There is probably no simpler item in the kitchen than a cutting board, yet few items provoke such heated debate.
Cutting boards are available in a range of materials – including various woods, plastic, acrylic, glass and bamboo.
Plastic Cutting Boards
Many people avoid plastic purely on aesthetic grounds. They just plain view them as tacky and view the matter as a quality of life issue.
Others give more practical reasons for their dislike of plastic cutting boards. They say the boards are slippery, both on top and below; that they’ll slide around the counter, and that your knife slides on them as well, preventing fine mincing and slicing. This was the case at one point, but most now come with rough surfaces on both sides to address this issue.
Plastic Cutting Boards can come with moats around their sides to catch juices, and with grooves of varying sizes running through the top.
They are so cheap, you can easily have a good assortment, so that if one or two are always in the dishwasher at one point, it doesn’t matter. There is no reason not to throw the plastic ones in the dishwasher after every use.
If your plastic board still moves around on you, some people suggest putting a damp towel under them, or the kind of small rubberized mat often made to go in refrigerator vegetable crisper drawers.
Wooden Cutting Boards
There are two schools of thought on Wooden Cutting Boards:
- don’t skimp on cost, buy the best you can and nurture it your entire life; versus
- regard it as an item that you will replace in your kitchen several times over the course of your lifetime.
Wooden Cutting Boards can be made from hardwood or softwood and are held together with food-safe glues. Softwood Boards will absorb everything more readily, including the soap and chemicals you clean them with, but they are less expensive.
Don’t let Wooden Cutting Boards sit with wet undersides, or you may get mould growing underneath.
Many people buy a very fancy, beautiful Wooden Cutting Board and then worry about marks if they cut anything on it.
A lot of people’s Wooden Cutting Boards have burnt circles on one side — from setting it on an electric stove to dry, and then the burner getting turned on.
You can get Cutting Boards, usually plastic, that are designed to go over the sink. They have metal arms that extend out of each end, allowing the Board to be propped up over the sink.
This can be a great way to create more workspace on small counters. It’s also useful when you’re processing food like tomatoes to avoid juice leaking on your counter.
Some over-the-sink models have baskets in them as well into which waste can be pushed. The ones with baskets, though, are less useful when used as a regular cutting board on a counter. There is usually a large hole where you would have placed the basket.
Bamboo Cutting Boards
Bamboo Cutting Boards are seen as environmentally sound, because bamboo grows like a weed. Yet, they are more expensive than wood boards.
Fans say bamboo boards absorb less liquid than wood, though they shouldn’t be soaked in water or put through the dishwasher as there are more glued pieces to come apart than in Wooden Cutting Boards.
They can be made with the top of the board showing the ends of the bamboo stalks, giving you a cross section of the ends, or with it showing flat strips of bamboo. All pieces are cut, sanded and laminated. The board will feel like a solid piece of wood, though light for its size. Bamboo Cutting Boards don’t stain, and hold their coloration well, so they keep on looking good longer than many other Cutting Boards. They do however have a tendency to crack.
The advertising can be a bit confusing. Claims are made that they are 16% harder than maple, and so able to resist cut marks better than wood. In the same breath, it will also be claimed that they are softer than wood and therefore kinder on knife edges.
Chopping Boards (aka Butcher Blocks)
Some people distinguish between chopping boards and Cutting Boards. Cutting Boards are used for slicing. Chopping boards are designed to take heavy pounding, such as that of a butcher using a meat cleaver. Chopping Boards are usually made of hard wood such as laminated maple, end-grain up, held together by threaded rods from side to side. Some may not have the extra reinforcing rods, but almost all will have their wood end or side grain up. They are often called Butcher Blocks.
Chopping Boards will usually be 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) thick and very heavy. Butchers will clean them by a combination of wire brushes, scraping, hot water with some bleach in it, and rinsing. The boards will need to be resurfaced from time to time with scraping and sanding to smooth out all the chop marks.
Dough rolled out on Chopping Blocks generally won’t stick because of the finish applied to the boards (but you have to know it’s totally sanitized from any previous meat chopped on it.)
Anti-bacterial Cutting Boards
Anti-bacterial Cutting Boards are plastic Cutting Boards treated with active agents such as “triclosan”, Microban and Bacteron, the same active agents as are used in anti-bacterial handsoaps.
Sadly, though, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found that this treatment has little or no effect whatsoever when used in Cutting Boards.
Prior to 1997, two companies advertised self-sanitizing plastic Cutting Boards that they claimed would stop the growth of bacteria, particularly salmonella and E.coli. The agent called Bacteron (aka bicyclomycin , Bicozamycin, Bacfeed) was mixed into the surfacing of the boards. On 27 June 1997, the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered them to stop this claim of “anti-bacterial” Cutting Boards, as the claims were not proven. Dr D. Carl Batt of Cornell University, at a National Sanitation Foundation conference, said that he had concluded that
there was no significant advantage to plastic Cutting Boards advertised as “anti-bacterial” (using Bacteron or Microban) over untreated plastic Cutting Boards.
