Bamboo, a Love Affair Gone Bad
Bamboo cutting boards have become the eco-friendly answer of the new century and bamboo is quite a wonder. It looks super cool and is lightweight but strong. It’s tight-grained and dense, so it’s easy to clean. What’s not to like?
I’d used my two smaller-size bamboo cutting boards for years and swore by them—until I saw a negative comment on the web and asked one of my professional sharpening services their opinion. I already knew bamboo was roughly 15 percent harder than hard maple which is the standard—but 15 didn’t seem that far out of line.
I can’t recommend bamboo as the material of choice for your main cutting board.
Turns out hardness is not the main problem. It’s all about consistency. “Maple is far more consistent in hardness whereas bamboo is super hard at the nodes and soft in between,” my sharpening guy said. The nodes will kill you. Or the soft in between. Or, more accurately, the uneven wear between them tends to shred the edge of your blade. Especially if you’re doing a whole lot of chopping. (Photo above: KKG’s three bamboo cutting boards.)
So, in good conscience, I can’t recommend bamboo as the material of choice for your main cutting board. But it seems fine as a supporting cast member. That’s how I use my bamboo cutting boards, anyway—for lighter roles like slicing up an apple or serving cheese. Especially since bamboo is so pleasing to the eye. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bamboo board I didn’t want to buy immediately just to take home and look at.
Bamboo Cutting Board Picks
Here are links to a few of my favorites—I own the first two models by Totally Bamboo and the last is made by them as well. I have never used mine for heavy chopping—but plenty of slicing (tomatoes, red pepper, etc.). I wash them regularly with soap and hot water (NOT submersed) and they have held up very well. (Below: Totally Bamboo’s 3-Piece Cutting Board Set, their Kauai single board, and their w/Silicone Holes, Set of Three.)
Other Types of Cutting Boards
There are three other types of cutting boards worth discussing—the last of which, like bamboo, I don’t recommend for heavy usage. But you see it marketed on a lot of kitchen gear websites, so I thought it would be worth covering.
Hard rubber boards, the Sani-Tuff® brand specifically, are big in the food industry. And for good reason—they’re as pliant yet durable as wooden boards, won’t trap bacteria like plastic boards, are easy on knives, and can even be resurfaced by sanding. And to top it off, they can go in the dishwasher.
So where’s the rub? The biggest downside is that they’re not that attractive—unless you have a thing for industrial beige. They look like they belong in exactly the place they were designed for—a commercial kitchen. They also lean toward larger sizes (which can be cumbersome and heavy), tend to grab your knife blade more than wood or plastic, and are not cheap.
It’s up to you. If you don’t mind the look and heft, they are worth looking into. But whatever you do, don’t order anything thicker than the 3/4 inch—unless you like to weightlift while you cook! (Disclosure: I have no hands-on experience with these, but am relying on my own research.)
You can buy them on Amazon—a single page allows you to buy a plethora of sizes and shapes. Just don’t miss the smallish drop-down menu button.
NoTrax Sani-Tuff Natural Rubber Cutting Boards.
Thin, Flexible Plastic Mats
Although their thinness varies according to the manufacturer, the big appeal of these plastic cutting mats is that they are ultra-light and ultra-portable. Which means you can stow them away anywhere—in a drawer, behind your knife block—and quickly whip one out whenever needed.
Converts rave about the fact you can use the board itself to funnel whatever you’ve chopped up directly in a soup pot. Kuel. And they come in all sorts of festive colors like regular plastic boards, so you can easily code them for different foods if you like. I’ve never used them, but I can see the appeal.
“Mats are not designed for heavy-duty jobs.”
Please be aware though—depending on the thinness—you should, ideally, use them over something with some give in it like a wooden cutting board. If you put a mat that’s only a couple of millimeters thin over your granite counter and mince away with your favorite newly-sharpened chef’s knife, you will quickly fold over the cutting edge (i.e dull it).
