Review: Cutting Boards and Mats

 

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Overview
Wood Boards
Plastic Boards and Mats
Plastic versus Wood
Bamboo
Glass
Caring for Cutting Boards
Recommended Products
Hardwood Boards
John Boos
Ozark West
J.K. Adams
Vermont Butcher Block
Bamboo Boards
Totally Bamboo
TruBamboo
Alternative Materials
Architec
Epicurean
Flexible Chopping Mats
Manufacturers Links

Overview

Because of its where-the-action-happens, counter-top prominence, its role in support of the cook’s finer, manual skills, and its long life-span, the cutting board inspires personal favoritism among cooks as do few other kitchen tools. The good looks of the well-made boards—whether the natural beauty of fine-grained wood, or the colorful, high-tech sheen of some of the synthetic boards—can be persuasive, as well.

The most meaningful utilitarian factors in selecting a board are size and material. 20"x15" has been a favored format, providing a practical size for most cutting, chopping, mincing, and dicing. It will fit comfortably in all but the most space-challenged kitchens, and is narrow enough to partially fit into a standard-size kitchen sink for washing. You'll be able to judge which size is best for you by referring to the dimensions of your current cutting board or area. When considering thickness, take into account the height at which you'll be working, and whether to get a board with feet.

Cuisinart 16" Timbergrass Parquet TruBamboo Chopping Block
Cuisinart 16" TimberGrass "Parquet" TruBamboo 14" round

During the past few years, the dominance of wood as the preferred cutting board material for home kitchens has been challenged by plastic and bamboo, while in restaurant kitchens and butcher shops, plastic has become the standard. Plastic is ubiquitous in commercial kitchens because it's relatively inexpensive, low-maintenance, lightweight, and dishwasher-safe. The beautiful styling of the wood boards that complement the look of your home kitchen would be gratuitous in a commercial kitchen. Also, the move from acrylic boards (those made out of Plexiglas and Lucite, for example) to the more knife-friendly and durable polymer composites has elevated the concept of "plastic boards".

Wood boards

Functionally, most hardwoods used to make cutting boards are interchangeable for kitchen purposes. Maple, ash, walnut, cherry, beech, teak, sycamore, walnut, and bamboo (a grass, not a hardwood) will all last a generation or longer if properly cared-for. It's common to encounter sturdy, exotic hardwoods in the higher-end boards. There are two different grain configurations used to construct wood cutting boards: end-grain (also called vertical grain), and edge-grain (also called flat-grain).

John Boos 4" round
End Grain construction
John Boos
Edge Grain construction

An end-grain surface is comprised of the ends of many individual pieces or hardwood placed face-up. This configuration is generally preferred because the knife blade slides between the ends of the individual fibers in the wood when cutting, separating them slightly, instead of cutting into the fibers, as happens with a edge-grain surface. When the knife is removed, the fibers close in a self-healing effect.  The result is that your knives stay sharper longer and the blade edges last longer, as does the surface of the cutting board. Also, end-grain boards show a greater tolerance for a chopping motion, and that makes knife work more nuanced and satisfying.

Conversely, edge-grain cutting boards are assembled from wood plys running lengthwise, with the grain patterns facing up. Edge-grain cutting boards cost about one-third what end-grain boards cost, and are available in a large variety of sizes, shapes, and designs. While their surfaces are not quite as durable as the end-grain boards, they will, with proper maintenance (see our Maintenance and Care guidelines below), provide many years of service for every kind of kitchen knife work. Both grain configurations are available in boards that are so beautiful you'll have to get used to bringing your sharp knives in contact with the exquisite wood.

OzarkWest reversible
Ozark West walnut endgrain
reversible board

Reversible wood boards, also available in both grain configurations, are popular, and have twice the life of one-sided models—advantageous not only for longevity, but for those who want to dedicate one side to cutting meat, poultry, and seafood, and the other side to working with other foods (more on cross-contamination below). For a medium or large board, 1.5"—2" is a practical thickness range. It's substantial enough not to warp, not too high off the counter, and not too heavy to move when you wash it.

Many of the thicker, heavier models have recessed finger grips in the two opposing edges that allow you pick up the board easily. Some heavier models have metal handles inserted into the wood, or that are affixed to a steel band that wraps around the edge of the board. When considering a wood board, take into account its weight. An 18"x12"x2 1/4" board can weigh 13 pounds, whereas a round 18"x18"x4" board can tip the scales at 36 pounds. By comparison, a Classic-Series KitchenAid stand mixer only weighs 22 pounds. These numbers may seem academic until you realize how often you're moving, lifting, cleaning, and storing your board.