Wooden Cutting Board Maintenance
Many people don’t practise any maintenance at all on their wooden boards, aside from vigorous scrubbings with soap and water after use, and report no problems after decades of use.
They don’t care what it looks like: to them, a cutting board, even a wooden one, is a utility item, not a piece of livingroom furniture. They regard Wooden Cutting Boards as pieces of wood to be replaced every so often. Many will even toss them in the dishwasher as needed, and in four or five years when the boards fall apart, just replace them.
Wild-eyed aficionados, though, tend their Wooden Cutting Boards as fine art. Some boast of having Cutting Boards made from maple grown in Canada, presumably feeling that those maple tree genes are superior to those found in the same trees ten feet across on the American side of the border.
Such people will oil their wooden boards religiously. They believe that oiling the Cutting Board helps to prevent the wood splitting over time, and makes the wood less porous and less thirsty, so that it absorbs less water and less juice. (Others disagree, saying that it has no utility whatsoever, and any effects are purely aesthetic.)
The “oiling” camp, however, isn’t one uniform school of thought. They debate amongst themselves whether to use vegetable oil such as soybean, canola or corn, or mineral oil. Some people have said that vegetable oil has gone rancid on them; others say that it never has for them. It could be that those who used vegetable oil used the board so often that the vegetable oil on it never had a chance to sit around and go rancid.
Some pooh pooh the whole mineral oil idea. They say that it’s a new idea, and before people always just used regular oils and fats. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take a piece of beef fat and rub their board with it. But the real keeno men insist on nothing less than mineral oil. In drug stores, mineral oil is often stored near laxatives, sometimes labelled “intestinal lubricant.”
Both sides of the great oil debate agree, however, not to use oils such as linseed oil or tung oil, as they aren’t rated as food grade, and not to use olive oil, as it will impart a smell and go rancid.
In the care of their Wooden Cutting Boards, some men like to go so far as to scrape their boards down after every use. You will consequently see all kinds of advice about scraping and brushing the surfaces of Wooden Cutting Boards, and kits for sale with sandpaper, steel wool and bees wax compounds. Most women feel that any of this futzing can be ignored, and that its greatest utility lies in giving the men something to do in the garage to stay out of their hair.
The purpose of sanding is meant to restore wooden surfaces that have gone fuzzy. After sanding a Wooden Cutting Board, you are advised to wipe it with an oiled cloth to get off the sawdust powder and any grit from the sandpaper (though some in fact say never to use sandpaper at all for this very reason.)
Hot temperatures can cause the glues holding Wooden Cutting Boards together to come undone, if thermosetting glues were used in their construction. This applies to those temperatures that can be experienced in dishwashers, ovens, and microwave ovens. Consequently, don’t pop your wooden cutting board in the oven to sterilize it, or to help any oil treatment penetrate better.
Many people like to apply a nice finish to even a homemade Wooden Cutting Board. In addition to making the board look nicer, they feel that a finish will “protect” it. Avoiding a hard finish like shellac or varnish is obvious advice, as it would be destroyed in no time by the cutting happening on the board. Consequently, finish suggestions include combinations of the following:
- rubbing with mineral oil;
- melting paraffin wax or beeswax in a microwave (optional: mixing with some mineral oil or edible walnut oil once melted) then rubbing it in, letting it dry, repeating the application a few more times;
- avoid nut oil if any of your family or friends might have allergies;
- you can add a few drops of herb oils such as thyme, rosemary, etc, to your mixture or oil if you wish for smell;
- some people recommend heating the board first in oven on a very low temperature (150°F) for about 10 minutes, but see the precaution above about heating Wooden Cutting Boards.
People in between the two camps — the use and toss camp, and the pampering camp — seem to follow a middle way of care along the following lines. To clean them after use, they pour boiling water on both sides, wash with good hot soapy water, and let stand to dry. Every couple of months, they will apply a coat of oil if they have time. Once a year, or every two years, if the surface of the board has gotten fuzzy, they may sand it when they have time.
Some people find even this middle way over the top, and suggest that if you have Wooden Cutting Boards that you are that fond of, to use them as serving and presentation boards and get other boards that can actually earn their keep in the kitchen.
Cutting Board Hygiene
Having multiple Cutting Boards might be a very important safety factor in kitchens. At a minimum, it can help ensure that there’s a clean board available when you need it, rather than re-using a dirty board that just got a hurried rinse.
