The answer might actually surprise you.
Picking out the right cutting board (or boards) can be tricky. Anything that touches your food can potentially contaminate it and cause you to get sick.
For example, if you use your cutting board to spatchcock a raw chicken—and then use it later to chop veggies—you run the risk of cross-contamination. (Which is why it's a good idea to have separate cutting boards for meat and veggies.)
Vegetarians and vegans aren’t off the hook, however. Fruits and vegetables also carry germs and bacteria that can be transferred to your cutting board—so keeping them clean is also important.
But how do you know if your cutting board is really clean? And is one type of cutting board better, or safer? With tons of wood and plastic options in stores, it can be tough to pick a cutting board that’ll stand the test of time—and still be safe for daily use. We break down the basics here, so you can slice and dice without worry.
Okay, so which type of cutting board is safer: wood or plastic?
For a long time, all cutting boards were made of wood. But then the notion came around that plastic cutting boards were easier to clean, so they had to be safer (you can even put some types in your dishwasher).
But, it turns out, research shows that wood cutting boards are actually just as safe—if not safer—to use than plastic. Even though wood is harder to sanitize, and can’t go in the dishwasher, wood is naturally anti-microbial, whereas the gouges and crevices that inevitably happen when you're cutting on a plastic board offer plenty of places for bacteria to hide.
With wood, there are still lots of crevices, but those crevices are deeper, meaning that the bacteria fall in and eventually die—and they don't come into contact with more food. As UC Davis food researcher Dean O. Cliver, Ph.D, explains: "Although the bacteria that have disappeared from the wood surfaces are found alive inside the wood for some time ... they ... can be detected only by splitting or gouging the wood or by forcing water completely through from one surface to the other."
It’s also important to note that the type of wood you use matters. Hardwoods (like this maple cutting board from Boos) are better at resisting bacteria.
“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,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State.
“Soft woods, like cypress, are less likely to dull the edge of your knife, but also pose a greater food safety risk,” Chapman explains. “That’s because they have larger grains, which allows the wood to split apart more easily, forming grooves where bacteria can thrive.”
Keep your cutting boards clean.
Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, told Food and Wine, “In most cases, it’s safer to make a salad on a toilet seat than it is to make one on a cutting board. People disinfect their toilet seats all the time, but they don’t realize that they really need to pay attention in the kitchen too.”
If that doesn’t make you want to run home and scrub your cutting board, I don’t know what will. To clean a plastic cutting board, simply throw it in your dishwasher, or wash with dish soap and water by hand (you can also use a solution of a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water to sanitize). To clean a wooden cutting board, warm water and soap work best. For more detail, follow these handy tips.
Invest in a few different cutting boards.
Stocking your kitchen with several different cutting boards can help prevent cross-contamination. "Have one board for raw meat, fish, and poultry," said Sana Mujahid, Ph.D., manager of food-safety research at Consumer Reports in a news release. "Have a separate board for bread, fruits, and vegetables."
We love this set of dishwasher-safe, flexible cutting boards from Williams-Sonoma because they’re multicolored, making it easy to assign each color to a food group. Use red for meat, green for veggies, etc.
The bottom line: Wood cutting boards may have a slight advantage, but whether you use a plastic or wood cutting board, you run the risk of contaminating your food if you don’t wash them properly between uses. And if your cutting board starts to look weathered and/or develop knife cuts or grooves? Replace it ASAP.