Yes, cutting boards are a bigger deal than you think! They can have a huge impact on how much fun you have while cooking, how your kitchen looks, how at risk you are of getting a food-borne illness and even how likely you are to injure yourself with a knife. In this guide we cover everything you need to know about buying, cleaning, maintaining and storing cutting boards and butcher blocks.
Types of Kitchen Boards
Cutting Boards are the classic utility tool that most people have in their kitchens and think of when they hear the term “cutting board.” Usually these measure 18-24 inches in length/width and 1-1.5 inches in height. They are used for everyday tasks such as cutting, slicing and chopping meats and vegetables.
Carving Boards are a specific type of cutting board that are larger and have small grooves in the face of the board to capture juices. Frequently, these boards will have a more oval shape than a typically-rectangular cutting board. If you’ve ever seen a holiday ham or turkey presented on a board, it was likely a carving board.
Butcher Blocks are made to be used on a countertop and are at least 3 inches thick and much heavier than common cutting boards. Most high quality butcher blocks weigh 20 pounds or more. Because working with larger cuts of meat requires aggressive actions such as chopping, deboning, and quartering, home chefs need something that: (a) will not move or slide, and (b) can take a lot of abuse.
Butcher Block Tables are standalone tables and obviously not made for a countertop. Most measure no longer than 48 inches in length/width and 4-16 inches deep, these tables can weigh up to 300 pounds. Butcher block tables offer two great advantages – they are “portable” and allow a much greater range of motion for the cook than a counter top board. Also, they make great decorative show pieces as standalone islands or corner tables.
Two Laws of Cutting Board Materials
If Sir Isaac Newton can have three laws of motion, we can have two for cutting boards:
- Soft material boards are good for retaining knife sharpness but bad for board longevity and hygiene.
- Hard material boards are good for board longevity and hygiene but bad for knife sharpness.
There are five common categories of construction materials, each with unique characteristics.
|Material||Examples||Hardness||Dishwasher Safe?||Knife Friendly?||Board Friendly?|
|Harder woods||Bamboo, Maple, Olive||Hard||No||Average||Yes|
|Softer woods||Cherry, Hinoki, Larch, Teak, Walnut||Soft||No||Yes||No|
|Composite||Wood fiber/phenolic resins||Medium||Yes||Average||Yes|
|Rigid||Glass, Slate||Very Hard||Mostly||No||Yes|
Most home chefs that work with gourmet meats and high-end knives tend avoid rigid and plastic cutting boards in favor of wood or composite boards. As we will discuss later, the primary exception is safety related, i.e. having a dedicated, dishwasher safe plastic cutting board for raw meats.
Face Grain vs. Edge Grain vs. End Grain Cutting Boards
Wood cutting boards and butcher clocks are characterized by the grain of wood that constitutes the flat cutting surface. This can best be described by visualizing where the wood comes from on a 2×4 piece of lumber.
End grain cutting boards are constructed by taking several small pieces of wood (end-grain side up) and gluing them together with epoxy. Visually, end grain cutting boards look like miniature parquet basketball courts.
For edge grain cutting boards, several thin strips of edge wood are laid side-by-side and grafted together. Face grain cutting boards are similar, but require fewer steps of wood.
In terms of quality and price, face grain cutting boards reside on the lower-end of the spectrum while end grains are considered premium. Edge grain cutting boards represent more of a happy medium.
The majority of cutting boards you see online are likely edge grain cutting boards.
Why are end grain cutting boards so sought after?
The short answer is that the wood grains that make up the cutting surface of an end grain cutting board run vertically. Therefore, when a knife strikes the cutting surface it is easier on both the knife and the board. They are also less likely to warp. Face grain and edge grain boards have horizontal wood grains and are therefore, more likely to damage either the cutting board or the knife.
Here’s a visual illustration to help make it clear.
Cutting Board Hygiene
Why is cutting board hygiene important? Well, cutting boards are the fourth “germiest” place in your average kitchen. To make matters worse, some of the bacteria commonly found on cutting boards can be quite dangerous.
Where Germs Live
In 2011, the National Sanitation Foundation conducted a survey. The family of bacteria that includes salmonella and E-coli was found on:
- 75% of dish sponges and rags
- 45% of kitchen sinks
- 32% of counter tops, and
- 18% of cutting boards.
If you think about that list, wood cutting boards are typically sitting on counter tops, moved to sinks and washed with kitchen sponges. Great! It’s also important to note that the illnesses caused by salmonella and E-coli can be very serious, including food poisoning or worse. Doubly great!
Warm and moist areas are the most fertile environments for germs to thrive. Cutting boards have large surface areas, and scars and cuts invariably develop after a while. Bacteria soak into these indentions (scars and cuts) and grow very rapidly.
While washing cutting boards in a dishwasher will kill most bacteria, not all boards are dishwasher safe. Virtually all wooden boards must be hand washed. A quick wiping down with soapy water is typically insufficient.