Maple Walnut Carving Board with juice groove
Maple Walnut carving board with
juice groove and reservoir

Many boards have juice grooves routed into the perimeter to catch juices—helpful in some cases, a small nuisance in others. Juices released when carving meats or chopping tomatoes gather in the groove. The chef can tip the board and direct those juices to a container, stockpot or pan if needed, and can also more easily separate the bulk of what was cut or chopped on the board from its juices. On some models, the juice grooves lead to a reservoir, which serves as a handy on-board container for the juice.

Most of our experts prefer the one-sided format, with four non-marking, non-skid feet that raise the board about 3/4" off the countertop. The feet keep the board from slipping on a countertop when in use, and the space between the bottom of the board and the counter allows for a shallow plate to be partially slipped under the board for easy transfer of food. Also, feet allow for putting the board back in its place on the countertop during the drying process after washing the board (or the countertop). If you do get a reversible board, we recommend putting a thin rubber mat under it when you’re working to keep it from skidding.

OW - with feet VBB - with feet TotallyBamboo - wth feet
Totally Bamboo
Big Chop with feet
Vermont Butcher Block
Maple/Walnut with feet
Totally Bamboo 4-corners
end-grain with feet

There are several aesthetically-pleasing boards with veneer surfaces that will serve you well—until the veneer starts to separate. Many people use these boards for decorative serving trays, but the boards still require cleaning, which expedites the deterioration of the veneer. We recommend that you avoid veneer boards, especially with alternatives like bamboo boards, which offer a stunning variety of looks, and which last longer.

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Plastic boards and mats

Cuisinart 16"
GSI 16" x 9" board
 
Timbergrass Parquet
Basic plastic chopping boards
 
TruBamboo Chopping Block
Progressive chopping mats
Set of two 12" x 15"

The advantages of plastic are that it is dishwasher friendly, lightweight, easy to maintain and store, and inexpensive. Unlike wood boards, plastic needs no oiling. Somewhat surprisingly, plastic boards can warp and can stain. Also, because of the nature of plastic, a knife-nick will tend to hold its form, whereas in a wood board, especially an end-grain board, the nick will tend to close and disappear over time. It's not uncommon to see the surface of a plastic board roughen considerably during years of use. The better plastic boards are made of high-density polyehtylene or polypropylene, and tend to resist staining, odors, and scratching better than the cheaper, low-density boards. Because plastic boards can get slippery when wet, it's a good idea to place a wet towel or rubber mat underneath the board when cutting. You don't want the board to be sliding around when you're performing fast cutting or chopping motions with a sharp knife. Plastic boards come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors (the colors are often used to distinguish use for different food groups), and are usually easier to store than their bulkier, wooden counterparts.

Recently, flexible cutting mats have become popular for their handiness and value. These are similar to plastic placemats upon which you can slice and chop food. They sell for as little as $3; some are available in color- or icon-coded mats so that they may be used exclusively for one of the food groups—meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables—to avoid cross-contamination. More details on these mats appear at the end of our Recommendations section.

Regarding cross-contamination: it's used as much as a marketing gimmick as it is a concept you should worry about, especially when you need to prep only a single food group, after which you wash the board and store it until its next use. In the cases when you're moving quickly from cutting a meat or fish food group to cutting fruits and vegetables (which may not be cooked after their preparation), it can make sense to have a few boards to expedite prep work without having to worry about cleaning the board between food groups.

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The debate: plastic vs. wood

When the first synthetic cutting boards — initially of acrylic, and later on harder polyethylene and polypropylene — were introduced to the market decades ago, their promoters claimed that plastic was safer than wood because it inhibited the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, like salmonella and e-coli, and that plastic was easier to sanitize in a dishwasher or with chemicals that would be too harsh for wood.  In 1993, the Food Research Institute, Department of Food Microbiology and Toxicology, University of Wisconsin, conducted an oft-cited experiment that intentionally contaminated seven different woods and four different plastics with bacteria such as E-coli, salmonella and listeria to assess relative safety and cleanliness among the surfaces. The results showed that, generally, hardwood cutting boards are more resistant to food-borne bacteria than plastic boards, especially as they age. A plastic board is generally more resistant to those bacteria the newer the board is.

