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Cutting Boards: Wood or Plastic?

on Friday, 23 July 2010. Posted in Tips, Tips & Info, Reviews and Tips

Which is more sanitary?

A chef's cutting board and his knives are the two most important tools of the trade.  They are also two integral elements of a "food safe" kitchen.  Both should be regarded with great respect and tradition.  By properly cleaning and maintaining them you'll ensure that it's safe to use your knives and effectively prevent food contamination.  I'll give you some pointers on keeping your cutting boards in tip-top shape in this epic tip.

A good place to start would probably be to clarify some buzz that plastic cutting boards are more sanitary than wooden ones.  The argument has been made that because sythetic materials aren't porous, bacteria has nowhere to go and therefore synthetic is more sanitary.  Well, that's true until you actually use a plastic cutting board.  Each time you make a cut on a synthetic cutting board you make small slices in it.  Food particles, liquids and bacteria get into these "scars."  And, because plastic is so resilient each scar closes which traps whatever got into it.  Over time the cutting board becomes discolored and food particles become rancid due to bacterial growth - that's dangerous and gross.

I prefer wood not only because I'm a traditionalist but also because I've done my homework.  When you make cuts on a wooden cutting board your knife goes in between the wood fibers and glides over the surface.  You shouldn't see any cuts in the surface of a wood cutting board.  "But it's porous and that means it will trap bacteria!", you say? Let me explain.

There is a man named Dr. Cliver who is a microbiologist with the Food Safety Laboratory and World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Food Virology at the University of California-Davis (google it).  Dr. Cliver did some research in which he innoculated plastic and wooden cutting boards with several strains of deadly bacteria (I believe one of the strains was E. coli.)  The wooden cutting boards absorbed the bacteria and within only a few minutes 99.9% of the bacteria were either dead or unrecoverable.  The plastic cutting boards actually showed bacterial growth when left overnight.  The bacteria in the knife scars on the plastic cutting boards stayed alive and well even after they were washed with soap and water.  Even though nobody has been able to explain what makes wood naturally antibacterial these tests have me convinced.

Now let's talk about how a cutting board should be constructed.  After all, construction plays a part in food safety too.  An end grain cutting board that is several inches thick is preferable.  There are several factors that make them superior.  First of all, end grain is much easier on your knifes.  Secondly, it's more resistant to splitting because the grain orientation is very short.  Third, it's stronger, harder and more durable.  Even though a wooden cutting board can be significantly heavier than a plastic one it's clearly safer than plastic if Dr. Cliver is right.  I'm inclined to trust nature and it's materials before I trust man-made ones anyhow.  We learn that lesson time and time again.

I've read that wooden cutting boards should be treated with flavorless oil or beeswax.  I disagree with this practice since it inhibits the antibacterial properties of wood.  By sealing it with oil or wax you're essentially making the wood behave like plastic.  Instead, you should use it with no treatment and simply wash the surface of your wood cutting board with mild dish soap and hot water.  Once all food particles have been washed away you can use a wood scraper to clear any loose wood particles that are packed with liquids.  If you don't have a wood scraper, or don't want to buy one you can use a flat steel spatula to scrape the surface clean.

So, if at this point you're fixed with a feeling of impending doom because you now feel like you need to replace your cutting board then what I'm about to say will really blow your mind.  Ready?  Ideally, you should have three cutting boards.  Three!?  Yes, three.  One for uncooked meats, one for ready to eat foods and vegetables and the last is a carving board for cooked meats and fish.  This prevents cross contamination.  But don't be discouraged, it's really not that much extra work.

Let's rehash, get some pointers on shopping for a wooden cutting board and look at the things you can do to take care of your cutting board:

  • When shopping for a cutting board it should be at least an inch thick.  The thicker it is the longer it will last.  A thick cutting board will also be more resistant to warping, splitting, checking and cracking.
  • Use separate wooden cutting boards for uncooked meats and vegetables (preferably end grain).  Preferably use a carving board for cooked meats so you don't foul your veggy board with animal fats and oils.
  • Don't do heavy chopping on your cutting board.  It's not a chopping block.
  • Wash cutting boards with mild dish soap and hot water.  DON'T put them in the dishwasher.  DON'T soak them in the sink.
  • Scrape cutting boards with a wood scraper or steel spatula.
  • Dry your cutting board immediately after it has been washed and scraped.

That's about all I have to say 'bout that (my best Forest Gump impression).  Seriously though, it wasn't too painful and now you're an expert.  Food safety aside, there's a certain amount of ritual and tradition that goes into using wooden cutting boards and that is exactly what makes it so gratifying. 

Comments (4)

  • calypso
    12 August 2010 at 02:21 |

    Great article! I always sided with the wood board camp but I wasn't aware of the research that was done. Cheers!

  • JP
    13 April 2012 at 14:11 |

    Thank you for enlightening folks about "beeswax" finishes. You're right, they can defeat the bacteria killing properties of wood.

  • 20 July 2012 at 12:02 |

    While this is a good article about the anti bacterial properties of end grain cutting boards, I don't think it is wise to advise against oiling and waxing your board. If you don't do those things with at least some frequency then your board is libel to warp and crack. I would agree that oiling and waxing with too great a frequency however could pose the health risk you have discussed here. Once again, good article. Thanks!

    • Matt Kay
      15 August 2012 at 11:25 |

      Excellent information regarding the frequency of oiling/waxing your cutting board! Thanks!

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