The Definitive Guide to Cutting Boards
In our prior edition, we learned how to keep our knives sharper for longer. For a detailed refresher, click the link below.
In this edition, we’re talking about cutting boards: the good, the bad, and the dangerous:
Here's the TLDR: Use end-grain walnut, cherry, or maple wood—they're the best for your knives. Outside the wood family, use plastic, and synthetic rubber boards. Never prepare uncooked proteins on a wooden cutting board.
Wood, Plastic, and Synthetic Rubber, Only.
Aside from food, your kitchen knife edge should only ever touch those three materials. Let’s discuss when to use each.
Wood: Wooden cutting boards constructed from walnut, cherry, or maple, are superb for prepping anything, but good mise en place dictates they be used primarily for fruits, vegetables, and herbs, while avoiding animal proteins. The reason we suggest avoiding preparing animal-based proteins and dairy on wooden cutting boards is to prevent cross-contamination and because these boards can not, under any circumstances, go into the dishwasher for sanitizing. Wood is quite sanitary though, so long as you wash your board off with soap and water. When done washing, make sure to dry the board with a towel, and place it on its side, to minimize the amount of water that enters the intercellular space between the fibers. We strongly prefer American Walnut and American Cherry as primary woods because they will not stain as easily as a lighter wood (such as maple). Walnut and Cherry also aren't as hard as Maple on the Janka hardness scale (which dulls your knives a bit faster).
What's Better: End-grain or Edge-grain?
End-grain or edge-grain (face-grain): There are two primary styles of wooden board: end-grain and edge-grain. End-grain boards are superior to edge-grain boards and are priced about 3x higher than edge-grain boards when built correctly. To oversimplify, end-grain boards are a heck of a lot better for your knife and will last a lifetime if cared for. Before we jump into the differences, let’s first dive a bit deeper into why they’re pricier.
There are two primary reasons end-grain boards require a bigger upfront investment:
- End-grain board production is vastly more labor-intensive and complex. Video of our process coming soon.
- End-grain boards, if constructed well, are thicker than edge-grain, consuming more material. This means that well-made end-grain board won’t warp when properly and carefully constructed.
End-grain boards are superior for your knives for three main reasons:
- End-grain boards are far gentler on knife edges, so your knives will stay sharper for longer. That’s one of the core principles here at Artisan Revere, and it’s part of why we only make end-grain boards. How’s it work? End-grain board fibers and capillaries are aligned a bit like the pages of a phone book that is standing up vertically. Your knife edge would easily fit between the pages of the book, because they would move aside and open up just enough to let the knife slip in. Now, what happens if you rotate that book so it’s laying flat on the table with the cover up? It suddenly becomes a heck of a lot stronger. If you try to cut, you now have to try to slice through hundreds of pages that are densely packed together. This will dull your edge much faster.
- End-grain boards are self-healing, and experience only minimal scarring (especially darker woods like Walnut and Cherry) the way an edge-grain board would. End-grain boards, when properly cared for, can last a lifetime with only a very rare need to re-sand.
- The amazing thing about wood, especially end-grain, is that it has anti-microbial properties and is one of the most food-safe cutting boards out there, so long as it's used correctly. These boards should not be used for uncooked proteins—we always recommend plastic for uncooked protein (more on this later). Check out these articles for more information:
Edge grain boards, on the other hand, are less expensive, easier to construct, typically lighter and thinner, dull your knives much faster, scar easily, and need to be sanded to create a new clean layer frequently. Go take a look at your board—if it’s edge-grain, and it’s scarred up and warped, it might be time to start thinking of it as disposable.
Which should I buy—End-grain or Edge-grain:
Ultimately, it comes down to three things: price, work you’re willing to put in, and appearance. You’ll have to put in more work with the less expensive edge grain board, because you’ll need to sharpen your knives far more frequently and do more maintenance work, in the form of sanding, on your board. You’re likely to throw the board out, instead of sanding it, once the scarring gets deep enough because those scars harbor bacteria. Alternatively, you can simply replace an edge grain board more frequently, before the scarring gets too bad, and that’s when you’ll need to decide if you’d like to buy “right”, or buy often. Finally, which style do you like more? If you enjoy sharpening your knives on stones, or have a great sharpening system like the WorkSharp Sharpener, then you may be more comfortable going with an edge-grain board in maple, cherry, or walnut. If you prefer increased edge retention and a bit more heft and gravitas, pick up an end-grain board, like the ones we make in our Michigan shop.
