One of the most important ways of maintaining a sanitary kitchen is through the proper use of cutting boards. Understanding the different types of cutting boards, their advantages and disadvantages, resurfacing, the practice of color coding, and the sanitization process, are all important considerations when establishing best practices in a kitchen. Additionally, the cutting boards you choose have a direct impact on the performance of cooking knives. A basic grasp of how the edge of a knife impacts and is impacted by a cutting board is important for longevity of sharp knives, and the cleanliness of your cutting surfaces.
Is Plastic More Sanitary Than Wood?
The USDA approves the use of both wooden cutting boards, cutting boards with nonporous surfaces like plastic and glass, and bamboo. Nonporous surfaces may seem like the best option when choosing a cutting board, but ultimately the choice involves a balance between cleanliness, durability, and the effect on cooking knives. A report published in 1993 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found, in a study comparing wood and plastic cutting boards, that wood has some inherent qualities that give it some advantages when used as a cutting surface. Both cutting boards were exposed to bacteria and left in the same conditions, and the wooden cutting boards consistently killed off bacteria, while the plastic cutting boards did not affect the bacteria at all. The publishers of the report make it clear that proper sanitization is still required on all cutting boards. Their discovery simply means that those wishing to use wooden cutting boards should feel comfortable doing so, as they are no less safe than plastic. For those wishing to read the report, a link is included below.
Wood has a naturally porous surface, meaning there are microscopic “vessels” in the wood cells which can allow bacteria to enter and contaminate the surface, which is why many restaurants recommend non-porous cutting surfaces. Softwood is less porous than hardwood, and thus less susceptible to bacteria. However, sharp kitchen knives can more easily damage softwood, which can create grooves that harbor bacteria. This means that while softwood has fewer pores than hardwood, it will have to be replaced more frequently.
Wood Grain Structure and Cutting Board Design
Another consideration is structure. Wooden cutting boards typically have two structures, end grain and edge grain. End grain is when the pieces of the board are arranged so that the grain runs perpendicular to the cutting surface. End grain boards are easy to spot because the surface is arranged in a series of small squares, like chess or checker boards. The “ends” of each grain face upward, like a quiver of arrows. The grains naturally separate upon impact from a sharp knife, and then spring back together again once the knife is released. This “healing” is an advantage in terms of maintenance, but the separation of the grain clusters makes the wood vulnerable to bacteria. There are also more glued pieces that make up the board, increasing the opportunity for cracks to appear. Edge grain means that the grain of the wood runs length-wise down the board, like a shield, creating a harder, more solid surface. This prevents bacteria from entering the wood, but both the knife and the board will sustain more visible damage over time. With all wooden cutting boards, it is important to use mineral oil, which preserves moisture and prevents cracking. One of the finest examples of edge grain cutting boards are those produced by Edward Wohl Woodworking and Design. In addition to the iconic birds-eye maple edge grain boards, they also produce some of the most beautiful and well made end grain boards on the market.
Bamboo In a Category of its Own
Contrary to what many believe, bamboo is not technically wood. Bamboo is a member of the grass family, and though it is similar in many respects to wood, wood it is not. Both have a high strength-to-weight ratio which makes them ideal for a wide range of uses, and both have been used as kitchen utensils throughout history. Bamboo cutting boards have hard surfaces and contain lots of moisture, while absorbing very little, which makes them less prone to damage from your cooking knives. This, however, does more damage to the edge of your cooking knives. Some people claim that bamboo splinters easily, and that with time the surface becomes fuzzy from washing and reuse. Like wood, it is good to regularly moisturize bamboo cutting boards with a mineral oil.
Sharp Knives Call For Clean Cutting Boards
Plastic cutting boards are preferred by many professionals because their surface is nonporous, but even so, they can still house bacteria. Most professional kitchens have a knife exchange service, which ensures that cooking knives are extremely sharp; given that a plastic cutting surface is not as hard as wood, glass, or bamboo, sharp kitchen knives can damage them more quickly. This is why it is still important for plastic boards to be cleaned regularly, and resurfaced when they begin to wear down. Another important factor is cutting board thickness. If the cutting board is not thick enough, it becomes more prone to warping.