In 2005, researchers identified some positive cutting-board practices in restaurants that they felt helped prevent food poisoning. These practices included having multiple Cutting Boards, so that clean ones were instantly available, and agreed-upon colour-coded plastic boards, so that meat boards were instantly recognizable and were used for that purpose only. Many home cooks like to do this, too, reserving one colour such as red specially for meat, green boards for veggies, blue ones for fish, yellow for onions and garlic, etc. You can buy colour-coded sets of cutting boards.
Some people restrict wooden board use to veggies and bread.
Don’t use a board that raw meat has been on for anything else until the board has been thoroughly cleaned. To sanitize a board, use 2 teaspoons of bleach per quart (litre) of water. Douse the board with the treated water, let stand a few minutes, then rinse well with clean water. Some suggest using peroxide instead, as it doesn’t leave the bleach taste or smell behind (though that would evaporate in a short while, anyway.) Lab people, though, say they’ll stick with bleach anyway, because it kills everything, and quickly.
A 10% cleaning solution of bleach is as good for disinfecting as is using straight bleach, so there’s no point in going any higher in your proportion of water to bleach. In fact, 10% is what the American Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends for disinfecting.
Others say you can also sit your wooden cutting board out in direct sunlight because ultra-violet light is still a great sanitizer, deodorizer, and killer of bacteria, and it’s free.
Lemon juice really does nothing to sanitize a wooden cutting board. Why people like lemon juice on the boards is that it can counteract the smells of onion and garlic.
Some studies have concluded that plastic Cutting Boards put through the dishwasher held more bacteria than wood boards cleaned without a dishwasher. And it’s true: a dishwasher won’t kill all the bacteria on a plastic cutting board. To kill all bacteria, even “sporulated bacteria”, you have to use an autoclave that goes over 212 F / 100 C under pressure. But your Cutting Board doesn’t need to have a completely sterile surface — cooking is not a sterile act. It just needs a surface that has nothing particularly harmful on it. Most harmful bacteria will be killed in the dishwasher if the water temperature is 180 F (82 C) or above.
Some researchers have found that the drier Wooden Cutting Boards got, the safer they got. They found that after being washed, of the bacteria that remained on and in Wooden Cutting Boards, significant numbers die-off after about four hours — around the point at which the wood started to get truly dry, depriving the bacteria of the moist environment they need to survive. They found that immediately re-using a wooden board that had chicken and pork on it, even after scrubbing it with soap and hot water, without allowing it the hours needed to completely dry, still risked contaminating the next food placed on the board.
Researchers also found that when a Wooden Cutting Board is washed, giving it a head start on drying by wiping it dry with paper towel actually helps (despite spurious urban-myth to the contrary that even clean paper towel only increased bacterial content.) It decreased somewhat the amount of time required for significant bacterial die-off after washing. They also found that wiping with paper towel even helped somewhat with boards that hadn’t been washed perfectly.
The dryness factor also applied to accelerating the bacteria die-off on plastic boards.
Disinfecting a Wooden Cutting Board in Microwave
There has been some interest in the idea that Wooden Cutting Boards can be sterilized in microwave ovens.
Dean O. Cliver, a food scientist and microbiologist at the University of California, seems to be the main advocate of this technique, and perhaps the one who originated the idea. His ideas are found in a series of papers in the Journal of Food Protection, 1994 to 1996, In one of his experiments he found that a wood cutting board, deliberately heavily infested with E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, required 10 minutes on high in a 800-watt microwave oven to have most of the bacteria killed. He wrote that he found almost total elimination after 3 to 4 minutes at 800 watts. He also found that wetting the board sped up the process. To that end, some people who advocate the microwave-cleaning process tell you to wet the cutting board, then wrap it in a wet tea-towel. Cliver has warned, though, that some people have encountered sparks, because some Cutting Boards may have hidden internal supports that are metal, or because they are using microwaves more powerful than the 800-watt one he tested with.
Since then,”recommended” time estimates for the microwave zap range from 60 seconds to 5 minutes. The thing is, though, that there are no official recommendations for home users to do it in the first place. You will, though, find recommendations not to do it. Some engineers point out that attempting to heat dry objects could damage your microwave, and that heating the board for too long could cause the board itself to explode, or cause a fire. They are uncomfortable with the idea of heating something in a microwave for which no safety testing has been done. To cover themselves, some wood cutting board manufacturers now (viz. Elkay 2005) are specifying that their Wooden Cutting Boards are not microwave safe. Barbara Ingham, a Food Science Specialist at the University of Wisconsin writes …”And while it is theoretically possible to use a microwave to disinfect a wooden cutting board, such a procedure is not recommended due to fire hazard and the lack of an established procedure to do so.” 
Cliver found that the procedure did not work with plastic Cutting Boards because they would not get hot enough.
Heating a Wooden Cutting Board by microwaving may also weaken its glue bonds.
Are Wooden Cutting Boards Naturally “Anti-Bacterial”?
There is somewhat of a debate as to whether Wooden Cutting Boards are naturally “antibacterial” or not. There is a good deal of conflicting opinion even at the research level .
