Which poses the greater threat to your health: your cutting board or your 10-inch chef’s knife? From my perspective the answer is the cutting board. It’s not that there’s anything inherently dangerous about these slabs of wood or plastic, but when people slice everything from raw chicken to French bread on the same board, food-safety experts like me get the jitters.
The underlying problem is cross-contamination (the transfer of disease-causing microbes, e.g., Salmonella and E. coli, from raw meats, fish, and poultry, to foods that won’t be further cooked, such as vegetables for salad, bread, or cooked meats), and it happens fairly often. Onefifth of U.S. consumers admit to using a cutting board for other foods immediately after handling raw meats or poultry.
Cutting through the confusion
In the past decade, scientists have scrutinized cutting boards in hopes of determining which type is least likely to contribute to cross-contamination. Most of the research has focused on boards made of wood and plastic (polypropylene, polyacrylic, polyethylene, and polystyrene) because they’re the most common. For a time, experts considered plastic the safer material because it’s nonporous and doesn’t soak up bacteria. But then along came research suggesting that wood could be safe even though it absorbs bacteria: some studies show that bacteria die after soaking into wooden boards—probably because they get dehydrated and maybe because some types of woods have antimicrobial properties. Some researchers believe that once absorbed, trapped bacteria won’t resurface to cross-contaminate food unless the board is vigorously hacked up, but other researchers say that when a board gets wet, bacteria can reappear on the surface. All this contradictory information is confusing, and it makes it harder for people like me to give cooks concrete recommendations.
The important thing to remember is that keeping a board clean and in good shape is the key to preventing cross-contamination. It doesn’t much matter what type of board you select as long as it has a smooth, hard surface and you understand how to safely use and clean it. In a practical sense, I think the safest cutting board is the one that’s easiest for you to clean. If a board is too big to fit in your sink or dishwasher, chances are, you’re not going to clean it properly.
Plastic vs. wood
Wood and plastic both have their merits and drawbacks. In pristine condition, both wooden and plastic boards are pretty easy to keep clean. It’s when they begin to show signs of age that problems begin. Plastic cutting boards don’t absorb moisture, so it’s relatively easy to remove surface bacteria from a new, smooth board. But when a board becomes knife-scarred, bacteria can get trapped in the crevices, and it’s very difficult to scrub them out. Trapped bacteria can survive for a long time in a dormant state, so when knife cuts become numerous or deep, plastic boards should be replaced or relegated to nonfood use.
Wooden cutting boards need more TLC to maintain. Without regular oiling with food-grade mineral oil, the wood tends to dry out and crack. Frequent exposure to water during cleaning and sanitizing can speed this process, especially if the board isn’t properly oiled.
All wood is porous, some types more than others. So liquids applied to the cutting board can soak into the surface, bringing with them any bacteria that happen to be present. For new or well-maintained boards, these bacteria don’t seem to pose much risk, as they’re likely to remain trapped beneath the surface or die a few hours after the board dries. Boards that are cracked or knife-scarred are hard to clean. If you don’t want to replace an older wooden board after it becomes scarred, you may be able to sand it smooth, reapply oil, and give it a fresh start.
As much as wooden boards appeal to me, the fact that wood absorbs bacteria makes me nervous, so I don’t use wooden boards with high-risk foods like raw meat.
Other common materials like glass and Corian aren’t porous and don’t become scored with use, so they’re easy to clean, though glass can be tough on knife edges. Some new boards made of plastic or wood-fiber laminate claim to be easy on your knives, nonporous, and resistant to scratching. If such claims prove true over time, these boards could offer significant advantages.
The cutting board rules
Follow these tips to keep your boards clean and free of bacteria.
• Separate boards for separate tasks. An easy way to reduce cross-contamination is to have boards for different tasks. You need at least two: One reserved for raw meats, fish, and poultry; another for raw vegetables and fruits and other foods that won’t be cooked. Cutting boards can be identified by material, color, shape, or design.
• Keep them clean. All boards should be cleaned immediately after use. Hot soapy water, elbow grease, and a good rinse under flowing water will remove most bacteria from a board that’s in good shape. Most boards, including some wooden ones (check the label), can be cleaned and sanitized in the dishwasher.
• Sanitize the surface. After cleaning, sanitize the board with a mild bleach solution (1 teaspoon unscented bleach in 1 quart water) or undiluted white vinegar. Flood the board with the liquid, leave for 5 minutes, rinse with running water, and let it air dry. If you use a board for raw meats and poultry, you might want to sanitize after every use. For boards used exclusively for breads, cooked meats, and cheese, frequent sanitizing isn’t necessary but they still need to be kept clean.
• Let it air dry. After cleaning or sanitizing, let the board air dry, or dry it with a clean paper towel or fresh dishtowel. If the dishtowel has been used for other purposes, you could recontaminate the board.
Antimicrobial cutting boards—are they for real?
In the past few years, hundreds of “antimicrobial” products have come on the market, including antimicrobial cutting boards. From a food safety standpoint, they don’t seem to offer any advantage. Embedded antimicrobials are only considered effective against slime- and odor-causing organisms, not disease-causing microbes, so these boards need to be cleaned and sanitized just like any other board.
When purchasing a cutting board, look for features that will help you safely use it.
Size: The board should be small enough to comfortably fit into your sink or dishwasher.
Color: Having different-colored boards for different tasks can help you avoid cross-contamination.
Channel: A groove around the edge of a board prevents meat juices from spilling onto your countertop.