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Cutting boards can be made out of so many different types of materials ranging from plastic to glass. It’s difficult to know which one to pick, and why. We’ve explored what to look for in a cutting board and how common materials compare. And, wood cutting boards came out on top as the all-around best choice.
Each wood cutting board is as unique as the tree it came from. You can find lots of types of cutting boards made out of different varieties of wood. Each wood variety has different qualities, like hardness and absorbency, that are suited to different kitchen uses. So, which qualities make wood such a great cutting board material? And how do you pick the right wood cutting board that suits your needs in the kitchen? That’s what this post is all about.
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Which type and variety of wood cutting board will work best for your kitchen uses
Wood cutting boards usually come in three types—softwood, hardwood and bamboo—and many different varieties of wood that grow all over the world. It’s useful to understand the qualities and characteristics of each type to help you make an informed choice for your kitchen.
A wood’s hardness is ranked on the Janka hardness scale, which measures the resistance of wood to scratches, dents and wear. The higher the hardness rating (measured in pounds-force or “lbf”), the harder and more resistant a wood variety is.
Softwoods have large, open grains and are more porous than hardwoods. The wood splits apart more easily and forms crevices where bacteria can live. Because of their softness, softwood cutting boards are vulnerable to scratches, cuts and dents. Softwood are generally less expensive than hardwood cutting boards. They are most often used to make end-grain cutting boards to increase their durability.
Uses: Vegetables and fruits, and breads.
Woods have a grain—the direction, size and appearance of piece of wood’s cell fibers. Wood grain is what makes a wood cutting board appear and feel smooth or rough.
Softwoods, such as cedar and redwood, are not always used for cutting boards. When they are, you can find softwood cutting boards made of pine because of its diverse range of hardness qualities and durability.
- Pine woods come in hard and soft varieties, and are gentle on knife blades but also susceptible to knife cuts. The hardest pines are southern yellow pines including pitch, loblollu, spruce, sand, pond, slash and longleaf pine. These pines have Janka hardness ratings of between 620 to 870 lbf.
Hardwoods are porous and have fine, tight grains with capillary actions that pull down fluid and trap bacteria. This closed grain wood type has such small pores that you can hardly see them. Because of the tightness of their cell fibers, hardwood boards are less likely to split apart with repeated exposure to moisture.
Uses: Hardwood cutting boards work well for cutting anything from meats to fruit.
Some common hardwood varieties used for cutting boards (from hardest to softest) include:
- Maple is an industry standard for cutting boards. Typically hard maple (also known as rock or sugar maple) is used, which has a Janka hardness rating of 1,450 lbf. Although it’s dense, its lighter colour makes it stain easily.
- Ash wood is hard and durable, even though it’s more porous because of wide spaced growth rings. Its Janka hardness rating ranges from 1,320 lbf for white ash to 850 lbf for black ash.
- Beech is similar to maple in terms of hardness and durability, and resistance to scratches and impacts. It has a Janka hardness rating of 1,300 lbf and is gentle on knives.
- Teak is rich in natural oils that resist absorbing moisture, mould and bacteria. It has a Janka hardness rating of 1,070 lbf. Despite being a softer hardwood, teak cutting boards may dull knives quicker due to their high silica content (silica is a common mineral found in glass, beach sand and granite).
- Walnut is a soft hardwood with a Janka hardness rating of 1,010 lbf. It is gentle on knives, but is easily cut and scratched.
- Cherry has a Janka hardness rating of 950 lbf and darkens to a deep reddish brown colour over time. It’s durable, resistant to decay and soft on knife blades.
Bamboo (actually not wood!)
Although bamboo is often lumped in with other wood cutting boards, did you know that it isn’t a type of wood at all? It’s actually a hard grass with similar qualities to wood.
Bamboo resists moisture and bacteria more than other types of wood because it is harder and less porous. It also resists scarring, but its hardness will dull your sharp knives over time. Bamboo can splinter easily, leaving little spaces where bacteria can live, so you should keep the board oiled. They can also become fuzzy over time, which increases their potential to harbour bacteria.