The debate seems to have originated with a 1993 University of Wisconsin Food Research Institute study conducted by Dr Dean Cliver (as of 2007, at the University of California) and Dr. Nese Ak. Their study showed that Wooden Cutting Boards tended to harbour fewer bacteria than plastic ones. The story got released via an Associated Press story written by Mary MacVean, on 10 March 1993. Popular imagination got hold of the idea, and ran with it. Armchair experts went so far as to say that wood was “naturally anti-bacterial” because it had microscopic jagged edges that poked holes in bacteria cells, killing them. The topic was covered with regularity by the “food press”, who kept on reporting the 1993 report, without rolling up their sleeves and looking at the studies that were done after that by others that didn’t produce the same favourable results for wood that Cliver had got. As early as December 1993, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) did a follow-up investigation of their own to see if wood indeed did have “natural antimicrobial agents.” They admitted that one type of wood — white ash — showed some small signs of inhibiting pathogens. But that aside, wood significantly had retained higher bacterial levels. 
Cliver stuck to his guns, though, and did further studies. He refined his testing to take into account variables that others were using, and still found that Wooden Cutting Boards yielded up less bacteria than plastic ones. What seemed to puzzle him, though, was what happening to the bacteria that he put on the Wooden Cutting Boards. He couldn’t find any dead bacteria, as he should have been able to. It was just vanishing. By 1996, he was reported as having found that the bacteria had been drawn down into the wood. This meant, of course. that the bacteria was still there, but that your food wouldn’t be affected by it, unless you happened to release it by cutting deep into the wood — say 1/8th inch (30 mm) or so (which granted doesn’t seem like much of a margin of error.)
In 1997, the FDA, which had previously said that plastic Cutting Boards were the most sanitary, had modified its advice to say that either wood or plastic Cutting Boards are fine, just sanitize whichever one you are using properly.
Food safety professionals still aren’t certain what they can advise as far as wood being better than plastic. In Food Facts For You! August 2001, Barbara Ingham, of the University of Wisconsin Food Research Institute, only went so far as to write, ….”while the chemicals naturally present in wood may have some bacteria-killing properties.” In her reference to “chemicals”, it is seen that there was still some uncertainty as to exactly what was causing the lower bacteria counts on Wooden Cutting Boards.
The current consensus as of 2007 appears to be that it may be a physical process rather than a chemical one. That it may be that on Wooden Cutting Boards, bacteria is absorbed down into the wood, where the wood holds it and doesn’t release it. The bacteria eventually starves to death from lack of nutrition and moisture inside the wood.
This, by the way, would come up against the theory held by Wooden Cutting Board maintenance enthusiasts, that you should keep your board oiled to prevent stuff coming into the board.
 Laura R. Green of RTI International and Carol Selman of Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta “Factors Impacting Food Workers’ and Managers’ Safe Food Preparation Practices: A Qualitative Study.” Food Protection Trends, Vol. 25, No. 12, Pages 981–990. December 2005.
 Barbara Ingham. Food Facts For You! University of Wisconsin, Food Industry Research Service and Training, July 1998.
 ARS workshop 1 to 2 December 1993. Investigation led by Arthur Miller of the ARS’ Eastern Regional Research unit in Philadelphia.
The kind of Cutting Board you use can have an greater influence on how long your knives stay sharp than the food items you are actually cutting with the knives. Cutting Boards made of acrylic, glass, granite, lucite, marble, or synthetic stone will dull a knife faster than ones made of plastic (polyethylene or polypropylene.) Wood, surprisingly, is second-best for knives after plastic.
Some Cutting Boards, both wooden and plastic, have grooves along the edges to catch juices. Some boards have feet, but this means you can’t use them on that side.
Fabricant, Florence. Of Cutting Boards and Cleanliness. New York: New York Times. 2 October 1996.
Fraser, Stacy. Color-Coded Cutting Boards. Eating Well Magazine. October 2010.
Gangar, V., Meyers, E., Johnson, H., Curiale, M., Ayers, T. and Michaels, B. of Georgia Pacific Corp., Palatka, Florida, United States. Evaluation of household cutting board clean-up techniques. Poster displays at various conferences including PREVENTING INFECTIOUS INTESTINAL DISEASE IN THE DOMESTIC SETTING. London. December 2000 and International Association for Food Protection Annual Meeting, Atlanta: August 2000.
Laura R. Green of RTI International and Carol Selman of Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta “Factors Impacting Food Workers’ and Managers’ Safe Food Preparation Practices: A Qualitative Study”. Food Protection Trends, Vol. 25, No. 12, Pages 981–990. December 2005.
Park, P. K., and D. O. Cliver. 1996. Disinfection of household Cutting Boards with a microwave oven. J. Food. Protect. 59: 1049-1054.