This may hurt a little. It may turn what you thought you knew about kitchen prep in the home upside down. Or, maybe you are already completely aware of what I am about to share with you. Either way, this is a subject relevant to all of us, assuming we are handling food in our home kitchens that have the potential to carry dangerous bacteria. You know the type: E Coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The subject today is cutting boards. Hardwood vs. plastic/synthetic. Cutting boards are obviously for cutting, slicing, chopping, prepping food. In my opinion, there are 2 main factors to consider when choosing a cutting board. 1) Sanitation, and 2) Wear on knives. We have to do what we know to be healthy and safe for ourselves and our families. No one wants to play Russian Roulette with harmful bacteria. It should also be important to us to have good knives that are well maintained and therefore long-lasting and safer. Safer?? Sure! The duller the knife, the more dangerous! The injury sustained from a dull, ill-cared for knife is likely to be more severe and have longer effects that the injury resulting from a sharp, well-maintained knife. Take care of your knives! They don’t have to be super-nice, high quality knives. I’ll let you in on a little secret: nothing in my kitchen is high quality! I have a whole lot of middle-of-the-road kitchen tools and equipment, but I take good care of them, and that makes all the difference. I have a beautiful Calphalon knife block that my husband bought me for Christmas a few years ago. I think it retailed at the time for around $230. That may sound like a lot to some of you, but trust me, knife blocks get a WHOLE lot pricier than that. I love my knives. They are my favorite kitchen tool. I don’t run them through the dishwasher, I always dry them immediately after hand washing them, and I am careful not to use them on surfaces that are unkind to them. What sort of surface is bad for your knives?? Marble countertops and glass cutting boards. If you have a glass cutting board currently in your kitchen, please do yourself a favor. Stop reading this post and go throw that thing away! It’s terrible for your knives.
Now that that’s taken care of, let’s get to the main event. We’ve all heard Rachael Ray caution us against the dangers of cross contaminating dinner by cutting our raw meat on the same board as our veggies. What a fantastic point! Cross contamination is a dangerous game, one that leads to food poisoning. Avoid cross contaminating your food at all cost. However, Rachael is also quick to point out that she always cuts her veggies on her butcher block (big wooden cutting board) and her meats on plastic cutting boards. This seems to be the standard line of thinking among… well, everyone I hear talk about it. But guess what? ALL OF THE LABORATORY RESEARCH ON THE SUBJECT CONCLUDES THE OPPOSITE. I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m crazy and since this is just the opposite of what you’ve always heard and always practiced, I must be sadly mistaken. I’m sorry. I wish that were so. Let me break it down…
There are two main types of hardwood cutting boards (this includes bamboo): edge grain and end grain. Edge grain cutting boards are made of strips of wood glued together so that the side of the wood is visible. You can tell a board is edge grain by the natural stripes across the surface. End grain cutting boards are made from many pieces of wood glued together so that the cut edges are facing up. These boards have the appearance of a checkerboard, and are often referred to as butcher blocks. Especially with end grain boards, knives cut between natural fibers of the wood, and therefore these cutting boards are the easiest on knives. They don’t have the dulling effect on knives that every other type of board has. When raw meat is cut on a wooden cutting board, the wood absorbs the bacteria. Its porous quality allows it to soak up the bacteria into the board. This sounds at first very scary. Research done in labs on every type of hardwood cutting board has shown virtually the same result, regardless of the type of wood. As the board dries (a matter of a couple of hours) the bacteria dies. It cannot survive without moisture, and the natural quality of the wood is to dry, provided it is in a dry environment exposed to open air. Hours after use, the bacteria can no longer be recovered, even if you break the board open to reveal the inside.
Plastic or synthetic cutting boards are not porous, and therefore do not absorb bacteria from raw meat. That’s fantastic news if you are using a brand new plastic board. However, if you’ve had and used that board for any length of time, it has acquired many nicks, cuts, and scratches, which in turn have developed fishers throughout the surface of the board that are not visible to the naked eye. All of these cracks and fishers pull juices and bacteria into them and trap it there. Have you ever noticed that just after washing your plastic cutting board and drying it with a hand towel, it still feels wet? That’s because all of these cuts and scratches are moisture traps that are all but impossible to reach. And the fatty content of a lot of the juices and bits from your meat create a barrier over the top of the cuts that is incredibly difficult to wash away in order to sanitize the nicks and divots riddling your board. Sooo….. basically, plastic boards are little bacteria traps that grab hold of the very thing you are trying to avoid by using them and hang on, waiting to contaminate whatever you prep next. One study has shown that homes using plastic cutting boards are twice as likely as average to contract salmonella poisoning and homes using wooden cutting boards are less than half as likely as average to contract salmonella poisoning.
A few things to remember:
ALWAYS completely dry your cutting board, wooden or plastic, before putting it away.
Wash your cutting board with hot water and soap before sanitizing it. (Wooden-hot water and soap, let it air dry, spray with vinegar solution:1/4 vinegar 3/4 water, treat weekly with food grade oil to keep the wood from splitting and cracking. Plastic- hot water and soap to cut through the layer of fatty oil from meat, then in hottest cycle of dishwasher with heated dry to further clean and sanitize.)
Cut all your veggies and other foods before cutting meat, to avoid cross contamination, or use separate cutting boards.
My personal recommendation is to purchase a decent, non-expensive end grain cutting board to use for everything, and take great care of it. Mine is a $25 butcher block from Kitchen Collection, and it is fantastic. I oil it weekly, wash it very well after every use, and keep it on my kitchen counter where it can remain dry and bacteria does not have the opportunity to thrive. Go throw away your old plastic boards (especially if they’ve reached the point of catching on your dishrag when you wash them) so you can have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re doing your part to avoid infecting your loved ones with harmful bacteria. (I know, I know… you thought you were already doing that, I’m not giving you a hard time. Just trying to help!)