The cutting boards in our kitchen get a lot of work. That’s boards, plural. There’s one for poultry, another for red and white meats, and a third for vegetables. The one thing in common among the three, though, is the hardness of the wood used to make them. Wood cutting boards
In commercial kitchens, state sanitary codes require different boards for each of these tasks. You will most likely find plastic cutting boards made of hard plastic (inexpensive, color is embedded in the plastic). The purpose of the requirement is to prevent cross-contamination among the meats.
Most kitchens use a color-coding system: green for vegetables; red for red meats; white for poultry; blue for seafood (fish, shellfish, crustaceans). Each is required to be cleaned after each use, and the colors determine where they are stored.
Ours is not a commercial kitchen, but we follow that same protocol for food safety. Meat juices can discolor wood if it is not sealed well and can also lead to contamination. Cooked meats and poultry should never go back onto a cutting board where the raw meat was cut, and the board has not yet been washed – this is an obvious possibility of contamination, especially with poultry.
Commercial kitchens will have a separate chopping block for placing cooked meats on for cutting before the meat is plated, too. In our home, the wooden cutting boards are not color-coded, but we are careful about their use. Wooden boards make a good presence in the kitchen, and we hang them for display when not in use – there are only three, each a little different, to distinguish them properly.
One of them is a maple cutting board, while the other two are bamboo. We like bamboo – it’s hard and durable, it’s water-resistant, and it washes well. The maple cutting board is also very hard and durable, and we keep it oiled (mineral = food-safe, although coconut oil would also work). It washes up nicely, and we’ve had it for a while.
We’ve mentioned all of this to impress the importance of food safety and sanitation considerations. These are important for anything that will come in contact with food. Maple and bamboo are hard woods and don’t cut or chip easily with a sharp knife. We sharpen the knives often for easy and safe cutting, so we don’t mind that the hardwoods will dull a sharp knife from time to time.
What about hickory, though, for a cutting board or a butcher block board where foods might come in contact or cooked meats might be cut?
All About Hickory Wood
Hickory has a lot of good going for it, and we commend it to you for a variety of purposes and projects. It’s not necessarily an easy wood to work with, though, and you might experience some cutout when machine-tooling. It’s also a very hard wood that can dull your saws, so cutting tools should always be very sharp when working with hickory.
Hickory trees grow very tall and very straight. When broken down, they can provide long, straight timber and boards very efficiently with little waste.
Hickory heartwood will be light to medium brown in color, sometimes with a slightly reddish tint, while the sapwood from a hickory tree will be a lighter shade of brown. The wood is known for its strength and hardness, resisting denting and scratching. This makes it suitable for flooring as well as for high-end furniture.
The trees grow at a slow rate, less than 1 foot per year, and grow from 60 – 80 feet, although can also reach upwards of 120 feet sometimes if left alone. They are deciduous trees and lose their leaves in the fall and winter. Their flowers will appear in mid-spring:
- Male flowers, yellow-green in color, gather in clusters called catkins and produce pollen;
- Female flowers, from which come the tree’s fruit, will form in spikes.
Hickory trees are in the walnut family of trees, and fruit from them is enjoyed by both people and wildlife.
Hickory is a hardwood – deciduous, flowering, and producing fruit are all characteristics of a hardwood. As we have written about in the past, hardwoods have less to do with the hardness of the wood than it has to do with the tree’s characteristics.
The hardness of a wood is measured on the Janka scale to determine the degree of hardness. The Janka Scale was developed by Gabriel Janka, and the test involves a half-inch steel ball and pressure. The amount of pressure required to embed that steel ball halfway into the wood is the measure of its hardness.
Hickory’s Janka rating is 1820 lbs. Within the walnut family of woods, it is quite hard; black walnut’s Janka rating of 1010 gives you an idea of its distinction among walnut woods. By comparison, maple has a Janka rating of 1450 lbs; white oak’s Janka rating is 1360. You can see, then, that hickory is a very hard and dense wood, and understand why it would make a good choice for flooring and furniture.
As we said, though, hickory can be difficult to work with, and you might experience some tear-out when cutting. Also, because of its hardness and density, you will want to make sure any cutting tool you are using is fully sharp. If you are doing a lot of cutting with hickory, you may want to have a spare blade handy to swap out after a while.
Hickory is one of the hardest and most dense woods native to North America. However, it is not the hardest: black ironwood, native to Florida, is the hardest, with a Janka rating of 3660, twice the Janka rating of hickory.
Hickory Wood’s Grain
Hickory has something in common with red oak: both are open-grained woods and more porous than other hardwoods. It has more in common with softwoods in this regard. Open-grained woods and their porous nature can make them a bad choice for cutting boards or any other purpose where food is likely to come in contact.
A wood more tight-grained would be a better choice, all things considered. The tight grain will be less porous and less likely to allow food to become lodged in the wood fiber, where it would be a ground for bacteria to grow.
Hickory Cutting Boards
This does not rule out hickory as a wood to use for a cutting board, though. There are workarounds for food safety and sanitation when using a hickory cutting board.
While the best coatings for a wood cutting board are not impervious to knife or cleaver cuts, they do enhance the wood, keep it from cracking over time, and add a wonderful appearance to the wood.
- Mineral oil is food-safe and can be used on cutting boards. However, it will dull the wood and diminish its natural beauty.
- Boiled linseed oil and beeswax are food safe and will both enhance the beauty of the wood and extend its useful life by preventing cracking or splintering.
- Danish oil, a mixture of linseed oil, Tung oil, mineral spirits, synthetic resins, or varnish, is also a good choice to finish off a hickory cutting board.
While each of these can be a good choice for finishing off a hickory cutting board (or any other wooden cutting board), they do not necessarily address the porous nature of the grain and will require regular treatment – monthly if you use the cutting board frequently, even.
However, since bacterial growth and unsafe sanitary conditions will be caused by pieces of protein captured in the open grain (meats, poultry, fish, etc.), the sure-fire way to prevent this from happening is two-fold:
- Wash the board well with warm, soapy water, rinse thoroughly, and allow to dry fully before using it again; and,
- Using it for cutting and chopping vegetables only, no meat.
Like a commercial kitchen that designates a single use for its cutting boards (one for red meat, one for white meat, one for poultry, one for fish and seafood, and one for vegetables), designate your hickory cutting board as the vegetables-only board. Stock additional boards for the other cutting and chopping uses, and be assuredly safe.
This video shows a hickory cutting board being developed. It’s short, and although the accompanying music is a bit shrill and a little off-color, the board itself is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. Maybe just turn the sound off before playing.
Don’t let the possibility of contamination or bacterial growth stop you from using hickory for your cutting board. It’s a beautiful wood and will be a fine addition to your kitchen. Just limit its use to vegetables, and for that and its beauty, it is an excellent choice.