Cutting Boards 101: How to Choose, Use and Maintain Your Kitchen Workhorse
Think you know what makes a quality cutting board? We’ve got your guide to this essential food prep tool, from buying to cleaning and everything in between.
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No matter what you’re cooking up in your home kitchen, you’re likely going to need to pull out a cutting board. These versatile tools are absolutely essential – sure, you can cut anything on their surfaces, but you can also use a cutting board as a serving platter, a surface to handle dough or as a designed prep area. Your boards see daily use, and they need to be reliable and durable.
Having a quality cutting board is key no matter what you’re carving, chopping or prepping. But how can you tell the difference between a board that’ll deliver and one that isn’t worth investing in? We spoke with Tim and Tanya Reazor, the founders of premium cutting board company Fifth & Cherry, to get expert insight on how to choose, utilize and maintain this key kitchen tool.
Material matters more than you might think
When you’re picking out a cutting board, you’ll have an array of different options in almost every kind of material possible. Wood is very common (and pretty popular), but plastic and bamboo are also available everywhere. And you might even come across some more unique materials, like glass, marble or compressed wood.
If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices, you definitely aren’t alone. But you don’t want to simply settle for any cutting board that suits your budget. A board’s material impacts not only its durability, but also how it ages, if it’s likely to develop stains, odors and bacteria, and the sharpness of your knives.
That’s right: The material of your cutting board can alter numerous other kitchen tools and your food safety too. This is why you really don’t want to overlook what, exactly, your board is made of.
What’s the best material for a cutting board?
According to Tim and Tanya Reazor, who are experts in building, maintaining and refinishing cutting boards, wood is the best choice.
“There are three woods that are ideal cutting surfaces: Maple, which is the most popular for cutting boards, cherry and walnut, which is more scarce and expensive,” Tanya explains. “But there are many, many woods on the spectrum that are just not good.”
What makes a particular wood variety a worthy cutting board choice? It’s all about the wood’s density.
“Different woods have different densities,” Tanya says. “We use ethically sourced North American black cherry. Based on density level, walnut is also within the range of being a good cutting board surface. Acacia, bamboo, purple heart – these woods sound exotic, but they’re too hard or too soft and can impact your knives.”
And when you’re picking out a wood cutting board, opt for one that’s made from just one kind of wood. As Tanya explains, “Checkerboard-patterned cutting boards are beautiful, but use different woods. These different woods, when mixed, all have different densities, so they’re going to wear differently under your knives. Woods swell and contract at different rates, which impacts the structure of the board, causes mold to form and creates gaps.”
So, think simple: Opt for wood, just plain ol’ single-variety wood.
Plastic may be popular, but it can be dangerous for your health
You already know plastic is awful for the environment and your own personal health and wellness. And if you’ve been relying on plastic cutting boards, you’re going to want to get rid of them ASAP.
“When you’re cutting on plastic, microplastics are going into your food with every cut,” Tim notes. “One of the quickest ways to get oil and plastic into your system is to cut on and eat off of a plastic cutting board.”
But using a plastic cutting board in the kitchen isn’t just bad because it’s made out of plastic. The impact can be even worse than you think – and, to be perfectly honest, totally gross.
If you’ve ever used a plastic cutting board, especially while working with raw or cooked meat, you’ve likely noticed that the material can develop stains that never seem to go away. “That’s bacteria,” Tim says.
“People think plastic is antibacterial,” Tanya explains. “But even dishwashers can’t get plastic cutting boards clean.” And when stains develop on your plastic cutting board, it’s a sure sign that you have lingering bacteria hanging out that you simply can’t get rid of. If you keep cutting on that board, you’ll run the risk of letting bacteria sneak into everything that touches its surface.
Plus, according to research, plastic cutting boards hang onto the bacteria that grows on their surfaces and in the nooks and crannies of knife cuts. Compared to wood cutting boards, plastic is the far more bacteria-laden choice. If you’re hoping to keep bacteria out of your kitchen and off your dinner plate, you won’t want to work with a plastic cutting board.
