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A sharp chef’s knife is THE most important tool in a cook’s arsenal – whether you are a home chef or a pro. Your knife is an extension of your arm, and most importantly, an extension of your brain used to make the art of food come alive on your loved ones’ plates.
However, one of the most important pieces of kit that makes your blade functional, and that is generally the most overlooked, is the humble butcher block.
Many folks choose a cutting board based purely on an emotional response, either to misplaced concerns for sanitation, or to the appearance of the board and how well it matches their existing décor.
But there are some serious concerns regarding ergonomics that you need to consider in the selection process. More importantly, you need to consider how well a cutting board treats your most important cooking tools – your set of kitchen knives.
Why Is a Cutting Board That Important?
A butcher block, also called a chopping block (a misnomer), is designed to allow your food to rest against something solid while you use your blade to cleanly slice through the material.
Although there are convenient electric-powered knife sharpeners available on the market, you should always look to slice into materials that won’t dull your blades to begin with.
A properly designed board should minimize wear and tear on the edges of your knife – a dull blade is a dangerous tool, as it creates a condition where the edge pauses mid-slice, and then as more pressure is exerted, the force overcomes the resistance and allows the edge to snap free in an uncontrolled motion.
This condition sometimes leads to accidents.
Moreover, some cutting boards use a material that is designed for looks or low cost, as opposed keeping your knives’ edges in tip-top condition.
Construction Matters – Stone vs. Plastic vs. Wood vs. Bamboo Cutting Boards
Why? Just why? Why would anyone be willing to sacrifice their set of sharp knives by cutting into a STONE? It’s a STONE. Folks, these were designed to roll pastries out on (the stone is cooler, and thus less sticking happens), not to cut on!
Marble or glass also make excellent materials to set pans on to keep them from scorching a countertop, but do you really want to use a chunk as a cutting board? Ever?
Not so much. Plus, stone is heavy.
Please, don’t! I cringe just looking at this photo. Like fingernails down a chalkboard…
That being said, I’m the type that dies a little bit inside every time I witness my sister-in-law cutting something up on a plate with a “good” knife.
Glass/Stone Pros & Cons
Although it is very popular as an alternative to wooden cutting boards, and is very green since it rapidly replenishes itself (it’s actually a grass – not a tree), I can’t really recommend a product made with bamboo.
This is a very hard material that can cause the edge of your knife to literally “fold over” in the case of cheaper, softer steels. And due to the high silica (basically sand) content, it can rapidly dull even the harder alloys.
Besides the hardness of the bamboo itself, the loads of glue that manufacturers use to construct these boards will murder your blades’ edges, and rapidly dull even the hardest Japanese kitchen knife.
Makes a great serving tray. As far as a butcher block goes? Not so much.
However, bamboo cutting boards can make excellent serving and cheese trays. And by all means, these could be used to cut bread or cheese on. Or, perhaps in cases where having (and keeping) a sharp knife is not all that important (i.e. not for kitchen food prep).
Extra-Large Bamboo Cutting Board available on Amazon
Bamboo Pros & Cons
Composite boards are made of variety of substances, like recycled and compressed cardboard, paper, and sustainably harvested wood fiber, and include those made in the USA by the Epicurean Co.
The quality and usability of these vary from very good for the thicker, heavier ones to not so good for the thinner, lighter versions.
I’m not convinced that the heavier, NSF-approved wood fiber versions are any better for your knives than glass – the ones I’ve used offer up a loud clacking noise similar to cutting on a plate when they’re in use, and I suspect the resins binding the fibers together are very hard.
The lighter cardboard/paper examples tend to be flimsy, and they’re too light to stay in place without significant workarounds. There have been some flaking issues with these in the past, and reports of lingering off-odors with most of the products as well – some report that this issue starts as soon as you open the package and persists with use, while others say the smell goes away after washing.
I suspect the flaking and odor issues vary between batches and I’ve not seen a report of either of these problems in the last several years, which leads me to believe that Epicurean may have fixed some of their manufacturing issues.
I’ll be reviewing some of the more commonly available products – stay tuned!
Epicurean NSF Wood Fiber Based Cutting Board available on Amazon
Composite Pros & Cons
A number of you might opt to go with plastic boards, as this provides many more alternatives in terms of colors and styles. Moreover, plastic usually weighs significantly less than a comparably sized wooden board. However, plastic boards tend to discolor, and they have a propensity to stain.
Moreover, plastic chopping boards tend to be a little harder on your kitchen knives than other materials. Not enough for me to advise you against purchasing one or two, but this is something that you should take into account before making them your primary boards.
Unless you need a product that can serve double duty as a hot plate, I would definitely go with plastic long before I’d choose composite. Many people keep one or two around exclusively for slicing up raw proteins.
When you slice against these boards while chopping up your food, you are making grooves in the plastic, which allow liquids to permeate and discolor the surface. Moreover, these grooves can harbor bacteria.
Not long ago, I tossed out a number of my older plastic chopping boards, as they were appearing a little bit tattered despite a good overnight soaking in bleach.
However, I have been eyeballing the Enviroboard set pictured above as it looks like it does a pretty good job of allowing complete removal of bacteria. And the three colors allow you to quickly identify which one you generally use for meat, and which you reserve for veggies, helpful in the effort to prevent cross-contamination.
