29 July 2009
Which is a better, safer material for cutting boards, wood or plastic. There are valid arguments on both sides, so I will present all the arguments I can find. It is my own feeling that, depending on the job, either material is a good choice. But as they say, "forewarned is forearmed," so look at the arguments and decide for yourself which type of board you're more comfortable using.
1. Many people in the pro-wood camp point to a study conducted by Ak, Cliver and Kaspar in 1994 at the University of California at Davis Food Safety Laboratory that seemed to suggest that wood possesses anti-microbial properties and that surface bacteria die within minutes.
In reality, their findings were that the bacteria actually were drawn into the wood through capillary action. Once inside the wood, the bacteria no longer reproduced and eventually died off. For an excellent defense of this study, please see Dr. Dean Cliver's discussion.
2. Another pro-wood argument has to do with an end-grain cutting board's seeming "self-healing" properties. By this, I mean that when you make a cut on an end grain board, the knife actually slices between wood fibers (as opposed to cutting into them). When you pull the knife away from the board, you will not notice any knife mark.
3. A third argument in favor of wood is that, since wood is porous and allows bacteria to retreat into the grain where it is trapped and dies, there is actually more of a chance of getting bacterial contamination from a non-porous, plastic cutting board. I don't think this particular argument carries much weight, as a good cleaning and sanitizing renders the point moot.
4. A point related to the third argument is that the Ak, Cliver and Kaspar study showed that a wooden board with heavy knife scarring was easier to clean and disinfect than a heavily knife-scarred plastic cutting board. This could very well have to do with some of wood's "self healing" properties.
Since plastic is non-porous, there are many more places for bacteria to collect and contaminate food within ridges and rough spots created by knife wear. Here, I should note that a severely scarred cutting board should be replaced.
5. A final check mark in the pro-wood box is sheer longevity and tradition. Wooden boards have been used by people for hundreds and hundreds of years. High quality wooden boards can be heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.
While you should certainly throw away an old plastic cutting board that has knife cuts all over it, you can plane down a thick wooden cutting board and be good to go for years to come. Wood is considered a "warm" material, and having a wooden cutting board on display in your kitchen can enhance the feeling of warmth and welcome and give even a modern kitchen a hint of rustic charm.
1. The most fundamental argument in favor of plastic is that it is non-porous. Because of this, bacteria cannot soak down into the board and can be completely washed off with hot soapy water followed by sanitizing. This is a powerful argument and is the main argument used by the FDA when it mandated using plastic cutting boards in commercial food service.
2. Plastic is reasonably priced and lightweight. Because plastic is relatively inexpensive, it is feasible to buy two, three or even four cutting boards to be used for completely separate food preparation: one board for chicken, one for meats and fish, one for fruits and vegetables.
Since they are light and easy to move, it is not necessary to keep them out on the counter all the time, as you sometimes have to do with a large wooden cutting board. For these reasons, using plastic cutting boards makes it more economical and convenient to prevent cross-contamination.
3. Plastic cutting boards are dishwasher safe. Having said that, most home dishwashers only reach temperatures of between 120-140F. Water must be much hotter than that-about 190F for several seconds to make sure items are properly sanitized. Nevertheless, being dishwasher safe is a convenience that is often much appreciated by busy home cooks.
4. Plastic cutting boards come in many shapes, sizes and colors. This makes it easy to choose cutting boards that match your kitchen decor. While this certainly has nothing to do with food safety, it is a point to consider, especially if you are trying to choose a cutting board to support a particular color choice.
There is so much contradictory information available regarding cutting boards that it is difficult to choose a clear "winner." One authority claims that plastic cutting boards are easier to clean and a better choice than wood while another shows that wooden cutting boards harbor fewer harmful bacteria than plastic, even after mechanical cleaning.
While it is impossible for me to choose a clear winner, I can say unequivocally that you should stay away from decorative metal and glass cutting boards. Both of these surfaces are extremely hard and will damage your knives. If you receive one as a present, hang it on the wall, but don't use it to do your food preparation.
I use both plastic and wooden cutting boards, depending on the job. I especially like my heavy wooden board that has a channel routed about 1" in from the edge. This channel catches any meat juices that might collect on the board and helps to keep them from running out onto the counter.
For smaller jobs, such as slicing a couple of vegetables or some cheese, I always reach for a plastic cutting board. I love them for these smaller jobs, mainly for their ease of use and clean-up.
Since plastic boards are somewhat harder than wooden boards, your knives will most likely dull more quickly when cutting on a plastic cutting board. Regardless, you should always hone your blade with a good quality steel before cutting. And depending on how frequently you use your knives, you should have them professionally sharpened at least once a year.
Regardless of which type of board you choose, sanitation is the key to making sure your boards are safe and that you do not have any cross-contamination.
- Wash and dry cutting boards thoroughly using hot, soapy water
- Sanitize with a mixture of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart of water. Let sit several minutes, and then wipe. Let air dry.
- An alternate way to sanitize is by applying straight white vinegar, or a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 5 parts water. Let it sit for a few minutes, then rinse and pat dry.
- No matter what type of cutting board you have, wipe it off frequently (or use a bench scraper) to remove excess moisture. Bacteria love moisture, so keep it to a minimum to retard bacterial growth.
- To always be safe, designate one cutting board for raw foods (meats, poultry, fish) and one for foods that do not need further cooking (vegetables, fruits, prepared foods). Some people have as many as four different cutting boards, but two is the minimum you should have.
- Always prep vegetables, fruits and other foods that do not need further cooking before prepping raw meat and fish. If you forget and prep your meat first, make sure to clean and sanitize your work area before preparing your vegetables.