracy, precision, and clean cuts for decorative work (like making sushi) then a Nakiri would be the better-suited knife.
If however, you need a more versatile knife for use on a wider variety of food types then the Santoku is an exceptional knife.
In the order of importance for kitchen uses, a Santoku or chef's knife will easily cover the task of cutting vegetables to a good standard and therefore a Nakiri would only be our recommendation of choice if you need to specialize in cutting vegetables, otherwise, a Santoku is likely to be the better option.
Q: What type of knife is best for cutting vegetables?
A: Japanese blades with a flat cutting surface have the ability to cut nearly anything as they have been designed specifically for this purpose. This can be contrasted with western knives that can only function adequately in some conditions; e.g., slicing bread but not tomatoes, cutting onions but not meat, etc.
Q: What is the fastest way to cut vegetables with a knife?
A: There are many ways to cut vegetables and a variety of knives you can use, but the most effective is with a japanese chef knife. Features of a Japanese chef knife include curved blade, thin broad edge on both sides of the blade (“shinogi”) for controlled slicing, gentle curve that simplifies rocking motion and reduces need to slash. Traditional Western knives typically have sharp-edged blade with narrow tip (usually sharpened right at handle). This kind has advantage in chopping because it penetrates better into food; but disadvantage in slicing because it is designed for cutting only one direction without flipping back onto other side like what the Japanese knives do.
Q: Should I get a Santoku or nakiri?
A: A Santoku knife is a Japanese chef's knife with a curved 6" blade that curves down sharply towards the edge. This makes it easier to chop and cut vegetables, especially onions and carrots. A Nakiri is also a Japanese chef's knife, but it has more of an 8" blade and is very popular for slicing up fruits like tomatoes or apples. I would recommend getting both! You can never have too many knives!
Q: What is a paring knife best used for?
A: A paring knife is a small, versatile knife that can be used for many things. Primarily, it's usually found in the kitchen and is most often used for smaller jobs like cutting herbs or slicing apples. Paring knives are perfect when you need to do some careful work with something on a cutting board or slice delicate ingredients like strawberries.