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With Cutting Boards, More Is Better

Having a few on hand makes food prep safer and more efficient

Fine Cooking Issue 41
Photos: Scott Phillips
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For many, many years, I’ve owned just two cutting boards, both plastic. When I began to research what’s available in cutting boards for this article, I bought a bunch and tried them out at home. I kept a stack of them on top of my fridge and a few more hanging on a hook closer to where I do most of my prep work. After chopping, slicing, and dicing on them over the course of a few months, the single most important thing I learned from having a lot of different cutting boards at my disposal is that I really like having a lot of different cutting boards at my disposal.

Some boards were definitely called on more than others; those on the hook often got first preference because they were within arm’s reach. (Lesson: if you have a hook handy, look for a board you can hang.) A plastic 10×16-inch board that’s big enough to slice a London broil yet fits on the hook and in the dishwasher became my favorite. But even though I didn’t use a giant (24×18-inch) wooden cutting board often—mainly because it doesn’t fit into my sink to clean—I appreciated its ample size and good looks as I carried pizzas from the grill to the table for slicing.

Not that there weren’t clunkers: an otherwise good rubber board sold in restaurant-supply stores that got warped by the sun when stored in the back of my car; all the glass, acrylic, and Corian boards (besides dulling my knives, the clinking sound the knives make on them gives me the shivers); and the really cheap, flat-grain wooden ones that smelled strongly of adhesive (one of which broke apart on a seam with only the gentlest of taps).

But overall, when it comes to cutting boards, if you have the room, the more the merrier. If you’re a wood-only kind of cook, try a plastic board; the convenience of tossing the board in the dishwasher is worth the aesthetic difference. If you only use plastic, a wooden board can warm up the look of your kitchen. If you only have a large board, consider a small one (10×7 inches is good) for those times when  you need to chop just one shallot for a vinaigrette. If you only have a small one, run out and get a larger one; the extra room will make you say “ahh.” And if you don’t have a cutting board with a nice deep trench, you’ll swear less while carving a roast or chopping tomatoes if you get one that does.

Having a couple of identical boards in your favorite size is also handy: one ready to use while the other is in the dishwasher, or one available to cut the vegetables on after cutting up some raw chicken or beef.

Now that my testing is over, I miss the luxury of choosing from among all those cutting boards. And while I don’t necessarily need that unsteady tower of boards on top of my fridge, I’m definitely going to increase my collection. Aside from the two I already own, I plan to get a large wooden board and a mid-size board with a deep trench. That ought to do it—for now.

Most kitchen shops and web sites offer a good selection of cutting boards. John Boos &  Company (217-347-7701 or  johnboos.com) makes a variety of cutting boards using only end- and edge-grain wood. J.K. Adams (800-451-6118 or jkadams.com) also makes endgrain cutting boards. The rubber Sani-tuff cutting board is stocked mostly by restaurant-supply stores; try J&S Kitchen Supply in New York City (212-431-9112).

Simple details can make cutting boards more useful

(Text refers to the cutting boards in the photo, from top to bottom)

Small cutting boards are handy for small items.

Plate-like plastic boards are great for prepping and holding components of a dish.

Colorful cutting boards brighten the kitchen—and you can color-code for meats or produce.

A handle that doubles as a hanger lets you  keep a couple of smaller boards on a hook within reach.

A rubber surface keeps food from sliding around.

Finger grips cut into the edges of thick, heavy boards are helpful.

Butcherblocks were once made from a thick round cut from a tree. This crosswise section of the tree, the end grain, provides the hardest, most durable surface. Today, end-grain boards consist of many squares of crosswise-cut pieces glued together to create a thick, stable surface that won’t warp. To imagine edge grain, picture the tree going through a sawmill. The short side of the plank is the edge grain. It isn’t quite as hard as end grain but still very durable. Flat grain, the wide side of the plank, is the softest and usually the least expensive. Boards made from flat grain wear quickest and are more prone to warping.

Using cutting boards safely

About ten years ago, a study suggesting that wooden cutting boards have antibacterial properties got national attention and sent people running out to buy wooden boards. More recent studies by the same scientists seemed to demonstrate that bacteria such as salmonella get absorbed into the wood within a few minutes, leaving the exposed area of the unwashed board free of the potentially harmful microbes. (Many more bacteria were recoverable from unwashed plastic cutting boards in their experiments.) If the wooden board is well dried after washing and remains dry, the absorbed bacteria eventually die. But because different tests (including those performed by NSF International, a nonprofit certifier of products relating to public health, and by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration) have reported contradictory results, the FDA continues to recommend plastic boards mainly because of ease of cleaning, since they are dishwasher-safe.

While the research—and the debate—continues, the best approach to safety is to clean any cutting surface after it comes in contact with raw meat or poultry, either in a dishwasher for plastic cutting boards that fit, or by hand with a solution of a teaspoon of  bleach in a quart of water. By the same token, don’t be lulled into haphazard cleaning by plastic boards that boast having antibacterial properties: as must be stated on those boards’ labels, the treatment protects the plastic from bacteria and not necessarily the user. So wash well. Better yet, dedicate one board to meat and poultry and one to everything else.

Don’t cut on a moving target. A cutting board that moves around as you chop is not only frustrating and inefficient but also dangerous. A damp cloth or paper towel under the board will hold it in place, as will reusable nonslip cutting board pads (The nonslip cutting board safety pad made by Griptex is sold nationally at kitchen and housewares stores.).

Prevent cracks by oiling wooden boards with food-grade mineral oil when they start to look dry. If a wooden board shows signs of wear, have it resurfaced (if it’s a thick butcherblock type) or get a new one. A well-worn plastic cutting board should also be replaced: its grooves and scratches can harbor bacteria.


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