Personal Growth

Should You Be Using Plastic or Wood Cutting Boards?

If there's one thing most people know to freak out about in the kitchen, it's the threat of raw chicken going where it doesn't belong. Given that the cutting board is where a lot of raw poultry sits before cooking, it's reasonable to be a stickler about handling this kitchen tool. If you're worried about contamination, is it better for your cutting board to be plastic or wood? It's been debated for years.

On the Chopping Block

Contaminating your eating space with raw or undercooked chicken could transmit Salmonella, an infectious bacteria that causes some serious symptoms. No one wants that on their plate — literally. But even vegetables and other less risky foods can lead to cross-contamination, spreading pathogens around that you don't want to be ingesting. For a long time, plastic cutting boards were believed to help cut down on foodborne illness in the kitchen. The idea here was that plastic boards wouldn't soak up foodborne contaminants the way wooden boards would. But is that really the truth?

In 1994, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison dug into this question and found an answer: Nope. The group conducted bacteria studies with new and used plastic and wooden cutting boards and concluded that their results "do not support the often-heard assertion that plastic cutting boards are more sanitary than wood." But this isn't the whole story either.

How Much Wood Would a Wood Cut Cut?

Studies have shown that cuts on plastic boards cause deeper grooves than cuts on wooden boards do. While it's true that plastic boards are easier to sanitize (hello, dishwasher), the plastic has deeper scratches for more bacteria to hide out in. Because wood is tougher in general, you won't find as many little crevices for the bad stuff to live.

But let's go even further. North Carolina State University food safety extension specialist Dr. Benjamin Chapman tells NC State News, "Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria — which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning. Soft woods, like cypress, are less likely to dull the edge of your knife, but also pose a greater food-safety risk. That's because they have larger grains, which allows the wood to split apart more easily, forming grooves where bacteria can thrive." So, hardwood it is then, right? Well...

Cleaning Machine

The fact of the matter is that either cutting board is safe, as long as you know how to properly clean it. And because of the different ways plastic and wood boards are cleaned, Chapman recommends plastic cutting boards for meat and wood cutting boards for fruit, vegetables, or any ready-to-eat foods. If you have a dishwasher and a plastic cutting board, throw it in. Wood boards, however, don't belong there and must be washed by hand. When washing by hand, rinse the debris off the board, scrub it with soap and water, and sanitize the board. Here's how.

For plastic boards, use a chlorine-based sanitizer — a solution of bleach and water will do just fine. For wood cutting boards, use a quaternary ammonium sanitizer, a fancy term for a common solution of Mr. Clean and water. "Chlorine binds very easily to organic materials, like the wood in a cutting board, which neutralizes its antibacterial properties," Chapman says. "Quaternary ammonium is more effective at killing bacteria on wood or other organic surfaces." No matter which you use, drying is super critical in the cleaning process. Bacteria breed in moisture, so a place to air out your cutting board is essential for optimal cleanliness.

Want more kitchen tips? Check out "Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done" from America's Test Kitchen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto June 4, 2018

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