Skip glass, marble and other too-hard surfaces
They aren’t nearly as popular as wood and plastic boards, but cutting boards made out of glass and stones (like granite) do exist. While they may be visually appealing, these boards aren’t a smart choice.
Stone and glass aren’t just slick and slippery. They’re incredibly hard on your knives too. “Cutting on these surfaces will dull your knife in as few as 10 strokes,” Tim points out.
Board construction matters for durability, too
You might not think about a cutting board’s longevity when you’re trying to find one that’ll fit your needs. But you should – the less durable a board is, the more likely it is to develop deep grooves and cuts from your knives. And when those cuts and grooves appear, they can affect the way your knives cut, your own safety while cutting and (like we mentioned above) the bacteria that gets into the board.
It’s also to take the details of a board’s construction into consideration. Tanya shared three of her key details to look for.
Made in the USA
A board that’s made in the USA “typically means you’re getting higher-quality construction,” Tanya says.
“Staggered seams add to the strength of the board construction,” Tanya notes. “Straight seams are easier to separate and more likely to crack, which is why we put steel pins between each of our straight seams (which are unavoidable in one direction).”
How the board is glued
“Larger manufacturers will use a process called radio frequency gluing, which cures the glue immediately using a radio frequency and allows them to produce more boards faster. The issue is that the glue is not able to be absorbed by the wood fibers as it dries, and the glue remains on the surface, which results in a weaker bone that’s more likely to crack and separate,” Tanya explains. “We still hand glue and clamp our boards, which allows for the strongest possible bond.”
You don’t really need fancy extras on your cutting board
Today, you can find cutting boards with just about everything added onto their edges or surfaces. Boards with strainers built in, expandable boards that hang over your kitchen sink, boards with rubber grips attached to corners, liquid-catching grooves – there’s an endless array of features you can opt for.
But keeping it simple really is best. A plain, flat cutting surface will work for every one of your needs in the kitchen. Many extras are truly unnecessary. Just take rubber feet, for example. They can increase your board’s stability – but they also prevent you from flipping your board over and utilizing both sides.
“We purposely don’t put feet on our boards because we want you to flip it,” Tanya says. “Flip it, and it’ll last longer; it can be handed down and refinished.”
Instead of choosing a fancy (and costly) cutting board with extras, go for basic. If you are going to add one extra, a liquid-catching groove is hands down the most helpful, especially if you’re frequently working with meat or foods that do drain off while being cut. Just remember that it can be a bit trickier to scrape food off your board with a groove; you’ll find stuff gets trapped easily.
Does size matter when you’re choosing a cutting board?
Cutting boards certainly come in every shape and size. But size only matters when it comes down to your own personal preferences – and your available counter space.
Small cutting boards are great for tasks like cutting up individual fruits or veggies, or even pulling together components of your meals while you prep. But medium and large cutting boards also have their own roles; medium is versatile for absolutely everything under the sun, while you’ll need a large board when you’re working with large cuts of meat.
Think about your habits, how many people you’re typically cooking for and how much available counter space you have to use your board on. That can guide you when it comes to size. But in any space, having a small board and a medium-to-large board gives you plenty of versatility.
How to properly care for and maintain your cutting board
While wood cutting boards can seem intimidating, they really don’t require a whole lot of special care. In fact, caring for a high-quality wood board is almost as easy as taking care of any other kitchen tool.
All you have to do is wash your cutting board with soap and hot water. You can then set your board aside and let it air dry completely, or thoroughly dry it yourself with a clean dish towel. If you’d like to give your board a bit of extra TLC every now and then, you can rub it down with a food-safe mineral oil to prevent the wood from drying, warping or splitting.
Oh, and don’t ever put your board in the dishwasher. The intense heat and rough waters of this handy appliance will totally destroy the wood.
“Wood does take a little more care because you can’t put it in the dishwasher,” Tanya notes. “But as an organic material that’s naturally antibacterial, that protects your knives and will last you not only your lifetime but that of your children, the extra step of handwashing and occasionally conditioning a wood cutting board is well worth it.”
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