Uses: A bamboo board (without any cracks) can be used for cutting raw meats, seafood and dairy products like cheese. But, it may be best used for less bacteria-prone foods like fruits and vegetables, and breads as it ages. Be sure to wash your fruits and vegetables before putting them on your cutting board to cut down on the potential for bacterial contamination.
If you’re looking to buy a cutting board made out of a variety of wood that we haven’t mentioned, check out Eric Meier’s The Wood Database. This amazing resource gives you detailed information about varieties of wood from all over the world, including their Janka hardness rating, decay resistance and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “red list” of threatened tree species status.
Wood cutting boards come in all patterns, shapes and sizes. Aim for diversity!
Wood cutting boards come in different grain types, shapes and sizes. Their different features can be best suited to preparing or serving certain types of food.
When I say “grain type,” I’m talking about the orientation of a wood’s grain. A piece of wood has three surfaces, face, edge and end, each with a different grain type that appears and acts differently when used for a cutting board.
- Face grain – This grain along the top of a piece of wood appears as horizontal lines running along your cutting board’s surface. It’s often considered the most attractive surface. But, it’s also the most susceptible to knife scratches.
- Edge grain – The edge, or side, of a piece of wood also has horizontal running grains. Edge grains can be harder on your knives, but also show knife scratches and marks less. Softwood cutting boards often have an edge grain pattern.
- End grain – The end of a piece of wood has vertical grains that make the surface of a cutting board look speckled on top. End grain cutting boards are made of many pieces of wood glued into a “checkerboard” pattern. They are extremely durable and easier on knives than edge (horizontal) grain. The surface of an end grain cutting board absorbs the impact of a knife cut between its wood fibers and “self-heals.”
Shapes and Sizes
Wood is versatile and can be cut into many different shapes and sizes. This means you can find rectangles, circles, ovals and other unique shapes like triangles, in anything from large to small cutting board sizes and thicknesses. Some shape and size considerations to keep in mind are:
- The most versatile choice for meal preparation is a rectangular cutting board measuring 12 by 18 inches (30.5 to 45.7 cm). To make sure you’re buying a quality board, its thickness should be anywhere from 1-¼ to 2 inches (3.2 to 5.1 cm).
- An end grain cutting board should be at least 2 inches (5.1 cm) thick, which makes it heavier and less moveable around the kitchen. End-grain cutting boards are great for cutting meats.
- Pick a small cutting board to dedicate to cutting cheeses, and other dairy products.
- Keep a decorative cutting board on hand, like a narrow rectangular board with a handle, for serving appetizers like charcuterie plates with cured meats, cheeses, fruits and preserved foods.
Some cutting boards include special features that can help you during food preparation, storage, serving and cleaning. Commonly available types of features include:
- Feet attached to the underside of a heavy cutting board to lift it off your counter top and keep the wood dry.
- A groove around the outside edge of a cutting board that can catch liquids and drippings.
- Handle shapes carved into the end of a cutting board to help when you use it as a serving platter.
- A hole cut into one end of a cutting board for hanging storage.
- A two piece cutting board where the top piece has cut slots or holes across its surface to allow bread crumbs to fall onto the bottom tray for easy clean up.
Choose a healthy and sustainably produced wood cutting board
Wood cutting boards are made out of timber. And so, forest management practices have a significant impact on the sustainability of a cutting board. For instance, forests are being clear cut around the world to accommodate the growth of bamboo for consumer goods. When managed incorrectly, timber harvesting can lead to deforestation that is causing 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This contributes to climate change, and habitat loss and disruption.
Many wood cutting boards use glue in their construction and have finishes put on them. And, not all glues and finishes are made of non-toxic, food safe ingredients. Some glues can release unhealthy levels of formaldehyde that cause respiratory, sinus and skin irritation. Formaldehyde is also considered to be carcinogenic.
Look for the following certifications, wood species and ingredients to make the most sustainable choice:
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), American Tree Farm System, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management and Sustainable Forestry Initiative certifications indicate that a producer uses sustainable forestry management practices.
- The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a “red list” of threatened tree species that are in danger of deforestation around the world.
- Cutting boards labelled as formaldehyde-free, and use non-toxic finishes like beeswax, carnauba wax or refractionated coconut oil. (Steer clear of mineral oil. Even though it’s considered food safe, it’s derived from petroleum).
