The debate ranges on whether wood cutting boards are sanitary. Most experts says a hardwood board (such as maple) is more sanitary than softwood, but a 2007 study in the British Food Journal finds that pine, a softwood, is more sanitary than beech, a hardwood, and that beech and polyethylene (plastic) yield similar results in bacteria tests.
Construction of the wood board is important, some say. An end grain, in which the grain of the wood runs vertically from the cutting surface to the bottom, is stronger than a face grain, in which the grain runs along the surface of the board. Linda Stradley, author of the cookbook "What's Cooking America," says that with an end grain, "the grain of the wood actually separates and then closes when the knife is removed. This accounts for the self-healing aspect of the end-grain surface. The wood itself is not cut, but instead you are cutting between the fibers."
While arguments over sanitary issues remain unsettled, there's no doubt that wood cutting boards look nice and are easiest on knife blades. There are great differences in quality, however, depending on the type of wood and the thickness and construction of the board. Hardwoods are more durable, and maple is frequently used to good effect. An end-grain wood cutting board will help it last longer before needing replacement. Prices for wooden cutting boards run the gamut from as little as $15 up to $100 or more for a butcher-block end-grain board.
Wood cutting boards vary considerably in thickness. In one test, a maple J.K. Adams Co. Takes Two cutting board (*Est. $20) and a John Boos Chopping Block (*Est. $75) both prove durable; neither the boards nor the knives are worse for wear after 750 cuts during testing. The more expensive board is considerably heavier -- 10.4 pounds to 3.7 pounds -- and has the preferred end-grain construction, while the cheaper cutting board has face-grain construction that is cheaper and easier to manufacture. With an end grain, the end of the board faces you in classic butcher-block design, and cuts generally go between fibers rather than cutting into the grain. Also, heavier boards will be more stationary during cutting tasks.
Thicker wood cutting boards will be more durable and can be refinished more often simply because there is more material to work with. They will be less likely to break if they are dropped, and as the Reluctant Gourmet's G. Steven Jones writes, "While you should certainly throw away an old plastic cutting board that has knife cuts all over it, you can plane down a thick wooden cutting board and be good to go for years to come." That's one way to extend the life of an expensive end-grain cutting board. Remember, though, that when you do resurface an old board, you'll need to reseason it. The Our Sources page links to some sound advice from "What's Cooking America" author Linda Stradley, who details the advantages of mineral oil, beeswax, walnut oil, almond oil and coconut oil. Standard cooking oils such as olive oil should not be used because they will turn rancid. The purpose of seasoning is to add to a protective layer to reduce the absorption of bacteria, odors and stains. You'll need to reapply this coating about once a month, Stradley says, perhaps even weekly if your cleansers are harsh.
Cleaning methods are another area in which experts disagree, although all of them say a wooden cutting board should not be run through a dishwasher or submerged in a sink because the wood will warp or split. Experts generally also agree that while microwaving a wood cutting board is an effective way to kill bacteria, it's also dangerous. The board could smoke, catch fire or even explode, and some wood boards have metal parts inside that will cause sparks.
Generally, experts say hot, soapy water is a good way to clean a wood cutting board, and they recommend white vinegar or a chlorine solution. Good Housekeeping expert Sharon Franke recommends that the disinfectant be allowed to sit on the board for 10 minutes before being rinsed off. You can eliminate odors by using white vinegar or lemons, but Cook's Illustrated says the most effective method is to scrub with a paste of baking soda and water.
You should disinfect your cutting board immediately after chopping meat, poultry or seafood if you have only one board and intend to use it to fix your salad or other foods. Better yet is to have a different board for each kind of food you're preparing. Chefs often are not purists in this way - the Reluctant Gourmet's Jones says he has both wood and plastic boards.