Every kitchen needs a good, sturdy, wood cutting board. Not only will it last you for ages — I have one I’ve been using for upwards of 30 years — but it also makes cooking a lot more fun when you aren’t worried that an old, warped, plastic cutting board could slip out from underneath you and cause you to cut yourself, or that it’s contaminating your beef with bacteria from that raw chicken you cut up last week. (Of course, as any food-safety guru will tell you, it’s best if you have two good, sturdy boards — one for meat and one for everything else.)
I'm a fan of wooden cutting boards, which have been shown to be safer than plastic ones when it comes to harboring nasty microbes and are certainly more sustainable. They’re also easier on your knives; marble cutting surfaces, for instance, can dull edges rapidly. Wooden cutting boards are also pricey, so once you buy one, you want to do everything you can to make it last.
Caring for your wooden cutting board
Wooden cutting boards can be damaged if they are exposed to too much moisture or allowed to get very dry. A good oil finish is the best way to protect them from both extremes. Most chefs recommend a food-grade mineral oil, the main ingredient in most commercial "board oil" products. But mineral oil is petroleum based, and who wants to cut their hard-won organic produce on a petroleum-treated cutting board?
I like Homewood Block Oil, which is made from seed oils. You can also use a light natural cooking oil, such as coconut or walnut oil, neither of which will gum up the surface of the board as heavier vegetable oils may, or turn rancid. Rancid oil isn’t dangerous, but it can impart a nasty flavor to your food.
Before you use a new board, apply a thin coat of whatever oil you choose to all sides of your board, rubbing in the direction of the grain using a clean rag. Apply as much oil as the wood will absorb, but don't leave any pooled on the surface. Then set the board in a warm place. After 12 to 24 hours, apply more oil in the same way and set the board out to warm again. Repeat until no more oil is absorbed, then wipe the board with a dry cloth and buff it until it shines.
From that point on, a few simple steps will help keep your wooden cutting board useful and attractive for a long time:
• Re-oil as needed. Whenever your board starts to look dull in places, apply a thin coat of oil to the entire clean, dry board, applying extra over any dull or worn areas, and wiping off any excess. A well-oiled board is easier to keep clean and is much less likely to soak up odors or liquids or to dry out and crack, so keep your board oil handy and use it regularly.
• Keep your knives sharp. You won't have to press down as hard and your cutting board will suffer fewer grooves. Avoid sawing your knife back and forth when it is in contact with the board — save the cleaver heroics for a butcher block. And vary where you cut on the board: If you always cut in the same spot, you will eventually cut a grove in it.
• Keep it dry. When cutting wet food, remove the food promptly when you’re finished, and dry the board so the moisture won't have a long time to soak in, which could make the wood swell (not a swell idea if you want it to last).
• Clean your board as soon as you’re done with it. Never, ever, ever run a wooden cutting board through the dishwasher or let it soak in water! Brush crumbs off or rinse the board under running water using a stiff (but not metal) brush to loosen stuck bits. Immediately dry the board with a towel. Use hot water and a little mild dishwashing soap to remove oily residues.
• Keep your vinegar handy. Wooden cutting boards have been shown to be naturally resistant to bacteria, but if you want extra protection, keep a spray bottle of vinegar on hand and lightly mist the cleaned board with that, allowing it to sit for 10 minutes then wiping off any remaining moisture with a dry towel.
Make your own cutting board
If you don’t own a wooden cutting board, and are turned off by the $70-and-up price tags at kitchen-supply stores, you can make your own without much time or effort. All you need is a few sheets of medium, fine, and very fine sandpaper and a slab of wood.
Select your raw materials: Maple is often the wood of choice for cutting boards — it’s exactly the right hardness and has a very fine grain so it doesn’t absorb liquids as easily as other woods do. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive. Look for Eastern hard (rock) maple, which you should be able to buy unfinished at any lumber yard or large home-improvement store. Fruit woods such as cherry or nut woods like beech and walnut also work well, but they tend to be more expensive. Avoid laminated wood products, such as plywood, and don't even think about putting treated wood near food.
Cut it to size: Find a board that’s between 6 and 8 inches wide and .5 to 1 inch thick, the perfect size for a small cutting board. Chances are, you will need to purchase the entire board, which will make multiple cutting boards (hey, they make great presents — especially paired with a block of local cheese and a small cheese knife from a thrift store), but most stores will be willing to cut it into the exact lengths you want — 8 to 12 inches long is good — so you don't have to fuss with a saw unless you want to. Choose a board that is smooth on all sides, is free of knots or splits, and sits solidly on a flat surface without rocking. Home Depot sells wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is the best choice, as logging can be a nasty business for the environment and certified woods cannot be treated with certain pesticides before or after harvest.
Sand it: Your board will already be reasonably smooth, except perhaps the cut sides, so it just needs a little sanding before you can use it. Use medium-grit sandpaper to sand down all the edges and each surface, rubbing back and forth in the direction of the grain lines that run through the wood. Repeat the process with a piece of fine-grit sandpaper, and then a third time with very fine sandpaper. Rub off any dust clinging to the board with a soft, clean cloth.
Finish it: While you don't have to apply any finish to your cutting board, especially a hard maple one, it will be more stain- and abuse-resistant if you give it a good rubbed oil finish. Follow the instructions for oiling a new cutting board, and voilà! You’ll have your own homemade board to last for years.