Take a quick trip to your local kitchenware retailer and you'll be overwhelmed at the numerous cutting board options. They'll vary by size, color, function (combination cutting/holding/straining), material and more. The type of material is the main decision you will have to make when purchasing a new cutting board. Today we're sharing our take on four materials: glass, wood, bamboo, and plastic. I'll address the positives and negatives of each below and then follow up with our recommendations.
We're addressing this first because it's a solid no in our book. While glass is dishwasher safe, it is extremely harsh on knives, dulling them after only 10-15 cuts. This would require you to sharpen your knives after every use - no thanks! If you've spent money on nice knives, spare them the abuse. If you only plan to use the board for show or as a platter, go for it.
Wood is one of the most popular categories for cutting boards. The main downside (if you want to call it that) is that they must be hand washed. A second potential downside is that wooden cutting boards are the most expensive of all of the categories. One of the most popular brands, Boos, costs anywhere from $90-$750 (the higher range being a massive 48" block for an island top).
Wood is easy on your knives, but takes more care with respect to other areas. Wood can stain, so you have to be diligent to keep it in good shape and wash immediately after use (use soap, hot water, and rinse thoroughly). Spreading a coat of mineral oil on your wooden cutting boards will help seal the wood and keep it from staining. This should be done every 2-3 weeks. The oil also brings out the natural features of the wood of your choice.
The top half of my wooden cutting board after a nice coat of mineral oil.
Bacteria: Wood can absorb bacteria, which is again why washing immediately with soap and hot water is required, but the absorbed bacteria eventually dies. In other words, you are not going to find the bacteria on the surface soon after use (how soon, I'm not sure). Note: Wooden boards left in water too long will either come unglued, swell or split, so make sure you wash quickly and allow to dry. This also means you need to avoid leaving super juicy items sitting on your board for extended periods. We'll address bacteria more in the other categories, so stay tuned.
Bamboo is technically a grass. Like wood, you are not able to place bamboo boards in the dishwasher. They are much cheaper than wooden boards since bamboo naturally grows much faster than trees, prices ranging from $15 - $90. Also, they are lighter weight. Depending on how much you plan to move it around or if you plan to store it somewhere other than your counter-top, this could be a considerable advantage.
Marketing schemes promote the (supposed) anti-microbial properties of bamboo. Of the articles we read, almost all were addressing bamboo qualities as a fabric and not as a solid/board form (if you're interested in that, see this study that concludes, "compared with natural cotton fibers, natural bamboo fiber has no natural antibacterial ability...").
Unfortunately I was unable to find any scholarly studies about anti-microbial properties of bamboo boards. There are tons of articles out there on the topic, but they're not based on controlled or scholarly studies. All of this is to say that just like wood, you can wash bamboo boards with hot soap and water, rinse, and immediately dry. Both wood and bamboo will provide a similar level of safety with respect to bacteria after washing.
Depending on the brand, the wear of bamboo boards can range from good to poor. Like we mentioned, bamboo is a grass. Heavy use can result in furry fibers showing in cheaper options. If you choose a bamboo board, pick one from the higher priced end of the market for better wear performance. Since bamboo is thin walled, the construction of bamboo boards means they can also separate easier. Another consideration is the visual aesthetics. Many prefer the look of natural hardwoods over bamboo, but the choice is yours!
Plastic is a common cutting board option for households due to their lower price range and ability to be placed in the dishwasher. You'd think it would be the best option in terms of protecting yourself from bacteria since they are dishwasher safe. However, read this interesting conclusion from a UC Davis article by Dr. Cliver:
"We soon found that disease bacteria such as these [e-coli] were not recoverable from wooden surfaces in a short time after they were applied, unless very large numbers were used. New plastic surfaces allowed the bacteria to persist, but were easily cleaned and disinfected. However, wooden boards that had been used and had many knife cuts acted almost the same as new wood, whereas plastic surfaces that were knife-scarred were impossible to clean and disinfect manually, especially when food residues such as chicken fat were present. Scanning electron micrographs revealed highly significant damage to plastic surfaces from knife cuts."
Yikes! This was new information for me. I have always heard that wood is self-healing, so it now makes sense that plastic would harbor more bacteria and be more difficult to clean after heavy wear. One suggestion I read was to give your plastic boards a Clorox bath, however this may be difficult depending on the sizes of your sinks and boards. Take this into consideration or replace your plastic cutting boards on a more regular basis. They're cheap enough to replace regularly and it's worth your health!
Other properties to consider:
- Slippage: Make sure the bottom of the cutting board will not move around when cutting. I have a very old home where not a single surface is level. I place a couple of pieces of no-slip fabric under my large cutting board to keep it from sliding around. I just have to make sure it doesn't get wet.
- Sound: Some boards will make a clatter or noise when chopping with a knife. Consider this when looking at boards if you have a preference. This may also be an indication of more wear to your knives.
So with all the options, what's a chef to do? I personally own two cutting boards. One wooden and one plastic. In the past, I have used the plastic cutting board for meats only and then cleaned it in the dishwasher. Anything else that needs to be cut is cut on the wooden cutting board. I prefer to use a single cutting board for meats only to prevent cross contamination. I will definitely continue the method of having a separate board just for meats, but am going to consider replacing my plastic board more frequently once I notice heavy wear marks or switching to a smaller wooden/bamboo one.
Below are our recommended products - these are not in our shop (we do have this gorgeous olivewood cheese tray, but no large boards).
My current cutting board is this Teak Cutting Board ($95, 24" x 18" x 1.5"). I love this cutting board - the size is great for doing lots of prep work, it holds up well to the knife, it's gorgeous and double sided.
Another great option is the Boos Chop-n-Slice Maple Board ($47, 20" x 15" x 1.25"). This
This End Grain Bamboo cutting board ($69.99, 15.5" x 12" x 1.5") is a higher end bamboo board. It is lightweight and has the feel of a wooden board. I'm considering this as my meat only board. Your knives will be safe on this and it has been proven to wear well.
A cheaper bamboo option is this Totally Bamboo Kauai ($25, 14.5" x 11.5"). I have personally owned this board in the past and it did a great job for the price point. Very easy to store and move around.
The Architec Gripper Cutting Board ($17.50, 11" x 14") can only be used on one side, but is stable and dishwasher safe. It's also cheap enough to replace every couple years.
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