If there is any one tool essential to the cook (besides the knife), it is surely the cutting board.
First, I’ll preface this post with an admission: I don’t always use a cutting board. Sometimes I just cut right on top of the counter, or in my own hand. I can be pretty lazy sometimes. However, when it comes to the cutting boards I actually use, I tend to get a bit more picky. Cutting Boards, like many other kitchen tools, can be a source of great contention and passion. But you may be sitting there thinking “A cutting board is a cutting board, who cares?”
It’s all about those nooks and crannies. You know, the ones made by your blade after you got a bit rambunctious cutting into that fresh loaf of bread, or trying to split open a squash (Don’t you hate doing that?)
You see, those little grooves you make when you cut through an item of food and into the board a bit- yes, INTO the board, not just along the top of it- are where we have problems.
This is when you need to know how to deal with your cutting board, and to know that, you need to know your material.
Many of us have a plastic cutting board at home. In culinary school, these were the boards we used during our cooking labs. The major pro to using plastic as a cutting surface is that you can stick this board right into your dish washer, where the high temperature can kill off most bacteria. Plastic is also very easy to sanitize. For this reason, plastic is often recommended to be used for cutting meat (However, this has been contended)
Other than those handy plastic cutting boards that you can throw into the dishwasher (“Set it and forget it!”), you may find a couple of other options for cutting boards. The first three I will mention briefly, as I completely advise against them. I do this because the material is too hard for the longevity if your knives, and two are a serious breaking hazard in the kitchen. As far as I’m concerned, none of these belong in a kitchen, and thankfully, I don’t see them very often.
They are: Metal, Glass, and Porcelain.
If ever you see any of these being used to cut on, punch the person who uses them (OK Don’t hurt anyone, just gently remove the item from further use).
So whats left?
But wait, isn’t wood worse to use because it’s naturally porous? Plastic doesn’t get scratched up the same way as wood, does it?
Newflash: They both get scratched up equally, and can hold just as many germs as the other. So really, you can use both boards interchangeably, even with meat. However you don’t put wood in the dishwasher.
I REPEAT: NEVER PUT A WOOD CUTTING BOARD IN THE DISHWASHER.
Let’s get into it.
Wood cutting boards come in many shapes and densities. You can get hardwood maples, soft Cyprus- any tree can make many great cutting boards. But the density of the wood can make a difference in how well it holds onto germs. Softer woods, while great for keeping a sharp edge on your blade, can obviously get gouged out more so by that knife. Hard woods, while harder on your edge, are better for keeping the gouges down to a minimum.
But they still get scratched up, like plastic. And since you shouldn’t put wood into the dishwasher, how do you clean a cutting board full of deep, germ-loving scratches? And how do you keep it from getting worse with age? I’ve seen some wood boards so dry they were nearly flaking wood into the food being diced up, a serious hazard as you can imagine. But with these flaws, why bother?
A wood cutting board can last you years. When the surface is marred beyond recognition, get a planer and it’s brand new again (or use some elbow grease and sandpaper). Meanwhile, that plastic board may be discoloured and cracking on its own by now. Wood is also a renewable resource.
Also, wood boards are classy. You don’t see Instagram pictures of plastic Charcuterie boards, do you?
So all this mumbo jumbo is to get into the most important part of having a wood cutting board: Wear and Care. We’ve talked about the wear a bit, now lets get down to the tough part.
When it comes to caring for a plastic cutting board, it’s as simple as a good washing in the dishwasher. But like I said, they just aren’t sexy. To take care of a wood cutting board, there are three main components: Cleaning, Sanitizing and Oiling.
To clean your cutting board, after each use, just use regular soap and water. But when you notice that your board is starting to smell, or maybe you’re concerned about some germs in there, it may be time for a deeper clean, especially if you have a well worn board.
STEP AWAY FROM THE DISHWASHER.
You have two ways to go about this, both of which work, but will cater to either preference of chemical or natural sanitization.