Since then, several experiments have been conducted, with varying results. There are so many variables in the food safety equation that our advice is to not get hung up on the microbiology. Maintenance, not material, provides the greatest margin of safety. Buy a board that suits you as a cook, and care for it properly. Cleaning a wood board with hot, soapy water immediately after its use provides the necessary amount of sterilization. For plastic boards, it's best to run them through a full-cycle in your dishwasher, or use a strong penetrating bleach on them. Some plastic boards are specially treated with an embedded anti-bacterial agent such as Microban that may inhibit stains and odors, not harmful food-borne bacteria. Consequently, plastic boards still need to be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

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Bamboo

This self-regenerating grass, which grows in East Asia, Indonesia, and the Phillipines, sometimes a foot a day, has become hugely popular in the interior construction and renovation fields during the past decade. Two companies, Totally Bamboo and TruBamboo, have had great success leveraging the material’s advantages into leading cutting board brands. Those advantages, combining the most desirable attributes of wood and plastic, have made bamboo a "happy medium" in a growing number of home kitchens.

As a countertop or cutting board material, bamboo shares some characteristics with wood. it can be configured in either end- or edge-grain format. Overall, it’s a bit harder than maple and other hardwoods. Also, it's significantly lighter than most hardwoods, with a higher strength-to-weight ratio, and is more impervious to moisture, which makes it more bacteria-, odor-, stain- and warp-resistant. Bamboo boards shouldn't go in the dishwasher, but they are thinner than their wood counterparts, making them easier to move, clean, and store.

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Glass

Tempered glass is another material used in cutting boards. Its surface is stain-, odor-, break- and scratch-resistant, dishwasher-safe, and otherwise easily cleaned. Most boards have rubber feet to hold it in place on the countertop. Glass boards come in some pretty spiffy designs, which are used to reduce glare as much as to impart an aesthetically pleasing look. Frosted glass is also commonly used to reduce glare from overhead kitchen lights.

Glass Dexin Glass board Glass orange
Glass board - silkscreen Glass board - frosted glass Glass board - silkscreen

We can condone glass (and stone) boards to serve on, even to slice cheese on, providing that you don't use a knife you care about to do the slicing. Other than that, you'll do better to use a wood or plastic board for your cutting. One other characteristic of glass cutting boards that many people find bothersome, if not downright annoying, is the loud, resonant noise the knife blade makes when it contacts the glass surface.

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Caring for Cutting Boards

Wood boards should be oiled before use and periodically thereafter (once every couple of months, depending on use). Any FDA-approved mineral oil will do; various, refined linseed-based butcher block oils are manufacturer-recommended. Use a clean rag to apply the oil to the entire board surface, let the oil be absorbed, apply repeatedly until the board won’t absorb more oil, and then wipe off any excess oil. Too much oil is better than too little.  Food-Safe brand mineral oil is available from most vendors who sell wood boards.

Whatever the material of your cutting board, keep it clean and dry when not in use. Plastic boards can be cleaned in the dishwasher, or washed by hand with hot water and a strong detergent. Wooden cutting boards should never be submerged in water, and can be cleaned in hot water and a mild detergent with a scrubber or brush. Coarse salt, baking soda, plain vinegar, and lemon juice used as rubbing agents are effective at removing stains and odors. For heavy stains, try coating the board with granulated salt and let it sit overnight. Salt's ability to absorb water may help remove the stain.

Old wood boards can be rejuvenated by sanding, but care must be taken to sand the entire surface evenly, with fine paper, to avoid creating hills and valleys.

The video "How to Care for and Clean a Butcher Block Cutting Board" offers some helpful tips.


kitchenCritical Recommends:

For many cooks, an ideal would be to own three boards: a medium or large wood board for most cutting; a medium or large plastic board mainly used for vegetables and fruits; and a small, attractive, easily transported wood board for small or localized jobs, and for serving appetizers.

Normally in our product reviews, we recommend a particular brand/model at a certain price point, but with the plethora of good quality cutting boards, available in a multitude of styles and sizes, it's more practical to recommend companies that make exceptional boards. For each recommended manufacturer we offer a brief description of the company and its products, along with illustrations and specifications of representative models from the company's line of boards. The included links will direct you to manufacturer pages (more product info) and vendors (shopping page) of the best cutting boards, but you'll have to decide which particular models are most appropriate for the specific food-cutting chores in which you most often engage.

For seven of the ten manufacturers recommended below we provide a links to the company’s website, and to a comparison shopping page featuring the company’s products. Three of the makers of hardwood boards sell their products themselves, exclusively or semi-exclusively.

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Hardwood Boards

The four manufacturers of hardwood boards which garner the most praise from our experts are John Boos, Ozark West, Sequim Bay Company, and Vermont Butcher Block.

