Wood vs. Plastic Cutting Boards
Cutlery Expert Clark Grant details all the considerations to take into account when deciding between a wooden cutting board and a plastic cutting board!
Many have an opinion on cutting boards and their individual benefits, however, one thing is clear—the dingy glass one your mom bought at a Tupperware party in 1987 should have been thrown away in 1986!
But to the debate in question, wooden cutting boards offer a warm appearance in a well-appointed kitchen and a wonderful surface for knife-edge maintenance. Polycarbonate, or plastic, cutting boards also have their place in the modern kitchen. They are easily washed and sanitized and eat up a much smaller footprint. Polycarbonate is also the choice for professional kitchens all over the world. Flexible plastic cutting mats have made their own place in the debate in recent years but do not offer much in terms of protection for your counter or your knives. The only reason for these is the ease of food transfer. If you like them, great, keep them, but you should also own at least one other option which is either wood or plastic. I would recommend that cutting mats are always used on top of wood or polycarbonate cutting boards to provide needed protection for your countertop and your knives. Throughout this article, we will dig into which fits you best and how to properly use and maintain each type.
Wood Cutting Boards
There are many different styles and types of wood cutting boards (i.e., end grain, bamboo, and traditional edge grain hardwood). Each has its own unique positives and negatives, however for me, wood is the absolute best medium for most applications. Wood, when properly maintained, is the most durable option on the market.
Bamboo boards are cheap, made from a renewable resource, and generally lighter, thinner, and less expensive than the other varieties. If you are limited in space, bamboo could be for you. The lighter weight and thinner profile are perfectly suited for apartment living and those just building out their kitchen accessories.
Your knife edge will also maintain fairly well when consistently used on a bamboo board. Bamboo is harder than maple or walnut so the wear on your knives will be a bit greater, however for a cost-effective, non-plastic cutting surface, this shouldn't be a reason to avoid them.
Bamboo cutting board maintenance is also the least demanding of the wooden varieties as they are harder than most woods used in edge grain and end grain cutting boards. They are the cheapest of wooden varieties as well, so they’re easily replaceable from a cost perspective. These are a great starter cutting board that will give you the beauty of wood while not requiring a second mortgage.
Hardwood End and Edge Grain
End grain use and maintenance are similar to traditional edge grain hardwood chopping blocks with the main difference being in how they are fashioned. End grain cutting boards are produced by gluing wooden blocks together with the ends of the grain of wood showing. This results in a stronger and unique appearance. With end grain cutting boards, one can find checkerboard patterns often consisting of different varietals of wood, such as cherry and walnut, to create a unique pattern and design. If you opt for one that is made of multiple types of wood, one major factor to consider is if the wood used is of similar hardness.
Edge grain or end grain cutting boards should be as large as will comfortably fit in your kitchen and as thick as is comfortable for you on your countertop, but a one-inch minimum is recommended.
Traditional hardwood edge grain chopping blocks will last you years if properly maintained. One can find many examples of large blocks that have been passed down through generations. However, maintenance of edge and end grain wood boards requires specific sanitation and conditioning practices in order to ensure long life and great performance.
Wood cutting boards are arguably the best medium for your knives and are safe to use with all non-raw protein-based applications. They are also the ultimate surface for pasta production. Protein fabrication (cutting or breaking down meats) is also great on wood, but one must ensure proper sanitation practices during and after each use to prevent the possibility of a foodborne illness incident.
Wood does require quite a bit more maintenance than polycarbonate boards. You should never place wooden boards in the dishwasher as this can cause warping and cracking. Also, if you are concerned about sanitation, never use bleach in any form on a wooden cutting board. Instead, use a quaternary (ammonia-based disinfectant) solution or Simple Green to sanitize your wooden board. There are many products made just for this purpose. You paid a lot for your wooden cutting board. Spend up and get the right chemical for the job.
You should clean it with hot soapy water, sanitize it, and then condition it often with food-grade mineral oil. After each cleaning, rub down the entire board with beeswax-based creams designed for wood cutting boards. Once or twice yearly, based on usage, you should super saturate your board with mineral oil. Keeping the pores of the wood moisturized with mineral oil will keep the wood from drying out, prevent cracking, help reduce wear, and lastly, help reduce bacteria’s ability to penetrate the wood and cause concern for food safety.
Plastic Cutting Boards
Plastic or polycarbonate cutting boards are favored by professional chefs in busy kitchens because of their simplicity to sanitize, their light weight, and their lower cost of replacement.
Polycarbonate is often used as it’s a lightweight, durable, food-grade cutting board material. Your knife edge will perform almost as well on a polycarbonate cutting board as it will on a wood cutting board.
