Wood Chopping Boards – Why Buy Wood?
When it comes to cutting boards, there are two camps. Those who prefer the practicality of polyethylene (plastic) and those who prefer the stylish quality of wood chopping boards. On this page, we’re going to be talking specifically about wood!
At the end of this, you’ll understand…
- The advantages (and disadvantages) of wood chopping boards vs plastic
- The difference between end-grain and edge-grain cutting boards
- The best wood for cutting board use
- How to clean your wooden chopping board and
- An answer to the question ‘are wooden chopping boards safe?‘
So if you’re ready, let’s dive straight in!
Wood cutting boards – Why choose wood
There’s no denying that cutting board sales have increased in recent years. In fact, according to a report from Statista, in the US alone, retail sales hit $134 million in 2018. That’s a 19% increase since 2010. But with all the various chopping board types available, why would you opt for wood?
You could argue that wood is a beautiful and natural product that has been used in one form or another to prepare food for thousands of years. But aside from aesthetics, a good wood cutting board makes both financial and ethical sense.
Let me explain…
Wooden chopping boards are longer lasting
Irrespective of whether you buy a high-density polyethylene plastic (HDPE) or low-density polyethylene plastic (LDPE) cutting board, you should be looking to replace it frequently.
Because plastic cutting boards will become scratched or marked over time. Unfortunately deeper scratches can harbour bacteria which can contaminate any further foods which are being prepared on that same board.
You can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of plastic chopping boards here.
Quality wood chopping boards on the other hand, can last for many years provided that they are cared for properly. Even a weathered old chopping board can be carefully sanded down and brought back to life. So for this reason, paying for a good quality wood cutting board is probably a good investment.
If you are unsure how best to clean a wooden cutting board, here’s an informative blog post (with pictures) on the subject.
Wood cutting boards are (arguably) safer than plastic versions
Okay, so this is perhaps somewhat of a controversial statement but hear me out…
It is an upheld belief that plastic cutting boards are safer than their wooden counterparts. People think that because wood is a porous surface and plastic isn’t, plastic cutting boards are more resistant to bacteria.
It’s also believed that plastic boards are easier to disinfect and are therefore safer because they can be placed in the dishwasher.
Of course, when you analyse it this way, it’s easy to think that plastic is indeed the safest material for chopping boards.
Not so, say scientists…
There is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite and that wood chopping boards are in fact safer than plastic. Here’s an example from the New York Times going way back to 1993.
In essence, the above study highlights the fact that wood has a tendency to absorb most residual food-borne bacteria. So while this may be seen a problem, in reality it has the opposite effect.
After manual cleaning with soap and hot water, any bacteria becomes locked into the inner wood fibres of the cutting board where it can no longer multiply. As a result, any residual bacteria eventually dies.
Further studies have also shown that even when a ‘contaminated’ wood chopping board is purposely cut using a sharp knife, any remaining bacteria won’t escape.
So while ‘marked‘ plastic cutting boards, similar to those found in most homes become difficult to keep bacteria free, wooden chopping boards are arguably better during momentary lapses in sanitary practices.
Wooden cutting boards are eco-friendly
You’ll no doubt know that there is a big debate on the impact that plastic manufacturing has on our environment right now. What’s more, the disposable nature of plastic only adds to an array of environmental problems.
In addition, the long-term affects of plastic on food has also been called into question. So it’s easy to see why plastic chopping boards are an environmentally unfriendly choice.
Quality wood chopping boards on the other hand are arguably kinder to knives and are built to last for many years. So they have less of a ‘disposability factor’.
You could argue that a cutting board made from rare wood isn’t an environmentally responsible purchase and yes that’s true!
However, it’s possible to minimise any environmental impact by buying a sustainably-grown wood chopping board . Alternatively, why not invest in one made from salvaged material?
If you’re good with your hands, you can always check out this great video on how to make a wooden cutting board from a reclaimed oak table top.
So now we’ve answered the question ‘are wood chopping boards safe?’ it’s time to investigate what you should be looking for when buying a wooden cutting board.
