Cutting boards for the kitchen can be a fun and easy introduction into woodworking. There will be wood, glue, clamps, a saw, a planer, and finish choices to make, usually involving oil finishes of some sort. There is also the consideration of the wood choice and the effect the wood will have on sharp knives, as well as the other way around.
If the cutting board will be merely decorative, the choice of wood and finish becomes more aesthetic than functional. However, if the cutting board is going to be used for cutting board purposes – cutting and chopping vegetables, meats, poultry, and such, some thought needs to be given to the type of wood and the wood finish.
Wood cutting boards are popular, both for a utilitarian purpose and for a display purpose, a showcase, if you will. Some use them to present foods like cheeses and charcuterie (preserved meats, confit, etc.), also. If food is going to come in contact with a cutting board, there are health and food safety concerns that need to be addressed, as well.
Wooden Cutting Boards
In restaurants, most cutting boards are plastic. Board of Health regulations requires that there be different cutting boards for all purposes, usually color-coded or station-coded (where in the kitchen the cutting will be done).
Certain cutting boards will be identified as poultry-only cutting boards; others will be beef-only, and others vegetables-only. Boards will be required to be washed thoroughly after each use, too. This is all to prevent cross-contamination.
Cutting boards are also required to be kept away from where food is actually cooked. If a board was used for cutting chicken and then cooked chicken was placed on the board before it had been washed, there is the danger of contamination – cooked food should never come in contact with raw food like that.
For the home cook, though, a wood cutting board is a very nice touch. Wood is a warming presence in any room of the house, and the kitchen is no different. But the concerns about food safety and the use of wooden cutting boards are as important in the home kitchen as it is in the commercial kitchen.
Types of Wood For Cutting Boards
With food safety in mind, as well as the wood’s ability to stand up to sharp knives, there are certainly some excellent choices. Hardwoods, of course, are the better choices, although not really hard woods, to draw a distinction.
It is the growth of bacteria that is of concern. Food particles can become lodged in the pores of the wooden cutting board, and this is to be avoided. Open-grained woods will present pores where food particles can become lodged, and if not cleaned thoroughly, can lead to the growth of bacteria. It’s as bad as getting food particles caught in your teeth.
Antibacterial Qualities of White Oak
Many woods have inherent antibacterial qualities or produce something that can inhibit the growth of bacteria. White oak is one such wood, producing tyloses, cell growths that close pores. White oak also has a closed grain. Oak cutting boards are not uncommon for this reason.
This distinguishes it from red oak, which is an open-grain wood. The open grain of the wood surfaces exposes the pores where food bits can become stuck. Imagine tiny pieces of raw chicken, or raw beef, stuck in the pores of a cutting board, harboring the growth of bacteria. Red oak would be a poor choice for a cutting board where food safety is a concern.
White oak is more water-resistant than red oak for this reason. Tyloses will close the pores, and tyloses are a white oak wood characteristic, whereas red oak is not.
Other Hardwoods Used for Cutting Boards
Maple and cherry are common and popular woods used for making cutting boards. They are very hard woods that can stand up well to cutting, are durable and long-lasting, and have closed grains. They are also very beautiful woods and have a warming presence anywhere they are used. The kitchen is no exception.
While walnut wood is also very hard, some people are allergic to it. Walnut allergies, while not as common as peanut allergies, can cause reactions in people allergic to it that can be a health hazard for them.
Why Hardwoods for Cutting Boards?
Knives need to be sharp in order to cut cleanly and effectively. Kitchen knives are no exception, and they should be sharpened regularly. Professional chefs sharpen their knives every day for clean cutting; dull knives are dangerous.
A sharp knife will cut into softwoods and give food particles a place to hide. Those cuts can be difficult to clean fully, and they should be avoided. Hardwoods won’t be cut even by a sharp knife, or at least are less likely to be cut. Hardwoods, then, are a food safety measure.
As a quick reminder, hardwoods are rated according to the Janka Scale, developed by Gabriel Janka. The pressure required to embed a half-inch in diameter steel ball halfway into wood determines the rating of the wood for hardness and density.
Red Oak has a Janka rating of 1290, white oak has a Janka rating of 1360, and sugar maple has a Janka rating of 1450. These are all hard and dense woods, although we’ve already noted that red oak is an open-grain wood and should be avoided as a cutting board wood choice. But you can see why white oak and maple are the better choices.
Wood needs to be able to take sharp knives being run across it, cutting and chopping. White oak can do this, as can maple. While walnut can, too, it’s a good idea to avoid it just in case someone in the household or a guest has an allergy to walnut.
White Oak As A Cutting Board Choice
White oak can be a good choice for your cutting board, whether it will be with face grain, edge grain, or end grain.
We know that wood we get from the lumber yard will have a face grain, usually the top of the wood as cut; an edge grain, or the side of the wood as cut; and the end grain, which is the end of the wood as cut. It won’t matter which wood surface you use for your cutting board when using white oak.
However, it would matter if you chose to use red oak. The open grain, especially as exposed on the end, can be problematic from a food safety standpoint. Stay with white oak if you are going to choose oak for the cutting board.
Cleaning a White Oak Cutting Board
There is no special way to clean a white oak cutting board that differs from any other cutting board. There are a few common sense steps to take:
- Wash the board after each use with warm, soapy water and a sponge. Don’t use an abrasive cleaner or brush.
- Rinse and dry it well.
- Do not soak it in water, or any else for that matter.
- Do not wash it in the dishwasher, either. Don’t be lazy – wash it by hand.
- Every couple of weeks, apply a coat of mineral oil on the cutting board. It will keep the wood from drying out. Mineral oil is food safe, so there is no concern about contamination.
White Oak Cutting Board in Action
Want to see a white oak end grain cutting board being made? We found a cool video that shows just that. Be sure to watch carefully how he does it. Notice the custom sled he built for his table saw; notice, too, how he lifts the end of the board each time he inserts it into the planer and as the piece is coming out of the planer.
That last measure was to be sure to avoid plane snipe, something we wrote about in an earlier article.
White oak will make a very handsome and beautiful cutting board, as you now have seen. It’s less common than other types of wood for cutting boards, but it can work quite well.