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Cutting Board Cleanliness — a Simple Solution

wood cutting board in sink

What’s More Hygienic, Wood or Plastic?

This is the big question everybody who’s germ conscious is always asking about cutting boards. Everybody knows that wood is a germ monger and plastic is clean. (Or maybe the other way around?) Are there any clear answers regarding cutting board cleanliness — and which is the best type of cutting board to own if you’re concerned about cross contamination?

. . .a scarred plastic board will actually hide more bacteria than a scarred wooden one.

Here’s the scoop: According to a definitive study done by Dr. Cliver at UC Davis, plastic cutting boards can be more problematic that wooden ones. Cliver found that a scarred plastic board will actually hide more bacteria than a scarred wooden one. (Crazy, huh? If you’re curious why, see the sidebar below.) Sure, a brand new plastic board, without any knife cuts in it, is a cinch to sanitize and beats out wood. But how long does a cutting board stay in that condition? Not very. And that’s where wood excels. Even with a brand new wood board, any bacteria that latches on to the surface tends to die quickly (except where very large numbers are involved).

plastic cutting boards in trashDoes that mean we should all throw out our plastic boards because they’re filthy disease-generating incubators? Not really. In the first place, if you wash a plastic board in a dishwasher, it can be successfully sanitized of bacteria. Secondly, Cliver’s experiment purposely used some of the toughest kinds of food residues to remove—such as chicken fat. And he purposely allowed this residue to be cut into the boards to imitate typical home kitchen usage. But if you’re not hacking into a lot of fatty raw chicken on your plastic boards, but using other cuts of meat and lighter knife work (or cutting up fruit and veggies), then there’s less (or no) chance you’re going slice some cooties into your board. Thirdly, there’s no Rule of the Kitchen that dictates you must do all of your food prep—raw meats and fresh vegetables—on a single cutting board. Quite to the contrary. Which brings us to our main topic. . .

The Two Boards Concept

It pretty much comes down to common sense. Would you lay a raw chicken breast on top of your fresh tossed salad? Of course not. Then why would you slice up chicken for your sautee, wipe off the very same cutting board, and then proceed to separate lettuce leaves, slice up tomatoes, on the very same spot you just had raw chicken on. Not very appetizing. And not very clean. The technical term is cross contamination. Even if you scrubbed the board with soap and hot water, there might still be bacteria that could temporarily survive in the knife cuts in your board. The board would need to be thoroughly dried out (or washed in a dishwasher) before they would be nullified.

Enter the Two Boards Concept. Although I like things clean, I am by no means a sanitation freak. That’s why I’m a big fan of dedicating a cutting board (or two) to nothing but raw meat, poultry, and fish. All you need to do, on the most basic level, is to keep the raw animal produce separate from everything else. If you can just do this, you’re doing a lot.

Once you get you used it, it’s pretty simple. It’s sort of like pretending you practice a special brand of kosher cooking. Don’t kill yourself trying to scrub a cutting board clean in the middle of prepping a meal ever again. Use two boards—one for raw meat, the other for everything else.

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FURTHER RESEARCH If you’re hungry for more details on cutting board hygiene, here’s a link to the original research paper published by Dr. Dean O. Cliver at UC Davis.
Original Cliver study:
Plastic and Wooden Cutting Boards

Cleaning Cutting Boards

No matter what kind of cutting board you use (wood, plastic, bamboo, kryptonite. . .), it’s important to wash it—especially if it’s handled any kind of raw meat.

1) Scrub the board thoroughly with soap and hot water flowing from the tap. Do not immerse/soak it in a pool of standing water in the sink. You want the grunge to wash down the drain, not soak into the board.

2) Wipe the board off well with a paper (or cloth) towel.

3) Let it air dry standing up to ensure you rid it of all moisture. (Bacteria love it moist!)

And if you want to take it a step further (though most of the germ-killing has already been done by washing):

4) You can sanitize with a solution of one-part vinegar to three-parts water. Fill up a spray bottle and lightly spray the board down. (Why not bleach? Vinegar happens to be more effective on wooden boards than bleach.) Again, let the board stand and air dry. Done!

CUTTING BOARD OIL If you own wood cutting boards, you’re going to want to oil them regularly to keep them from splitting and warping. See my post Cutting Board Oil — Wooden Boards Crave It.

