With warm, attractive hues, wood adds a striking touch to any kitchen decor. And it’s also one of the best materials to use to maintain a keen knife edge, perfect for making butcher blocks and cutting boards.
But, like any hardworking tool, these do take a beating as we slice, dice, and prepare a variety of foods on their smooth surfaces each day.
And unlike other materials that can take the heat of a dishwasher cycle, or handle a dose of full-strength bleach to kill germs and bacteria, natural wood products require some specialized care to keep them clean, sanitized, and well-maintained.
Join us now for a look at the best – and most natural – ways to clean, sanitize, lift stains, and maintain your butcher block or wood cutting board.
What to Avoid
Butcher blocks and wood cutting boards are constructed of milled lumber that’s cut using flat panels, an edge grain, or an end grain, then glued together in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Due to the porous, cellular nature of this natural product, and the glue used to join the pieces, certain cleaning techniques should be avoided.
Like soaking in water. Wood quickly absorbs water, which can cause it to swell, crack, or warp, and the glued pieces will have a tendency to separate.
You should also steer clear of full-strength vinegar, as the acetic acid that it contains can corrode and weaken the glue used to join pieces, allowing moisture to enter where they’re joined.
And full-strength bleach is another sanitizer that shouldn’t be used on wood. Not surprisingly, bleach can lighten the color.
Of course, when cleaning surfaces used in food preparation, you must always stay away from using furniture polish, paste wax, and other household cleaners that contain harsh chemical compounds. Also keep in mind that 99% of the stuff sold as “tung oil” is typically comprised of various mixtures of varnish. You can get real tung oil for treating wood, but not from the big box stores.
So, what are the best ways to clean and sanitize wood while keeping its beautiful, lustrous appearance? Glad you asked, because we’ve got the answers! Let’s begin…
For health and safety, always begin food preparation with a clean surface and tools.
For cleanup after light use, such as slicing bread or prepping vegetables, wipe down wood cutting boards with hot, soapy water, then rinse with hot, clear water. Wipe up any excess water and allow to air dry, or pat dry with clean paper towels.
For a deeper clean and to cut through grease, natural products like baking soda, salt, vinegar, and lemon juice are all food-safe options.
These ingredients are also good for removing lingering odors left behind from cutting flavor intensives such as garlic, onions, and herbs, or seafood and animal proteins.
And baking soda with lemon juice makes a great combo for lifting stains.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these all-natural options:
To clean with vinegar, use a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water mixed in a spray bottle. Spray the surface generously and scrub well with a clean nylon brush or nylon pot scrubber.
Wipe clean, then rinse with hot water. Wipe dry with a clean cloth or sponge and allow to air dry, or pat dry with clean paper towels.
Salt or Baking Soda
Sprinkle coarse salt or baking soda generously onto a dry surface. Dip a stiff nylon brush or pot scrubber into hot water and scrub vigorously.
Rinse and dry as above.
Stain and Odor Removal
Sometimes a little extra oomph is needed to lift out stains and odors, and lemon juice with baking soda or salt does the trick– the citric acid in the lemon adds extra scrubbing power that will lighten stains and deodorize.
After sprinkling with soda or salt, simply use a halved lemon to scour the board. Rinse with clear, hot water and dry.
To prevent bacterial cross-contamination of foods, a thorough cleanup of your butcher block is a must after handling any raw animal proteins, including poultry, seafood, and meat.
To cut through grease and residue left by animal proteins, lay down a generous amount of coarse salt on the surface, then rub it in well with a sliced lemon. Rinse thoroughly with hot water, wipe up excess water, then dry.
For the best hygiene practices – and to cut down on cleaning time! – you might want to invest in a separate, knife-friendly mat dedicated to handling proteins only. Select a material that can safely handle very hot water or a dishwasher cycle, such as rubber or BPA-free thermoplastic.
Another good choice for proteins is the Kitchen Gizmo TPU Cutting Board, made of antimicrobial thermoplastic that is BPA-free and FDA certified for safe food prep. Plus, you can nuke these mats in the microwave to thoroughly sanitize them after use – goodbye bacteria!