Option 1: Bleach.
Bleach is great. I love bleaching anything that I think needs to have a few germs obliterated from existence. However, you don’t want to eat bleach, so when it comes to this step, it’s a two step process. First, you need to dilute bleach in water (I use about a half tablespoon of bleach to four cups of water), and then give your board a good wipe down with it. Let it sit for a minute or so (that’s all you need).
After this, you need to wash your board with soap and water to remove any leftover bleach, and then stand it up on its edge to dry.
Letting your board dry like this is very important. If any moisture is left in the wood, the wood will swell and warp and eventually crack. This is why you don’t put it in the dishwasher.
Option 2: Acid, Salt, Baking Soda.
This option is great for those who want to keep your cleaner edible. For an acid, you can use a lemon or vinegar, though the vinegar may leave a smell afterwards.
Once your cutting board is washed and dried, spread some of your preferred acid all over the surface. If your board is especially grimy or smelly, this is when you sprinkle a good helping of coarse salt over your board as well (it can be table salt if you only have this), and start scrubbing. I like to use a lemon half to scrub the salt in (double duty!).
If your board wasn’t too smelly, this may be enough to remove the odour. However, if you give it a rinse and still smell last nights cheese, then get out the baking soda and more acid. Spread the acid over the surface again, and this time sprinkle the baking soda all over the surface. You’ll be greeted by a satisfying bubbling (remember those Volcano science projects?), which is the baking soda and acid working to oxidize the surface.
I let this sit for a while (15 minutes or so) to work before rinsing and washing my board again. If it’s STILL smelly, repeat the process, or try option 1 if you’re in a rush. Stand your board up to dry on its edge when it’s done.
Once your board is clean and ready to go again, you need to oil your board. Oiling the wood conditions it and keeps it from drying out after all that cleaning, but oil can also help repel and prevent germs from procreating all over your board. You can purchase many great products online for this, but there is a very cheap and effective product I highly recommend: Mineral Oil.
Don’t use food oils, such as olive or coconut, for conditioning your board. Not unless you plan to deep clean your board very frequently (every week or less). Edible oils like these are prone to oxidation and going rancid! So, your best bet is to go to the drug store and get everyones favourite laxative- don’t worry, your cutting board won’t impart this “effect” after using it.
To condition your boards:
Before and after. Oiling your boards can bring out their true colours, making them look brand new again, instead of dried out driftwood
Get your chosen wood conditioning oil (Mine is Mineral oil), a paper towel or rag, and your boards. In fact, get all your wood items out, even those wood spoons- it’s great to condition every wood item at once, in my opinion.
When I need to oil my boards, I usually just pour a healthy helping of the oil into the centre of the board (maybe a tablespoon or two), and gently spread it around with the towel. I start out with a lot so my board can soak up as much as it needs in one go. Once you’ve spread the oil around on the board, let it sit for a while.
You may notice after a period of time that some parts of the wood seem to have soaked up the oil really well. These are areas that may need reapplication of the oil, so add another teaspoon or so of oil so this area and spread it around.
If after an hour you see the oil is still sitting a bit like a pool, then your board has probably absorbed all that it can. Simple wipe off the excess.
How often do you need to condition your wood cutting board?
This varies greatly on how often you cook and prepare food with your board, as well as your cleaning regimen. Some people simply wipe off the board to preserve the oil, however I can’t endorse this as you can’t guarantee that all those germs are done. While Mineral Oil is great for keeping germs at bay, you cannot say with 100% certainty of it’s ability to do so. So, just wash your board in soap and water. If you’re doing this every night, you may need to recondition your board fairly often. If you have a few cutting boards in rotation, you can help extend this period.
Or just be lazy like me and cut vegetables in your hands when you can 😉
(I don’t recommend using your hands as cutting boards)
Looking for more? Check out my Spicy Thai Soup recipe, featuring the ingredients shown above on my lovely wood cutting board!