And please don’t even dream about chopping with a cleaver on one of these—you’ll slice right through. Mats are not designed for heavy-duty jobs. Also, be aware that, in general, they won’t hold up to sustained dishwasher use, but will warp and curl.
Perhaps the best way to approach them is as a disposable accessory that might last for a year max. (They’re extremely affordable, depending on the brand.) Use them when you’re in a crunch—like slicing some fruit over a board you just smashed a garlic clove on—and once they get cracked and scarred, buy a new pack.
Cutting Mats — Top Picks
Yes, along with traditional plastic cutting boards (see above), Dexas also manufactures the thinner mats. So I would start with them and then branch out. Here are two links: one to Dexas Heavy-Duty Grippmats and a second to the “plastic kitchen cutting mats” search page on Amazon. Happy shopping!
Wood Fiber Composites
Richlite, a leading wood fiber composite, is a wonderfully green material made of layers of paper pulp and resin. Epicurean makes a long line of Richlite cutting boards which are quite stylish and quite the rage. One can understand why—they’re incredibly durable, won’t stain easily, can take up 350 degrees of heat, are completely sanitary, and can even go in the dishwasher. There’s only one big problem—they’re pretty darn hard. Significantly harder than hard maple, which makes them less-than-ideal for heavy cutting-board use.
Nevertheless, these Epicurean cutting boards are handsome and sophisticated and can fill a certain niche. If you find them irresistible, I would recommend making them supporting players (like I recommend for bamboo). Relegate them to lighter tasks—halving a melon, sawing up a baguette, serving figs and cheese—and save the heavy lifting for other boards made of more yielding materials. (Below: Epicurean’s Epicurean All-In-One Cutting Board with Non-Slip Feet and their Epicurean Kitchen Series Cutting Board, slate.)
Even though all the websites selling these boards claim they won’t dull knives, I don’t buy it. I ordered some samples to test out myself and they did not score easily enough (the way any material that will protect your knife edges should). I don’t recommend them as your main board.
In the end, as far as your knives are concerned, the two best all-around materials for cutting boards are still hard wood and plastic—which you don’t have to choose between, but can use in combination. (Sani-Tuff boards made of hard rubber are also a viable option if you don’t happen to mind their industrial appearance.) If you love the look and feel of materials like bamboo and Richlite, try not to use them as your main board for major chopping. They will be harder on your knives than wood or plastic. Better to relegate them to the supporting cast.
And remember, all cutting boards covered on this website (wood, plastic, bamboo, etc.) can be hygienic if used properly because the main thing is how you manage and clean your cutting boards, not the material you slice and dice on. To this end, adopt the Two Boards Concept—have a separate cutting board for raw meat only (including poultry and fish) and one for everything else. You’ll find it indispensable to making your prep work sanitary and simpler. (See Cutting Board Cleanliness for more on this.)
Take care what your knives cut on and they will return the favor by staying sharp longer!
Cutting Board Recap
pros: attractive unusual patterns; lightweight; weathers as well as wood; variety of styles; lasts
cons: hard on knives; only light usage, as backup—bread, apple for lunch; no dishwasher
Hard Rubber (Sani-Tuff)
pros: protects knives; more sanitary than plastic; dishwasher safe; lasts forever; can be resurfaced
cons: not attractive; no style selection—only one color, beige; heavy; pricey
Thin, Flexible Plastic Mats
pros: portable and light; variety of colors/styles; inexpensive; semi-dishwasher
cons: flimsy; minimum knife protection; wear out quickly; not meant to last; will warp in dishwasher
Wood Fiber Composite (Richlite w/Epicurean)
pros: attractive modern designs; wears well; variety of styles; lasts as long as wood
cons: hard on knives; should only use lightly as backup—bread, etc.
(Below are also recaps from my article Cutting Boards — Wood and Plastic.)
pros: protects knives; beautiful, natural look; weathers well; variety of styles; lasts long time
cons: can’t wash in dishwasher
pros: protects knives; looks great at first; variety of colors; dishwasher safe (except for dry cycle)
cons: eventually scars—doesn’t weather as well as wood; careful drying in dishwasher