Cutting Board Cleanliness — a Simple Solution

What’s More Hygienic, Wood or Plastic?

This is the big question everybody who’s germ conscious is always asking about cutting boards. Everybody knows that wood is a germ monger and plastic is clean. (Or maybe the other way around?) Are there any clear answers regarding cutting board cleanliness — and which is the best type of cutting board to own if you’re concerned about cross contamination?

Here’s the scoop: According to a definitive study done by Dr. Cliver at UC Davis, plastic cutting boards can be more problematic that wooden ones. Cliver found that a scarred plastic board will actually hide more bacteria than a scarred wooden one. (Crazy, huh? If you’re curious why, see the sidebar below.) Sure, a brand new plastic board, without any knife cuts in it, is a cinch to sanitize and beats out wood. But how long does a cutting board stay in that condition? Not very. And that’s where wood excels. Even with a brand new wood board, any bacteria that latches on to the surface tends to die quickly (except where very large numbers are involved).

Does that mean we should all throw out our plastic boards because they’re filthy disease-generating incubators? Not really. In the first place, if you wash a plastic board in a dishwasher, it can be successfully sanitized of bacteria. Secondly, Cliver’s experiment purposely used some of the toughest kinds of food residues to remove—such as chicken fat. And he purposely allowed this residue to be cut into the boards to imitate typical home kitchen usage. But if you’re not hacking into a lot of fatty raw chicken on your plastic boards, but using other cuts of meat and lighter knife work (or cutting up fruit and veggies), then there’s less (or no) chance you’re going slice some cooties into your board. Thirdly, there’s no Rule of the Kitchen that dictates you must do all of your food prep—raw meats and fresh vegetables—on a single cutting board. Quite to the contrary. Which brings us to our main topic. . .

The Two Boards Concept

It pretty much comes down to common sense. Would you lay a raw chicken breast on top of your fresh tossed salad? Of course not. Then why would you slice up chicken for your sautee, wipe off the very same cutting board, and then proceed to separate lettuce leaves, slice up tomatoes, on the very same spot you just had raw chicken on. Not very appetizing. And not very clean. The technical term is cross contamination. Even if you scrubbed the board with soap and hot water, there might still be bacteria that could temporarily survive in the knife cuts in your board. The board would need to be thoroughly dried out (or washed in a dishwasher) before they would be nullified.

Enter the Two Boards Concept. Although I like things clean, I am by no means a sanitation freak. That’s why I’m a big fan of dedicating a cutting board (or two) to nothing but raw meat, poultry, and fish. All you need to do, on the most basic level, is to keep the raw animal produce separate from everything else. If you can just do this, you’re doing a lot.

Once you get you used it, it’s pretty simple. It’s sort of like pretending you practice a special brand of kosher cooking. Don’t kill yourself trying to scrub a cutting board clean in the middle of prepping a meal ever again. Use two boards—one for raw meat, the other for everything else.

Cleaning Cutting Boards

No matter what kind of cutting board you use (wood, plastic, bamboo, kryptonite. . .), it’s important to wash it—especially if it’s handled any kind of raw meat.

  • 1) Scrub the board thoroughly with soap and hot water flowing from the tap. Do not immerse/soak it in a pool of standing water in the sink. You want the grunge to wash down the drain, not soak into the board.
  • 2) Wipe the board off well with a paper (or cloth) towel.
  • 3) Let it air dry standing up to ensure you rid it of all moisture. (Bacteria love it moist!)

    And if you want to take it a step further (though most of the germ-killing has already been done by washing):

  • 4) You can sanitize with a solution of one-part vinegar to three-parts water. Fill up a spray bottle and lightly spray the board down. (Why not bleach? Vinegar happens to be more effective on wooden boards than bleach.) Again, let the board stand and air dry. Done!

To be totally honest, in my kitchen the only board that gets a guaranteed serious scrub is the one that’s handled raw meat (or fish). The others may vary according to the mess. But everyone has their own standards, so do what you’re most comfortable with.

Of course, with plastic boards you have the option of popping them in the dishwasher. (Though you should rinse them off first.) If you’ve got the right kind of dishwasher, it will even sanitize them. The only thing you need to beware of is the dry cycle which tends to warp polypropylene. So don’t let the dishwasher dry them—take them out early. (Just for the record, I do not do this. I hand wash all my boards.)

Wood or Plastic — Why Not Both?

If you’re concerned about cutting board cleanliness, don’t spend any more time worrying about (or arguing over) which kind of board to use. Get with the program and implement the Two Boards Concept. Doing this, along with washing your boards properly, will be all you need to do to keep your cutting boards clean!