For most home chefs, cutting boards are an afterthought. They come in a thousand materials, fits, and finishes. And, at the end of the day, I’ve found that most people pick purely on aesthetic qualities.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there’s a real value to owning beautiful things you love. Cutting boards included. But there are also practical use and safety implications to the type of wood you pick for your cutting board.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the types of wood that are best suited for cutting boards. You’ll learn the qualities that make a durable, sanitary board that won’t dull your knives. And which types of wood to avoid at all costs.
In This Article
Always Use A Hardwood (Not Softwood)
Cutting boards should always be made of hardwoods, not softwoods.
If you take away one pointer from my article, let this be it. You may not be able to see the difference with your naked eye, but the sanitary implications are immense.
First of all, what is the difference between hard and softwood?
- Hardwood is naturally harder, with a denser grain. Some common examples are cherry, maple, and walnut.
- Softwood is softer, with more room between its wood fibers. Some examples are red cedar, fir, and pine.
Grain density is incredibly important in cutting board construction.
Simply put, softwoods are too soft and porous. With every cut, you’ll press a new groove into a softwood cutting board. And each tiny crevice is the perfect space for bacteria to live and multiply.
Hardwoods will maintain their quality and sanitary nature over time, while softwoods will not.
The Best Types of Wood for Cutting Boards
Maple is the most popular hardwood for high-end cutting boards in the United States. It is widely available across North America. Rated 1,450 lbf on the Janka hardness scale, this wood is exceptionally dense.
The type of maple used for cutting boards is “hard maple.”
This is wood from the sugar maple tree, as opposed to any other variety that may be softer and less suited to cutting boards.
Maple is also a popular choice because of its smaller grooves, as it prevents the growth of bacteria, moisture, and stains. But if stains do settle, they are hard to get rid of. Maple can be pricey but is worth the cost.
Where maple is a very light-colored wood, cherry takes on a more decorative reddish-brown color. It gives an aged appearance to a cutting board, and with time and regular oiling, it will take on a deep and rich patina.
At 995 lbf, cherry is almost as hard as maple. But it dings and dents easily and is less commonly available. This often makes it a more expensive choice for cutting boards, but a distinctive one nonetheless.
Mahogany is renowned for its workability and stability. It’s easy to cut and sand, and the pieces resist warping even after gluing.
There’s a reason mahogany isn’t the number one wood for cutting boards, though: There are many different grades and types of mahogany. And not all of them are equally pleasant to work with. It takes an experienced person to be able to pick the right one.
Without getting into too much detail, Cuban mahogany is the real deal. African mahogany is a suitable substitute. But once you get into other woods with the mahogany name, they’re not genuine mahogany (and won’t be as nice to work with).
Mahogany scores a 2,697 lbf Janka hardness.
Purpleheart is one of the most gorgeous and distinctive materials available to woodworkers. Native to Central and South America, it has a deep eggplant-purple coloration paired with excellent hardness.
Purpleheart scores 1,860 lbf Janka hardness.
However, picking the right purpleheart wood is very important, as it can often contain toxins that may leach out of the wood and into the food you put on it.
As you might expect, purpleheart wood is quite expensive. This has led some woodworkers to use it sparingly in cutting boards as a decorative accent or trim alongside more affordable hardwoods.
With 21 species types found across Europe, Japan, and the Americas, walnut is a readily available hardwood. It’s another good choice for high-end cutting boards. It is significantly darker than most options, with a unique aesthetic appeal that pairs nicely with its exceptional hardness and low tendency to stain.
It’s worth noting that some woodworkers avoid using walnut for their cutting boards. Why? Because of the risk of allergic reactions. Nut allergies can be particularly severe, so much so that even exposure to the woods can cause a reaction.
Properly sanded and finished, though, walnut should pose no risk of allergic reaction. It’s up to each woodworker to determine whether walnut is a good choice for them and their families.
Walnut scores 1,080 Janka harness.
What about bamboo?
Bamboo can be confusing as it is a special case. It’s not technically wood and shows characteristics of both hardwood and softwood.
Bamboo boards are environmentally friendly. And a high-quality bamboo board can offer both hygiene and food safety.
The drawback is that bamboo’s hard surface can dull (or even chip) the edge of your knife. So while bamboo cutting boards are inexpensive, they’re not a great long-term solution.
What to Consider When Picking Cutting Board Wood
Janka Hardness Scale
Your cutting board’s care and maintenance mainly depend on its hardness. And for woods, the most common way to measure this is with the Janka hardness scale.
Created by Gabriel Janka, the Janka hardness test measures the force necessary to insert a small steel ball halfway into a wood sample. This force is then translated to the Janka hardness scale, objectively measuring a wood’s durability.
The harder your cutting board, the less likely it will be to develop minor grooves that can harbor bacteria. The harder surface also keeps your knife sharper for longer, by subtly refining the edge while you cut.
Harder boards also have the benefit of requiring less-frequent oiling. The harder the board, the less porous it will be — meaning harder woods maintain their oiled finish for longer. Choose a board with a hardness rating of around 1,500 lbf; you’ll only have to oil it once or twice a year.
This scale suggests the cutting board wood should have a hardness of around 1125 lbf. To give you some context, maple wood has a rating of 1450 lbf, and cherry wood has a rating of 995 lbf on the Janka scale.
Certain types of wood with high toxicity levels should never come in contact with your food or utensils. It can be a real threat to your health. Some common examples are rosewood and teak.
However, some wood species have antimicrobial properties making them a better choice for cutting boards. An excellent way to find them is to stick to wood from edible fruit-producing trees.
