There are so many things to consider when we walk into the kitchen, from the food we buy, to how we’re going to cook it, that sometimes the simpler things get overlooked. But, as we all know, simple doesn’t mean unimportant. And that is certainly the case with today’s topic: cutting boards.
I think many of us are culpable for giving nary a second thought to our cutting boards, they seem so complacent, so subservient to the act of cooking that their design and materials could hardly make much of a difference, could they? I am here to tell you that, yes, the type and variety of cutting board you use is highly significant to your cooking. Let’s take a look at what’s on the market.
I’m getting this out of the way quickly because it deserves almost no thought. If you’re working with cutting boards like these, throw them away! Tempered glass is easy to sanitize, but it will ruin your knives and is such a slick surface that any amount of cutting is dangerous on their surfaces. I wouldn’t even bring these up, assuming they were no longer available to the public, but I recently saw a pair in the kitchen of some newly married friends and I screamed in horror.
Plastic has long held a reputation for being the most sanitary of materials for cutting boards. Unfortunately, research has proven this to be mostly false. A UC Davis study done by Dean Cliver found that more bacteria are recovered from a used plastic surface than from a used wood surface. It’s true that plastic cutting boards are easier to sanitize, you can simply run them through the dishwasher at a high temperature, but that only holds true if they are unscarred.
The same study found that plastic cutting boards, once gouged and deeply scarred by knives, were impossible to clean and disinfect manually. The grooves left behind from heavy cutting are perfect hiding spots for bacteria.
What are these good for? I keep one on hand for breaking down meat and poultry. When I butcher a chicken or cut apart a pork shoulder, I rarely press the knife into the board, and the plastic surface is easy to sanitize after all the blood and bacteria has had time to dance across its surface.
Wood is such a miraculous material for cutting boards it’s hard to overstate. Though you may think it’s as vulnerable to scarring as the plastic board, you’re wrong. Good hardwood like maple or beech is somewhat self healing and won’t scar nearly as easily. This is due to the small capillaries that make up the wood, which are essentially standing on (imagine a handful of hair, all pressed together standing on end). These capillaries are also responsible for wood’s semi-antibacterial properties. The fine grained capillaries pull moisture down, drawing it into the core of the board and trapping bacteria. As the fluid dries and isolates the bacteria in dry wood, the bacteria is killed off.
And when your wooden boards do begin to show signs of scarring, you can far more easily repair them than you could a plastic cutting board. All you need to do is sand them down, either manually or mechanically, until the grooves are gone and then apply a nice coat of mineral oil. Keeping your wood boards nicely oiled maintains their self healing properties and keeps them looking new.
The newest addition to the cutting board lineup is bamboo. Despite what you might think, bamboo isn’t wood, it’s technically a grass species, which makes a difference in the final product. On the plus side, it’s incredibly sustainable and renewable, and it needs no chemicals to thrive or to be harvested.
Bamboo cutting boards are harder and less porous than hardwoods. They absorb very little moisture and resist scarring from knives due to their density and strength, which makes them more resistant to bacteria than most wooden cutting boards. However, this same strength can be a weakness. Since they’re about 19% harder than maple, these boards are pretty tough on knives, so you’ve got to remember to sharpen your knives regularly if you’re using bamboo in the kitchen.
On the negative side, you want to look for bamboo boards that are made without glues including formaldehyde. These boards have to be kept together somehow, and often are glued with some unpleasant chemicals. Read your labels.
In my kitchen I keep one plastic board for meat butchery, and the rest of my cutting boards are maple, beech, or another hardwood.