By Leslie Stephens
Today: Cutting boards are some of the most-used kitchen tools, so it's important to choose the best one for your cooking style. Here's everything you need to know about each material.
In the realm of kitchen tools, cutting boards get the short end of the stick. Slicing and dicing aside, we soak them in water for hours until they warp, let berry stains sink into their wood for far longer than we should, and forget to oil them until they're completely dried out--yet they remain our ever-trusty kitchen workhorses, taking the brunt of food preparation.
That said, not all cutting boards are made alike. In our test kitchen, we use plastic cutting boards for raw meats, fish, and things that stain to make clean-up easier. We cut everything else directly on a butcher block counter. Our head test kitchen chef, Derek Laughren, says, "If we didn't have the wooden counter, I would definitely use a heavy wooden board for most tasks." As it turns out, wooden cutting boards are among the most versatile cutting boards, followed by bamboo and plastic boards. Here's everything you need to know about choosing and caring for your cutting board:
Wooden Cutting Boards:
Wood is by far the most popular cutting board material, and with good reason. Not only is it beautiful, but it's also good for knives. Knives can easily be blunted, but wooden cutting boards extend their edge by offering a soft surface for them to sink into with every slice, chop, and dice. However, because wooden cutting boards are so soft, they're also among the easiest to damage, as they can suffer from scores from rough cutting instruments, such as serrated knives.
Wooden boards have antiseptic qualities, inhibiting germ and microbe growth, but even with these qualities, it's important to wash and sanitize boards after each use as woods can't prevent all microbial growth on its own. Washing is even more important for porous tropical woods like teak, which actually absorb bacteria.
How to care for them: Wooden cutting boards should be washed in warm water and dried immediately after use, then placed on a horizontal surface to prevent them from warping. To remove stubborn stains from strawberries and the like, sprinkle the entire board with salt or baking soda, then rub it with a halved lemon. It's also a good idea to oil your boards once a year (though some people treat their boards as often as once a month). To oil your boards, use food-grade oil like beeswax or mineral oil, which can usually be found in pharmacies. Don't use olive or vegetable oil, though, as they can turn rancid and produce a off-putting smell. Apply the oil to your dry board and let it sit for a few hours, then wipe off the excess.
Much-loved, scored wooden cutting boards may need to be revived every few years by sanding and oiling. To sand your board, first smooth out the roughest cuts by rubbing it with a coarse grade of sandpaper in the direction of the grain. Then switch to a finer grade of sandpaper until the wood is smooth. Wash the wood with regular dish soap, then oil it to make it kitchen-ready again. Even warped cutting boards can be fixed. To fix a warped wooden board, place a damp cloth over the warped area and iron it as you would any fabric. Repeat until the board is un-warped. Once the warp is gone, allow it to dry completely before using.
Bamboo Cutting Boards:
Bamboo has many of the same benefits wood does while being environmentally friendly, as bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Like wood, it has antimicrobial properties, but it's a bit rougher on knives since it's slightly harder than wood cutting boards. On the plus side, bamboo resists staining, so its naturally light color is able to stay that way over time.
How to care for them: You can wash and oil bamboo boards like you would wooden cutting boards. And like wooden boards, it's just as important to avoid soaking your bamboo in water, as the strips of bamboo are often joined together by water-soluble glue; soaking the boards puts them at risk of falling to pieces and warping.
Plastic Cutting Boards:
Plastic cutting boards are easy--they can go into the dishwasher, are lighter and easier to move around the kitchen, and are less expensive than wooden and bamboo boards. But since they don't have the self-healing or bacteria-fighting capabilities that wooden cutting boards do, they don't last as long and are less food-safe. If you do opt for a plastic cutting board, be sure to use powerful cleaning products to properly disinfect it after each use.
How to care for them: One of the greatest qualities of plastic cutting boards is that they are dishwasher-safe and warp-resistant, so they can be put away damp, if necessary, and take the least amount of post-dinner cleaning effort. On the other hand, they need to be replaced the most often. While wooden cutting boards last upwards of ten years, plastic cutting boards need to be replaced roughly once a year--you'll know it's time when they're covered in marks and are stained or yellowed.
Glass, Marble, and Slate Cutting Boards:
While glass, marble, and slate are easy materials to care for and clean, they are terrible for the health of your knives. Their high densities will dull your knife on every cut and can even chip the blade altogether. It's better to save these materials for your cheese spread and reserve your marble boards for kneading.
How to care for them: If you insist on using rock-based boards (or countertops)--which many do for the sake of aesthetics--simply handwash them with soap and water, then spray them with non-toxic disinfectants, since they don't have the antiseptic qualities that wooden boards do. Make a natural cleaning solution by mixing together 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water, then spray it directly onto the board and wipe it down after a few seconds.
First photo by Bobbi Lin; all others by James Ransom.