What makes the best cutting boards: wood, plastic, or bamboo?

If you cook, you cut stuff. Unless you’re willing to ruin your countertops, you need a cutting board. What kind of cutting board should you get? Not too long ago, you had a choice only of what kind of wood to get. Then, plastic cutting boards came along, followed even more recently by bamboo. So how do you choose?

You need a surface that’s hard enough that your knives won’t damage it and soft enough that it won’t damage your knives. When you’re finished with your cutting board, you have to wash it. You can simply put some cutting boards into the dishwasher, but must hand wash others.

Wood cutting boards

Tomato murder (on wood cutting board)

Avoid cheap wood or wood composite cutting boards. When my parents redesigned their kitchen, they got a cutting board that conveniently slides under the counter. They can pull it part way out for quick cutting jobs or all the way out to put it on the counter or kitchen table. It’s very convenient and seemed like a neat feature at the time, but the years haven’t been kind to it. No more than an inch or so thick and basically a single hardwood board, its surface is a crazy web of nicks and cut marks and some gouges. It still gets heavy use when all of my generation fixes Chinese food at Christmas time, but I hate to think of how unsanitary it is.

Nowadays, you can find cutting boards made from particle board with a hardwood veneer. Most of them are no better, eventually giving off sawdust as you cut. There might be some wood composite cutting boards that hold up better, but they’re generally the least desirable of all the choices.

A good wood cutting board will be hard wood (most likely maple) and have the end-grain as the cutting surface. That means that the entire board will comprise lots of pieces of wood glued together. It will hold up under any kind of knife, including pounding it with a cleaver, but after a while, it’s likely to split along a glue line. You can’t put this kind of wood cutting board in the dishwasher or even submerge it for very long in the sink unless you want it to fall apart quickly. After hand washing and oiling it, you can not depend on having washed off all the bacteria. Make sure it has dried thoroughly before using it again.

Plastic cutting boards

Plastic cutting board

Enter plastic. Plastic cutting boards are much lighter than wood and impervious to water. You can put them in the dishwasher without fear. The light weight can be a disadvantage, though. Many of the thinnest, lightest ones can skid around the counter as you try to cut something on them. Every store that carries cutting boards at all probably offers quite a selection of thin plastic cutting boards, with little feet on them to keep them raised a little above the counter. Eventually, one by one, they fall off. I have seen really thick plastic cutting boards, though. They make up for that problem if they’ll still fit in the dishwasher. Plastic reputedly has one other big advantage over wood: it seems to be easier to wash all the bacteria off, making a plastic cutting board more sanitary than a wood one. America’s Test Kitchensays that its own lab tests do not support that claim.

The main problem with plastic is that, unfortunately, it’s plastic. It’s made from petrochemicals that we currently have to import, mostly from countries that are hardly reliable friends. Besides the environmental hazards in drilling for oil, transporting it, and manufacturing plastic with it, it’s biologically indestructible. If a plastic cutting board breaks, it is currently not recyclable–at least not anywhere where I have lived. It will sit in a landfill for thousands of years, contributing to leachate that will have to be collected and processed to keep it from polluting ground water.

Bamboo cutting boards

Bamboo cutting board

Bamboo, the new kid on the block, is as durable as wood and has environmental advantages over either wood or plastic. It is 16% harder than maple, but it’s not wood at all. It’s a grass. It grows like a weed without much human intervention.

Harvesting bamboo doesn’t kill the plant, and a harvested culm will grow back ready for reharvesting in a few years. It takes at least three years.; for higher quality products it is better to wait for four or four and a half years. Hardwood, on the other hand, must be replanted and it takes at least 30 years, maybe as much as 60, before the new tree is big enough to harvest.

The best advantage of bamboo as a cutting board is its naturally antimicrobial properties. When you wash a bamboo cutting board you need not be as concerned with getting all the germs off, because the bamboo itself will kill them before you even start to wash it.

If your bamboo cutting board looks like the high-quality maple cutting boards described earlier, it still needs to be hand washed, and for the same reason. It will benefit from occasional oiling. Like the maple cutting boards, bamboo has superior feel and durability compared to plastic. For people who care about the environment as much as they do the quality of the products they buy, bamboo is the material of choice for cutting boards.

bamboo cuttings boards Bamboo cutting boards (3 sizes) from
Mighty Nest, from $18.00

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Photo credits:
Tomato murder (on wood cutting board) Some rights reserved by Andrew Morrell Photography
Plastic cutting board: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License by Umami
Bamboo cutting board: Some rights reserved by Matthew Oliphant


Comments

What makes the best cutting boards: wood, plastic, or bamboo? — 2 Comments

  1. No biggie, but you’ve got a typo in the bamboo section: “It tales at least three years” should be “It takes at least three years”. – Liz R.

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