Heavy-Duty Cutting Boards
How we tested
A good knife is nothing without an equally good cutting board on which to use it. While some cooks like lighter-weight boards, others see the ultimate cutting board as a thick, solid, unbudgeable model made of wood or bamboo. Compared to a lightweight plastic or composite board, this kind of board is an investment; you'll have to spend more money, perform regular maintenance, and use more muscle to lift and maneuver it for cleaning. But for that money and effort, you get a board that is a much greater pleasure to cut on and can potentially last a lifetime.
It had been a while since we last tested cutting boards, and we wanted to know if our former winner, the Teakhaus by Proteak Edge Grain Cutting Board, was still the best heavy-duty option available. So we pitted it against six other models, priced from about $85.00 to just under $240.00. Each model measured at least 20 inches long and 15 inches wide—for an all-purpose board, we wanted enough room to break down a chicken without feeling cramped. The boards we chose were made from bamboo or one of four types of wood (maple, birch, teak, or hinoki, a Japanese cypress). They were also constructed in two different ways: Three of the models were end-grain boards (made by gluing together blocks of wood, each with the grain running vertically), and four were edge-grain boards (made by gluing together long planks of wood, each with the grain running horizontally).
On each board, we minced parsley, chopped onions, sliced loaves of bread, pounded chicken cutlets, and cleaved pounds of bone-in chicken parts. We chopped chipotle chile in adobo sauce on them, washed them, and then checked each board for stains and odors. We also washed each board by hand more than 100 times over six months, maintaining them as needed between washings with mineral oil applications. In addition, we sent copies of the boards home with staff members for some real-life testing in their kitchens.
There were no egregious failures here; each model had its fans. But a few factors made certain boards more durable, more pleasant to cut on, and more foolproof to maintain.
Consider the Dimensions of Your Board
Since we'd already selected the boards according to specific size parameters, we weren't surprised to find that all the boards were spacious enough to accommodate every task we performed on them. Given the choice, however, most of our testers preferred a somewhat bigger board, as it gave them more room to work when trimming big roasts or slicing long bunches of leafy greens. Our winner is one of the largest boards, measuring 18 inches wide by 24 inches long.
Our advice: Get the biggest board that your counter and sink will allow—and that you're able to comfortably lift. The heavier the board, the more securely it will sit on the counter, providing insurance against accidental slips or wobbles when you cut on it. While all the boards in our lineup were reasonably stable, a few of the lighter models, weighing 11 or 12 pounds, occasionally moved around when we chopped vigorously.
But a heavier board can also be difficult to pick up, which you'll need to do if you want to clean it in the sink. Several of the users who tested the heaviest models (weighing from 19.4 to a whopping 32 pounds), confessed that they were unwilling to wrestle these boards into the sink on a regular basis, opting to clean them on the counter instead. If rock-solid stability is your primary concern, a heavier board might be perfect for you. Still, most users preferred somewhat lighter boards that they could clean in the sink, even if that lighter weight meant that the board occasionally wiggled when used without a grip mat or wet paper towel underneath to anchor it. The sweet spot was 15 pounds: heavy enough to be stable but not so ponderous that it was difficult to lift.
A cutting board's height is another important consideration. Boards that were thicker than 2 inches—or those with feet that elevated them as much as 3 inches off the counter—raised the knives of taller cooks to a position that felt natural for chopping. But these tall boards were tough on shorter testers, who had to hunch their shoulders to get enough leverage to slice through food. For most testers, boards that were 1.5 to 2 inches tall were just about right.
Boards with Feet versus Reversible Boards
Taller height aside, boards with feet did have a few advantages for any cook. Often tipped with grippy plastic or rubber, these feet helped the boards stick to the counter, ensuring stable, secure chopping even when the boards weren't that heavy. Some testers also liked how easy these raised boards were to grab—they could just stick their hands in the spaces underneath the boards and lift. And others pointed out that this space promoted airflow that facilitated drying on the counter.
Boards without feet must be stood on end to dry evenly and completely. But many testers preferred these boards because they're reversible. And while they're not quite as easy to pick up as boards with feet, several of the reversible boards came with finger grips—slight indentations on their short sides—that facilitated lifting.
Harder Woods versus Softer Woods
As in past years, the choice of a favorite board ultimately rested on two characteristics: durability and ease of maintenance. At the conclusion of testing, all the boards showed signs of use—marks from the serrated knife we used to slice bread and/or the cleaver we used to chop chicken parts for stock. But while some boards had only minor scratches, others were more deeply scarred. One board even developed a series of cracks. How could we account for these differences?
