Fast Facts About Cutting Boards and Food Safety in Your Kitchen

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown.

Anything that touches your food can be a source of contamination and foodborne illness – including cutting boards.

For example, if you cut up a raw chicken, and then use the same cutting board to slice a tomato for your salad, you run the risk of cross-contamination – with bacteria from the chicken being transferred to the tomato. That, of course, would be bad.

And vegetarians aren’t off the hook either. Fruits and vegetables can also carry pathogens (and transfer them to cutting boards).

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness in your kitchen, here are some things you should know about cutting boards.

Plastic Versus Wood

For a long time, most (if not all) cutting boards were made of wood. But at some point people began using plastic cutting boards. The idea was that they were easier to clean (and sanitize), and therefore were safer.

But in the late 1980s, a UC Davis researcher named Dean Cliver – the de facto godfather of cutting board food safety – decided to investigate whether plastic cutting boards really were safer. Answer: not really.

Photo credit: Betsssssy, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Betsssssy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic cutting boards, Cliver found, are easier to sanitize. But cutting on them also leaves lots of grooves where bacteria can hide. Wood is tougher to sanitize, but it’s also (often) tougher in general – you won’t find as many deep scratches in the surface.

In addition, researchers have discovered that the type of wood your cutting board is made from also makes a difference.

“Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria – which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “Soft woods, like cypress, are less likely to dull the edge of your knife, but also pose a greater food safety risk,” Chapman explains. “That’s because they have larger grains, which allows the wood to split apart more easily, forming grooves where bacteria can thrive.”

Which type of cutting board should you use? Chapman recommends using plastic cutting boards for meat and wood cutting boards for fruit, vegetables, or any ready-to-eat foods (like bread or cheese).

Why use plastic cutting boards for meat? Because of how you wash them.

Cleaning Your Cutting Board

Plastic and wood have different characteristics, so you have to handle them differently.

Plastic cutting boards can be placed in the dishwasher, where they can be sanitized by washing at high temperatures. But wood cutting boards would quickly be ruined by a dishwasher, and not everyone owns a dishwasher. If you’re washing a cutting board by hand, you should:

  • Rinse the debris off the cutting board (being careful not to splatter contaminated water all over the place);
  • Scrub the cutting board with soap and water (to get out anything in the scratches or grooves on the board’s surface); and
  • Sanitize the cutting board (you should use different sanitizers for wood cutting boards than for plastic ones).

For plastic cutting boards, you should use a chlorine-based sanitizer, such as a solution of bleach and water (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water – has a shelf life of a week or two). But for wood cutting boards, you should use a quaternary ammonium sanitizer, such as a solution of Mr. Clean and water (follow the dilution instructions on the label).

“This is because chlorine binds very easily to organic materials, like the wood in a cutting board, which neutralizes its antibacterial properties,” Chapman says. “Quaternary ammonium is more effective at killing bacteria on wood or other organic surfaces.”

It’s worth noting that you should also sanitize your kitchen sponge/rag/brush after you’ve used it to scrub the chicken-juice off your cutting board – or else you run the risk of contaminating the next thing you wash (which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do).

The last step in cleaning your cutting board is an important one – dry it.

“Make sure you put the cutting board somewhere that air circulates, so that it can dry completely,” Chapman says. Bacteria need moisture to grow, and you don’t want to give them a welcoming environment.

“Historically, butchers used to put salt on their butcher blocks to keep them from smelling bad,” Chapman says. “This worked because the salt drew the moisture out of the wood and prevented bacterial contamination, which is what caused the smell – though the butchers didn’t know it at the time.”

When To Replace Your Cutting Board

At some point, scrubbing and sanitizing might not be enough. When your cutting board has accumulated a lot of deep grooves from repeated use, you probably need to replace it.

“The more grooves it has, and the bigger they are, the more area is available for trapping moisture and giving bacteria a place to proliferate,” Chapman says.

52 responses on “Fast Facts About Cutting Boards and Food Safety in Your Kitchen

  1. Adam says:

    You don’t replace a wooden cutting board, you just use some sandpaper on it. A couple minutes work and it’s smooth and as new.

    1. christine says:

      We used to do that in the restaurant business, especially when the counter tops were made out of cutting board material.

    2. potato says:

      good idea adam

  2. cfrahm says:

    Now you know why I use a glass cutting board.

    1. Dman says:

      I am sure you are not a person who likes Sharp knives because if you use a glass cutting board……your knives are dull

    2. Pete says:

      Cause you hate your knives?

    3. Joe says:

      Glass & ceramic cutting boards are harder than metal … so they dull your knives quickly, not only ruining them, but also increasing the chance of injury.

      You *do* need to replace a wooden cutting board if it develops cracks, but for scratches and such, Adam’s right — just sand it down. Or visit a wood-working shop and ask ’em to run it through their planer.