Simple Rules for Safety
How can you keep your family safe. Following a few simple rules is a good place to start.
- Remember that “visually clean” and “hygienically clean” are not the same thing. Soap and water may yield a clean looking board, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.
- For boards that are not dishwasher safe, scrub vigorously. Surprisingly, the scrubbing action dislodges more bacteria than soap and water. Clearly, scrubbing coupled with use of a disinfectant is preferable.
- Knock out any “co-conspirators.” Use a clean kitchen sponge and disinfect the sink and counters before cooking.
- Use separate cutting boards to lower risk of cross contamination. Some experts recommend plastic boards for meat and wooden boards for vegetables. We prefer using separate boards for foods that require cooking versus those that are ready to eat.
- Replace cutting boards at least every 5 years. Boards eventually show wear and tear, and as we noted above, it is easier for bacteria to thrive in the scars and indentations. Not only are worn boards likely to have more bacteria, they are also harder to get clean, compounding the problem.
How To Get Boards Clean?
For plastic, composite and some rigid boards cleaning is relatively straightforward as most are dishwasher safe. If a dishwasher is unavailable, using soap and water followed by a chlorine-based sanitizer works well on plastic boards. A common mixture is a teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of water.
Wooden boards are a different story. They should not be put in a dishwasher or even soaked in water. Doing so can cause wooden cutting boards to splinter and/or warp. In some cases, soaking wood cutting boards voids all manufacturers’ warranties.
After a quick rinse, thoroughly apply a food-safe antibacterial (e.g., a quaternary ammonium disinfectant like diluted Mr. Clean) and let dry for 5 minutes before washing again with soap and water.
White vinegar and hydrogen peroxide can be effective as well. Do NOT use bleach, even diluted, on wooden boards as it is less effective, due to how it reacts with wood, and can also discolor and dry the wood. Lastly, put your board in a place where it can dry quickly and completely. Bacteria need moisture to live, and even a clean board can get re-contaminated if left damp.
If your board has stains or smells even after being disinfected, try cutting a lemon in half and rubbing over the affected spots. White vinegar works as well.
Cutting Board Maintenance
Care for non-wooden boards is primarily cleaning in a hygienic fashion as described above. Wooden boards on the other hand require regular oiling to avoid becoming dry and brittle. Dry boards are much more prone to cracking, splintering and chipping. Oil also acts as a sealant, providing an additional barrier to bacteria seeping into cracks and indentations.
Oiling Your Cutting Board
The process is relatively simple. First, ensure you are starting with a clean and dry board. Use a soft cloth, such as microfiber, to evenly spread a generous coating of oil over the entire cutting surface (it’s preferable to do both sides if you can manage the mess). Let the board sit overnight before cleaning off the excess. A 24-hour period provides sufficient time for the oil to soak into and seal the board.
Manufacturers, such as Boos or Howard, sell specialized oils. These are essentially food-grade mineral oils, which are fine to use if you have any on hand. More recently, chefs are experimenting with more plant-based oils such as refractionated coconut oil or Carnauba (a wax from Brazilian yellow fan palm).
Most people stop with simply oiling their boards. However, adding a cream or wax as a finishing step provides an additional barrier to germs and also helps prevent stains. Beeswax or manufactured creams are the ointments of choice and work really well.
Purchase Criteria to Consider
There are many points to consider when buying a board.
- How often do you cook?
- Do you cook higher-risk foods (e.g., raw chicken, unprocessed veggies)?
- Are you okay with doing maintenance (e.g., washing, oiling)?
- Do you have expensive knives?
- Are your knife skills adequate?
- Are style and looks important?
- What’s your budget?
Once you think about the answers to the questions and what’s important to you, this guide provides you with all of the information you need to choose the perfect board (or boards!). If you have ordinary knives, aren’t keen on maintenance and don’t cook on a daily basis, then a plastic board would be ideal.
If you have high-end knives and looks are important, a soft-wood maple board may be the way to go. Given the central importance of hygiene, we strongly recommend having both a wooden/composite board and a plastic board. That duo should provide sufficient flexibility for any eventuality in the kitchen.
Most Common Brands
There are many generic, private label cutting boards available online. These tend to be cheaper plastic, bamboo or acacia cutting boards manufactured in Asia. However, several big-name brands exist:
- John Boos (the most famous of all; practically synonymous with maple boards)
- Dexas (polymer, composite and grip-safe boards)
- Epicurean (known for composite and plastic boards; big focus on recycling)
- Madeira (wide selection of wooden boards)
- Teakhaus by Proteak (focuses on…wait for it…teak boards!)
- The cookware companies (Breville, OXO)
- The knife makers (Wusthof, Henckels, Shun)
- The high-end kitchen specialists (J.K. Adams, Sur la table, Williams Sonoma).