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How many hours a day do you spend over a cutting board? Even if it’s only, say, 15 minutes, that time really adds up over the weeks. You deserve to spend it cozied up to a cutting board you feel good about—one that’s attractive, responds well as you chop, and is sized to match the task at hand.
For such a simple item, there are a lot of factors to consider when selecting a cutting board. A cutting board seems relatively benign, but improper use can make it one of the most bacteria-laden items in a kitchen.
Here’s how to choose a cutting board that makes sense for your budget and lifestyle, and how to keep it safe and sanitary.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A CUTTING BOARD
First of all, relax. You may have heard all kinds of claims about certain types of cutting boards being unsafe. Know that any cutting board material is safe as long as you adhere to the recommended food handling and sanitation practices (which we’ll get to, don’t worry).
Here are the factors to weigh when selecting a board.
- Is it knife-friendly? The harder the surface, the more it dulls your knife over time.
- Is it easy to clean? Can you put it in the dishwasher, if that’s important to you?
- Is it easy to maintain? Does it need periodic conditioning with board oil?
- What does it cost? How much will this set you back?
- How durable is it? How often will you need to replace it?
- How big is it? What space do you have?
EDGE GRAIN VS END GRAIN WOOD CUTTING BOARDS
Wooden cutting boards come in both edge grain and end grain styles, each with its own pros and cons.
Edge grain wood cutting boards are made from wood that has been cut with the grain. This means that the top of the board shows long wood fibers. Edge grain boards are the most common type of wood cutting board, because they are usually the most affordable.
Edge grain boards are more likely to hold scarring from the knife’s blade, because the long wood board fibers don’t provide much give under the knife’s blade. (Think: You’re chopping against the tree fibers on an edge grain board.) This is also why edge grain boards are considered to be a bit tougher on knives than end grain boards.
End grain wood cutting boards are made by fusing cross-section pieces of wood together. This means that the top of the board shows the rings of the wood instead of the side view (the length) of the wood. End grain boards are often a few inches thick, and because they’re more difficult to construct, they will almost always cost more than an edge grain board.
The wood fibers of end grain boards recover from use better than edge grain boards, leading to fewer grooves in the board. In that sense, an end grain cutting board is more resilient. It’s also gentler on knives, because the wood fibers have more give.
However, because many wood pieces are glued together to make one, an end grain board is potentially more susceptible to moisture if not properly cared for. That’s because wood that’s cut against the grain absorbs more water than wood cut with the grain. (Absorbency is a drawback in a cutting board, because you want it to stay dry and free of bacteria.)
If an end grain board is repeatedly left wet, the seams can come apart over time and create tiny chasms to house bacteria. But keep in mind, routine conditioning with mineral oil or board cream helps prevent any cutting board—end or edge grain—from absorbing moisture and developing cracks. It’s just especially important with an end grain cutting board.
So what about that business of edge grain boards being a bit “tougher” on knives?
That might be a big deal if you chop a lot, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it. The fact is any wooden cutting board will be gentler on your knife than another material like glass, Corian, or metal.
MAPLE, OAK, AND CHERRY CUTTING BOARDS
With good care, wooden cutting boards are safe, gentle on knives, and long-lasting. Wood cutting boards also have a broad range of prices, with simple ones costing around $20 and hefty handcrafted ones coming in at well over $200.
Dense hardwoods like maple, walnut, cherry, beech, and teak make the most durable cutting boards. The smaller pores of these woods block bacteria from penetrating the surface of the board and make it more difficult for knives to create grooves where bacteria can lurk. And wood naturally contains antimicrobial compounds, like tannins.
- CARING FOR WOOD CUTTING BOARDS: Don’t ever run a wood cutting board through the dishwasher. You will ruin it. High heat and harsh detergents will split and warp a wood cutting board. Instead, here’s How to Clean and Care for Wooden Cutting Boards.
BAMBOO CUTTING BOARDS
Bamboo cutting boards, like this one from Greener Chef, are inexpensive and come from bamboo—a grass—which is more sustainable than wood. A bamboo board is pretty lightweight but will last a long time if you care for it. You can get decent bamboo cutting boards for $10 or less, all the way up to $150 for burly ones.
Just like wood, bamboo cutting boards come in end grain and edge grain styles. End grain is more expensive. Bamboo is harder than wood, so bamboo boards will dull your knife faster than wooden ones. Still, they can be a good budget choice if you want the look of wood with the bonus of sustainability.
- CARING FOR BAMBOO: Bamboo cutting board care is the same as wood: no dishwasher, and condition with board oil periodically.
PLASTIC CUTTING BOARDS: THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS SAFER!
Plastic cutting boards, like this one from OXO, come in many sizes and color and styles. You won’t be handing them down as family heirlooms, but they’re an affordable option that won’t dull knives, and when taken care of, they won’t warp or crack. Expect to pay under $10 for something basic and up to $100 for a high-end commercial model.
No plastic cutting board will last as long as a wood or bamboo board. Wooden boards self-heal, which means their fibers bounce back somewhat from a knife’s edge.