  3. Nigel Gregory says:

    Yeah i use the wood/plastic combo strategy as described here. I clean them differently except I use some combination of hot water and soap and high acidity vinegar and sand or plane down my wood boards (one of mine is literally a 12″ thick X 2′ diameter board). My question though is what is the best oil to treat the board with? Obviously not an oil that could become rancid, I use mineral oil on mine albeit petroleum based but whatever, trade-offs. Any thoughts on, once cleaned, treating wood boards with oil?

    1. Jon Duckworth says:

      Use food grade mineral oil or butchers’ block oil. I usually find them in the paint section, near the refinishing supplies.

      1. Matt says:

        Mineral oil is great. Follow with the last coat of a 1/4 3/4 mix of bees wax mineral oil. Double boil the bees wax into the mineral oil. Don’t catch fire.

  4. LLroomtempJ says:

    there are no instructions given on how one should go about sanitizing the sponge/rag/brush.

    i’ve always put it in the microwave for a bit.

    Just googled and saw an article that said you would thoroughly rinse it with soap and then put it in the microwave while it still wet for 2 mins (but to keep an eye on it lest you burn the sponge)

  5. Ricardo Schillaci says:

    Joe: if the cutting board is a “butcherblock” can not be re-surfaced on a planer because the grain runs vertically, but the shop can use a stationary belt sander.
    For those who are handy, a small belt sander can do the job, start with coarse grain belt (110/150) followed by 220/280 and finally 320/380.
    For several years I made and sold butcherblocks, maybe more than 1,000.
    To seal the board, use liquid vaseline from the pharmacy.
    How much? Once a day for a week, once a week for a month and once a month for a year.
    About glass and ceramic cutting boards……well, somebody just wrote about that.

  6. paul voudouris says:

    back in h.s. and college I worked parttime as a meat counter clerk and butcher…Every nite we poured good old bleach on the surface….and in a few minutes wire brushed it. and then washed and dried the surface…also had saw dust on the floor! Late 40s and early 50s at the A and P in Toledo, ohio. enjoy!

  7. Michael Robinson says:

    Stupid knife lovers. I use ceramic. I don’t hate my knives. I’m sure my knives are sharper than people who use wood cutting boards and think my knives are dull. Why? Because it’s obvious those same people think my knives used on ceramic are dull because they would think I would be pulling the knife along the ceramic which would dull the knife; because they pull their knives along the wood which would dull them, just not as much as ceramic. But that’s the point. Not to be pulling the knife along anything. Make sure the knives are quality enough and sharp enough that you don’t need to pull them along. They should slice right through not needing much down force. Butchers paper can also be used on top, if not sliding through. And ceramic cleans up perfectly. And can be microwaved to kill any possible germ. Think things through.

    1. Jackal says:

      I’ve never liked the idea of using a plastic cutting board. Maybe because I don’t like drinking or eating from plastic, or using plastic eating utensils. I wondered if ceramic boards were in the market (even though I was sure of it), and, voila! “Stupid knife lovers” – Ha!

  8. Tom Goodman says:

    Sanding a wood cutting board is just putting lots of tiny grooves in the wood which is what you are trying to get out. Don’t sand! Use a properly sharpened cabinet scraper or hand plane.

  9. Eileen Skiffington says:

    I make cutting boards for a living. Oiling advice is to use either Mineral oil or 100% pure tung oil…any other oil will eventually go rancid. Treat your board as you would your skin….wash with warm soapy water…rinse and dry thouroughly. Lean againstcounter wall. A lot depends on what kind of wood your board is made from. Eastern hard rock maple is the gold standard….. western maple is a close secong… Walnut is about 15% softer than maple…good for cutting veggies… very stable. Cherry wood is 20% softer and ideal for cheese or bread boards… Platinum quality would be western Yew wood which is 20% harder than maple. Depending on how often use a board….a light sanding and re oiling every so often is good. think of your board as your skin….it needs a shaving to get rid of the hairs that rise…and it needs to be moisturized too. Avoid bamboo boards….scary construction….avoid laminated strip boards as they seperate along the lines….avoid boards with little rubber legs… they are hiding a warp. On a good quality board,keep one side for show and the other side for cutting.Have a non-skid mat ….like a drawer mat to prevent skidding when you cut plus it protects your show side. What destroys a cutting board most is…dishwashers…having it soak in hot water…using full strength bleaches/vinegars for soaking…. placing the board in direct sunlight for long periods of time… any extreme heat will cause the board to warp. the outer sides….sapwood…loose moisture faster than the centre… heartwood. To fix a warped board…wrap in a damp towel, place a basin of water on the bow of the hump and let it sit for three days. The weight should flatten it. Give it a quick sand and then oil. it is not unusual in summer for the boards to bend a bit. this is due to the drop in humidity levels. A board made in a damp climate will warp a bit when moved to a very dry climate. Humidity is key. Don,t abuse your board…use the right board for your needs…about 3 or 4 boards are needed …one for meats/poultry/fish… one for veggies….one for soft /dry foods…bread/cheese. a good board…with proper care should last a lifetime.