If you do place proteins on your wooden surface, use the salt and lemon combo mentioned above for cleaning, and the following as a guideline for sterilizing.
After any use with animal proteins, or every 7 to 10 days, the surface of your wooden cutting boards and butcher blocks should be sterilized.
While natural products such as lemon juice, tea tree oil, and vinegar have some disinfectant properties, they aren’t effective on powerful germs such as E. coli, salmonella, or staphylococcus – all of which can be present in food preparation, and particularly in raw meat.
To effectively eliminate these scary bugs, you want to use a product that’s on the EPAs list of registered disinfectants.
And for wooden surfaces, this means a diluted solution of chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide.
Diluted bleach is extremely effective when used as a disinfectant to combat the common bugs of cold and flu season, as well as for showing the door to the dangerous bacteria mentioned above. However, it can cause respiratory and skin irritations, and is also hazardous to the environment and animals. Be sure to use it sparingly, and responsibly.
To disinfect with bleach, rubber gloves should be worn, cleaning should be done in a well-ventilated area, and a mask should be donned by those with respiratory sensitivities.
Mix 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach with 1 quart of water in a spray bottle and liberally spray the entire surface.
Allow to sit for 3 to 5 minutes, then scour well with a stiff brush or a clean nylon pot scrubber. Wipe up the solution with a clean cloth or sponge, then flood the surface with hot water to rinse. Mop up the rinse water and allow to air dry, or gently pat dry with paper towels.
Vinegar and Hydrogen Peroxide
A greener and gentler alternative, and my personal favorite, is the one-two punch of white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.
Effective against molds, common germs, and the above-mentioned dangerous bacteria, a hydrogen peroxide concentration of 3 percent or less is recommended – which is the most common solution found in drugstores and pharmacies.
At this strength, hydrogen peroxide is biodegradable, friendly to people and the environment, and no protective gear is needed when handling.
First, spray the surface with a solution of 50 percent white vinegar and 50 percent water, and wipe down.
After wiping with vinegar, pour hydrogen peroxide over the surface, spreading evenly. Allow it to bubble and oxidize, rubbing it into the surface with a stiff brush or clean nylon pot scrubber.
Rinse with clean, hot water, wipe up the excess, then dry.
In addition to regular cleaning, deep cleaning, and sterilization, wood cutting boards need to be oiled regularly. This will moisturize their cellular structure and helps to prevent cracking, splitting, and warping.
Depending on how heavily your butcher block is used, a weekly or biweekly treatment with oil should be applied. Use a food-grade mineral oil, beeswax, or a professionally formulated conditioner like Boos butcher block cream, available on Amazon.
After cleaning, rub the oil in liberally, going with the wood grain. Keep applying until the wood won’t absorb any more oil.
Wipe off any excess and allow the oil to soak in overnight, then buff along the grain with a soft, clean cloth before using the board again.
In between mineral oil coats, you can also use a stick of natural beeswax to rub into the grain and pores of the surface. This provides additional protection against liquids. After you rub the beeswax in, buff it to a nice glow with a clean cloth.
Here’s an extra tip for new cutting surfaces: When you first get a new wooden board or block, the rule of thumb is to oil and/or wax daily for the first week, once a week for the the next month, and once a month thereafter.
A Family Heirloom
With its warm tones and kind knife surface, a wood cutting board is a beautiful and practical tool for the kitchen.
Care for it with daily cleaning, regular sanitizing, and routine maintenance, and a well-made board will last for decades – and it may even become a family heirloom!
And do consider getting a separate rubber or plastic mat for prepping animal proteins – they provide an excellent surface for food safety, and free up time otherwise spent cleaning and sanitizing.
Do you folks have any questions about wood cutting boards? Drop us a note in the comments below, and check out our article on how to choose a cutting board. It has all the details you need to consider before making a purchase!
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Photos by Lorna Kring, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.See our TOS for more details.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.