So let’s do exactly that…
Wood chopping boards – Not all are created equal
So you want to buy a wood chopping board? I mean , how hard can it be? After all, a chopping board is a chopping board right?
Unfortunately, not all wood cutting boards are created equal. As such, there are some things you really need to know.
Janka hardness rating
As already alluded to, you can buy chopping boards in many different woods. Some for example are made from sustainable products like Bamboo, while others are made from exotic and rare woods like Jatoba (Brazilian cherry) .
On the one hand, you need a board that is hard enough to take the impact of continual knife use without causing excessive marking . On the other hand, a wood that is too hard will quickly dull a knife. Therefore, you really need to find that sweet spot between durability and knife protection.
This is where the Janka hardness rating comes in!
This is a standardised test to determine the durability of wood and ranges from Australian Buloke the hardest commercial wood available, right through to the Ochroma Pyramidale more commonly known as Balsa wood.
Rather interestingly, the test measures how much force is needed to embed a steel ball bearing into the wood. This is measured in pounds. So, while Australian Buloke wood has a pounds of force (LBF) ratio of 5060, at the other extreme, balsa wood has an LBF of just 70.
Ideally for cutting boards you’re looking for a hardness rating of somewhere between 900 and 1500. As an example, hard maple reads around 1450 LBF, while cherry wood is around 995 on the Janka scale. So anything in between these two parameters is good.
When it comes to health and safety, you want to choose a wood that doesn’t secrete toxins. So while Eastern Red Cedar for example has a Janka hardness rate of around 900 (within the accepted range for cutting boards) it can secrete harmful toxins.These can cause anything from mild irritation to acute poisoning.
As a rule of thumb, stick to wood that produces edible nuts, fruits, leaves or sap and avoid woods with a high resin content and you won’t go far wrong.
Of course, if you are buying from a reputable store or dealer then you shouldn’t really need to be concerned. However if you fancy making your own cutting board from sourced wood, then this is something you should definitely take into consideration.
Another factor you should consider when looking to buy a wood chopping board is the wood’s porosity. Pores are essential in any wood as they are the tree’s pipeline – transporting nutrients to ensure continued growth.
That said, some trees have more open pores (e.g open-grain woods) while others have closed pores (closed-grain woods). Woods like Maple for example have fine or close-grains and the capillary action of those grains pull down any food liquid, trapping it inside. Any bacteria will eventually die off as the board dries after cleaning.
On the contrary, woods like Oak and Ash are classed as softer woods which, while less likely to dull your knife during cutting, contain large grains or pores. This means that the wood is susceptible to splitting Apart. When this happens, more grooves are formed which can harbour harmful bacteria.
For this reason, you should avoid open-grain woods like Oak or Ash in favour of closed-grain woods like maple, cherry, beech or walnut.
The best wood for cutting boards is…
Factoring in the criteria listed above, here is a shortlist of the best wood for chopping board use.
Beech is a delicately coloured, closed-grain wood that has a Janka hardness rating score of around 1300, so, it offers that perfect balance between board durability and knife protection.
It contains small pores making it effective in keeping bacteria at bay. Moreover, because beech is plentiful, beech wood chopping boards represent good value for money.
On the downside, its light colour can show up stains, so it may be an idea to avoid cutting stain-inducing berries or beetroot on a beech cutting board.
Beech wood also shrinks more than many other wood. As a result, you will need to oil your beech cutting board regularly if you want to prolong its life.
Cherry wood has a gorgeous red appearance and a beautiful grain which will make any worktop look amazing. It also has a Janka hardness rating of 995 which puts it right in the sweet spot for wood chopping boards.
In addition, as a closed-grain wood it will pull down any liquid and trapping it inside. This renders any bacteria dead once the board has been thoroughly cleaned.
On the negative side, cherry wood is prone to shrinkage so it will again need conditioning (oiling) regularly. But moreover, it is considered a relatively expensive wood, so you can expect to pay more for it than a beech wood cutting board.
