Cooking Tips

Cutting Board Common Sense

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. If the sound of a chef's knife chopping vegetables on a wooden cutting board brings comfort, then go ahead and use it.  Or use one made of plastic. When it comes to safely preparing food, it's cleaning the board that matters most, experts say, not the material it's made of.

"Neither wood nor plastic cause any problems if washed and maintained normally," says Robin Bell, a microbiologist and immunologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "The current hysteria regarding a few bacteria on chopping boards is tremendously overdone in my opinion."

A lot of home cooks may be putting their food at risk of contamination simply by sidestepping simple soap and water. One study, writes Susan Brewer, a food and nutrition specialist at the University of Illinois, showed that only 54 percent of consumers said they would wash a cutting board with soap and water after chopping fresh meat or before cutting fresh vegetables.

Roughly twenty percent of food-borne illness incidents in the United States occur in the home. Bacteria such as salmonella, the most common type food poisonings, come through the kitchen door on a chicken, an egg, or some other meat and manage to survive long enough to pose a problem.

These bacteria cannot survive the heat of the frying pan or oven if cooked properly.  However, a brief stay on the cutting board can pose a danger to the unwary. The most sensible precaution is to assume that all raw meat has bacteria on it.  Thus, wash everything the meat touches with hot, soapy water.

A debate has raged about whether polymers and plastics make safer cutting surfaces than wood. Both materials have their advantages and drawbacks.  Studies have shown that bacteria, in fact, are more easily washed off plastic. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises consumers to use plastic or glass surfaces for cutting raw meat or poultry.  But a wood board is fine, says the FDA, if it is used exclusively for meat.  Bread and vegetables should be cut on separate boards so no cross-contamination occurs.

A home cook can feel assured, though, that use of a wood board is not going to put his family at risk.  Researchers found that regardless of the kind or age of wood, cleaning with hot water and detergents was effective in removing virtually all bacteria.

Even a plastic cutting board has limits, and those come with age. Grooves form in wood boards.  Bacteria can lodge and become dormant, only to emerge later, in the grooves. Plastic boards, too, will eventually become scarred, potentially creating the same situation. Another advantage of plastic, of course, is that it can be popped into the dishwasher, which washes with hotter water than dishes done by hand.

No matter the material of the board, guard against bacteria lodging in grooves by sanitizing all boards routinely with a solution of water containing two teaspoons of bleach. Flood the boards and let them stand for a few minutes.