The major benefit of plastic boards is their ease of sanitation since they are dishwasher safe. Feel confident placing them in the dishwasher or using a food-safe disinfectant such as diluted bleach to clean and sanitize. Please keep in mind, that it is also advised in addition to washing in the dishwasher to use soap and water to scrub plastic boards often to help reduce bacteria in the scars left from slicing on them. A simple solution of bleach diluted with water can help to remove any stains left on the surface.
A well-stocked kitchen should have both a nice wood block paired with a polycarbonate board. There is no real need for more than two in any kitchen environment. You need one for raw and one for cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Just wipe each clean between each item cut with water or a light sanitizing solution. Please use separate towels or paper towels for each board to avoid cross-contamination. Polycarbonate boards will need to be replaced more often than well-maintained wooden boards, but they are also a fraction of the cost. They are also slightly more taxing on knife edges but shouldn't necessarily be avoided.
One can find cutting boards made of many other alternative materials such as glass, marble, chipboard, etc. However, glass, marble, and other materials of similar hardness should never be used with a knife. The blade will dull before you finish cutting your apple on them! Marble does have merits for use in baking and pastry production for its ability to wick heat away from delicate doughs or melted chocolate. As a +20-year tenured working chef, I can’t point you toward a redeeming quality of glass cutting boards. Chipboard blocks are not terrible though and do well with knife edges, however, they are cheap and you will have replace them often. If you are on a tight budget, then bamboo cutting boards are preferred.
What You Should Buy
In an ideal, budget-free, non-space-limited situation, having a large, thick-end grained cutting board for vegetables and ready-to-eat food paired with a good quality polycarbonate board will be perfect for most people.
Use the polycarbonate for raw meat, fish, pork, and poultry to help reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses such as listeria and salmonella. Plastic cutting boards are also great for quick meals when you want to clean up easily and toss everything in the dishwasher. A secondary smaller polycarbonate board can be great for your bar or for quick, small jobs like cutting a sandwich or cutting lemons for a refreshing Tom Collins in the summer. If you only have space for one cutting board, then go with the largest polycarbonate that will comfortably fit in your home. The polycarbonate cutting board is the most versatile of all options.
Regardless of your choices, it is highly recommended that you have two boards—one for raw foods and one for ready-to-eat foods. Use these when preparing meals so that you highly reduce the possibility of cross-contamination and foodborne illness.
For any type of cutting board, a damp towel will help with any sliding while you work, but you can also find cutting board mats or even use shelf liners to reduce the sliding. Some wood and plastic cutting boards have rubber feet as well to help reduce sliding.
Sanitation is the most important maintenance regarding cutting boards. When you have scratches from your knife that you can feel on the surface of your board, bacteria can also congregate there. There are planers that are specialized for polycarbonate boards, but I absolutely cannot recommend them. They tend to not do a great job and can leave large marks on your cutting board in my experience. When the wear on your polycarbonate board gets too great, replace it. You will find grooves on your wooden board as well, however, you can sand with fine grit sandpaper, re-seal with food-grade mineral oil, and continue to use them. You can do this yourself or also have it done professionally.
There are many features to consider when choosing a cutting board…grooves to collect juice from fruits or proteins, handles on the side, stands that allow them to fit over the sink, etc. None of these are required and most are completely personal preference. One feature that is highly recommended for large wooden cutting boards are handles that have been routed into the side of them for easy transportation of the board around your kitchen. If you are in a small space and want the features and beauty of a wooden cutting board, you can also find them that are designed to fit over your current cooking range. These are a great option for smaller spaces, though when you need to use the range, you do run into the issue of where to store the board. If you have more questions on cutting board tech, reach out to a Cutlery Expert here on Curated.
In closing, your budget, space, and personal preference will greatly affect your choices in cutting boards. Plastic or polycarbonate is the most versatile and should be chosen by those with reduced budget or space. Wooden cutting boards should ideally be end or edge grain varieties, the largest and thickest as possible, and have handles. Bamboo is the least ideal of the acceptable choices but will still work. Glass or other materials should be completely avoided for use with knife work.
In a perfect world, having two cutting boards is ideal to reduce possible cross-contamination. The most important thing to remember when you choose your cutting boards is sanitation. If you don’t want to commit yourself to properly cleaning, conditioning, and maintaining wooden cutting boards, then choose plastic. If you are, then keep up with your good habits to ensure longevity and safety. All types should be monitored for scarring. Replace plastic when overly scarred, and sand and reseal wood with mineral oil when scarred. At the very least, let's rid the world of Tupperware party glass cutting boards!