Choosing a chopping board is confusing – there are so many different options and styles available. Things become a lot clearer, however, when you understand the the differences between the most commonly used materials and why these matter.
Cutting to the chase
When choosing a chopping board these are the main things you need to bear in mind.
- The edge on your knife is thin and easily damaged. You don’t want a surface that’s too hard.
- Nor do you want a material that’s too soft or weak as it will pick up scratches cuts and dints which can harbour germs and bacteria.
- Ideally you want a material that is easy to clean and sterilize
- A material that doesn’t require a lot of time-consuming maintenance makes your life easier
- You want it to look good (and stay looking good)
So, weighing up these different factors, and taking account of your personal priorities, which type of board will be best for you?
Putting it bluntly
Glass and marble chopping boards look great. They are also hygienic in that they are non-absorbent and easy to sterilize and keep clean. The major problem is they’re just too hard – they’ll quickly ruin every knife in your kitchen by wrecking the blade!
Boards made from bamboo are inexpensive and light. But they are also too hard and will take the edge off a blade in no time. Bamboo also has a tendency to absorb stains and will warp if immersed in water. Bamboo boards should be oiled every 2-3 weeks with food grade mineral oil so are not maintenance-free.
Why plastic is popular
Plastic cutting boards tend to be cheap and lightweight. They’re also space efficient – they can be much thinner than wood so three or more boards take up the same space as a thick wooden one. Many plastic cutting boards can handle the high-heat cycle of a dishwasher without warping so they’re easy to clean and sanitize. Finally, they’re gentle on the edge of your knife blade, yet durable.
On the downside, plastic chopping boards can become increasingly and irreversibly scratched by knives, and those tiny channels are the perfect place for bacteria to lurk. With proper care the surface can be kept clean and safe but wood (for reasons we’ll get to) is less risky. Plastic will wear down your knife edge faster than a good quality chopping board. Finally, plastic boards are not as easy on the eye as wooden ones.
Why wood is so good
Wooden chopping boards made are much gentler on the blade of your knife. They also last a long time - even if you damage the surface with deep scratches, the board can often be salvaged by sanding these away.
You might think that wood, because it's porous and can absorb liquids, is unsanitary. Studies, however, have often found the reverse—wood is able to absorb bacteria, then trap and kill it. Wooden chopping boards are also handsome – and looks matter in a kitchen.
On the downside wood requires regular conditioning with food-grade mineral oil to prevent it from drying out, warping, and cracking. Keeping it saturated with oil also helps protect a wooden chopping board from stains. Although a well maintained board is durable it can still warp or crack. The better it is made the less likelihood there is of that happening!
Wooden chopping boards need more care than plastic. Don’t put them in the dishwasher or leave them to soak, as this will dramatically shorten their life. A gentle wash under warm running water is all that's needed. Once dry it's a good idea to give it a little more mineral oil to replenish whatever was stripped away. Good quality wooden chopping boards are also thick and heavy – they can take up a lot of space and require a bit of muscle to move.
Wooden chopping boards – other things you need to know
There are essentially two types of wooden chopping board; end-grain and edge-grain. Both are made by glueing sections of wood together but with end-grain boards these pieces have been cut across the tree so you can see the rings in the timber. With edge-grain the sections have been cut along the length of the tree rather than across it.
End-grain boards are very slightly more gentle on your knives, since the blade can slip between the exposed individual fibers. The fibers can also reset after a cut is made. With an edge-grain board, however, the knife comes down sideways onto the tree's fibers. This will blunt the blade faster faster and it'll lead to gashes in the wood that won't heal so easily – with an end-grain board the fibers will reset.
For these reasons a good quality end-grain chopping board is probably preferrable. However, end-grain boards are more difficult to make, which means they're more expensive. End-grain boards also require more care and attention, soaking up water more quickly than edge-grain – this makes them more prone to warping and cracking. And end-grain board also has a lot more glued seams compared to the long strips of wood that make up an edge-grain board and seams are frequent points of failure. For all these reasons it's even more critical to keep an end-grain board well oiled.
Ultimately, wood is always a good idea. A quality end-grain chopping board is probably the option of choice – but only if you’re prepared to give it the regular care it requires. If not, go for edge-grain.