When looking at cutting boards it is helpful to recognize that there are apples and there are oranges and that they are not necessarily interchangeable. Price can’t necessarily tell you which is better crafted or more durable either. Then there is the design factor. Do you want durability or do you want a ‘look’ or both? Are you concerned with how the trees are harvested or not? How much do you care about your knives? How much space do you have? Will you leave it out all the time or does it need to be able to store easily? Will it keep it’s good looks or is it something you want to hide? Do you want to support your local woodworker?
So what are the ideal types of surfaces that you can use for food prep?
- End grain wood
- Edge or face grain wood
- Plastics (made with petroleum products)
- Bamboo and composite boards (end of article)
Understanding how wooden boards are made
This diagram above shows what cuts of wood make what type of boards – even though conventionally in English we use the word ‘board’ for all of them. When you can see the rings of the tree on the surface you are using the ‘end-grain’ or ‘block’, when you see small lines, the length or side of the tree, then you have an ‘edge grain’ or face grain ‘board’.
The difference in construction make for differences in usage.
- are made of ‘blocks’ with the grain in various directions (resists warping)
- are always a little thicker
- are the ideal surface for cutting and chopping.
- will not gouge (the fibres pull together after cutting)
- easy on knives (no resistance to the edge)
- hold knives in place (won’t slip as they go into the wood)
- more steps in construction (higher cost)
- resist warping
- need conditioning, regular seasoning
- can be very thin as they are made up of strips or ‘board’ length
- can be one species or combinations of different woods
- are the ideal surface for presentation
- will gouge when cut on with a knife (like a lumberjack)
- harder on knives (but much better than non wood)
- easily constructed (cheaper)
- will warp
- if multiple species are used they also split
What happens to the grain or fibres of the wood?
Top row – in edge grain you can see how the fibres are broken/cut – this is work for your knife and why edge grain boards will gouge.
Bottom row – the fibres open up with a sharp knife. this shows how end grain is ‘easy on your knife’ and ‘self heals’.
Above you can see what a face grain board looks like (the classic ‘board’) and you can see on the edge on the right the ‘end of the grain’ and the curvature of the rings of the tree and on the left the narrower, straighter grain lines of ‘edge grain’.
Below you can clearly see how the top is end grain and the rings of the tree are visible and it is made out of many blocks with the grain arranged in different directions. You can also see what an edge grain board looks like by looking at the side of the board. That is the side that will mark up while the surface will keep pulling together.
Feet or no feet?
In this picture above you can see that the board is raised up from the counter – this is due to soft rubber feet. The Larch Wood End Grain board has feet that allow a little gap so that you can lift it easily and so it doesn’t slip on your counter. It ensures that moisture isn’t trapped underneath the board.
So, how big is big enough?
A rule of thumb is that when the knife is laid diagonally across the cutting board, there should be an inch of cutting board on either end of the knife. For example, a 10-inch chef’s knife needs a cutting board that is at least 12 inches diagonally. And even longer knives need even larger cutting boards, which is why you often see butchers and fish mongers working on cutting boards the size of a flat-screen televisions. Many board makers will do custom sizing as well as offering a variety of popular sizes.
Bamboo is the choice of many environmentalists. A hard grass, it is a sustainable, renewable resource that needs no chemicals to thrive or be harvested. And, since they absorb less liquid than wooden boards, they have less tendency to mold like maple.
The drawback? Bamboo is 19 percent harder than traditional maple, which means it’s also harder on your knives. Also, the small grooves may ever-so-slightly catch your knife, interrupting a smooth cutting action.
Bamboo is a choice for small portable chopping jobs — just make sure to look for boards that use formaldehyde-free glues, such as those from Totally Bamboo or Bambu.