Wood, Plastic, or Bamboo Cutting Board – Which Is Best?

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Want to use a wood cutting board because it’s more natural than plastic, but you’re afraid that it might not be the safest, most sanitary option?

I was!

After being a vegetarian for more than five years, bringing meat back into the kitchen was a little nerve-racking. Although you should always sanitize your cutting boards no matter what kind of food you prepare, I didn’t have to worry about cross-contamination from meat and a lot of the things I prepared I grew or cooked so I wasn’t worried about safety.

Until….

We began to eat meat again.

We all know that plastic in the kitchen should be limited, especially when it is heated. If this is news to you, you can do a search for information about BPA and Phthalates leaching into our food, and you might throw out all your plastic. Plastic cutting boards fall into an in-between space when it comes to safety. The plastic is heated if you put it in a dishwasher, and it’s not uncommon to cut hot meat on a plastic cutting board.

So that got me wondering….

Were plastic cutting boards really a better choice than wood? Could you more easily clean bacteria off of a plastic board than a wooden board? We’ve all heard that plastic is best when it comes to raw meat, right?

Well, turns out that this is a myth!

I should have known, we humans are smart creatures. We don’t usually turn things into traditions that continue for hundreds and thousands of years unless they work. I know there are a few exceptions, but not too many when it comes to food. After all, if there is a dangerous practice with food, people die.

In this case, it just took a little while for the science to catch up. Now, before you go throwing all your plastic or bamboo cutting boards away (we’ll talk about bamboo in a minute), let’s discuss…..

Plastic will work for some things. I would definitely transition to wood, but if you have a newer plastic cutting board it’s not worthless. If it’s older, well……

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Testing Wood vs Plastic Cutting Boards

There have been several studies done with wood boards versus plastic that involve bacteria, testing for the level of sanitation, and the effect they have on knife sharpness. They’ve also tested different types of wood including bamboo. When testing sanitation they tested three different species of bacteria: E. Coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.

The studies have found that hardwood cutting boards are actually more sanitary than plastic ones.

Hardwoods are actually tougher than plastic boards and thus don’t scratch as much. Without these “knife scars,” there are fewer places for bacteria to hide and grow. After a plastic surface has many knife cuts it is difficult to disinfect without harsh chemicals, or putting it in the dishwasher and heating the plastic.

Even when both the plastic and wood boards were new in the experiments (and thus didn’t have any scratches), the studies still found that bacteria are less likely to survive on wooden boards.

One study found that “In fact, [wood’s] rough or porous surface often generates unfavorable conditions for microorganisms. In addition, wood has the particular characteristic of producing antimicrobial components able to inhibit or limit the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.” Bamboo was found to have similar properties. However, plastic boards don’t have any antimicrobial properties and were found to be less sanitary than wooden boards.

But doesn’t a knife scar wood too? Yes, but the bacteria left in the crevices do not multiply like they do on a plastic board and if washed an cared for properly the bacteria die.

As for the effect, boards have on knives, studies have found that hardwoods, as well as plastic, protect the sharpness knives. However, bamboo did not protect them as well, and boards that were more solid than wood or plastic, like glass or metal, did not protect knives at all.

Ok, So Let’s Talk About Bamboo

Bamboo is a fast-growing grass. It’s super hard, harder than wood. So some people, especially manufacturers, tell you it’s a better solution than hardwood. Well, it’s a lot cheaper too, so don’t be fooled.

The thing is that bamboo is so hard that it can damage your knife. Furthermore, because it’s so cheap and fast growing, everyone is on the bandwagon to make a few bucks, so the origin and exact composition of the bamboo could be in question. Some of the cheaper imported boards even use formaldehyde-based glues to hold them together.

What Kind Of Wood Should Your Cutting Board Be Made From?

Not all wood is created equal. Cutting boards need be made out of hardwood, as opposed to softwood. Hardwoods have a tighter grain that pulls bacteria away from the surface, where it dies, while softwoods with a larger grain can be split and cause deep grooves where bacteria can seep in and thrive.

Common hardwoods that are well suited for cutting boards include walnut, hard maple, birch, cherry, and oak. Softwoods like pine and cypress should be avoided.

How To Safely Use A Wood Cutting Board

A wood cutting board can be used to cut raw meat, vegetables, and fruits, bread or anything else you need cut. However, there are certain precautions you need to take. You should really take these same precautions no matter what kind of cutting surface you’re using.

The number one precaution is avoiding cross contamination. When you’re cooking you should not cut vegetables on the same board that you previously cut raw meat unless the board has been sanitized. This goes for your knife, too. The reason for this is if there are any bacteria in (or on) your raw meat you can transfer it to your vegetables, bread or whatever else you’re cutting up for dinner.

How To Clean And Care For Your Board

Once you’re finished using your wood cutting board, scrape the food particles off – especially if you cut raw meat. Then wash it with warm soapy water (but never soak your board). You can disinfect with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide (3%). As long as you keep your board oiled this should be all you need and is the least toxic cleaning method.

If you feel you need a little more cleaning power because you’ve been lax at seasoning your board, you could use a quaternary ammonium sanitizer, such as a solution of Mr. Clean and water (dilute it according to the instructions on the label). Bleach is ineffective because the chlorine binds with the wood, neutralizing its antibacterial properties.

To remove odors, scrub your board with half of a lemon and some salt. The salt will draw out the moisture that is causing the odors.

Or you can try an apple or potato – it sounds a little quirky but it makes sense after you read this about garlic odors.

To remove stains from your cutting board, sprinkle with baking soda and scrub with a damp cloth.

How To Season Your Hardwood Cutting Board

Food grade mineral oil is usually the oil recommended when caring for a hardwood cutting board, but it is a by-product of petroleum. So if you’re looking for the most natural solution then coconut oil will work, or you could use a combination of oil and beeswax.

You can use any natural oil, assuming you’re continually using the cutting board. If you store it for a long time then you’ll want to use an oil that won’t go rancid like coconut oil.

Make sure your cutting board is completely dry before applying the oil. I like to do it first thing in the morning after my boards have dried all night. Also, make sure you give the wood enough seasoning, you should apply several thin coats until the board will not absorb any more.

If you take care of your hardwood cutting board it should last you a lifetime.

Wood, plastic, or bamboo cutting boards - which is best? Which will last the longest, protect your knives, and be the safest as far as germs and bacteria? I discuss each type of cutting board.
  • Deborah says:

    I use lemon essential oil to disinfect all of my cutting boards. Plastic, yes. Wood, yes. Bamboo, yes. I also use coconut oil to condition my wood and bamboo cutting boards.

    • Jennifer Osuch says:

      Hi Deborah,
      I’m not sure what you mean by Plastic, yes. Wood, yes. Bamboo, yes. If you are cutting raw meat be sure to follow the instructions above for the different boards. The only way to sanitize plastic is to put it in the dishwasher.

  • danny says:

    Great article!!

  • Vicky says:

    Glass cutting boards

  • Grammyprepperc says:

    OMG Jennifer, I am FOREVER on my coworkers about not soaking the plastic cutting boards we use at work due to cross contamination and what the plastic can pick up while soaking with dishes that have contained meat/salads/etc. While I know it isn’t knife friendly, I use separate plates to cut up my meats/veggies. I used to have a wood cutting board, and will look to purchase another one soon. Thanks.

  • Osaremen says:

    Wonderful article!

  • Jack says:

    You are correct in saying not to soak it, but I wouldn’t use soap on wood. It can leave a residue, and or, impregnate wood in not completely removed. A bleach solution consisting of 1gal. of water, and 1Tbs of bleach is plenty to sanitize a wood cutting board.

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