Julia Child, the renowned cook who gave Americans the celebrity cooking show, is said to have dropped a turkey (or in some versions another type of meat) on the floor while on camera. As the tale goes, she picked it up and told her audience, “Remember, you’re alone in the kitchen.”

But it didn’t really happen this way.

In fact, when she said those reassuring words she had just flipped a potato pancake, not a turkey, and it landed on the table, not the floor (Mikkelson, 2000). This may seem a small distinction, but it really is not. Kitchen hygiene is important, and that’s especially true when it comes to meat.

Anything that touches your food can be a source of contamination unless it is sterilized using heat or soap. This includes cutting boards.

Plastic cutting board
Do plastic boards really deserve their reputation for sanitary superiority?

Kitchen experts typically recommend using wood cutting boards for most purposes, and plastic for raw meat and fish (Gritzer, 2019, Shipman, 2014).

I like wood, and happily for me, science shows that wood cutting boards aren’t just handsome – this time-honored kitchen accessory can be surprisingly sanitary and safe.

Why Wood is Good

Once upon a time, every cutting board was made of wood. Then people got the idea that plastic was always safer.

A team at the University of Wisconsin in Madison led by a man named Dean Cliver looked into the matter thoroughly and concluded that this wasn’t true. In 1994, they wrote, “These results do not support the often-heard assertion that plastic cutting boards are more sanitary than wood” (AK et al., 1994). Actually, they found, wood has a slight edge - but only if you wash it properly. 

Although wood can absorb bacteria, it also traps and kills it as quickly as three to ten minutes after contamination. Greasy substances like chicken fat can remain on the surface for hours, but washing the board in warm soapy water will remove any bacteria (Ak et al., 1994). Don’t leave it to soak or put it in the dishwasher.

After washing, let your board dry completely. Butchers used to put salt on their “butcher blocks” since it drew out moisture and helped prevent the block from developing a bad smell, a sign of bacteria (Shipman, 2014).   

Wood is also durable, and less likely than plastic to develop scratches, where bacteria may collect. Choose a hardwood like maple or walnut that resists scratches yet is kind to your knife blade. If you do get a scratch, you can sand it away.

Every so often, you’ll need to coat your wooden board in mineral oil and apply food-safe wax (typically made of beeswax) the next day. To test whether your board needs oil, sprinkle a few drops of water on it. The water should bead up. If it soaks in, your board is thirsty (Sullivan, 2021).

Invest in a wood board as large as your space can fit, at least 1.25 inches thick (Gritzer, 2019). Wood boards can be heavy, so you might have to transfer your food to a plate before you carry it elsewhere. 

Plastic Pleases, Too

As with the Julia Child story, the idea that plastic was more sanitary had some truth to it.

Many plastic boards will survive the high-heat cycle in the dishwasher without warping. In that sense, they are easier to clean.

Two cutting boards, one plastic and one wooden with knife
Each has its place – but wood may be more versatile than you thought.

That’s why, unless you are diligent about handwashing and repairing your wooden board, the usual, and perhaps best advice is to use a plastic board when cutting up raw chicken and fish - as long as the plastic isn’t scratched. Remember that those scratches can collect bacteria. As soon as a plastic board has big nicks, ditch it.

So, you might keep a large, inexpensive, dishwasher-safe, sturdy-but-light plastic board for messy jobs when you don’t have time to handwash. You might also want a small plastic board, just because they’re so light. Plastic boards don’t need to be thick so they take up much less space than your wooden workhorse.

But your beautiful big wooden board will be your friend for cutting vegetables, fruit, cooked meat, cheese, and bread. Or even raw meat or fish, if you are diligent about washing it by hand, with soap, right away.

Otherwise, consign that cutting to the plastic board, and put it in the dishwasher.

And if you drop a turkey on the floor…well, you’ve got a problem that’s beyond the scope of this article. 

 

Citations

Ak NO, Cliver DO, Kaspar CW. Cutting Boards of Plastic and Wood Contaminated Experimentally with Bacteria. J Food Prot. 1994;57(1):16-22. doi:10.4315/0362-028X-57.1.16

Ak NO, Cliver DO, Kaspar CW Decontamination of Plastic and Wooden Cutting Boards for Kitchen Use. J Food Prot 1 January 1994; 57 (1): 23–30. doi: https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X-57.1.23

Gritzer, D. Wood versus plastic cutting boards. Serious Eats. https://www.seriouseats.com/best-cutting-boards-are-plastic-or-wood.  Published July 23, 2019.

Mikkelson, D. (n.d.). Did julia child drop a turkey on the floor and cook it anyway? Snopes.com.  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/childs-play/ (. Published December 30, 2000.

Shipman, M. Fast facts about cutting boards and food safety in your kitchen. NC State News. https://news.ncsu.edu/2014/09/cutting-boards-food-safety/.  Published September 23, 2014.

Sullivan, M. Wirecutter. The New York Times. How to clean and care for wood cutting boards. The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/guides/how-to-clean-wood-cutting-boards/.  Published March 4, 2021.