Just When You Thought It Was Safe…

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!)

Categories: Family, Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Just When You Thought It Was Safe…

  1. MacisMessy

    Holy cow! How do you know all this stuff?!

  2. MacisMessy

    But also, how long does it take your cutting board to dry after use? Do you have a backup plan?

    Because I’m sure that the minute I think I’ve finished cutting everything and got that big old slab of chicken on my butcher block, I’ll totally go, “CRAP! I forgot the cellery!”

    And the bamboo is SUPER cute and trendy. Do you recommend it, or no?

  3. MacisMessy

    AND, where do you get food grade oil for your butcher’s block? I hadn’t even heard of the stuff until I saw it in your pantry last week.

  4. MacisMessy

    This post is like an episode of LOST for me! I need answers!

  5. Bamboo is fine. Much safer than plastics! Your knives will fair best with end grain boards, and bamboo boards are typically edge grain. The fibers of end grain boards are already open, so there is virtually nothing for your knife to cut through. End grain boards suffer less knife scarring than edge grain and plastic boards.
    I keep a few plastics (boards and polyethylene sheets) for the whole “I already prepped the chicken, but I just realized I need to slice an onion” situation. But since I only use those for veggies/bread, I can be sure they are not contaminated.
    You can tell by touch when a wood cutting board is dry, and even if the inside if the board is still drying, the bacteria is not growing or multiplying and cannot continue to contaminate the surface of the board. You can never be completely certain that a plastic board is totally dry.
    My butcher block oil is from Kitchen Collection, but you can find it at any kitchen supply store and sometimes at places like World Market, Gordman’s, or Garden Ridge. It is inexpensive.

  6. Whimsygirl

    Okay.. So I am equally as excited as Mac is about this post, but I’ll try to keep my questions w/in ONE comment! Sheesh Mac! Oh, and Mac? Bamboo cutting boards are also a renewable resource. I love, LOVE that fact!

    But seriously, Stephanie, how do you “treat” your wooden cutting board with this fancy “food grade oil”?

    I am one of those suckers with multiple, dare I say, fancy plastic cutting boards. Rest assured, I’ll be getting rid of those before you come over next!!!

    Looks like I’ll be shopping for the wooden variety next. Seems like the “end cut” cutting board is the way to go. Noted! Thanks!!

  7. After the board has dried, apply oil to a washcloth and rub into the grain using small circles. Repeat until the board no longer appears to be soaking up the oil.

  8. MacisMessy

    So, what is this? First Bectoria makes fun of me, then Stephanie TOTALLY ignores all my pressing issues?!

    This is not journalism! I’m boycotting this cockamamie excuse for a web site!

  9. Whimsygirl

    Too late Mac! You’re names etched in this site as if it were stone! Get over yourself. We obviously know who’s got the relevant questions w/in the group!

  10. Which pressing issue did I not address? Thought I covered it all. :-/ Oops.

  11. MacisMessy

    Okay, so for some reason when I typed that, I didn’t actually see where all my pressing issues were answered. I think it’s just that Bectoria distracted me. I’ll stop commenting now! But at least I got to use the word cockamamie. That word definitely needs to make a comeback!

  12. Coretha Fulton

    Don’t forget NOT to leave your board where water can collect under it…or one quiet evening you will hear a loud report (not unlike gunfire) and when you go to investigate, you will find your wooden cutting board has a huge crack in it where it exploded because it had taken in too much water. Just sayin’… 🙂

  13. So, I saw a totally awesome looking end grain bamboo board at Home Goods, yesterday! AND it was round!

    Unfortunately, it was price to reflect It’s unique properties…

  14. For the skeptics: http://faculty.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/faculty/docliver/Research/cuttingboard.htm
    These were the most informative, conclusive study results I read, though there are several others out there whose findings are comparable. I was unable to find any studies whose findings negated the conclusion that wood cutting boards harbor far less bacteria than plastics.

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