Cutting boards are in constant contact with your food and kitchen knives, making it important to choose just the right wood for the job.
The history of the wood cutting board is the history of our ancestors using an unpolished tree stump or log to chop up their catch of the day.For as long as people have been cutting their food, they have needed surfaces to cut on. And the wood was perfect for the job. A cutting board acts at any given moment as a chopping block, food preparation surface, or serving station—sometimes all three. So it’s essential that this can’t-live-without kitchen accessory be made of durable material.
Pro chefs swear by wood because it’s more impact resistant and sanitary than plastic, gentler on knife blades than bamboo, and cheaper than marble or granite. But not all types of wood are superior options.
The choice of wood for your cutting board dictates how it fares against knives, stains, and moisture.
- When choosing a good cutting board, you should consider dimensions, wood hardness, wood grain, and toxicity.
- All wood cutting boards are made from one of three types of grains: face grain, edge grain, or end grain.
- The main types of wood for cutting boards are maple, walnut, cherry, beech, teak, and bamboo (which is actually a hard grass).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A GOOD CUTTING BOARD
Consider the following key attributes of a wood species before deciding on the best wood for your cutting board or butcher block:
- Janka hardness rating:The higher the hardness rating of wood, the harder and more resistant it is to scratches, dents, or dings from knives. Opt for hardwoods like maple over softwoods like pine; the former usually have a higher hardness rating and are less damage-prone than lower-rated softwoods. Numbers at the low end of the spectrum indicate a softer wood (balsa takes the lowest spot at 22), while highs of 4,000-5,000 denote a harder wood (the Australian buloke is 5,060). A wood that is too soft will be easily scratched and damaged. Too hard may cause a knife to come down hard on the surface and possibly dull with repeated use. For one that is just right, a good number is anywhere between 900-1,500. That includes cherry (995), walnut (1,010), bamboo (1,180), and maple (1,450).
- Wood Grain (Porosity): Choose closed-grain woods (pores invisible to the naked eye) to keep liquid or bacteria from entering the cutting surface and cause mold growth, wood warping, or stains. The smaller the pores, the better. Open-grained woods (pores visible) such as oak and ash are a poor choice because they soak up moisture like a sponge and quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Toxicity:Stick to woods that produce edible fruits, nuts, leaves, or sap; these are considered to be food-safe. Exotic woods like Purpleheart, while attractive, should be avoided as they often contain toxins that may leach out of the wood and into food placed on the cutting surface.
- Conditioning:Food-grade mineral oil should be applied to wood cutting boards and butcher blocks to suppress wood’s natural tendency to shrink and warp or split as surrounding humidity decreases. Typically, you should condition quarterly aftercleaning wooden cutting boards, but some woods shrink more than others, so you’d need to oil these woods more frequently.
- Cost:The prices of store-bought cutting surfaces vary widely depending on the wood used to make them.
THE BEST CHOICES FOR CUTTING BOARD WOOD
Based on the above criteria, this is the winning combination for a cutting board that’s durable, scratch-resistant, and won’t get grimy. The best wood species for this can be whittled down to the following few:
Maple is the industry standard when it comes to wooden cutting boards — specifically hard maple or sugar maple wood. At 1,450 lbf on the Janka scale, it provides an excellent cutting surface that wears well against daily chopping but doesn’t ruin a good cutting edge. Its dense closed grain and small pores are also effective for blocking bacteria.
While maple’s neutral color and subtle grain are a natural match for every kitchen, it’s hard to hide stains on its lighter-toned surface — we wouldn’t recommend leaving freshly sliced beets or turmeric roots on a maple cutting board.
Walnut is another heavy favorite and is almost the exact opposite of maple. It’s one of the softest closed-grain hardwoods, at 1,010 lbf, which is great on knives but also more prone to scratches. Walnut is prized for its rich, dark hue that can effectively mask everyday stains, as well as lend a chic look to your countertop.
If going by color alone, cherry is the pick of the bunch. A thick slab of deep redwood looks amazing no matter what you do with it.
Beech is a tree that hails from Europe and has many similarities to maple. It’s almost equally hard (at 1,300 lbf), just as hard-wearing, and effective at warding off the dirt. Beech has a creamier, soft-pink tone, which slowly stains to a beautiful red with time.
Teak cutting boards rose to popularity a few years ago. Tropical orange-brown hardwood is grown in Southeast Asia, teak’s resistance to mold and warping — even in wet environments — makes it perfect for boat fixtures, outdoor furniture, and recently, kitchen cutting boards.
Thanks to teak’s closed grain and rich natural oils, water is unable to seep in. And as compared to other types of wood, there’s much less need for any added mineral oil or conditioning.
Teak is high in silica (the same substance found in sand and glass) and has a hardness of 1,070 lbf. This makes it a relatively sturdy and scratch-resistant surface but may also dull your knife blade with frequent use.
Bamboo is the environmentalist’s choice. Technically not a wood but a hard grass, it is sustainable, renewable, and needs no chemicals to grow or harvest. (A bamboo sprout reaches full maturity in 3-6 years, while maple trees take over 30 years.)
Bamboo has a hardness rating of 1,380 lbf — greater than many varieties of wood. It is high in silica and resistant to water and scratches, but it’s also relatively hard on knives.
Choosing Between Wood Grain Patterns
Within the category of wooden cutting boards come, you’ll find three design varieties: face-grain, end-grain, and edge-grain. These cuts aren’t just for show; each pattern boasts a different level of durability.
- Face-grainis considered the most attractive because it shows the full fibers of the wood. Long, narrow slats are glued together at their shorter ends, with the grain running horizontally along with the board (similar to a wood tabletop or cupboard door). Face grain is the most affordable of all the grains. However, it’s also the most susceptible to scratches from a knife’s blade. Since cutting is done across the grain, any damage on the board is also very easy to see.
- Four to fifteen times more expensive than edge-grain surfaces, end-grain cutting boards and butcher blocks are made by fusing together cut wooden boards so that the short ends of the boards form a level surface that faces up. The cutting surface looks like a checkerboard comprising the ends of a 2×4. Because the short ends of wooden boards are more fibrous and have an open wood-cell structure, the cutting surface of an end-grain board is softer, more gentle on your knife, and also gives your knife a better grip during cutting. Minor dents are usually only temporary as the open wood-cell structure of the cutting surface allows it to self-heal i.e., spring back into shape after minor impressions have been formed.
- Edge-grain cutting surfacesare made by fusing cut wooden boards so that the side edges of the boards form a level surface that faces up. The pattern on the surface resembles a series of long, lean strips like the sides of a 2×4. While these cutting boards and butcher blocks are heavier and hence offer more stability while cutting than end-grain surfaces, they’re significantly cheaper than end-grain boards because of their simpler construction. However, the cutting surface is harder and has less give, so is more likely to dull your knives over time. It also has less ability to self-heal, so it’s more likely to show cutting marks.
HOW IT ALL STACKS UP
There’s so much more to a cutting board than just providing a flat surface. From board size to pore size, it’s all the tiny features that will make or break a seemingly good cutting board. Start with your ideal in mind. What will you be cutting? How often will you use it? Do you want your board to double as a serving platter? From there, you’re sure to findthe perfect wood cutting board.