Plastic Pros & Cons
Rubber boards are gaining popularity – particularly in professional restaurants. They are said to offer identical edge retention assistance to wood blocks, as well as possessing comparable self-repairing capabilities.
Based on my own non-scientific assessment, they do tend to degrade the sharpness of my knives a little faster.
By how much? I can’t really say. Perhaps it’s about 1.5x as fast as a comparable wood unit, but I never really measured it, and unfortunately have no way of actually testing this.
However, one of the key benefits of the rubberized construction is the fact that they do not hold germs or wetness. Also, they are able to tolerate most harsh cleaning agents and can handle anything a dishwasher can throw at them – heck, take them to the car wash if you want to!
Rubber cutting boards are very thickly constructed sturdy rubber mats that are quite hefty, and for that reason they will not slide around on your counters.
Sani-Tuff 12 x 18 x 3/4″ Rubber Board found on Amazon
They can be quite pricey and often cost as much as the well-built wooden models, but I’ve found the Sani-Tuff line to be quite reasonable – check out our complete review.
Rubber-based products should be considered a top candidate for a kitchen that deals with a lot of protein, and where you would like to have virtually no chance of staining your boards.
I really like the rubber products, and started to use them exclusively for my protein prepping tasks after I threw out my aforementioned plastic versions.
These are available in a variety of sizes, usually with a 1/2-inch and 1-inch thickness available for any given dimension. I prefer the thicker ones as these products can actually be sanded down and resurfaced, and I like to buy my kitchen equipment for the long haul.
Rubber Pros & Cons
Wooden cutting boards, in my opinion, are about the best that you can find. The idea that they are less hygienic than plastic versions is a fallacy, as a UC Davis study has shown.
Whereas bacteria sit on top of a plastic surface and may find their way into cuts and scratches, and thus may remain hidden and ready to infiltrate your food the next time the surface is in use, a wooden product tends to “suck” the bacteria down into its depths, where they die of dehydration. This is especially true if your board is well cared for.
“If a sharp knife is used to cut into the work surfaces after used plastic or wood has been contaminated with bacteria and cleaned manually, more bacteria are recovered from a used plastic surface than from a used wood surface.” – UC Davis Study
Wooden butcher boards are also very good for your knives’ edges, and allow you to maintain sharpness for the maximum amount of time. Moreover, they offer a visual and tactile appeal that plastic can’t match.
However, there are construction differences between models and makers that you should be aware of, so I’ve also written a separate article on how to select the best wooden cutting board.
Wood Pros & Cons
Besides the construction material, size and shape also affect how much you’ll enjoy using your cutting boards.
Some folks like to have several different sizes for different tasks, or they utilize one as their “protein only” slicing area in order to keep their main work surface a little more sanitized, to avoid cross-contamination.
However, with proper sanitation methods, you can use the same product for a variety of tasks.
Butcher blocks are available in a variety sizes – from those with 20 to 30 inches of work space that stand on their own legs or base cabinets, to 12- to 20-inch units that sit flat or on small knobs on your work surface, to diminutive examples that are designed for easy transport with one hand.
A smaller “always on the counter” example such as this John Boos 9-Inch model makes a lot of sense for everyday use.
If you prefer the type that sits on your counter, you may want to add your sink size into the equation. Ideally, you should be able to fit about 1/3 to 1/2 of it, in its most skinny orientation, into your sink to allow for easy cleanup and scrubbing.
Size is not a real deal breaker if you would like a larger one – simply clean it in place rather than submerging it in the sink, according to our recommended directions.
Again, if you want a more portable board, you may want to consider one that is not as thick, in order to reduce the weight. However, a thicker board will give you a more stable platform – especially if the board sits on feet or knobs – and also allows for future resurfacing, in the case of heirloom quality wooden examples.
As alluded to earlier, thinner versions have the very annoying habit of sliding all over the place, necessitating the use of towels, rubber mats, and other devices in order secure them to your countertop – and this is not ideal.
If you’re looking for something a little bigger than the 9-inch example in the last section, I’d recommend the Catskill 14-inch model shown above for everyday countertop use.
It’s small enough (just barely) to fit in the sink, features feet that allow equalization of air flow (helping to prevent cracks and warping), and its uncommon shape adds visual interest to your kitchen’s work space.
Moreover, its thick end grain construction minimizes abuse to your knife edges, and stabilizes the wood.
In the Groove (or Not)
One other thing that you may want to consider when researching which is the best cutting board that will fit your needs is whether or not you would like a juice groove.
These are grooves that run around the perimeter of the surface in order to catch liquids that you might like to reserve, usually after the food has been cooked. These are actually termed “carving boards” but they can be used for slicing raw ingredients as well – for example, they can be nice to use if you’re cutting a juicy pineapple and want to reserve the flavorful liquid that seeps out as you carve.
The John Boos Au Jus 18-by-24-Inch Maple Cutting Board features a nice deep groove, perfect for collecting juices.
If you decide you’d like a model with a groove, be sure to get one with a deep well that can collect as much of the liquid as possible. Many of the cheaper products in this category have very shallow cutouts, and their use for this purpose is very limited.
Personally, I don’t use a grooved board for my normal slicing and dicing duties, but I do have a carving board on hand for slicing roasts, hams, and the occasional turkey.
Cutting Board Recommendations
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably looking for a few more recommendations in order to begin your research. I’ll be reviewing some specific models in upcoming posts.
In the meantime… Cook, Eat, Live Well, and Prosper.
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!