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.
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 maple (a hard wood) or pine (a soft wood) 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.
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.
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. 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.
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
For the space limited kitchen, manufacturers offer both wood and plastic boards 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.
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 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 occasional 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. Wood 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. (If your board is pine, the natural pine oil in the board can serve additionally as a disinfectant.) This is deep enough that a heavy handed chop into the wood is unlikely to release bacteria (unless the wood splits). 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.
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 amazon.com.
April 5, 2014 Edit: The wood cutting board section stated "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." but this advice can lead to over drying of the wood and potentially cracking it. Also in some cases the resin or glue used to hold individual wood pieces together to form the board may overheat. This sentence has been removed.