Published September 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
We thought we’d picked a winner—until our favorite board warped after just a few years. This time we upped the ante: three months of test kitchen boot camp.
Choosing a cutting board can feel like a roll of the dice. You think you’re buying a solid, hard-wearing piece of equipment that will last for decades, only to find that it eventually suffers deep gouges, dulls the edge of your knife, or even warps or splits. That’s what happened to our once-favorite board, the Totally Bamboo Congo. While it initially passed every test with flying colors, several copies of this model became distorted after a few years of hard-core use in the test kitchen, some even cracking at the seams. Hardly the lifelong purchase we had in mind.
Back at square one, we restarted the search process with nine new boards—wood, bamboo, plastic, and composite models priced from $22 to nearly $200—and a firm list of criteria. First and foremost, we wanted space, and lots of it: at least 15 by 20 inches. Any smaller and we feel cramped when butchering chickens and end up chasing carrot coins that roll off the board’s edge. We also wanted some heft to keep the boards from slipping and sliding around the counter while we’re working. Finally, durability was crucial. We expected shallow scratches, since a blade should stick to the surface just a little; it makes for safer, steadier knife work. Deep gashes, however, would be a deal breaker, as they trap food, odors, and bacteria and can lead to splintering. To get the toughest board we could find, we distributed copies of each model to our test cooks, who put them through three solid months of daily use—the equivalent of years of use in the average home kitchen.
Get a Grip
Our first consideration was how well each of the boards accommodated the knife. More specifically, we observed how the blade responded to the board’s surface, and how securely the board stayed anchored to the counter. We wanted a surface smooth enough to allow the knife’s edge to glide and make nimble cuts, but nothing so slippery that either the blade or the food slides out of control while in use. This is where most of the wood and bamboo boards excelled: Their soft, subtly textured surfaces offered just enough give and “grip” for the knife to stick lightly with each stroke as we diced onions and chiles. Conversely, the blade practically slid across the slick surface of one of the plastic boards. And the hard facade of one composite model actually wore down the blade after just 350 strokes. (Knives used on every other board retained edges sharp enough to slice through a piece of paper well beyond 750 strokes.
As for countertop stability, many cooks slip a nonskid pad or damp paper towel under their boards, but we wanted one that stayed put on its own. That ability depended on one of two factors: the weight of the board and whether it had built-in traction. Thanks to grippy rubber strips affixed to the two lightest boards (both weighing less than 4 pounds), these featherweights stayed anchored to the counter, even as we hacked at chicken with a cleaver. Other models used sheer heft—though the disadvantages of too much bulk became clear when we had to haul the 19-pound composite block to the sink for cleaning.
Wear and Tear
We also evaluated how well the boards survived testing. Each model endured repeated blows from cleavers and chef’s knives, and some of them—the plastic boards in particular—had the scars to prove it. With the exception of one model that cleaned up easily despite incurring deep scores, the cleaver gouges acted like mini trenches that trapped food and made them a pain to clean. But the surprise failure was the priciest slab of them all (at nearly $200). Despite its seemingly indestructible paper-resin composite construction (resin is also used to make skateboard ramps), the board splintered from the cleaver’s whack, forcing us to pluck stray bits of it from the chicken.
The durability of the wood and bamboo models mostly depended on how the boards were constructed: end-grain or edge-grain. The former is made by gluing together blocks of wood or bamboo with the grain running perpendicular to the surface of the board, the latter by gluing together longer strips with the grain running parallel to the surface. End-grain models showed fewer scars than the edge-grain boards because their wood fibers faced the surface, and as a result, the knife marks actually closed up within minutes. Unfortunately, those exposed wood fibers also soaked up liquid and stains like a sponge, making them prone to warping. The end-grain models in our lineup began to warp—and eventually split—after just a few rinses in the sink. The edge-grain boards, on the other hand, showed no evidence of warping.
A Cut Above
Finally, we considered how much nurture the boards required to stay in good shape. The wood and bamboo models need to be oiled regularly lest they dry out and shrink, absorb too much water, split, or crack. But the fact is, most people don’t oil their cutting boards with any regularity. That’s why we were intrigued when, even after four weeks of use, one cutting board never appeared “thirsty.” Even more impressive, after months of slicing, chopping, hacking, and washing, it retained its satiny, flat surface. With a little research, we discovered that teak, a tropical wood, contains tectoquinones, components of oily resins that are resistant to moisture, allowing this particular board to survive far better than the other wood and bamboo models. (Sailboats and expensive outdoor furniture are often made of teak because it can withstand the elements.) At $85, it’s not cheap, but it’s far from the most expensive board we tested and offers all the features we want: plenty of space, a knife-friendly surface, and longevity with minimal fuss. We think that makes it worth the price—and the trouble of oiling it every now and then. But if a carefree, dishwasher-safe board is a must, one reversible plastic product makes a good, considerably cheaper alternative.