Glass – Hard in Fact and Hard on Your Cooking Knives
Glass cutting boards are an option for those who want the hardest, most durable surface. Glass does not wear down as quickly as other cutting boards, but the downside which makes glass undesirable in most kitchens, is the damage it inflicts on cooking knives. Glass does not ‘give’ at all when it comes in contact with the edge of sharp knife. Therefore, the edge of the knife takes all of the impact on every cut, causing the edge to roll, break, and rapidly deteriorate.
Color Coding Cutting Boards
The USDA requires every commercial kitchen to take steps to prevent cross contamination and the spread of food borne illnesses. In lieu of specific guidelines by the USDA, color coding cutting boards has become the industry standard to prevent cross contamination. Color coding is a process where each cutting board is assigned a color that restricts the types of food it comes into contact with. While there is some variation in color coding systems, the most common colors are as follows: red cutting boards are used for raw meat, yellow for raw poultry, green for salads, fruits, and vegetables, blue for raw fish, white for dairy and bakery items, and, finally, brown for cooked meat. Purple cutting boards are also sometimes used for foods containing allergens, like nuts or gluten. Even when color coding, it is important to sanitize each cutting board after it has been used. It is also important to keep each group of boards physically separate and make sure to avoid using the same utensils among the groups. If you are looking for an extra measure of safety, you can coordinate the handle color of your cooking knives and prep knives to match your cutting boards. Whether you purchase knives and maintain them in house, or employ a knife rental and sharpening service, a wide variety of handle colors are available.
Importance of Resurfacing Cutting Boards
With use, sharp cooking knives do ware on your cutting surfaces, so it is important to have a maintenance routine for your cutting boards. Resurfacing is a maintenance process in which the top layer of material is removed from the cutting board. Usually about 1/16” to 1/32” is removed, leaving the surface free from potential bacteria-housing grooves. These bacteria-housing grooves can be caused from setting down a hot pan on a plastic cutting board, hours of prep work with sharp cooking knives, or other knicks that are a common occurrence in commercial kitchens. Once the surface layer is removed, a protective wax and seal are applied to maintain durability. This process should be performed regularly, either every year, or even earlier depending on how worn the cutting board is. According to Cutting Board Resurfacing LLC, sanding is not an appropriate substitute for resurfacing. Sanding creates new microgrooves, pushes bacteria farther into the cutting board, and leaves the surface fuzzy.
Sanitize Cooking Knives and Cooking Surfaces
Having sharp cooking knives is essential in home kitchens and commercial kitchens for reasons of safety, efficiency, and general enjoyment of cooking. As noted, sharp cooking knives will ware on your cutting boards, but the increased safety and efficiency is well worth the ware and manageable through sanitization, resurfacing, and employing best practices with cooking knives. When switching from one prep task to another, it is important to consider the potential for cross contamination and the spread of bacteria. Proper cleaning and sanitization of kitchen knives and cutlery is just as important as proper care for cutting surfaces. If your kitchen has a great routine for sanitizing cutting boards, but your cooking knives are not being properly cleaned, the risk of bacteria and cross contamination will still be present. For more information on proper cleaning of cooking knives, please refer to Cleaning Knives.
No Matter Which Material, Sanitize Properly
Every element that goes into choosing and maintaining a cutting board is in service of sanitization. There are three main options when it comes to cleaning a cutting board: using a dishwasher, washing with soap and water, and using chlorine bleach solution. Laminated boards and multi-piece wood cutting boards should not be washed in a dishwasher. The prolonged heat puts them at risk for cracking or splitting. With wood and laminated boards, it is best to wash them with soap and water, or chlorine bleach. When using soap and water, simply make sure the water is hot, apply a generous amount of soap, and scrub appropriately. When using chlorine bleach, the USDA requires one tablet per gallon of water. Once the solution is mixed, soak the board, let it stand for several minutes, and then rinse. One downside with bleach is that when used on plastic boards, there is the risk of chemical damage. The bleach oxidizes the plastic and over time wears down the material. Whatever the method of washing a cutting board, it is always necessary to use hot water, and afterward pat dry with a paper towel. Using a paper towel instead of a dish towel prevents the spread of germs, since a paper towel is not reused. Then let the cutting boards dry by leaning them against a vertical surface. This allows them to air out and prevents warping.
It is always important to keep a safe, sanitary kitchen through the proper use of cutting boards. With the right knowledge and tools, this can be an easy task. If you have any more questions, here are several websites to visit: