The Essential Kitchen: Cutting Boards

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  • Wood and Bamboo Cutting Boards Wood and Bamboo Cutting Boards
  • The Essential Kitchen:  Cutting Boards

The Essential Kitchen: Cutting Boards

For some reasons I've been asked a lot lately about cutting boards. Perhaps it has something to do with it being holiday time and we're handling things like raw turkey and keeping things pristine. Or we're second-guessing the state of our kitchens as we face making big meals. Or maybe we're just cooking more.

It is a good idea to occasionally do some equipment updating and cutting boards are on the short list of kitchen essentials, right alongside a chef's knife, wooden spoons, mixing bowls, and for me, a corkscrew. A board protects both the food being cut as well as your countertop, and it gives your knife a surface against which to work. And sometimes a board adds beauty to our work space.

A visit to any cookware store will show boards made of butcher block, plastics, and glass plus the more modern colorful silicones and bamboo, a renewable resource. Boards come in sizes that range from tiny to huge, and some with legs. So how to choose?

Choosing A Cutting Board

The first decision you need to make is what kind of material you want your cutting board made of and the choice isn't necessarily simple.


Wooden boards have some plusses: they are gentle on knives which means your knives stay sharp longer, they are natural, many can be re-sanded and thus refreshed when wear takes its toll, meaning good ones can last for many years, and they can be gorgeous. Wood boards come either as planks of wood, or carved into cute animals (pigs are popular), or like the surfaces of old fashioned butcher blocks. Butcher blocks are made either from the "end grain," meaning the ends of boards that have been glued together (these look a bit like a checkerboard) or "flat grain," with a stripe-like pattern, made from lengths boards. The point of gluing pieces of wood together is to create a surface that is stronger and more resistant to force (think of a butcher's meat cleaver) than a single plank. This is what makes them durable and also beautiful.

The cons? As wood is used it develops small cuts and crevices, which hold on to moisture, odors, and bacteria; the only way to remove these is to gently sand the surface or have this done professionally. And because wood is porous, it's not so simple to clean. It can't go in dishwashers, you can't soak them in water or they'll risk splitting, and even hot soapy water may not be enough to get a wood or butcher block board completely clean. Plus wood needs to be periodically oiled to keep from cracking or chipping. The oil should be a food-grade mineral oil sold in cookware stores; some advocate for using walnut or almond oils as these don't turn rancid as quickly as olive or vegetable oil but if anyone you know has a nut allergy, these are not options.

John Boos, a company in Illinois that has been making butcher block boards and countertops for professionals and home kitchens for more than 120 years, is the best known butcher block board brand.

With less a legacy but making superb craftsman quality is Nils Wessell of Brooklyn Butcher Blocks. Mr. Wessell makes boards from rough lumber shipped to him from Pennsylvania, primarily walnut and cherry, because, as he told me, "these woods are softer than maple and so let your knives keep their edge longer." He sands each board by hand and coats them with bees wax from local beekeepers. Any wood scraps left over are sent to Compost for Brooklyn in Kensington. Boards range in size from 12-by-14-inches and up, with 12-by-18 one of his more popular sizes, and prices start at about $120. Mr. Wessell also does custom work.  See the link below.

Many consider this type of board an investment (they can be costly) and also a treasure because with the right care, they can last a lifetime of cooking.


Like wood, most plastic boards are gentle on knives, although some plastics are harder than others. In my judgment, the cheaper the board, the cheaper the plastic and the harder the surface. If in doubt, press the edge of your fingernail against the surface and feel for a very slight give -- not to be soft but not to be as hard as glass or laminate, either.

The big pro of plastic is cleaning and maintenance. You can put these in the dishwasher and also soak them in hot, soapy water to which you've added some bleach. Plain old Clorox. About 1/4 cup to a gallon of water is the mixture that restaurants use to clean professional kitchens. Some are made from antibacterial plastic that inhibits the growth of bacteria. And because you can completely clean it, plastic doesn’t take on the odors of foods as wood can.

Plastic and silicone boards also come in colors, which is appealing for anyone who wants to designate one board for meat and poultry and a different one for other foods. And as with wood, plastic boards sometimes come with a perimeter well to catch any liquids, a good thing when slicing juicy meats and poultry.


What's Best for You

There are several variables that will influence the kind of cutting board -- or boards -- that you should have. Primarily space, aesthetics, cost, cooking habits, and time.

If you have the room, get a large board because a generous surface makes it easier and safer to work. An alternative is to have a large board for major jobs and a small board for a quick slice of bread or mince of garlic.

Other Tips For Using Cutting Boards


Above all, choose a board that helps you cook better and enjoy what you're doing. My friend's beautiful, vintage, restored butcher block makes him smile every time he chops parsley. Someone else I know keeps a multi-colored trio of boards for the "I'm keeping a safe-for-chicken kitchen" peace of mind when cooking for her kids. I love my huge plastic board for how my chef's knife feels against its surface, giving me more control.

Something as mundane as a cutting board can make your kitchen a happier place to be and it's one more small detail that helps you be a better cook.

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