In part, a board's durability is related to the type of wood used to make it. Every type of wood has a different hardness, which can be measured by the Janka hardness test. A wood's Janka hardness value is expressed in pounds force (lbf). The higher the Janka hardness value, the harder the wood. And in general, the harder the wood, the more resistant it seemed to be to knife damage: Over the course of testing, boards made from harder woods such as maple (1,439 lbf) and yellow birch (1,259 lbf) retained fewer and shallower knife marks than the board made from soft hinoki (Janka hardness value of 349 to 627 lbf), which was more heavily scarred.
But what does that hardness mean for your knife? To find out whether some types of wood dulled knives faster than others, we teamed up with the Autodesk Technology Center in Boston, using one of their robots to make 5,000 cuts on every board with a brand-new, factory-sharpened knife and pausing every 200 cuts to test the sharpness of the blade. To expedite the testing, the cuts were made at a fairly large force load, averaging 7 pounds, or about the amount of force you'd use to break down a chicken.
The results were reassuring. All the knives could still slice through paper (our basic sharpness test) after 5,000 cuts, though some did so with more difficulty than others. Adam Senalik, research general engineer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, told us that even though there is some variation in the hardnesses of the different woods and bamboo, all are still very soft compared to, say, glass, which can dull your knife in just a few strokes.
To our surprise, the knives that seemed the sharpest by the end of the test were the ones that were used on boards made from harder woods. By contrast, knives used on boards made of softer woods were a bit duller. Senalik offered a possible explanation: Soft woods might initially be gentler on your knives, but because they are more prone to damage, they can dull a knife a bit faster as they get more beat-up over time, forcing the knife to travel over an increasingly irregular surface. This was certainly the case with the hinoki board: The knife we used on it was razor-sharp up until about 3,000 strokes, but as the board got increasingly scored and sliced up by the knife, the knife quickly began to dull.
With all this in mind, there is still a very good reason to appreciate soft boards: Testers almost universally found them to be a bit more plush and pleasant to cut on. Our favorite board hits a happy medium. Made of teak (Janka hardness of 989 lbf), it's soft enough to provide a luxurious cutting experience but hard enough to be relatively durable. Teak does come with a small caveat, however: Embedded in its grain are microscopic bits of silica (a mineral component of sand) that can potentially wear down your blade if you're repeatedly sinking your knife deep into the wood. Possibly as a result, the knife we used on our teak board was the dullest by the time the robot had made 5,000 cuts, though it could cut through paper.
We're not too concerned. Five thousand cuts will still get you through dozens, if not hundreds, of meal prep sessions; our test cooks have used this model in the kitchen for nearly a decade without noticing any significant difference in how often they needed to sharpen their knives. As long as you're not doing a lot of high-force, heavy-duty butchering on your board every day, it should treat your knives just fine.
Grain Style Can Affect Durability
The way a board is constructed, or its grain style, can also play a role in determining how well it resists damage over time. In particular, end-grain boards, which are made from blocks of wood with their grain exposed on the cutting surface—are potentially more vulnerable to cracking and splitting. When using an edge-grain board, your knife slices against the grain. When using an end-grain board, your knife slices with the blocks' exposed grain. (Some folks think this makes end-grain boards gentler on the knife, but in our robot testing, there was no clear difference in sharpness between knives used on end-grain boards and knives used on edge-grain boards.)
Ordinarily, you're cutting with such low force when performing ordinary kitchen cutting tasks that no real damage is done to the board. But if you make a forceful cut on an end-grain board—as you would when using a cleaver—you are at a greater risk of splitting down the grain line than you would be if you were using an edge-grain board. Senalik compares the process to chopping firewood; The easiest way to split a log is by chopping it on its end, with the grain, not on its side, against the grain. Indeed, when we hacked up chicken parts with a cleaver on each of the boards, the only board that cracked was an end-grain model. Cracks are worrisome not only because they forecast a shorter lifespan for the board but also because they can harbor bacteria.
End-grain boards also absorb more moisture than edge-grain boards, increasing their susceptibility to damage. Matt Huffman, furniture maker and member of Fort Point Cabinetmakers, explained: As each block or plank absorbs moisture (for example, while the board is being washed), it swells, pushing against the surrounding blocks or planks. And as it dries out, it shrinks, pulling away. This process of expansion and contraction changes the precise dimensions of the wood and stresses the glue joints that connect them, making it more likely that the pieces of wood, both block and plank, will separate. The more water the wood absorbs, the greater the expansion and contraction. This was the case with the end-grain board that cracked; it drank up water so quickly that we could barely blot it dry, and it ended up separating along many of its glue lines.
Huffman also explained that end-grain boards have one more issue: They consist of many different blocks of wood, and each block of wood expands and contracts in different directions. Good woodworkers can account for the movement of each block and compensate accordingly, but this doesn't always happen with mass-produced boards. As a result, edge-grain boards are often more durable than end-grain boards simply because they have fewer moving parts—literally—and fewer glue joints that can fail over time.
Care Is King
Still, any board can break down, regardless of its grain style. After just six washes, the planks in one edge-grain board started to separate slightly along the glue lines. This is because the most important factor in determining a board's longevity isn't its material or its construction—it's the care the user takes in maintaining it. Possibly to head off water damage, two of the end-grain boards arrived preconditioned by their manufacturers. We seasoned the boards that hadn't already been conditioned with three coats of mineral oil and maintained all the boards periodically (see “How to Care for Your Wood or Bamboo Cutting Board”).
As we soon discovered, end-grain boards needed a lot more care than edge-grain boards. End-grain boards absorb oil just as greedily as they do water: On average, they took in 26.5 grams of oil during every maintenance session, though one model took in a whopping 47.3 grams of oil per session and probably could have absorbed more.
By comparison, edge-grain boards needed only an average of 6.6 grams of oil per maintenance session. The board that required the least amount of oil was our previous favorite. From the last testing, we knew that teak, the material from which it was made, exudes oily resins called tectoquinones that help keep the wood conditioned, repelling water. But we were amazed to see just how little oil we needed to add to this model—a mere 3.3 grams was enough to ensure that it regained its luster and kept out water.
Better still, we didn't need to oil the teak board quite as often as other boards; it remained shiny well past the days when other boards needed a new coat. All that oil helped the board resist stains, too; after we left chopped chipotle chile in adobo sauce on it for a few hours, there was virtually no evidence that the dark red chile had ever been on it. Boards with comparatively less well-developed oil coatings were left with faint stains, though these generally disappeared after a few extra washes.
The Previous Champion Wins Again
There's a cutting board for every home cook among the models we tested. Above all, the choice of a board is a personal one, depending on the user's height, aesthetic and handling preferences, arm strength, and available counter space. Each board has advantages and drawbacks; it's important to consider your own needs and priorities before choosing a model. Still, we think our winning board is the best option for most people. The Teakhaus by Proteak Edge Grain Cutting Board remains our favorite. Its large, reversible, 18 by 24-inch surface gave us plenty of room to work, and its 1.5-inch thickness made it tall enough to be comfortable for testers of all heights. At 15 pounds, it sat relatively securely on the counter yet was still easy to pick up, thanks to finger grips in its short sides. While the moderately hard teak did take on some scars from the cleaver, testers loved cutting on its edge-grain surface, which felt luxuriously satiny under the knife. Best of all, it's easy to maintain, requiring very little oil—those conditioning tectoquinones provide an insurance policy for those who don't always remember to put in the care. We know that this board will stand the test of time; we've been using it in the test kitchen for nearly 10 years with no issues to report.
We tested seven wood and bamboo cutting boards, priced from about $85.00 to just under $240.00. Three were end-grain cutting boards and four were edge-grain; wood types varied. All the boards measured at least 15 inches wide by 20 inches long, the minimum size for all-purpose use. We minced parsley, chopped onions, sliced loaves of bread, pounded chicken cutlets, and cleaved pounds of bone-in chicken parts on them. We chopped chipotle chile in adobo sauce on them, washed them, and then checked for stains and odors. We also washed each board by hand more than 100 times, maintaining the boards with mineral oil as needed. In addition to conducting rounds of user testing in the kitchen, we sent copies of the boards home with staffers for some real-life testing in their kitchens. Models were evaluated on their durability, stability, ease of use, and maintenance. The boards were purchased online and appear in order of preference.
Durability: We evaluated how resistant the boards were to scarring, cracking, separating, warping, and staining.
Stability: We evaluated how securely the boards sat on the counter.
Ease of Use: We rated the boards on how easy they were to lift and how pleasant they were to cut on.
Maintenance: We rated the boards on how much maintenance they needed; boards requiring less oil applied after washing or less frequent maintenance generally received more points.