Few pieces of kitchen equipment are as elementally essential as a cutting board. Sure, if you have cut-proof hands of steel and the manual dexterity of a jewel thief you can accomplish a lot with a hand-held paring knife, but for chopping, dicing, mincing and smashing, there is simply no substitute for a solid cutting board.
But it can be weirdly difficult to choose a cutting board. Sizes and shapes vary significantly (I was once given a cutting board shaped like the state of South Carolina), and between different types of wood, plastic and wood fiber composites, you have a lot of options. So the question is: what’s the best cutting board for your kitchen, and how can you select something that’s going to last?
What is the Best Material for a Cutting Board?
When it comes to selecting a cutting board there are three main factors to consider: the material the board is made of, the amount of surface area and the thickness. These three things will impact not just the aesthetics of the board, but also the degree to which the board will age, whether it develops odors or stains and how sharp and damage-free your knives will remain.
These days the three materials you’ll most commonly find are wood, rubber (or plastic) and wood fiber composite such as that used by companies like Epicurean. You’ll also occasionally see pieces of glass or ceramic being marketed as cutting boards, but under no circumstances should you purchase a cutting board made from ceramic or glass.
Custom knife makers Mareko Maumasi of Maumasi Fire Arts and Geoff Feder of Feder Knives both say that boards made of ceramic or glass will destroy your knives and have no place in the kitchen other than as trivets. They also recommend against wood composite cutting boards, which are hard enough to dull—if not damage—the blade of a knife. “You want soft. Nothing hard,” says Feder. This sentiment is also shared by Nils Wessel, the founder and owner of Brooklyn Butcher Blocks. “They’re nice and they’re thin but they’re so hard I can’t imagine them being any good for any knife.” Wessel also says that boards made out of exotic woods, like teak or bamboo, can have similar knife-damaging properties, and are often selected by board markers for their aesthetic value at the expense of utility.
So that leaves domestic wood and rubber boards, which each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Cutting boards made from wood are typically aesthetically pleasing, particularly premium end grain boards. Wessel says that end grain cutting boards—in which the wood grain is aligned so that it runs from the top of the board vertically down, toward the underside—not only look beautiful, they also create a softer cutting surface and thus help keep knives sharper, longer. Long grain cutting boards—in which the grain runs horizontally from one edge of the board to the other—have a surface that’s a bit harder, and are a little less luxurious, but are still considered to be an excellent choice. Wooden boards can also last for years, if not decades, if properly cared for.
The downside to wooden boards is that they’re essentially a living product and will change depending on their environment. Expose them to too much moisture and they can warp or, in extreme cases, split along their seams. Strongly pigmented foods like beets can also easily stain them, and they can pick up lingering odors, such as from onions. Wood boards also tend to be more expensive. But, if you’re looking for a beautiful board you're proud to display in your kitchen that you don’t mind pampering a little, wood is a great choice.
Rubber boards, on the other hand, are the cutting surface of choice in most restaurants. While thin, plastic cutting boards mar and chip easily (and should be avoided), solid rubber boards, such as those sold by chef supply company JB Prince, are comparatively inexpensive, durable, easy to clean, easy on knives, lightweight, and depending on what you buy can even be refinished using sandpaper. They are by and large unremarkable to look at, if not sometimes downright ugly, but for many people the pros outweigh the cons. If you don’t care about aesthetics, rubber is a great choice. Rubber is also the best bet for people who live in a very humid environment, as even ambient humidity can warp wooden boards.
What Size Cutting Board Should I Buy?
While there are a variety of shapes and sizes to choose from, rectangular boards tend to be the most practical. Wessel says that 12-by-18 inches, the standard size used by his own company, is a good choice. If you want something a bit larger 15-by-20 inches is a good step up, or 24-by-36 inches if you want something even larger.
In terms of thickness, professional grade rubber boards are thinner and lighter, typically between ½- to 1-inch thick, while a well-crafted wooden board should be anywhere from 1 ¼- to 2-inches thick. Wessel says that for an end-grain cutting board he advocates for at least 2 inches of thickness.
When it comes down to it, you should pick a cutting board that works best for your particular needs. The centerpiece of my own prep space is an enormous custom-made wooden cutting board that has dedicated counter space. While I love it, I also use a small rubber board with a grooved liquid-catching channel specifically for when I cut meat, or for processing things that could stain my wooden board.
Should I Buy a Cutting Board with Extra Features?
Cutting boards with extra features are easy to find, but often come with trade-offs. Rubber feet increase board stability and offer improved airflow, but also make it impossible to flip your board over and to make use of both sides. (A dish towel placed underneath works wonders to stabilize your shifty board.) Cutting boards with liquid-catching grooves are fantastic if you carve a lot of roasted meats or juicy vegetables like tomatoes, but aren’t all that necessary if you’re mostly chopping onions or doing basic prep work. And boards that fold in half or have other similar gimmicks to aid in transporting food will inevitably break, rip or fall apart. You’re better off just using a bench scraper to move prepped ingredients. As for boards with added cups and trays, whatever containers you already have will do just fine when assembling your mise en place.
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4 Tips for How to Clean and Take Care of a Cutting Board
1. Wash your boards gently with soap and hot water, and for wooden boards make sure you thoroughly dry them with a clean dish towel. Never put a rubber or wooden cutting board in a dishwasher. The intense heat and caustic conditions will abrade and damage rubber boards, and will completely ruin and destroy wooden ones.
2. Coat and buff your wooden board with either food-safe mineral oil or a pre-mixed combination of oil and beeswax every two to four weeks, or more often if desired. This will help to prevent warping and splitting, and will help to protect against stains and odors.
3. Store smaller wooden cutting boards vertically on their edge, as this helps to keep them dry and prevents warping and splitting. For butcher-block style boards—which is to say, larger, thicker wooden cutting boards that you don’t move around—make sure you don’t leave any standing water or food remnants on the surface.
4. For deep scratches, nicks or grooves, contact a local cutting board maker and ask them about the cost of refinishing. Brooklyn Butcher Blocks is one option in New York City.