Cutting Boards

by Elizabeth Skipper | July 19th, 2012 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips

Cutting boards. You need one. Actually, you need more than one. I wrote about knives in my first column, but the second part of the equation is the surface you use those knives on. So here are a few thoughts about cutting boards.

I’ve noticed that most of the folks I’ve polled, for some unknown reason, own cutting boards that are too small. I have two that are 20″x14″, some others that are anywhere from 8 ½”x11″ up to 10″x 17½”, one or two smaller ones, and two that are much larger. All range in thickness from ¾” to 1½”.

The little ones are handy when you just want to slice a lime or chop a clove of garlic.

The largest ones only come out on occasions when a large piece of meat is being carved – think a standing rib roast or a whole leg of lamb. That gives the carver plenty of room to work without being crowded and without the worry of juices dripping on the counter because of the trough around the perimeter.

Let’s just concern ourselves with the everyday ones. The one I use most of the time is 10″x14″. A loaf of bread fits on it nicely, it’s big enough to cut up a decent size onion or tomato, and it cleans up easily in the sink. It’s perfect when preparing food for one or two.

Moving up and thinking about preparing larger quantities, I like the 20″x14″ boards. These are the size I use when cooking at a client’s or doing a demonstration. There’s enough room to work on more than one item at a time, you can prep multiple ingredients without using too many little bowls, and it’s still pretty easy to wash up. (If you’re washing up in the ladies’ room, as I was yesterday after a demo, you’re out of luck. I gave it a good wipe with a damp bar cloth and washed it thoroughly when I got back home.)

The larger size also means you’re not chasing ingredients and trying to keep them from flying off the sides and back of the board. That’s annoying and slows you down. Who needs to be annoyed when cooking?

Aside from size, there is the question of material. Eliminate tempered glass and any surface like marble right off the bat. They’re much too hard and will wreak havoc on your knives, your hands, and your elbows.

Traditionally, cutting boards are made of hardwood like maple, and that’s my favorite. Teak is also nice. When plastic cutting boards first came out, they were heralded for their ease of cleaning and purported to be more sanitary because you can put them in the dishwasher. I’ve never been a fan of any kitchen tool just because it’s dishwasher-proof, and subsequent tests have shown that wood is actually more antibacterial than plastic if it’s properly cleaned and sanitized because it dries faster. Bacteria thrive in moisture.

Unless plastic boards are sufficiently thick, they can warp in the heat of the dishwasher. Wood boards can also warp if left to soak – always a no-no with wood, whether it’s boards, spoons or knives with wooden handles – or near heat. Stains are easy enough to remove if you don’t mind using a bit of bleach, and it sanitizes. The most effective and the cheapest cleaner of all is soap and plenty of hot, hot water. Every now and then, especially if I’ve been working with raw meat, I’ll wash the board and then pour a kettle of boiling water over it.

While I have several plastic boards and use them (usually when I have company and want to minimize washing up by hand), wood is softer and easier on knives. It’s more pleasant to cut on, too. If you spend a lot of time chopping or slicing, working on a hard surface becomes tiring. The new composite boards may be ecologically attractive, but they’re hard. Plastics come in different hardnesses, and the softer ones can become gouged enough to make cutting on them a nuisance because your knife doesn’t make contact with the entire surface of the board. Plastic can melt, too, so be careful if you take something out to the grill on your plastic board! Bamboo has been available for some years now, but it’s a bit hard compared to maple.

Regardless of whether you choose wood or plastic, care for your boards properly and they’ll reward you with many years of service. The best knife will be frustrating to work with if the surface it cuts on isn’t a good match for it.

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