Choosing between cutting-board materials

For most people, the major factors in choosing a kitchen cutting board are their personal safety and the welfare of their cutlery. You want a cutting board that can be cleaned easily to prevent bacteria growth. You also want a cutting board that won't slide around the countertop while you attempt to use sharp instruments. Lastly, you want a cutting board that isn't so hard that it will destroy your knives.

The choice usually comes down to wood versus plastic, and the major issue is which is more sanitary. There is no consensus among experts. Proponents of wood almost always point to the same expert, Dean O. Cliver, a microbiologist and professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis. Based on a series of studies made during the 1990s, Cliver says wood is more sanitary than plastic because absorbed bacteria remains lodged inside the wood and dies there. He also says some woods contain bacteria-killing properties that will reduce surface contamination. But most state and federal agencies in the United States, including the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, disagree. They usually suggest plastic as the safer choice, though wood advocates correctly point out that the agencies usually cite no studies as proof. Cliver has no real problem with plastic cutting boards that are in good condition; he says the problem with plastic cutting boards is that they eventually develop knife gouges that are more likely to harbor bacteria than wood boards. He says older plastic is harder to clean effectively.

We found the most sensible advice from Cook's Illustrated magazine, which argues that food safety depends more upon cleaning methods and the condition of the cutting board (smooth vs. scarred) than on the material itself. Brief but credible information on Good Housekeeping's website supports this assertion.

If you are skeptical about the safety of a wood (or plastic) cutting board, no amount of research and testing is likely to convince you otherwise. Danilo Alfaro, About.com's guide to culinary arts, for example, mocks Dean Cliver's assertion that wood cutting boards kill bacteria. But the About.com guide offers no proof to the contrary, either. And no matter what you believe, you easily can find an article online to support your viewpoint.

Our research suggests that the most important factors are:

  • Have several cutting boards (or flexible cutting mats) on hand. This way, you can use several boards while preparing a meal so you won't risk cross-contamination by chopping salad fixings on the same board on which you'd just sliced raw meat
  • Clean your cutting boards vigorously after use
  • Retire cutting boards that have become severely scarred

Cleaning cutting boards

Experts, both credentialed and self-appointed, disagree on cleaning methods. Obviously, a wood cutting board cannot be cleaned in a dishwasher -- the wood will warp. (Some wood-laminate boards can be washed in a dishwasher, however.) Many experts say hot, soapy water will do the job on any cutting board, while others recommend white vinegar or a bleach solution. Cliver, the University of California professor, says dishwashers that don't reach at least 140 degrees will just spread bacteria around rather than kill it. He says the only way to completely clean a badly scarred plastic board is to soak it in a chlorine solution overnight. Cook's Illustrated, meanwhile, tested odor-removing solutions and found that the best strategy for removing smells -- such as a garlic scent before you slice an apple on the same board -- is to scrub with a paste made of baking soda and water.

Here are the main points to consider when buying a cutting board:

  • Sanitary needs. Experts disagree about whether wood or plastic is more sanitary. Plastic and composite boards can be washed in a dishwasher, while wood and bamboo can't, but experts say a dishwasher won't be enough if the plastic is deeply scarred.
  • Consider the well-being of your knives. Very hard surfaces will ruin even the best-made cutlery. Wood, bamboo and plastic are fine, with composite boards a little less forgiving. Experts say you should avoid glass, ceramic, stone and metal cutting boards.
  • Some cutting boards need upkeep beyond cleaning. Wood needs to be seasoned regularly with oils or beeswax. Bamboo needs to be oiled. Plastic and composite cutting boards do not.
  • Durability. Unlike plastic, wood can be sanded or planed to eliminate gouges. But whether you buy wood, bamboo, plastic or composite, you'll need to retire them eventually.
  • Quality of material. Hardwoods are better than softwoods, while mature bamboo is stronger than bamboo that's harvested when young. Polypropylene plastic is better than polyethylene.
  • Knife safety. You want a board that is either heavy enough or has some kind of grip on the bottom to keep it from slipping on the counter while you work.
  • Buy several boards. If you are a chef or you entertain frequently, it makes sense to have more than one cutting board so you can avoid cross-contamination as you prepare multiple dishes. Many chefs use color-coded plastic boards – green for vegetables, yellow for poultry, red for red meat, etc.
  • Environmental considerations. Bamboo is the most eco-friendly cutting-board material because the grass needs three to six years to mature, compared with 50 years for maple. And even a wood composite board will be more green than plastic.
  • Don't pay a lot. You are basically purchasing a disposable item. Unless you are buying a thick slab suitable for a professional butcher shop that can continually be sanded down and resurfaced, you are going to have to retire your wood, bamboo, plastic or composite board once it develops bacteria-harboring crevices.

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