    1. Leela DeVere says:

      Hello Eileen:

      Great response! Where do you sell your cutting boards?
      Any online?
      Leela

    2. Julie Duncan says:

      Hi what about a camphor wood cutting board I had one for years it is said that bacteria won’t live in them they sure easy to clean and don’t seem to hurt the knife

    3. Kim says:

      Eileen, what kind of board would you recommend for meats, and what kind for fruits?

    4. hil says:

      Hello, when you said Platinum standard I quickly googled Yew cutting board — but came across a bunch of posts about Yew wood being poisonous. The only ones I found for sale were on Etsy, so handmade. Do you have any more information along those lines? I’ve read everything from totally toxic stay away to it has cancer-fighting abilities…confused?

      1. DJ3 says:

        Many woods are poisonous. The list goes on and on. Making a tea out of most would could make you very sick. Breathing sanding dusts from most is very dangerous.
        Having “casual” contact with a board, even as a cutting surface is not an issue except in very strange circumstances and with very special woods.

  10. Brenda Bladow says:

    Thank you Eileen! That was the most thorough and excellent response of them all! I will certainly pass this information on to all my clients and try to implement this in all the homes I manage and prepare food in… Including my own :) Much appreciated!

  11. C.C. says:

    Wow, excellent information Eileen. You obviously have deep knowledge on this subject. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’ve printed your comments out to keep in my kitchen.

  12. Hal says:

    We have a butcher block board that has been outdoors in a covered area. It is pretty black. Can we save it?

  13. Mithra says:

    When we cut vegetables in a cutting board with a sharp knife, many grooves are formed. Do the tiny scraps of the cutting board material stick to the vegetable?

  14. Cheryl Ahlers says:

    Uh oh! I just bought a cutting board made from bamboo, Eileen. How bad are they? I bought it from a farmers market and can’t return it. Should it just become a piece of art or can it be used with caution? What makes them scarey?

    1. Brenda says:

      I found that anything bamboo for the kitchen falls apart and cracks quite easily – even with gentle care. And I know bamboo can be ‘tough’ as it’s also used for flooring. I’m sure we’ll see better versions of bamboo anything for the kitchen at some point.

  15. Alam Qureshi says:

    Chef.Alam.Qureshi says: OCT 15, 2015 at 11:25:am
    I’ve never liked the idea of using a plastic cutting board. Maybe because I don’t like drinking or eating from plastic, or using plastic eating utensils. I wondered if ceramic boards were in the market (even though I was sure of it), and, voila! “Stupid knife lovers” – Ha!

  16. Dev says:

    Dont use bamboo board –
    1. they smell awful and contaminate the food with the smell
    2. the glues they use are not particularly good for food contact
    boards like ok are not great either because the tannins can also taint the flavours of food.

    the best wood for a board that I have found over the years is sycamor – very similar to maple but even more neutral.
    after use wash in soapy warm water and dry then hang to air – I always hang to dry on a saucepan rack withthe hooks.
    Plastics – I hate them – they are easy to sanitise but they do absorb chemicals and never release them especially oil based. They are not as good as people think they are.
    Wood is king – Ive got wood :)

    1. Brenda says:

      No kidding about the oil Dev, it just doesn’t come off of heavily used boards at a certain point.

  17. B says:

    A man makes cutting boards for me. He makes them from scraps of Corian. Corian was a popular surface used for kitchen countertops in the 90s.
    Knives don’t leave a mark and Corian can be put in the dishwasher..

  18. gary says:

    Do I need need to clean the cutting board after cutting lettuce before I cut tomato,s

  19. gary says:

    Cleaning after each use

  20. Nathan says:

    “Plastic cutting boards can be placed in the dishwasher, where they can be sanitized by washing at high temperatures. But wood cutting boards would quickly be ruined by a dishwasher, and not everyone owns a dishwasher.”
    “and not everyone owns a dishwasher” – I am finding it difficult to understand how this point fits in with what was said prior??
    Is your point that for those that don’t own a dishwasher, it is easier to clean a plastic cutting board as opposed to a wooden cutting board?? (I don’t see anywhere emphasizing that is easier to clean a plastic cutting board rathan than wooden in a sink)

  21. Linda Gremli says:

    I read your statement that soft wood such as Cypress is more prone to harbor bacteria. Is this true of the Hinoki Japanese Cypress boards? They claim to have properties that guard against bacteria. Also Sushi Chefs are known to use these. I recently ordered two and since reading your article am questioning my purchase.

    Please advise.

  22. Will says:

    Questions, questions. Reading this post reminds me how much grasp I have on the ability to think for myself. Its like no one learned anything on their own unless someone told them. What about addressing the concern of plastic ingestion? All this talk about cutting boards and no possible down side from the use of plastic.

  23. JURA Petru says:

    I am wondering why aren’t silicon cutting boards approached? They wouldn’t dull the knives for sure, but I don’t know if the knives will cut through or not. But still. There are some pretty nifty and good medical silicon materials that are foodsafe and everything. I wished there was some research done on this topic…

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