Here’s something that’s surprising to most people, even experienced chefs – plastic cutting boards might very well be more unsanitary than wooden ones. Even health department officials aren’t really up to speed on this.
Note that I said, “very well might”. Quibble words. that’s because the jury is still out on the subject. Only limited testing has been done.
One would think that an “inert” substance such as plastic would be safer than a porous, “organic” substance such as wood.
But if you think about it, it’s more likely that it’s the other way around. Have you looked at the surface of your plastic cutting board lately? Is is covered with minute gouges? Sure it is. Well these minutes cuts and scratches are like the Grand Canyon when it comes to bacteria. Do you think your formica countertop doesn’t harbor bacteria?
Bacteria is quite happy on plastic, especially when there are microscopic bits of decaying organic material to feast on. So, just because a cutting board is plastic doesn’t mean that it’s automatically free of contamination. But it “seems” safer than wood, doesn’t it? Plus, it’s easier to show that it’s “clean”, because it takes a while for discoloration to show up. This is one of the reasons why health departments like them so much – they “look clean”, until they don’t, of course. Eventually, every plastic cutting board gets discolored. This makes it easy on the health inspector to visually “inspect” the cutting board and dock a discolored one, since they usually don’t run lab tests on them.
But, as it turns out, wood has an interesting property. It seemingly has natural anti-bacterial properties. The thing is, bacteria has a harder time gaining a foothold on wood than it does plastic. Not only might wood retard the growth of bacteria naturally, it also dries quicker. Water is like manna for bacteria, which is why crackers rarely offer a health hazard, no matter how old they might be. Plastic has an advantage in that it’s disinfected and sanitized easier than wood. But once a plastic cutting board is “scarred”, which happens pretty quickly, it can be actually harder to disinfect than wood, even wood which has been “scarred”. There’s something in wood that tends to retard the spread of bacteria, and there’s the moisture issue that I mentioned.
Here’s an article from the University of California/Davis that explains it:
It’s odd that this information has been out there for a decade and it still hasn’t sunk into the collective consciousness. I think there’s just some sort of “hospitalesque” thing about a smooth piece of plastic that stays in peoples’ minds.
Obviously, the care of cutting boards is mission critical.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between “disinfected” and “sterilized”. However, in any case, bleach is your friend. The key is to keep the bleach odor from sticking around to contaminate the flavor profile of whatever you’re preparing. Vinegar can help you with that. Remember that a 5% solution of bleach is sufficient to disinfect. A couple of teaspoons per gallon is good enough and the odor is minimal. A little bit of vinegar-infused water will counteract that.
If you choose to switch to wood, remember that you should have at least two of them, one for chicken and one for everything esle. Many professional kitchens actually keep color coded plastic ones for various uses – yellow for chicken, green for vegetables and red for meat (white ones are either dairy or sort of “catch-all” types that can be used for various purposes). Here’s a chart that shows the accepted colors:
Once again, this is a nod to the health departement. It sends the signal that the chef takes cross-contamination very seriously. And it’s easy for line cooks to assure that they haven’t cross-contaminated as well.
For home cooks, I think that two wooden cutting boards are plenty, as long as you are firm on keeping chicken limited to a single, “chicken-only” cutting board. However, this post doesn’t excuse you from the normal care and treatment of your cutting boards, nor does it give you the license to blame me if someone doesn’t follow a strict segregation of cutting boards or follow prudent sanitary practices.
If you are using plastic cutting boards now, you don’t need to throw them out unless they are really beat up. Just don’t use them thinking that, because they’re plastic, your automatically safe from contamination. As the UC Davis article points out, these cutting boards can be rendered safe. Just follow good sanitary practices and you’ll be just fine.
But keep this additional fact in mind – a plastic cutting board will dull a knife quicker than wood.
Plus, wood is just cool. There’s not much cooler than an inch-thick wooden cutting board.
Unless it’s a huge butcher block like this, of course.
PS, none of this information is intended to offer anything other than informal advice to the reader. I strongly advise any reader to do further research on the subject and I am not responsible for the outcomes of any actions that arise from following the information that I’ve presented. In other words, I am not responsible for you. Get it? Also, I’m not dissing your product. OK?