You can make a case that all those tools are routinely put through the wringer, but I think the cutting board really takes the most abuse day in, and day out. And I’d wager it’s the one that many of us, me included, don’t give enough attention to in terms of maintenance.
“It’s important to understand the why of taking care of the board,” says Evelyn Helminen, who with her husband, TJ Jordon, owns custom woodwork business Tudo Azul, which specializes in cutting boards. Knowing what you should and shouldn’t is important to keeping the board in good shape. In theory, a well-cared-for board should last “forever,” she says.
If that sounds like a worthy goal, here’s what you need to know about wood cutting board maintenance.
The basics. “Wood is alive,” says Jordon, the woodworker of the couple. “Even after you cut it, it moves.” So, like the trees they come from, wood cutting boards are susceptible to the elements — water, temperature, ambient humidity. They can warp, crack and lose their smooth surface if not properly maintained.
Caring for wood cutting boards is mostly the same regardless of the type of wood or type of board. It does help to understand what style of board you own, though. End-grain boards are formed by using pieces of wood cut parallel to the ground, like a cross section. Generally, Helminen says, end-grain boards are considered more high-end and tend to “heal” themselves better from knife cuts as the fibers close back up. They are more sensitive to moisture, Jordon says (think about the orientation of the fibers in the trees, which absorb moisture from the ground up). End-grain boards are also made from more, shorter pieces requiring more glue, with more opportunity for cracking. So be attentive to the steps below to ensure they don’t get too wet.
Edge-grain boards are made from pieces of wood cut perpendicular to the ground. They are made of few, longer planks, in which the grains of wood run parallel to the counter when in use.
To reduce the risk of cross-contamination, even with proper washing and maintenance, you should use separate cutting boards for meat and fruits/vegetables/bread. You might even consider a separate board for slicing alliums (onions, garlic, etc.) to prevent other foods from picking up those odors.
Washing and drying. Don’t overthink this. All you need to wash your wood board is mild dish soap and hot water. If you worry that’s not sufficient enough to kill off bacteria, take comfort in a test conducted by Cook’s Illustrated, which had a lab colonize boards with salmonella. The boards were cleaned with one of three methods: Washed with hot, soapy water, sprayed with bleach solution or sprayed with undiluted vinegar. There was no difference in the reduction of bacteria among the methods — all were equally effective. If you feel compelled to use bleach, the USDA recommends a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. “Flood the surface with the bleach solution and allow it to stand for several minutes,” it advises, then rinse and pat dry.
Regardless of method, don’t just shove the board in your dish rack to drip dry. Use a dish towel to remove as much surface moisture as you can, as the water can cause the board to crack or warp. Never, ever put your wood board in the dishwasher. EVER.
Similarly, be sure not to let your board sit on a wet counter.
Regular maintenance. If you’re using the board every day, Helminen recommends treating it with food-grade mineral oil at least once a month. But take a look at it. If the board is looking dull, dry or thirsty (absorbing lots of water), especially if you live in a low-humidity climate, you may need to do it more often. Cook’s Illustrated recommends applying a generous amount of oil, letting it sit for a minute and wiping off excess, redistributing as needed to some of the drier spots. Too much oil can actually start to harm the glue. After 24 hours, buff out any more oil that remains on the surface. Don’t give in to the temptation to use olive or vegetable oil, which can go rancid and impart off-flavors to your food.
You can also use wood conditioners, which incorporate ingredients other than oil, such as beeswax. Helminen says the beeswax and oil work in tandem, with the beeswax helping repel surface water and the oil providing extra insurance against the water penetrating the wood. Helminen and Jordon work closely with Bumblechutes brand. Howard is another they like.
Jordon recommends scrubbing the board every three months with salt and a cut lemon, which can help eliminate odors.
When things are looking fuzzy. Eventually even a board attentively cared for can take on a slightly fuzzy texture, where the wood fibers have been lifted from the surface. The fix is easy enough. Jordon recommends using sandpaper with a grit of 220 or higher to rub down the board and smooth it back out.
Other things not to do. Don’t use your wood cutting board as a trivet. Heat can melt the glue that holds it together, Jordon says. (If your board happens to be one solid piece of wood, you might be okay placing warm dishes on it.) Even keeping the board next to the oven risks damaging the glue or warping the wood as moisture is drawn out of it.
You can store the board flush on the counter or standing on its side, either on the counter or in a cabinet. Avoid piling other items on top of it.