John Boos

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12" dia. x 1.5", with feet
6 lbs / $42
Cherry end grain,
reversible
18" x 12" x 1.75"
8 lbs / $140

Founded in 1887 in Illinois, this company is the great grandfather of the butcher block world in the US, serving the commercial, institutional, and residential sectors of the food industry. Boos' product lines include tables and carts, wood and stainless benches, sinks, and countertops, and more than forty different cutting boards. Most of their boards are available in an assortment of sizes, shapes, and configurations. Widths range from 1/4" to 4", lengths from 10" to 4'. Prices start from around $30, and soar to more than $500. Maple is the wood most commonly used in John Boos boards, with walnut and cherry rounding out the hardwood models. Boos also has a line of white plastic boards. Most of the cutting board features one can conceive of are available somewhere in the Boos line. John Boos products are covered by a one-year warranty.


Ozark West

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A much smaller operation then John Boos, with its focus on finely crafted, handmade, hardwood boards, Ozark West was founded in 1976 in Arkansas (Ozark) and moved to Tuscon, Arizona (West) in 1990, where it still operates.

Currently, its line has been whittled down to end-grain walnut and cherry cutting boards. The boards range from 12"x16"x1 3/8" ($189), to 18"x22"1 7/8" ($300). All boards have four, 3/8" rubber feet to prevent slipping and moisture build-up on the underside of the board.

In the past, the company offered made-to-order products; currently that service is available only to Food Network celebrity chefs, many of whom use Ozark West boards.

Ozark West boards can only be purchased directly from the company via its website. The boards are guaranteed against flaws in workmanship and material.

Cherry end grain
18" x 22" x 1.825"
16 lbs / $189

Walnut end grain
12" x 16" x 1.375"
6 lbs / $189


J.K. Adams

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Cherry Chunk end grain
16"x16"x2.5"
15 lbs / $125
Maple Carver with juice well
20"x14"x1.25"
5 lbs / $73

Founded in 1944 in Dorset, Vermont, J.K. Adams has a reputation as a maker of classic, high-quality cutting boards. The boards are well-crafted, kiln-dried, hard rock sugar maple. Adams has steadily added to its line over time, and now offers twenty-three different cutting board models, many of which are available in a range of sizes. There are several models with juice grooves and wells — ideal for game carving and barbecue. One of these is called the "Barbecue," and comes in three sizes, the largest of which is 24" x 36". That's six square feet of cutting surface, enough to accommodate large portions.

In addition to its classic boards and carving boards, Adams offers a line that includes novelty serving boards and portable picnic models. Most are maple, but the line also includes cherry and walnut; prices range from $9 to $200.

One of the basic J.K. Adams boards, the "Takes Two" model, was Cook’s Illustrated’s favorite wood board in the magazine’s January, 2008 review. The CI reviewers appreciated the knife-friendly surface and the convenience of the 16"x12"x1" configuration and, at $21, felt it was a bargain. The price has increased to $25.50 since then—still a good choice. Adams warranties its products for five years.


Vermont Butcher Block

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Vermont Butcher Block & Board Company (VBB) was founded in 2003, and is headquartered in Williston, VT. VBB offers thirty-one edge-grain boards, well crafted from maple, walnut, and cherry, sometimes in combination. Most of VBB's models are 1.5" thick, and range in size from 10"x7" to 20"x14", and in price from $27—$140.

The company also makes wood products in several other categories, such as knife blocks, bowls, wine racks, salt and pepper mills, and utensils.

Cherry edge grain
20" x 14" x 1.5" / $109
Maple Walnut board
16" x 9" x 1.5" / $64
Walnut edge grain
20" x 10" x 1.5" end grain
$119, rubber feet

Bamboo

Totally Bamboo

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African "Congo"
17." x 13.75" x 1" / $50
South Pacific "Tonga Light"
11.5" Sq. x 1.5" / $40

More than any othe company, Totally Bamboo has popularized bamboo kitchen accessories. It makes more than 230 products that seem to be available just about everywhere, from hardware stores and supermarkets to high-end kitchenware stores, and on the Web.

Totally Bamboo has nine different lines, or "collections" of cutting boards, each with several size choices, ranging from the 5"x8"x3/4" Anacapa for $10 in the California Collection, to the 18" x 24" x 2 1/4" Big Kahuna, for $180, in the Chop Collection.

As we note in the review, bamboo provides the feel of hardwood, its surface is just as durable, and it's easily maintained with mineral oil. For a given-sized board, bamboo is lighter than maple or cherry, making it easy to maneuver, and most of the Totally Bamboo boards have rounded edges, making them even easier to handle. Their prices are in line with those of the most reasonably priced wood cutting boards.

