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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Equipment & Gear: Cutting Boards

The surface on which you cut your meat, poutry, fish, and vegetables is as important as the knives you cut with. In this article, I'll examine some of the important considerations when choosing a board.

The size of a cutting board is pretty important. Small cutting boards are convenient for clean up and cutting small things quickly (for example a garnish or some cheese). However, every kitchen should have at least one large cutting board. How large? As big as your sink. It's important to be able to wash your cutting boards thoroughly, so it's important that the cutting board fits into your sink. When buying a cutting board, the bigger the better (as long as it fits in the sink). Why? The larger surface area gives you more space to work with. It helps with posture too. You won't be cramped up trying to fit everything on the board, move the food into position, and drive the knife at the same time.

The thickness of the cutting board is dependant on your height as well as your kitchen counter height. If you get a really think block and place it on your counter, you may have to bend your shoulder and elbow at awkward positions when you cut. This will lead to muscle aches and pains and maybe even damage. Get something with dimensions that feel comfortable to you.

Once an appropriate size of cutting board has been chosen, the question of buying plastic or wood comes up. Which is better for the knife? Which is safer? What's the best value? These are some questions that come up when choosing between these two materials. We'll try to address them here.

Most wood boards are made of a hard wood like maple or pine which may give your kitchen a much more attractive look than plastic boards. A good, sharp knife will cut into a wood board to some degree, so be forewarned that the cutting surface of your elegant wood cutting board will look worn, especially if you are heavy handed. The grain of the wood also helps keep the food from slipping.

A plastic board will usually have a roughened surface to aid in keeping food from slipping off. Most people would say that a plastic board's appearance leaves much to be desired, but it's size, shape, and weight make it extremely handy around the kitchen. Unfortunately, no matter what a manufacturer claims about how gentle the plastic is on knives, there is no substitute for cutting on wood to keep your knives in tip top shape. KitchenAid Poly Cutting Board with Santoprene Handles Because plastic boards are nonporous and nonabsorbent, it is easier to clean off stain causing fluids than from a wood board. Simply scrub and rinse. Of course, don't let juice from freshly chopped beets stay on your board and dry for cleaning the next day - stains will occur. However, most sharp knives will eventually carve grooves into the plastic surface where stains can form and bacteria can collect. The small fissures make it very difficult to properly clean the baord without giving it a bleach washing.

A properly oiled wood board will also help resist staining to some degree, but prompt washing is always the best policy to follow. Catskill Craftsmen Wood End Grain Cutting Slab Oiling a wood board once every couple of weeks is a great way to maintain the board. Oiling protects the board from soaking up too much moisture and cracking or warping. It also protects against the absorption of some bacteria. Use an edible oil that has no taste, but don't use vegetable oil because it will turn rancid over time. Mineral oil is a popular choice. Wood boards can also be sanded to return the surface to a smooth finish. Beware that after sanding the board should be washed, dried, and set out for several hours to eliminate bacteria that may have been released from the interior wood.

Grooves are often carved into the edge of the cutting board to catch juices. Catskill Craftsmen Reversible Wood Turkey Board with Groove Cutting boards with large grooves serve better for carving than for cutting. I recommend having a seperate carving board for carving and serving than the board you normally use for slicing and chopping for preparation.

Feet Catskill Craftsmen Wood End Grain Round Cutting Slab with Feet Some cutting boards have feet. This limits your cutting surface to one side of the board. With wood boards, feet are not necessary since placing the board on a wet towel or shelf liner will firmly cement the board to the counter. Depending on the weight and texture of the board, this trick can also work on plastic boards. Often, wood boards with feet work well as attractive carving boards or cheese boards.

Over the sink boards Target Over-the-Sink Cutting BoardFor the space limited kitchen, manufacturers offer both wood and plastic boards Catskill Craftsmen Adjustable Wood Over-the-Sink Board that can be placed or hooked over the kitchen sink. Over the sink boards also make clean up easy when dealing with messy fruits or vegetables that make produce a lot of juice, like tomatoes.

