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A&E >  Cooking

Water Cooler: How to choose a cutting board

Plastic cutting boards offer less maintenance and are more affordable than their wooden counterparts.  (Shutterstock)
Plastic cutting boards offer less maintenance and are more affordable than their wooden counterparts. (Shutterstock)

It’s fun to invest in a good knife for your home cooking arsenal as it is the primary workhorse of the kitchen. However, a good knife is nothing without its partner in crime – the cutting board. Everyone has their preference of cutting boards, but there are pros and cons to different types as well as tiers of quality. What you prefer has a lot to do with how you like to handle a cutting board, what you use it for and how much maintenance and care you want to put into it.

The first thing to be addressed is size. Regardless of what material your cutting board is made of, the basic requirement of a cutting board is sufficient work space. Small cutting boards that are smaller than 8-by-12 inches are fine to have handy for small tasks like slicing up a wedge of citrus for a drink or slicing a few chunks of cheese, but if your primary board is going to be truly functional, it’s going to need to be larger. Something around 10-by-12 inches is the smallest you want to go, and that’s if you are limited to a small countertop. Any smaller and your food will be spilling off the board as you work. Your cutting board should not be creating extra hassle. Something 15-by-20 inches will provide you a great workspace if you have the room, and it is still easy enough to handle.

When it comes to material, wood is the highest maintenance option, but it is the kindest to your knives. Boards can come in face, edge or end grain.

End grain is the superior and most expensive option, easily running anywhere from $150 to $300 for good quality. It is possible to find mass produced end grain boards at affordable prices, but they have a tendency to split at the glue seams. End grain requires the biggest investment and most maintenance, but good craftmanship and care makes them an heirloom item.

Often referred to as butcher blocks, these boards are made of blocks of wood glued together with the grain running up and down and are commonly used in butchering for their ability to withstand heavy chopping. The end grain maintains the direction that the fibers run in a tree and is able to heal itself from deep cuts by the fibers sealing back together. This quality also means it is the gentlest option for a knife. The blade runs through the grains instead of cutting into them. Think of it like running a knife through broom bristles.

Edge grain is made of the narrow edge of wood planks glued together lengthwise with the grain running horizontally. Its simpler construction makes it the more affordable option. It is slightly harder on knives and more prone to show wear than end grain. They also tend to be less bulky than end grain if you want a lighter weight wood option but are able to be thicker than face grain. Its narrow strips make it less prone to warping than face grain. Edge grain is a middle ground of quality, function and value, making it great for a first wood board allows you to buy a larger workspace at a lower price.

Face grain shows off the beauty of wood grain because it is made of the widest part of the cut of wood facing up. It can be one solid piece or multiple planks glued together. Face grain shows the most wear, is most susceptible to warping and is usually the thinnest of wood boards. It dulls knives at the same rate as edge grain. Face grain is a great option if you plan to use your board more as an attractive display.

Wood boards require gentle washing with only soap and warm water – maybe an occasional spray of vinegar or lemon juice to remove strong smells from things like garlic and peppers. They can’t be soaked because the wood will easily absorb water and in turn compromise its construction. It must be hand-washed because the harsh chemicals and the hot temperatures of a dishwasher will quickly destroy it and strip it of its natural oils.

Wood requires regular conditioning with mineral oil and conditioner. Mineral oil prevents the wood from drying out and cracking. Conditioners often include oil and wax, providing a seal on the wood helping it stand up from liquid absorption, staining and bacterial growth.

Make note of which type of wood is used in the cutting board. Hardwood is usually best for cutting boards because it withstands wear better than softwood. Softwood may be easier on the knife initially, but it is prone to deep cut marks. Those deep cut marks become unsanitary as they are hard to clean and require sanding to remove. Cut mark damage can also dull a knife. However, there are some high quality end grain boards that use softwood because it works well with that type of construction.

Something to consider with hardwood is the type of pores. Large pores mean a lot of moisture absorption and potential for harboring bacteria and water logging. Cherry and maple are very hard and diffuse porous, meaning it has evenly distributed and small pores. Walnut is semidiffuse porous, meaning it can have a mix of small and large pours while still being hard enough to be a good material for cutting boards. Oak has very large pores and is never used for high quality boards.

Plastic boards are the no-maintenance option. They are lighter, making them easier to maneuver and clean. Plastic doesn’t require conditioning and can go straight into the dishwasher. They are also much more affordable, making them attractive to beginner home cooks as well as cooks who don’t want to be bothered with maintenance or want the option for low-cost replacements. That said, plastic will almost always be a bit rougher on your knife edge.

Some plastic boards are very thin. Often these boards sell themselves on the ability to bend, making it easy to transfer ingredients without spillage. However, thin plastic cracks with nearly any use and easily warps in the heat of the dishwasher, making it hardly worth buying in the first place. Warping leads to a rocking cutting board that is both annoying and dangerous to cut on. A medium thickness is still light but provides much more durability. A board with plastic grips will provide stability.

Plastic boards won’t absorb moisture like wood, but the soft plastics that are easier on your knives will still be susceptible to absorbing stains and smells. However, their ability to go in the dishwasher can help counteract this. Plastic has a reputation for being more sanitary than wood, but plastic boards also get cut marks that easily trap bacteria. Cut marks in wood boards can be sanded down, but deep cuts in plastic mean needing a replacement.

The one material you want to avoid all together is glass. Glass dulls knives within a few cuts, and they are breakable. They will not be the workhorse surface you need and really serve no other purpose other than to be decorative.

Your decision of wood or plastic then comes down to your priorities in the kitchen. If you want a board that will reward you with natural beauty, superior quality and longevity, and you are willing to invest money and care into it, then wood is the option for you. If you are a casual cook that wants something functional, easy and affordable, then plastic is the material that fits your purposes. In reality, you don’t have to limit yourself to one or the other. Having both can add versatility to your kitchen tools, but what gets used the most is your call.

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