On plastic cutting boards, every cut on the surface stays there forever. More grooves on a cutting board = more places for bacteria to hide. Therefore, plastic cutting boards are not as safe from harboring bacteria as we’ve been led to believe, and in fact, wood boards may have better antimicrobial properties after all!
Not all plastics are created equal. For example, high density polyethylene (HDPE) is more resilient than standard polyethylene (PE). When shopping for a cutting board, if it mentions the type of plastic it’s made from, it’s probably more durable than a run-of-the-mill generic board.
- WHEN TO REPLACE PLASTIC BOARDS: When you see lots of scarring from your knife on that plastic cutting board, it’s time to get a new one. The more nooks and crannies, the harder it is to clean and sanitize. How often you need to replace a plastic cutting board will depend on how often you use it, but in general, if the surface feels rough and shaggy, it’s time for a new one.
- CARING FOR PLASTIC: You’ll hear opposing recommendations on putting plastic cutting boards in the dishwasher. The USDA says it’s okay, but the heat from the dishwasher can soften some plastics so they seal over bacteria-containing grooves in your board, creating bacteria pockets. Yuck! We advise you to defer to the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning.
Photo credit: Epicurean
COMPOSITE CUTTING BOARDS (aka EPICUREAN)
Composite cutting boards give you the best of many worlds.
We’re longtime fans of Epicurean cutting boards, made of Richlite, a paper composite. They’re not quite as gentle on your knives as wood, but they’re dishwasher-safe, nearly impossible to stain, don’t require oiling, and come in many sizes and styles.
If you love wooden cutting boards but want something that’s easier to care for and just as durable, try one of these. They start around $20 and go up to $60.
CUTTING BOARD MATERIALS TO AVOID
We don’t recommend glass, marble, granite, or Corian cutting boards. These surfaces are very hard and will make your knife become dull quickly.
OTHER TIPS TO HELP YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT CUTTING BOARD FOR YOU
- USE MULTIPLE CUTTING BOARDS: Designate different cutting boards for certain foods if you are concerned about cross-contamination. You can buy sets of color-coded plastic cutting boards (green for veggies and fruits, blue for fish, yellow for poultry, red for meat) to make it easy to tell them apart.
- DIFFERENT SIZES FOR DIFFERENT JOBS: If you cook a lot, have different sized cutting boards handy: a small one for quick jobs like slicing cheese or fruit, and a large one for cutting into bigger things like winter squash or breaking down a whole chicken. In general, the more space you have to work on, the faster your prep will go.
- NONSKID FEET: Nonskid feet on the bottom of a cutting board will keep it from sliding. (Or try laying a damp paper towel under the cutting board.)
- IF YOU ARE TALL: If you’re tall, buy a cutting board that’s thick. This raises your work surface so you don’t have to bend over as much. It’s all about ergonomics and can make a big difference in your comfort on days when you prep a lot! (You can also stack a few thinner cutting boards, which is what I used to do in my restaurant prep cook days.)
- IF YOU ARE SHORT: Conversely, if you’re short, by a cutting board that’s not too thick.
- NO DRIPPING! Tired of liquid dripping onto the counter? Look for a board with a juice groove. This is the trench inside the perimeter of the board that collects liquid when you cut very juicy fruits or vegetables, like tomatoes or watermelon, or carve hot cooked meat. A juice groove that’s shallow or narrower won’t hold much and is mainly cosmetic.
- AVOID HANDLES: Cutting boards with handles cut into them can be a slight nuisance. Yes, they are be useful for quick grabbing or hanging for storage, but as you chop, bits of food can fall into the open space, making a small mess. Since you can’t use that area as a cutting surface, a handle essentially makes your cutting board smaller.
- GET FLEXIBLE: Flexible plastic cutting boards are flimsy and won’t last very long, but their flimsiness is an asset: You can curve them to make a funnel to dump foods directly into a bowl or pan.
FOOD SAFETY TIPS FOR CUTTING BOARDS
- Observe proper cutting order: When you prep, cut raw fruit and vegetables first, and then cut raw meat, poultry, and fish second. This helps you avoid cross-contamination. Cutting ready-to-eat foods on a cutting board that recently had raw meat, poultry, or fish on it can easily spread bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.
- Clean your board right after cutting any food. It’s a good practice to thoroughly clean your board right after cutting any food. It’s safer, makes cleanup easier, and keeps flavors from penetrating the board (giving you the dreaded garlic-infused apple chunks). You can clean any cutting board by washing it with hot, soapy water after each use. Rinse well and air dry, or dry thoroughly with clean towels.
- Sanitize occasionally: To sanitize cutting boards, the USDA recommends a solution of 1 tablespoon of regular-strength liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water (this solution will be effective for 2 weeks, and no longer). Wipe the cutting board liberally with the solution and allow it to stand for several minutes. Rinse well with water and air dry, or pat dry with a clean towel. Check out this post on how to clean and care for wood cutting boards, specifically.