P.S. Our cutting boards are made from 100% rescued American Walnut and American Cherry. And because our boards are made from grade-A custom lumber from a wood shop making large custom furniture, we’re able to buy tier-1 small end pieces that they’re not able to use for their large tables and cabinetry. That makes our cutting boards carbon negative, and it’s why we’re one of the most environmentally-friendly small cutting board makers in the world.
Size: thicker is better.
A premium end-grain cutting board should be at least 1.25 inches thick. 1.75 - 2.0 inches is perfect. A good size for a cutting board is anywhere from 16” x10” to 20” x 16”. Edge-grain (the less expensive boards) can be much thinner and lighter—anywhere from 0.5-1.0 inches thick.
To juice or not to juice
Juice grooves can be pretty convenient when cutting up large pieces of meat, however, we’ve found that they’re rarely necessary if you rest your meat properly. Rest your medium-rare steak for 5-7 min, and there just won’t be enough juice leakage to require a groove. We’d also point out that grooves decrease the structural integrity of the board, which can increase the chances of warping if not properly maintained.
Plastic and Rubber Boards. They Have Their Place, Too.
Plastic: Plastic boards are inexpensive, and ideally suited for uncooked animal-based proteins like beef, fish, and poultry. For a quality and inexpensive plastic board, we tend to like the OXO board, that the NYT/Wirecutter recommends, but any plastic board will do just fine. Plastic boards can be sanitized in the dishwasher, so remember to pop your board in there to give it a good deep clean. That said, before you place it in the dishwasher, we still recommend getting all any uncooked protein off your board with a sponge and warm water so those proteins won't get all over the other items in the dishwasher. Alternatively, you can always wash these with just a sponge, warm water, and dish soap. Use the abrasive side of the sponge first to dig out any stuck on foods, and then switch to the gentler side. Plastic cutting boards are also completely acceptable for fruits and vegetables, just remember not to cross-contaminate with animal proteins! You should NEVER prepare uncooked animal proteins on the same board as other foods (another reason to use a wooden cutting board for veg, while reserving your plastic board for protein). Please replace your plastic boards once they start to get too many deep scars—that's where bacteria like to reside. Or, if you’re handy, you can always sand your plastic board to eliminate the scarring. [Random orbital sanders are great for this, but don’t forget to have a good vacuum system, wear a mask, and/or to do the grinding outside]. When sanding, start at a low grit (80 or 120), and progress to a higher grit by increasing the grit by about 50% per step. The mask is exceptionally important to avoid getting plastic particles into your lungs.
Synthetic Rubber: Finally we come to the specialty boards—synthetic rubber. This one from Hasegawa is well-respected. Synthetic rubber boards are great for advanced knife users who primarily employ slicing motions. They’re suboptimal for prep work with heavy duty rocking motions where more force is employed, though if your knives are sharp, you should not have to chop with too much effort. Synthetic rubber boards are grippy and also do less damage to your knives. Many Western knife users will not like these boards. If you grew up with German or French knives, there’s a good chance you’re cutting with a very forceful cutting motion, and if you’re doing that, you are likely to create scarring. Finally, synthetic boards tend to stain easily, which can be quite frustrating if appearances matter.
No Other Boards Will Do, Including Bamboo.
Boards to Avoid at all costs: Make sure you skip boards made from: Paperstone, Richlite, glass, and ceramic. Any of those cheaper, thinner boards the big box stores sell are made from materials that will rapidly dull your knife, even if they explicitly say they won’t. Additionally stay away from teak wood, and bamboo—two natural materials that are very high in silica, which will drastically decrease how long your knife stays sharp. Again, stay away from teak and bamboo. Never ever prepare your meals on your granite or marble countertops, unless you want to instantly dull your knives. The same holds true for your ceramic plates. Don’t fall into the trap of buying anything but quality wood, plastic or synthetic rubber boards.
If you’re ready for an upgrade, join us, as we improve the quality of knife across America.