It is often said that plastic is easier to clean than wood, but this is not necessarily the case. Foods that stain are much easier to clean off plastic, but if you're concerned about bacteria, plastic may not be the material you want to choose to use. Farberware 3-Piece Poly Cutting Board Set
Plastic cutting boards have a nonporous surface that provides no place for bacteria to dwell. However, bacteria can just as easily live on the surface and after using the board for a while, your knife will probably chew up the fine surface of the board providing plenty of hiding spaces for bacteria to survive even through vigorous washing. This is troublesome to deal with and it is wise to scrub the cutting board down immediately after using. What Farberware 12x18 in. Poly Cutting Board with MicroBan about those plastic boards that have built in antibacterial chemicals? These only serve to inhibit bacterial grown that causes stains and odors - they do little to kill food-borne bacteria. If they did, you'd be ingesting poison agents every time you used your cutting board. Vigorous scrubbing with hot water and soap and an occassional cycle through the dishwasher is probably your best bet when it comes to plastic. (Be careful, some low quality boards may warp in a dishwasher.) Unfortunately, even a dishwasher's high temperatures may not be enough to kill all the bacteria. You're sure to kill the vast majority of them, though. Pouring bleach (diluted in water) over the board is also a good way of purging the board of bacteria. Once you've got the board clean, keep it dry. A few hours of complete dryness will kill the remainder of the bacteria. Make sure you prop up a corner of the cutting board if you're leaving it on the countertop so moisture won't be sandwiched under the board.

Wood cutting boards deal with bacteria in the opposite way that plastic boards do. Farberware 3-Piece Wood Cutting Board SetWood boards actually absorb the bacteria into the wood. After the surface of the wood has been cleaned and dried, the bacteria near the surface dies. It turns out the wood near the surface forms a hostile environment for bacteria to live in. There are lots of bacteria living in the cutting board, but about 1/8 in. below the surface. This is deep enough that a heavy handed chop into the wood is unlikely to release bacteria (unless the wood splits). If your cutting board fits in your microwave oven, heating up the board in the microwave for 30 sec. or so will completely cleanse the board of bacteria, inside and out. As with plastic boards, prop a corner up to keep moisture from collecting.

In general, plastic cutting boards are less expensive than wood cutting boards. For $10, you can purchase a set of cutting boards for cutting poultry, fish, and meats, or you can divide them up by size. For the same $10, a set of three wood boards will be servicable, but noticably lower quality. A good wood board can run upwards of $100, although a $10-20 board should make a great cutting surface. If you have expensive knives and don't mind oiling every couple weeks, then get a modest wood carving board. If you're on a budget, like the convenience of multiple cutting boards, and can stand dealing with vigorous scrubbing and the occassional bleaching, then plastic is the way to go.

Bamboo Shun 14 in. x 14 in. Bamboo Cutting Board
A "new" entry in the cutting board market are bamboo boards. Bamboo is an extremely hard grass that is easily grown and naturally replenishing resource. It doesn't have to be replanted after chopping down and is strong, durable, and pretty. Boards constructed of bamboo are fast (the hard surface makes it easier to work the knife) and durable. The boards absorb less liquid than maple wood and are typicaly easier to wash since the knive cuts won't be as deep or plantiful. Like other wood boards, they should not be soaked in water or placed in the dishwasher. The downside of bamboo boards is cost. Currently, the most expensive cutting boards that I know of, bamboo boards will run almost $200 for a large board. Browse Totally Bamboo for typical prices and a decent selection of boards and dishware.

Go to this site for a sampling of the cutting boards available for mail order from

posted by Michael Chu @ 9/16/2004 05:09:34 PM   19 comments
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At 1:46 AM, آزاد said...

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At 7:45 AM, Anonymous said...

Hey, great blog! This was a good article, EXCEPT I believe it lacks an emphasis on separating cutting boards for different types of foods (beef, poultry, seafood, produce). With all of your concern about bacteria, it seems prudent to strongly recommend separate boards for produce vs. meat, especially since (at least in my house) most of the heavy chopping that causes surface grooves in plastic comes from hacking up produce, so my (plastic) meat boards stay pretty smooth.

PS - You misspelled fissures. :-)

At 10:06 AM, Michael Chu said...

re: Multiple Boards

Yes, I did fail to mention that one popular usage model is to have a poultry board, other meats board, and vegetable/other board. Proper usage of the multi-board scheme can reduce the chances of cross contamination (where foods that need to be fully cooked come in contact with foods that do not get cooked to high temperatures).

It is also possible to use one board and vary the order of your ingredient preparation such that cross contamination is no longer an issue. Chop vegetables/uncooked items first. Then prepare meats and, lastly, poultry. Clean and scrub the board well and allow it to fully dry.

The main thing is choose a system that works for you and be diligent about avoiding cross contamination.

At 7:47 PM, grumbleghoul said...

I just wanted to thank you for helping settle a dispute about the bacterial forming processes on wooden cutting boards. My wife loves plastic, and I love wood. We will now have both!

At 4:35 AM, Batya said...

Save your back and sit while cutting.

At 4:37 AM, Batya said...

Save your back and sit while cutting.

At 4:51 PM, Madam Attitude said...

Good info!
I use Granite myself!
I had a Bakers Rack & Cutting Board made while
stationed in Naples, Italy.
If anyone heads that way, see Ciro in Pozzuolli, Italy, he is awesome!
I believe is good blades 7 boards for all my recipes!
I look forward to seeing more of your BLOGS!