To be totally honest, in my kitchen the only board that gets a guaranteed serious scrub is the one that’s handled raw meat (or fish). The others may vary according to the mess. But everyone has their own standards, so do what you’re most comfortable with.

Of course, with plastic boards you have the option of popping them in the dishwasher. (Though you should rinse them off first.) If you’ve got the right kind of dishwasher, it will even sanitize them. The only thing you need to beware of is the dry cycle which tends to warp polypropylene. So don’t let the dishwasher dry them—take them out early. (Just for the record, I do not do this. I hand wash all my boards.)

Wood or Plastic — Why Not Both?

If you’re concerned about cutting board cleanliness, don’t spend any more time worrying about (or arguing over) which kind of board to use. Get with the program and implement the Two Boards Concept. Doing this, along with washing your boards properly, will be all you need to do to keep your cutting boards clean! (To learn more about wood and plastic cutting boards, see Cutting Boards—What’s Better, Wood or Plastic?)

FINAL TIP I recommend using wood for your main board and plastic for your raw meat. Why? Wood is more aesthetically pleasing and will still look good after years of use—especially if you don’t scrub it in soap and water too much. Which is what you will be doing continually if you use wood as the board to cut all your raw meat on. Plastic is a material that’s indifferent to scrubbing and dishwasher-friendly. So if you’re going to have to wash a board often—let it be plastic.

17 Responses

  1. I think plastic is Hygienic, i have tried both but find it easy to use plastic cutting board.

      1. Hi Bhavana,

        No doubt wood wears better than plastic! Not only will it last longer, but it looks much nicer as it wears. Nonetheless, depending upon how hard and how much you use it, a plastic board should last at least a couple of years. And for $18 or so, that’s not bad for something you might use every day of the week, no?

        Best, KKG

  2. I bought a plastic board (1″ thick) at a restaurant supply store. It’s sturdy & doesn’t slide around. When I thoroughly clean it weekly I take it to the garage sink & pour bleach over it. Any stains, even in the deep cracks, disappear. After rinsing, I cover it with a baking soda rub to
    erase the bleach smell. Then it gets rubbed with lemon. I’m confident that it’s clean. Guess you could say I’m anal about it.

  3. Never used a plastic board – I’ve always been turned off by the idea of possibly eating the near invisible slivers of plastic that might end up with my food. Isn’t this an issue?

    1. You crack me up, Rose! It’s funny what we humans will choose worry about. . .

      I have never ever heard of anyone eating “near invisible slivers of plastic” from their plastic cutting board. I suppose if the cutting board were manufactured by some unethical company not using the right type of plastic—which is called polypropylene (the technical word for high-density plastic)—then it’s theoretically possible. But that’s not going to happen with a board made by any reputable manufacturer. What happens is the knife scores the board, but the plastic stays intact. You can cut with confidence on a polypropylene cutting board—especially when you think that most professional kitchens, all around the world, are using either rubber or plastic cutting boards :)

      Best, KKG

      1. I disagree. We use coloured chopping boards and every now and then I do find tiny bits of plastic in my food that clearly came from the chopping board. So I am also concerned that there might be a small amount of plastic going unnoticed in my food. Tinier pieces would be harder to see, but I assume they are there, at least some of the time, since I know bigger pieces are there sometimes.

        1. Hi Ruth,

          This is the first time I’ve ever heard of anything like this! When you consider that the overwhelming majority of professional kitchens in the world use either plastic or rubber boards, the odds are it has more to do with your particulars than the concept of a plastic board.

          My educated guess is that the problem lies with either: 1) the kind of plastic boards you’re using—not all plastic boards were created equal, 2) the knives you are using—are using serrated blades?, and/or 3) the way you’re using your plastic boards—are you sawing on them a lot with serrated blades?

          You want a plastic board that is not too hard, or it will dull your knives. But you also want one that’s not too soft, or it will come apart. To be honest, I’ve never seen a plastic board that’s too soft, but I’m sure they’re out there—probably supplied by companies who could care less about the quality of their products. At any rate, for some tips on the right kind of plastic board, please visit Cutting Boards—What’s Better, Wood and Plastic.

          Best, KKG

    2. Rose you are absolutely right! No one talks about this but, virtually, all of the plastic boards I’ve tried shed plastic particles over time and you can see them, they’re like little crumbs.

      I couldn’t find anything at all on this when reading the multitude of ratings online. Still, when it comes to cutting up raw meat, I see no alternative.

  4. I have a heavy wooden cutting block. My Hubble butterflied chicken breast and then just wiped it down with a damp hot hot towel. Should I scrub it in soap and water before using it again?? Its super big and heavy!

    1. Hi Nora,

      Although some text must be missing from your second sentence, I think I get the gist. You’re asking if, after butterflying a raw chicken breast on a wooden cutting board, is it hygienic enough to simply wipe down the board with a towel that’s been dampened with super-hot water.

      Everyone has their own threshold of cleanliness, and I don’t have a degree in health science. But here’s what I can say: Although you’re probably getting most, or all, of the raw chicken juices off the board, if the chicken happened to be carrying any contaminating cooties, some might easily survive that kind of cleaning. If you were to, say, next cut up a juicy tomato on that very same board and toss it into your salad, those cooties would probably travel and you’d be eating them in your salad. Do you follow me?

      So. . . if it were me, and I am far from fanatic about cleanliness, I would want to lightly scrub that board with SOAP and under RUNNING water so that all chicken-i-ness is washed down the sink. (I use the same type of plastic scrubber I use on my pans.) There are other ways of thoroughly cleaning a big board, some use salt, etc.—but a towel soaked in hot water is not enough.

      Easy solution:
      Use a separate, dedicated, plastic board for cutting up all raw meat. That way you don’t have to worry about it, and it’s a cinch to wash and move around.

      Other solution:
      Instead of using such a heavy cutting board, buy yourself a thinner/smaller board that’s easier to schlep. That’s the main reason I prefer 3/4-inch boards. See Cutting Boards — What’s Better, Wood or Plastic? for some suggestions.

      Best, KKG

    1. Brad,

      The short answer is. . .when they start looking ugly! But, of course, that’s going to depend on your aversion, or lack of, to chewed-up plastic. Gosh knows, mine need replacing and I’ve been dragging my feet. That’s one major diff between plastic and wood. A wood board gains more character as it gets worn down, while a plastic one just looks cheesy.

      But perhaps you’re more concerned about the health issue. If you’re cutting up a lot of raw meat (especially chicken) on a plastic board, then it’s best not to use a board that’s built up a lot of major scars. For as the striations get deeper, there’s more chance bacteria will get stuck in the plastic in between uses. It’s hard to scrub them out.

      That’s why I’m such a major proponent of the Two Boards concept. If you cut your raw meat on one board and your veggies on another, you greatly reduce your odds of cross-contamination. And you don’t have to scrub so much and so hard :)

      Best, KKG

  5. I want to buy a good cutting board but there are so many kinds on the market so I don’t know what to choose. I think that this article helped me a lot for my choice!

  6. A major issue with any cutting board, and one that often gets overlooked, is safety,. If I’m asked to help prep at a friend’s place for dinner, with the usual attendant stress of hunger and getting dinner on the table, I always make sure, whatever board, table, or free surface I’m given to work with, that it doesn’t move around. The knife is moving around. My fingers are moving around. The last thing I want is for the surface I’m cutting on to be moving around. I usually place a damp rag under the board to keep it from slipping around on the table. When I work at home, I have a heavy wooden chopping block that is heavy enough to stay put while I dismantle a kabocha squash. I have cut myself more times than I like to remember on slippy-slidey cutting boards. I use the two board approach, putting the secondary board on top of my block with a non-slip layer of damp rag between them. The main drawback of a heavy block is that you can’t whisk it over to the stove to scrape your chopped chives onto an omelette. For jobs that need transporting, I use a small board with a handle or flexible cutting mats. I’ve also developed a technique where I sort of cantilever a third or so of my block over the edge of the counter while holding whatever hot pot needs adding to under the edge and shovelling the contents overboard. Green pepper, I sentence you to walking the plank and drowning in chili!

    1. I’m with you on safety! Thanks for the tips. Although I must admit, I never have a problem with my board moving around much — and I don’t use a heavy one. Maybe I’m not doing as much heavy-duty chopping as you are :)

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