Walnut is one of the closest-grained hardwoods so it remains a good choice from a food safety perspective. It has a dark rich colour so won’t show up stains easily. It also has a hardness rating of 1010 so it’s perfect for wood chopping board use. Also, walnut doesn’t shrink very easily so less maintenance (conditioning) is required.
Unfortunately walnut does have a high-end look which normally equates to a high-end price tag. That said, a quality walnut chopping board is a stunning addition to any counter top.
Maple is arguably the ‘go to‘ wood amongst chopping board makers. It has a hardness rating of 1450 on the Janka scale so it’s right at the top end of the sweet spot. As a result it’s more scratch and impact resistant than any of the other cutting board types we’ve mentioned here. In addition, it has smaller pores or closer-grain than any of it’s counterparts, making it superior for food preparation safety.
In terms of pricing, maple chopping boards are more expensive than beech but generally not as pricey as walnut or cherry, so they offer a perfect middle ground for those seeking out quality and value for money.
On the downside, because maple is a honey colour, it can show up staining more than its darker wood counterparts so you may need to consider which foods you prepare.
Wood chopping boards – end grain vs edge grain
The final point we really want to cover in this useful guide to wood chopping boards is the difference between an end-grain and an edge-grain board and why it matters.
So let’s take a closer look…
Although you can buy chopping boards from single planks of wood, most chopping boards are fashioned from two or more planks which are glued together. This provides both strength and durability.
That said, when you’re on the lookout for the perfect cutting board, you will find two design varieties. These are:
- End-grain cutting boards and
- Edge-grain cutting boards
Edge-grain chopping boards
Cutting boards that have an edge-grain are arranged in such a way that the strips of wood run parallel with each other – just like if you were looking at a piece of 2×4.
They are usually lighter in weight and less expensive than their end grain counterparts. However, the surface area is harder, making them arguably more durable.
On the downside, they can dull knives quicker, and because all the grains run in the same direction, they are more susceptible to nicks and cuts.
In addition, because all the fibres run in parallel, edge-grain chopping boards tend to have less give. Therefore they need regular oiling to stop them from cracking or splitting.
Here’s a good video from Private Chef Scott Aaronson on how to do exactly that
End-grain cutting boards
End-grain cutting boards are instantly noticeable by their chequerboard appearance. Traditional butchers’ blocks for example are primarily made using end-grain construction. They are made by fusing pieces of cut board together, arranging them in layers so that the short ends of the wood face up and form a flat surface.
The advantages of this method is that they have more give, allowing the wood to spring back into shape. This means that they are able to absorb more force so that they are kinder to knives – but also, they’re less susceptible to cuts. So any dents are usually only temporary.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, there is something about end-grain cutting boards that feels more chic and upmarket. However, because they take longer to make this is usually reflected in the price.
So how much more expensive are they?
A quality, end-grain chopping board can be 4-5 times more expensive than the equivalent edge-grain version.
So should you opt for end-grain or edge-grain cutting boards?
As you can see, they both have their pros and cons. Edge-grain boards are cheaper but may mark more and require more looking after. End-grain boards are generally kinder to knives, won’t mark as much, but are more expensive to buy.
Finally, combination wood cutting boards
One of the biggest trends in cutting board design at the moment is to make wooded chopping boards from two or more materials.
the immediate upside is that they can look fantastic. However, from a practical perspective, you should ensure that the woods are perfectly matched in terms of density.
Because uneven wood density means uneven wear and tear on your knives. This can make it difficult to hone or sharpen.
Although this isn’t a deal breaker, it’s perhaps something to think about. If for example, you haven’t spent a lot of money on your knives, a combination board might not be such a problem. However if you have quality knives, then you might prefer to stick with a single wood chopping board.
So there you have it…
Everything you need to know about wood chopping boards. Hopefully this has given you enough information to go out and buy with confidence.
If there is anything we haven’t covered or that you’d like to ask, then feel free to drop us a line in the comments section below or check out our blog where we answer a ton of hints, tips as well as offer up plenty of advice.
Until next time – Stay Blade Sharp!