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sharpening and caring for your kitchen knives

Cutting Board Cleanliness

What’s More Hygienic, Wood or Plastic?

This is the big question everybody who’s germ conscious is always asking regarding 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 as to which is the best type of cutting board to own if you’re concerned about cleanliness and 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 trash
Does 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 on cutting board hygiene, here are links to three articles which discuss it in more detail. The first is the original research paper published by Dr. Dean O. Cliver at UC Davis and the other two are follow-up articles based on his research.
Original Cliver study:
http://faculty.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/faculty/docliver/cuttingboard.html
Rodale follow-up article:
http://www.rodale.com/cutting-boards-and-bacteria?page=0,1
The Rustic Dish follow-up:
http://www.therusticdish.com/science

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 it thoroughly with soap and hot water (flowing from the tap, not standing in the sink).

2) Wipe it 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!

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, in most cases, will be all you need to do to keep your cutting boards clean.

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.
2 Comments
  1. 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!

    • 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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