Dear Straight Dope:
A good friend of mine believes wood cutting boards are superior to plastic ones. I believe the opposite is true. Playboy addressed the issue recently but gave no clear answer. I know uncle Cecil would never sit on the fence like those wimps at Playboy. Is wood or plastic the better cutting board material?
Sorry to wimp out, but the answer is that you’re both right, kinda sorta.
The current wisdom is that you should have at least two cutting boards: one for chicken, and the other for everything else. Better yet, get three–one for chicken, one for other meats and fish, and one for vegetables/fruit/miscellaneous. I know your question was about the type of cutting board, not what they’d be used for, but we’ll see in a moment that these two are related.
For a while, a plastic cutting board was considered superior to wood because the grooves cut into a wooden board by the knife harbored bacteria that would infect the next food that was cut. Plastic cutting boards, it was argued, were harder than wood, developed fewer grooves, and were thus less likely to pass along harmful microbes. The only problem is that studies showed that wood cutting boards harbored fewer bacteria, not the other way around. The most plausible explanations for this are:
- Plastic is not water-absorbent, so it stays wet longer, which means longer bacterial survival.
- Wood is water-absorbent, so it dries faster, which means shorter bacterial survival.
- Wood contains natural antibiotic agents that retard bacterial growth.
Of the foods we commonly eat, chicken has become by far the most dangerous–although the danger isn’t that you’ll die, but rather that you’ll make a lot more rush trips to the bathroom. The thinking is that people will use their cutting boards (wood or plastic) to prepare chicken, wash the board insufficiently, and then prepare the salad. Chicken is always cooked, so any bacterial threat there is eliminated, but salad isn’t, meaning there’s a risk of food poisoning. Hence two boards, one for chicken, the other for anything else.
The same scenario applies to beef, pork, liver, or other meat. The thinking is that you want a separate board for non-chicken meats since these foods either don’t have to be cooked as thoroughly as chicken or cook completely through at lower temperatures. Chicken, considered a walking petri dish of germs, should be cooked at a high enough temperature and long enough to be certain everything is dead (including taste, sometimes, but I digress).
If you only have one cutting board, the current advice is to clean it with a 5% bleach solution (about two tablespoons of bleach to a quart of water), preferably by soaking for several minutes. (I suspect this treatment would be tough on wood cutting boards over time.) Afterward, the board should be wiped with vinegar to remove the bleach. While this advice may be scientifically sound, it adds a lot of prep time to cooking and pretty much turns "dinner" into "midnight snack." The more practical solution is to dedicate a cutting board to chicken/fowl, another to beef/pork/fish/whatever, and yet another to fruits/vegetables.
So, you see, from a microbiological point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether you choose wood or plastic, as long as you clean it properly.
Now, another way to read "better" is "easier use." As I mentioned before, plastic is harder than wood, meaning it will dull a knife faster. Glass cutting boards are harder still. On the other hand, you can throw plastic and glass cutting boards in the dishwasher without having to worry about whether they’ll warp and crack. Wood is easier on knives but requires regular care in order to last. Two tips that most people ignore:
- Dry the board immediately after (hand) washing, and
- Once a month, rub the board with oil, to keep it water-repellent and warp-free (a food-safe oil can be found in the kitchenware department).
Although pretty rare, my personal favorite is natural rubber. Its softness accepts the cut of a knife easily and seals itself afterwards. It’s smooth and hefty and doesn’t warp or retain odors. The only place I have found them is in the restaurant supply stores in the Chinatowns of New York and Chicago (although you’d probably be successful in Los Angeles and San Francisco). I tried a quick web search but failed to find what I’m talking about, so you’re just going to have to imagine what cutting board bliss is like.
You can see now why it’s hard to give a straightforward answer. Maybe you’ll just give up on cooking and eat Ho-Ho’s for the rest of your life.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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