Last updated 10.09.19 — Fact: One of the easiest things you can do to ensure the long life of your kitchen knives is to use the right kind of cutting board. And believe it or not, even in this age of high-tech materials and nano-bred wonders, just about the best substance for your knives to cut and cube on is still—you guessed it—good old wood. Plastic, high-tech darling of yesteryear, is the other most favored material. (Not any plastic, and not any wood.) Each of these two has their strengths and weaknesses, their lovers and detractors. But the cool thing is, there’s no reason you have to take sides—you can mix and match. At least, that’s what I do. (Photo below: KKG’s cutting boards.)
Before we get into comparing and contrasting wood and plastic cutting boards though, and in case you haven’t read my Keep Your Kitchen Knives Sharp — Top Ten Tips, let’s be clear about what you should NOT be cutting on:
• hard plastic
• any other material that is hard and unyielding and does not score when you slice it with a knife.
Why? Because even though a knife is made of steel and steel is a hard and very tough material, the finely sharpened edge of knife is actually rather delicate. And cutting and chopping on these verboten materials will dull your knives quicker than you can say curried cous-cous (in the course of dicing one large onion). It will make you have to either sharpen them more frequently or perpetually put up with dull knives. Who wants that?
In the Beginning, There Was Wood
Wood is not only a beautiful, natural material, it’s also very strong, and very durable. Yet, it’s most attractive quality—as far as the health of your knives is concerned—is that it will yield to their sharp edges. When you cut on a wooden cutting board, the wood fibers break and leave a mark—which helps prevent the fine edges of your knives from rolling over and turning dull.
Not just any kind of wood makes a great cutting board…Not just any kind of wood from just any kind of tree makes a great board. Some woods are too hard, some are too soft, some lack a uniform texture, some are not dense enough. The great majority of quality cutting boards in the U.S. are made of hard maple because it’s got just the right balance of durability to softness, and it’s uniform, dense, and fine-grained. Plus, it’s in plentiful supply.
Some people do make cutting boards out of soft maple and other more pliable woods—and they don’t wear well. But there are a number of other woods that can still do the job—birch, walnut, cherry, white oak, ash, along with more exotics like teak or royal mahogany. You can also find boards made out of a combination of woods, but I must admit I’m a little wary about using them for heavy chopping. Because unless the types of wood are perfectly matched in hardness, you could be subjecting your knives to uneven wear and tear. (Photo left: typical combination board made of various hard woods.)
Three Ways Wood Cutting Boards Are Constructed
Although you can still find boards made from one slab of wood, most modern cutting boards are made from a number of planks that have been glued together. This makes them stronger and less likely to crack or warp. There are three types of construction: end grain, edge grain, and flat grain—edge grain being by far the most common. An easy way to understand the difference between them is to conjure up an imaginary 2 X 4.
To make an end-grain board, you’d use the end of the 2 X 4—where the grain is open, like a sawed-off tree trunk—for the top of your board. Of the three types, this is the easiest to identify because of its checkerboard pattern. Traditional butcher’s blocks are end-grain construction. (Photo below: an end-grain board with great customer reviews made by Catskill Craftsman @ Amazon.)
[End grain] is the kindest to your knives and will wear the longest.End grain is usually the most expensive because it’s the most labor intensive to make. But it’s also the kindest to your knives and will wear the longest. The wood fibers are pointing upward, so you are cutting into the fibers, instead of across them. The knife edge spreads the fibers apart (sort of like pushing a ruler into a scrub brush) and then allows the fibers to come back together and mend themselves. There’s less pressure on the knife edge which will keep it sharper longer. As an added benefit, you will notice less scoring on an end-grain board. The only real negative is that by the nature of their construction end-grain boards tend to be thick (try 3 to 4 inches) and heavy. Not much fun to lug over to the sink.
If you laid your imaginary 2 X 4 down with the long narrow side facing up (the 2-inch side), you’d have an edge-grain board. Ideally, the grain pattern of each composite plank would be vertical to the countertop—in practice it’s often mixed. But you get the idea. (Photo below: End of an edge-grain board where you can see the grain runs more vertically in some planks than in others.)
This kind of construction is by far the most common because it balances strength and durability with cost. These boards last a long long time if you care for them (i.e don’t soak them in water and oil them regularly). I’ve had a couple of mine over 20 years. They can vary in thickness, but on average run only an inch or so, and come in all sorts of sizes. So you can choose exactly the size and thickness that works best for you.
If you turned your imaginary 2 X 4 so that the wide edge (the 4-inch side) was facing up, you’d have a flat-grained board. Even though it may look similar to an edge-grain board, it’s not comparable. Because no matter how well-made a flat grain board is, it’s still not as strong, and it won’t last as long. It’s the nature of the grain pattern. Yes (as mentioned above), many edge-grain boards use face-grain, or quasi-face-grain, planks mixed in as well. That’s fine. Wood is a natural medium—no need to be fanatic about it. As a matter of fact, you’d probably be hard put, nowadays, to find a pure flat-grain board. The main thing is to have a preponderance of edge-grain which will give the board strength and resist warpage.
Then, There Was Plastic
Strangely enough, high-density polypropylene (i.e. plastic) has similar properties to wood. It’s tough, yet soft enough not to dull a knife blade. It doesn’t heal up quite as well, and it doesn’t look as good after it’s accumulated hundreds and hundreds of score marks. (Somehow we don’t mind the look of weathered wood—we often pay a premium for it—while plastic creeps us out when it gets too worn and used.) On the other hand, a plastic cutting board will generally cost a fraction of the price of a wooden one, so it won’t cost as much to replace. It will also be thinner and lighter than your average wood board. And, as an additional bonus, you can throw it in the dishwasher if you choose. (Read more about how to clean cutting boards here—but don’t even dream about tossing your wooden board in the dishwasher.)
One of my favorite professional cutlery sharpeners says, “I look for a plastic board that you can easily slice a strip from the side with your knife.”Before you go riding off into the sunset with a stack of plastic cutting boards in your saddlebags, please make sure of one important thing—that the plastic you buy is soft enough. Because just because all the online retailers say, “safe for professional knives,” “will not dull knives”, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Bob Tate, one of my favorite professional cutlery sharpeners says, “I look for a plastic board that you can easily slice a strip from the side with your knife.” That’s pretty soft, isn’t it? After learning this, I checked out the polypropylene boards in my kitchen and three out of the four passed with honors. The one that didn’t, I only use occasionally and never for chopping, so I’m not concerned about it. It’s a classic dilemma, really: Harder plastic will look nice longer, but be tough on your knives. Softer plastic will turn ugly quicker, but be gentle on your knives. I vote for the knives.
Plastic cutting boards come in a lot of fun colors which you can use as a coding system if you want. Red for raw meats; green for vegetables; etc., etc.—this is what professional kitchens do to help prevent cross-contamination. Otherwise, you can just enjoy the rich colors. (If this is your thing, you might want to click to this stylish, completely color-coded set by Joseph Joseph.) Another nice thing about plastic boards, is that unlike wood, they don’t tend to take on as much the flavors of pungent tasting foods like onion and garlic. If you’ve ever cut up strawberries on a wooden board that had recently been used to mince a clove of garlic, you’ll know what I mean. Garlic strawberry shortcake anyone?
In our kitchen, because even with plastic we’ve tasted garlic and onion residue, we’ve taken it a step further. We’ve dedicated two plastic boards (one large, one small) to fruit only—and written the word “fruit” on them in magic marker. (In very small type, I might add, right near the edge.) Nerdy—but it works!
Wood and Plastic Closure
There’s one more important topic to discuss regarding wood and plastic cutting boards, namely, how to keep them clean and avoid cross contamination. I cover this fully here, but the quick answer (despite what you might have heard) is that wood tends to retain less bacteria than plastic. Buuut—if you designate a cutting board for raw meat only and are rigorous about sticking to it (which is what every home cook should do), then the difference between the two materials becomes negligible.
So pick the type you like the best, or mix it up as I do. Both wood and plastic boards (as long as they’re the right kind of wood and the right kind of plastic) will help keep your knife edges sharp and look good in your kitchen.