I bet you asked yourself at least once which is the best and safest type of cutting board. The short answer is: you have to decide for yourself – there is no consensus among the experts, whether they are scientists or government agencies.
For the last few decades we have been constantly told that wooden boards are to be avoided. That’s because they are absorbent and would hold harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria or e-coli which will hide in the pores, waiting to contaminate other foods. And because the other real alternative is plastic boards (much safer, we’ve been told), they logically seem to be the preferred type.
However microbiology tests actually show exactly the opposite. Scientists, at the Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute, conducted a research study in which they contaminated both, wooden and plastic chopping boards with many types of bacteria, causing food poisoning. All of the bacteria on the wooden board died within few minutes. On the other hand, the bacteria on the plastic board not only remained alive, but actually multiplied overnight.
For this reason and because we find wooden boards much more pleasing to the eye, we naturally have a preference towards them. There should be at least few good reasons, for such a long-lasting tradition (of using wooden chopping blocks) to be alive.
So how do you to choose a good wooden cutting board?
There are two types of wooden chopping boards and we’ll look in more depth at each one:
End-grain cutting boards are made up of many square or rectangular batons of wood, bonded together under high pressure. They are more durable than the regular wooden boards because of the end-grain harder surface, but are at the same time are good for the blade’s edge. That’s because the blade goes between wood fibers instead of crushing against them. The way it works is wood grains separate on contact with the knife and then close when the it’s removed. This particular quality makes the board surface highly marks resistant.
The flat-grain cutting boards are generally made up of larger sections of wood, with the grain, as the name implies lying flat. They are our second choice because of the less resistant surface. Having said that we must emphasize the fact they are definitely less expensive than the end-grain boards. It is also the kind of chopping board to look for, if you want a particular shape or size.
As for the type of wood – the rule of thumb is the harder the better. Few types of wood are used for chopping boards more than others: hevea, beech, maple or bamboo, but it’s also possible to find good quality boards made of oak, olivewood or hornbeam.
The maple and hevea (or rubber) wood used in cutting boards are actually by-products. When the trees reach the end of their productive life, they are cut down and the timber is used to produce items like chopping boards. This means you can have beautiful chopping board, made from hard, very durable and with tight grain structure chopping board, for a reasonable price.
Do plastic cutting boards have some advantages?
Well, the short answer is yes, they do.
First of all, they are far less expensive than then the wooden boards, and could be changed more often because there is no practically reason to be attached to a plastic board. Plastic boards are also quite kind to your knife’s blade and therefore it stays sharp for longer.
They are generally lighter and thinner than the wooden ones, and that makes them easier to use, clean and store. Another advantage is the fact they could be clean in dishwasher, on a normal temperature cycle.
We also admire those handy plastic boards that could be folded, helping you transfer the chopped food without any spillage.
As for the anti-bacterial surface of some of the plastic chopping boards, we should never forget that advertising could be misleading. As far as we know, some of the plastic boards are treated with pesticides preventing the growth odor-causing bacteria, but these pesticides are not proven to kill bacteria like salmonella or e-coli. So, even if they are the only type of cutting boards allowed in commercial kitchens, they are not self-sanitizing.
So, no matter whichever type of cutting boards you decide to use, you have to clean and sanitize them with caution, in order to avoid food poisoning.
How to clean and sanitize cutting boards?
Hand scrubbing with hot water and dishwashing liquid can clear microorganisms from the surface of new or used wooden boards and new plastic ones, but keep in mind knife-scared plastic boards will need something more than hand washing with hot water and soap.
To clean and disinfect all types of cutting boards, undiluted vinegar is the most cost-effective, healthy and environment friendly solution. The acetic acid in the vinegar is a good disinfectant, effective against such harmful bacteria as e-coli, salmonella or staphylococcus. To sanitize, just wipe or spray the clean dry cutting board with full-strait vinegar and allow to air dry. Vinegar also eliminates the smell of garlic, onion, fish or other unpleasant smells from your cutting board.
Some sources recommend the use of 3% hydrogen peroxide or bleach (diluted chlorine bleach or a mix of it with some diluted vinegar) to sanitize your cutting boards. Although, we haven’t used them, we know these two kill various bacteria. Make sure to rinse thoroughly after any such treatment and allow drying completely.
We are trying to avoid chemistry at home and use lemon juice instead. It is natural bleach and not only will sanitize you chopping boards, but will remove stains and deodorize them, too. And if you need a stronger solution, mix the lemon juice with some salt and scrub.
How to increase food safety and avoid food poisoning?
Whichever type of cutting board you have, there are few things one should observe in order to be safe from dangerous bacteria:
- First of all, use only boards that are approved for contact with food.
- Use boards with a smooth, hard surface and replace the ones that are deeply scratched, carved or grooved. There are ways to maintain wooden boards to a smooth luster (see below), but you have to throw away the damaged plastic ones.
- Do not chop fresh vegetables, fruits, breads, and other food that will not be cooked prior to eating on an unwashed cutting board that’s been used to trim raw meat, poultry or seafood. It’s best to use a separate cutting board for raw meats, poultry and fish.
- Scrape off any stuck food and clean the cutting board after each use as soon as it’s possible.
- Drying is very important for the wooden boards, as the wood is a porous material and moisture is what keeps bacteria alive. Without moisture resident bacteria survive no more than a few hours. So, to avoid the risk of food poisoning, try to keep your cutting boards dry, following these simple rules:
- Do not submerge wooden boards in a sink of water, as it will soak up lots of water. This will cause a very long drying and probably cracks, when the board is finally dry.
- Make sure your wooden chopping boards don’t stay wet for long periods of time.
- If you have a big and heavy wooden board on your countertop, beware of moisture collecting beneath it.
- Do not stack wet boards together.
How to maintain the wooden boards?
Wooden boards and butcher blocks need proper surface treatment to prevent absorption of bacteria, odors, moisture and mold growth. Sealing the wood grains against bacteria is equally important for new boards as for the old ones. The wood surface needs to be treated with oil regularly, so to fill the wood pores and repel food particles and liquids. As the regular vegetable or cooking oils turn rancid relatively quickly, they are not good for treating the wood.
The cheapest and easiest to use is the mineral oil (or butcher block finish). It does not turn rancid and is perfectly food save. You need to simply wipe the mineral oil on the surface of your board and allow it to soak in. When the wood won’t take any more oil, you can wipe off the excess with a clean dry cloth.
Beeswax has been used for centuries for waterproofing and sealing materials, and even for preserving foods. The beeswax sits on the surface of the wood in contrast to the oil that soaks into the wood. As a result it fills in pores and gaps, helping to keep moisture, bacteria, and other contaminants from getting into the wood surface. The beeswax can be found in various forms on the market. It can be microwaved, to make it easier to apply and buff with soft cloth.
Before applying oil to your chopping board or butcher block, the surface could be sanded to remove stains or scratches, and make it smother. Use fine sandpaper but in order to sand the top evenly, use it with a flat pad.
Take care of your wooden chopping board or butcher block this way regularly and you’ll avoid food poisoning, leaving it in a good shape to your grandchildren.
You probably noticed that we didn’t even mention glass or marble cutting boards. The truth is they are safer than the wooden or plastic ones, when we talk about bacteria – easy to clean and sanitize, don’t hold moisture and you can’t scratch the surface. But glass or stone make the knife’s blade dull, so we don’t even consider them.
Sources: Buzzle, What’s Cooking America