Some good cutting board wood options like cypress and oak have inherent substances that can kill or prevent the growth of microbes like bacteria, fungi, and algae.
The porosity of the wood helps you determine the level of food safety the cutting board offers.
Larger pores in the wood’s grain make it more susceptible to food particles settling. This results in more stains, food smells, and the growth of microbes. These larger pores are usually found in woods like oak and mahogany.
It is always best to look for wood with smaller and close-grained pores. This makes them less prone to absorbing liquids containing bacteria and mold. Cherry and walnut are good options as their low porosity makes them food-safe and tend to last longer.
While some woods need that extra care and attention, others possess some self-preserving qualities, making them less maintenance than the rest.
This can range from how you wash it to how you store it and even oil it. The best wood has inherent resins and oils that prevent water from entering its pores. This water resistance prevents the cutting boards from turning soggy and rotting.
These woods also often have self-healing abilities. Any shallow cuts on them tend to close on their own, meaning a lower bacterial growth tendency.
Different wood types have different grain patterns. This gives the wood its unique appearance in terms of color, pattern, shine, and grain texture.
A beautiful cutting board makes working on it an absolute delight, sprucing up the kitchen’s look like any other piece of furniture.
Usually, wood with smaller pores and denser grain tends to appear less unique. But cherry and maple are exceptions due to their distinct color.
Some wood options like Purpleheart may not be the best option to use as regular cutting boards. Still, they make a great kitchen serving platter or decorative piece.
Types of Wood Grain for Cutting Boards
End grain is milled by cutting across the growth rings of a tree. Think of a fallen tree that is cut into short slabs. The end grain is a cross-cut of the interior of the trunk.
End grain is highly desired for cutting boards for two reasons:
- It shows off the character of the wood beautifully.
- The direction of the wood fibers naturally aligns with your cuts, keeping your knife sharper for longer.
End-grain wood is also expensive. But if you want to use the best material for your cutting board, there is no substitute.
Edge grain is produced from quarter-sawn wood. It is taken from the length of a tree rather than its diameter.
Because trees grow much taller than they do wide, edge-grain board is nearly always more affordable. But, because the direction of the wood fibers don’t line-up as consistently, it is likely to dull your knife faster than an end-grain board.
Care and Maintenance of Your Cutting Board
You should replace your cutting board from time to time. The problem is, if you don’t take care of the one you’ve got, that it can warp, split, or become unsanitary much more quickly.
Here are a few tips on what goes into taking great care of your cutting board:
How to Wash Your Cutting Board
There’s one hard and fast rule for washing your cutting boards:
They’re hand wash only.
Don’t even think about running a nice board through your dishwasher. Between the high temperatures, the constant soaking, and the chemicals used, a dishwasher is a nightmare for any wood.
Try to get in the habit of washing your boards immediately after use. A little soap and warm water are enough to clean up any hardwood board. Then dry them directly, so extended water contact won’t warp the grain.
Regularly Oil Your Board
Oil conditioning your board protects it from bacteria and food smells and prevents it from splitting and warping. If the cutting board splits, the cracks harbor moisture and food particles. And warping makes it wobbly and unstable while used.
Food-grade mineral oil or beeswax with mineral oil is ideal for oiling cutting boards. You should always avoid cooking oil as it goes rancid very quickly, giving it a foul odor. Similarly, industrial oils are also a bad option as they are not food-grade and can be extremely bad for your health.
Oiling a cutting board is easier than you’d think. Make sure your cutting board is completely clean. Then using a soft cloth or paper towel, apply the oil in an even layer over the wood and let it soak for at least two hours. Wipe off the excess oil using a paper towel or cloth. That’s all you have to do.
An adequately oiled cutting board is somewhat water-resistant and shiny.
Periodically Disinfect A Wood Cutting Board
Simply washing your cutting board is not sufficient to disinfect it. A proper cutting board should be cleaned, disinfected, and free of any food odor.
Use separate cutting boards for meats, fruits, vegetables, and bread if possible. But if you can, cut the fruits and vegetables first, then give them a quick rinse before you prepare any meat. This helps avoid any cross-contamination.
Here is what you can do to ensure your board is thoroughly disinfected. Once you have washed it properly, disinfect it with food-grade sanitizer to kill any remaining germs.
Or, if you want to be even more thorough, soak a white cloth in vinegar or three percent hydrogen peroxide, wipe down the board thoroughly, and let it sit for a few minutes before rinsing it off with hot water. If the cutting board has stains or odor, you need to salt your cutting board. Find my step-by-step guide on how to salt your cutting board properly.
Always wipe the cutting board with a dry dish towel and let it air-dry for several hours before using it again.
It’s essential to go with hardwood when making a cutting board. The harder the wood, the better — because it will keep your knife sharper and require less maintenance over time.
It is also essential to consider factors like porosity, toxicity, wood preservation, and aesthetic value while picking the perfect wood for your cutting board.
In conclusion, my top pick must be a walnut or maple wood cutting board, as it meets the maximum criteria to ensure your cutting board lasts you a lifetime.
What is the most sanitary wood for cutting boards?
Hardwoods like cherry, maple and walnut are more durable and sanitary than softwood cutting boards. And, although it’s not technically a wood, bamboo is less porous and absorbant than hardwood. These characteristics make it an excellent sanitary option.
Is oak OK for cutting boards?
Oak is very porous which makes it a poor wood for cutting boards. Although it is hard enough, the fact that oak absorbs liquid easily means it is not an especially sanitary option.
What material is unacceptable for cutting boards?
Avoid using cutting boards that are constructed of materials harder than steel like granite, glass, and ceramic. These materials will quickly dull a knife’s edge. A dull knife is an unsafe knife.