You might think a cutting board is just a surface to keep your table or your countertop from getting sliced, but there is more to a cutting board than meets the knife. A lot more – and what material you choose can affect both flavour and food safety.
So what’s the difference between wood, plastic and glass, the most common cutting board materials?
Softness and hardness
The first thing to keep in mind is how hard or soft your cutting board surface is. Wood might seem softer than plastic, for example, but some plastics can be very soft indeed, whereas some woods, like oak, can seem as hard as a rock.
The hardness of the surface will determine how much it gives under the pressure of a blade.
A softer surface will give you more traction on a cut, but will also quickly form a network of grooves and slices when subjected to heavy chops, as with a meat cleaver. Eventually, these become very hard to clean (more on that later), and for softer woods, like pine or bamboo, the porous grain will absorb and retain residue of food more readily, which can affect the flavours of subsequent ingredients.
Harder surfaces, like oak, hard polymer plastic and glass, stand up to knife stress and are far easier to clean and sanitise. But they are also very tough on knife edges – particularly glass, which may be the easiest of all to clean but can dull out a blade faster than you can say “chop chop”.
Common sense may suggest that plastic is a more sanitary material than the relatively porous, moisture-retentive wood. Interestingly, research (yes, there is cutting board research) suggests that over time, plastic can be even less sanitary than wood.
Basically, while wood is porous and absorbs more water and residue, the capillary effect sucks the bacteria deep under the surface of the wood. They do not seem to return to the surface and typically die as the moisture dries.
While at first plastic is smooth and easily washes free of germs, eventually the small grooves will trap moisture and bacteria, where they live and breed on the surface. Softer woods, too, are more apt to trap bacteria in this way than harder woods.
No matter the material, it is very important to clean and sanitise your cutting board, but this can be trickier than you think and can vary between materials.
Plastic and glass cutting boards are usually dishwasher safe, while wood cutting boards may not be. However, research suggests that if a dishwasher fails to kill bacteria, it can actually spread it around to other dishes in the dishwasher.
The safest bet is to clean your cutting boards by hand. First, scrub the board with soap and water. Next, prepare a solution of chlorine bleach diluted with water (one tablespoon per gallon of water), and rinse the cutting board thoroughly.
For really dirty cutting boards, a few minutes in a microwave will zap away any remaining germs.
Finally, be sure to replace your cutting boards periodically, especially if they are made of a soft material. The more grooves and scratches they accumulate, the harder they are to clean and sanitise.
Pro tip: Have several cutting boards
To get the most mileage out of your cutting boards, and avoid cross-contamination of germs, it is a good idea to have two or three different boards to use for different ingredients. At the very least, have two: one for meat (try a hard surface like oak or a hard plastic that can stand up to high-impact chopping and slicing) and another for everything else.
This will help protect your veggies, fruits and other ingredients form salmonella and other meat-borne pathogens, but bear in mind: even fresh fruits and vegetables can carry an array of germs and contaminants. It is always important to properly clean your ingredients, tools and the surfaces you prepare them on!