Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cutting Boards...Polymer vs Maple

Years ago the local health department came through my kitchen and told me I should think about removing all of the wooden cutting boards that we had on our line. " Plastic is better, easier to clean" the inspector said. I always resisted for a few reasons. First, I was in busniess and we didn't see the need to replace anything that wasn't broken unless there was a monetary benefit. Second the wooden cutting boards were nicer on the knives. I find the plastic boards take the edge off faster, especially when doing a lot of chopping, such as mincing garlic or parsley. Third was simply aesthetics, the wooden boards looked warmer, more "homemade" so if we took a photo of a rustic dish with a wooden board it just looked better. So which is best?

Today I work on large plastic tables in the meatroom at the CIA. They are used by three seperate classes daily. There are thousands of little nicks and dings and a few larger saw cuts from the many classes that have used them over the past 5 0r 6 years, since they were last replaced. We wash them and sanitize them each night, then allow them to air dry in a cold room.

So which is better? First lets talk about what they actually are. Plastic cutting boards are made of polyethelene and can be made in a variety of thicknesses. Over time they get nicks and cuts in them which can harbor bacteria, making them difficult to sanitize. There are some that claim antibacterial surface but the effectiveness of this is questionable. Most carry a warning stating "This product does not protect against bacteria". Once the antibacterial board is cut into bacteria will also be found in it. Plastic boards can be planed and resurfaced if thick enough, getting rid of all the nicks. Cleaning plastic can be done in a dish machine if small enough to fit which sterilizes the surface. Another aspect of plastic boards is they can be colored to designate uses; yellow for poultry, green for vegis, white for meat etc. Super thin plastic cutting mats can be used for small portable cutting and these can also be washed in a machine. Plastic boards can be sanitized with harsh chemicals such as bleach and then rinsed thoroughly whereas wood will absorb the flavor of the chemical.

Wooden cutting boards are made of hardwoods that have a tight grain. Maple is most typical, hickory is possible also, teak and other tropical woods are found but very expensive. Oaks' grain is too wide enabling moisture to penetrate. Pine and other fir trees are way too soft and fragile. Bamboo is cut and layered to make a very hard board that resists cuts but can dull knives somewhat. Bamboo boards can be light and thin and very easy to clean. Wooden boards can be cleaned with abrasive scrubbers such as steel wool which actually take a tiny layer off, healing the board's cuts. Maple boards resist bacterial growth and are found to be safer than a over-used plastic board but wooden boards cannot be allowed to be continually moist or soaked in sinks. They can split and mold can form in the cracks. Wooden boards can be planed, also to resurface. They must be kept dry and may require an occassional conditioning with mineral oil. I have seen old school butcher shops pour salt on their boards every night and then wipe it off in the morning to kill any harmful bacteria. Small wooden cutting boards can be sanitized in a microwave. Wood is also a "green" renewable resource as opposed to plastic.

Another type of board is made from rubber. Two inch thick rubber boards are expensive but feature some of the best of both worlds. They can be sanatized like plastic but won't dull your knives as easily. Rubber is also renewable. They can warp but they also can be heated in an oven to be reshaped. Rubber boards "heal" like wood so the small cuts seal back up keeping it free of bacteria harboring nicks.

When chopping with the cleaver, plastic and rubber boards will be damaged. Normal wooden boards will chip and damage also but the maple "chopping" block is designed for it. The grain is set so the cleaver is chopping down into it as opposed to across.

Whatever board you choose its imperative that it is cleaned correctly and replaced when worn. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages and inital cost plays a part in the decision. I welcome any comments on this and ideas from you.