Clean and maintain your wood cutting board to extend its lifespan
Wood cutting boards will have a long lifespan if you take care of them correctly. This means cleaning and sanitizing your cutting boards regularly, as well as the occasional deep clean and maintenance activity. Trust me: all your efforts will be worth it in the end!
Clean your wood cutting boards after each use. Use hot, soapy water, then rinse them with clear water, and finish by air drying or patting dry with paper towel.
You should also sanitize and disinfect your cutting board at the end of every day. Check out our tips for how to clean and disinfect your cutting boards using non-toxic household ingredients like salt, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.
To deep clean a wood cutting board and remove stains or smells:
- Make a paste of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.
- Scrub across surface of your cutting board, and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Rinse away with clean water, and pat dry with clean paper towels.
If your cutting board starts to look dry or dull, rub it with beeswax, a beeswax-based board cream or fractionated coconut oil:
- Apply to one side of the cutting board.
- Use a clean, soft cloth or paper towel to rub in the direction of the grain or a circular motion.
- Continue rubbing and adding oil or wax until the surface is shiny and won’t absorb more.
- Repeat the process on the opposite side and all edges of the board.
- Leave standing vertically overnight (ideally on a drying rack) and rub off the excess in the morning.
Condition your wood cutting boards using beeswax, beeswax-based board cream or fractionated coconut oil to keep their surfaces from splitting or cracking. End grain cutting boards with a checkerboard pattern need frequent care.
Sand your hardwood cutting board to remove knife cuts and grooves:
- Use 80-grit sandpaper to sand the cutting board with the direction of its grain or in a circular motion.
- Wipe with a damp cloth, and let dry.
- Repeat step 1 with a 120-grit sandpaper, and then follow with step 2. Do the same with a 220-grit sandpaper to get a smooth finish.
Conclusion: Keep a variety of wood cutting boards on hand to suit different types of foods
Hopefully this primer on wood cutting boards helps you make a solid choice for your kitchen. It’s good to keep at least three different cutting boards on hand for different purposes from cutting meats and cheese, to preparing allergen-free meals. Choose end grain/checkerboard style boards to get the most durability out of your wood, with the gentlest impact on your knives. And of course, always looks for cutting boards that use formaldehyde-free glues and non-toxic coatings.
Cutting Board Recommendations
This set of wood cutting boards are good to keep on hand:
- #1 – Hard Maple Hardwood Cutting Board: A 2-inch (5.1 cm) thick maple cutting board for preparing raw meats, poultry, seafood and dairy products like cheese. Hard maple’s fine, tight grains are less likely to absorb moisture and bacteria, and it will stand up to frequent hand washing. Pick a size that’s not too heavy for you to move around the kitchen.
- #2 – Bamboo Cutting Board: An at least 12 inches (30.5 cm) long and 1-1/4 inches (3.2 cm) thick bamboo cutting board for day-to-day vegetable and fruit cutting. You could also choose to reserve it for preparing allergen-free meals. Undamaged bamboo cutting boards will resist moisture and bacteria absorption more than other woods. Avoid using serrated knives to prevent surface splinters.
- #3 – Pine Softwood Cutting Board: A versatile 12 by 18 inches (30.5 by 45.7 cm) cutting board that’s between 1-¼ to 2 inches (3.2 to 5.1 cm) thick to cut breads or prepare allergen-free meals. Try to limit prolonged exposure to liquids and moisture to keep your cutting board from splitting.
Sustainable Cutting Board Producers
Here’s some companies we like to start off your search:
- Urthware: Made in Canada using local hardwood (maple), finished with coconut oil, beeswax and carnaunba wax, and set with natural gum tree rubber feet. They offer one line made with no glues. And another one that uses FDA approved formaldehyde-free glue.
- Bambu: An American company that uses organically grown bamboo from China and water-based glue free of formaldehyde and heavy metals. Each cutting board is hand sanded to a smooth finish and finished with food safe oil made from vegetable oils and waxes.
Do you have a favourite wood cutting board? Let us know what type of wood it is and where you found it!