At 4:51 PM, Madam Attitude said...

Good info!
I use Granite myself!
I had a Bakers Rack & Cutting Board made while
stationed in Naples, Italy.
If anyone heads that way, see Ciro in Pozzuolli, Italy, he is awesome!
I believe is good blades & boards for all my recipes!
I look forward to seeing more of your BLOGS!

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At 7:17 AM, Chuck said...

I found a roll of that bumpy rubbery mat material in a dollar store. I cut that to size and place it under my cutting board, mixing bowls, etc, to keep them from slipping. I mostly use plastic cutting boards and always place one in the dishwasher after cutting raw meat. Stains uglify it, but then I don't keep it out on the counter as a decoration.

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous said...

The best way to deal with Bacteria is to have a spray bottle with a mix of bleach and water handy, (I use 50/50 personally), and spray down your surfaces after you work. I used to handle a LOT of raw poultry (30 lbs a day) along with all the other stuff I had to cook and prepare. Using bleach to spray down and then clean an area prevented any cross contamination.
I still use a bleach/water spray bottle on all my cutting boards and food preparation surfaces, both before and after, and in ten years have never had a problem. The nice thing is the bleach also takes out stains, which on a white counter top is very helpful. Also the smell reminds you of which surfaces you have cleaned or have missed.

At 2:36 PM, Zach said...

Here is an option to bleach:

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous said...

Great info!
My favorite cutting board is a 12by18 by 3/4 inch solid piece of Padouk. I have had mine for at least 20 years and use it daily. It's a beautiful dark wood that doesn't show stains and being quite dense, it doesn't get cut up as much as Maple. Extremely hard to find, but well worth the search.

At 9:06 PM, Soldering Gunslinger said...

I have several cutting boards in my (My wife probably would disagree)kitchen. I do know of people who use marble or granite surfaces on which to cut, however this tends to quickly dull your (or at least my) valuable blades. Plastic or natural fiber surfaces protect your expensive knives. Compare the price of a Wustoff, Henkles or Sabatier blade to that of a Farberware plastic cutting board.

Much has been said about sanitary concerns when dealing with wooden cutting boards. Tests on end-grain rock maple cutting surfaces showed that bacteria didn't really like growing in that particular medium, however, as wooden chopping blocks and cutting boards are considerably higher priced than the best plastic boards, this frugal Engineer prefers the plastic for cutting and the wood for serving.

My favorite board is an over-the-sink farberware poly board with a little strainer-well in which to slide the trimmings. This board is perfectly sized to fit into the dishwasher (At least my undercounter 20-year-old Kitchenaid). I won't own a plastic board which will not fit into the dishwasher (Yeah, I'm lazy as well as frugal).

Remember, eschew stone, metal or glass surfaces for cutting...that is unless you're made of money and can spend your time and money having your blades resharpened more often than otherwise necessary and/or replacing them. If all you use are the freebees handed out at the local county fair or as a Wal-Mart Special, go ahead, use a hard surface.

A good set of knives should last you a lifetime. The plastic cutting boards will probably be replaced every five years or so, a good heavy end grain cutting board might be handed down to your grandchildren (Mine came from a Great Aunt)

I remain,

The Ol' Soldering Gunslinger

At 2:23 PM, Anonymous said...

One of the things I hated about rigid cutting boards is trying to funnel your chopped food into a small bowl or pan etc. I've never seen a board with raised sides to guide food down to a corner, for example, so the next best thing I have are flexible plastic mats that you can almost roll into a tube once you're done cutting, so you can carry it over to your stove etc. without dropping anything, and funneling it in without splashing any boiling water or oil. Got them as a wedding present from Crate & Barrel, but I think they're pretty cheap. Comes as a set for meat, seafood, poultry and vegetables.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous said...

As a cook in several restaurants I learned to care for wooden cutting boards and especially large 'butcher block' type tables. We used hot soapy water with a little bleach to clean the tables that, of course, would not fit in the dishwasher.

After a thorough scrubbing with a stiff bristled brush and/or stainless steel scrubber pads, we would flush the surface copiously with water. Then wipe the block down with clean towels and finally sprinkle the surface with salt. This pulled water out of the pores of the wood and sterilized at the same time. Once a week we oiled the surfaces well after cleaning and brushing off the crusted, dried salt.

I use this method on all my boards at home.

pseudolus the first

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous said...

Good article, but I'd personally reccomend using glass chopping boards - much more resistant than plastic, and much easier than wood!

At 12:47 PM, Michael Chu said...

Glass cutting boards are extremely hard on knives. Sharpening and replacement fees will skyrocket. You're better off with plastic and just buying new ones each month than to use glass (or stone).


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