Totally Bamboo also makes countertops, chairs, carts, plates, bowls, and many other kitchen products from this beautiful, strong, renewable material. Totally Bamboo products carry a one-year warranty.

 


TruBamboo

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This West Palm Beach, Florida-based company offers seven different models, each available in several sizes. Prices range from $9—$60. TruBamboo also has a line of four TruGrips boards, with non-slip feet made from an "environmentally friendly raw material".

Palm Beach Extra Large
20" x 14" x 1" / $30
Trubamboo assorted boards

 


Alternative materials

Three manufacturers of plastic boards or other materials are also worthy of recommendation.

Architec

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Architec, another southeast Florida company, is a division of a large supplier of home and garden products for major store chains, including Wal Mart, Kmart, Target, Home Depot, and Lowes. Shortly after the division was founded in 2000, Architec introduced The Gripper cutting board, and counted among its customers Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Linens & Things, and Macy’s. Benefitting from Architec's distribution network, The Gripper spearheaded a surge in popularity of the plastic cutting board with its unique construction, splashy styling, great utility, and economy.

The unique construction involves a bonding of two materials: a non-slip, cushiony, rubber underside that keeps the board in place on the countertop, and a work surface of knife-friendly, easy-to-clean polypropylene plastic. The dishwasher-safe Gripper comes in two sizes and ten colors, and sells for between $15—$30. It’s one of more than a dozen cutting board models, of various materials and configurations, that Architec sells.

Architec Poly-Flax boards blend flax husk and recycled polypropylene to create a board that can be bin-recycled with #5 plastics. Architec's Eco Smart take-back program asks consumers to return old Eco boards to Architec (with an Architec sponsored shipping label) for recycling. Given that a plastic board does not have the longevity of a top-notch wood board, this board allows the consumer two environmentally friendly disposal options.

Assorted Gripper boards Architec Poly-Flax Eco cutting boards

 


Epicurean Cutting Surfaces

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Gourmet Series Richlite
15" x 11" / $50

Slate" natural wood fiber

This Minnesota company, founded to manufacture eco-frendly, professional-grade cutting surfaces for use in the home kitchen, is an offshoot of TruRide, creators of skateboarding parks. Epicurean was originally started as a waste-saving effort: the excess material from TruRide's skate park projects was recycled into kitchen products.

Today, Epicurean has a reputation as a leading manufacturer of green cutting surfaces for the kitchen, with twelve different lines of cutting boards. Epicurean Cutting Surfaces are made with eco select paper (wood fibers) from trees harvested under guidelines of the North America Sustainable Forestry Standards.

Cutting on these surfaces is not quite as comfortable as cutting on a top-line, end-grain wood board, and the composite boards will dull a knife more quickly than wood. Still, they are easy to use/maintain, and are as good a value as any cutting board on the market today.

Epicurean's large selection of boards range from 6"x8" to 18"x27", and range in price from $12—$190. Most of the boards are thin and easily stored. Some are reversible, with one flat surface and one grooved, some have a slate core for greater stability, and many have non-slip feet. Like Architec, Epicurean also has a series called "Gripper."


Flexible chopping mats

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Finally, we recommend considering whether these inexpensive cutting surfaces might aid you in your kitchen cutting and chopping work. They can be used in conjunction with your countertop, board or block. They’re great for transferring chopped food to a pot, they’re easily cleaned and stored, and they cost about $3 each. Flexible mats are particularly useful for moving rolled pastry dough. Try them, and you may decide to keep a few on hand to supplement your main cutting surfaces.

Mats are often sold in color-coded sets for exclusive food-group assignment (red for meat, yellow for poultry, green for vegetables, blue for fish). 12"x15" are typical dimensions, $12 for a four-pack is a typical price.

Progressive, manufacturer of some handy kitchen accessories, and SiliconeZone are two of the best brands of flexible mats.


Manufacturers Links

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The following links will take you to a manufacturer's website when one exists. In other cases, the links will take you to a relevant web page.

Manufacturers of Recommended Models:

Architec
Epicurean
J.K. Adams (cutting boards page)
John Boos (product lines available from here)
Progressive (Amazon.com page)
Ozark West
Totally Bamboo
TruBamboo
Silicone Zone
Vermont Butcher Block

Others worth considering:

Cutting Board Company
Farberware (cutting boads page)
GSIOutdoors.com
Joseph Joseph (several choices available from this link)
Oxo (cutting boards page)


 

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Updated: February 20, 2010