I’ve had many different kinds of cutting boards since my interest in cooking began about 20 years ago. I remember my first one was a small, thin wooden one that didn’t last long due to improper care. I went through a number of plastic jobs similar to the ones I’d used in restaurants. There was a short stint of trying glass, which I prefer the least of all. Then I got the one I hope lasts me a lifetime.
It was a few years ago, a gift from my dad one Christmas evening. The weight was impressive and I knew he must have sprung for something expensive. Sixteen by eighteen, almost three inches thick, four rubber feet, trenched all the way around, cutting boards such as this bad boy usually go for a pretty penny.
I was excited to get back into the wooden boards of yesteryear, but I was more excited because I never had one as nice as this. I was just about to give him the old, “you’ve spent too much on me” routine when I noticed the name on the front. Burned into the long side in all caps, neatly centered was one word: MACDONALD.
As beautiful as the striped wood was, it was exponentially more beautiful with that name on it. He made it all by himself. The mystery behind the origin of this cutting board is that an all-girl Catholic high school in New Orleans was throwing out some wood from an old altar. My father, who worked there at the time, asked if he could save the wood, and the rest is history. Hopefully that history can lend a bit of much-needed divine intervention to my cooking. The board itself is free from any noticeable imperfections. Even the routing of the perimeter’s inch wide, quarter inch deep semicircle is flawless.
Truth is I shied away from using it for a long time. It’s a very important piece to me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of misusing it, screwing it up or even eroding away the true surface. Then it dawned on me. I get disgusted with collectors of fine guitars who gobble up these important tools and hoard them away, allowing the occasional random note to vibrate the soundboard only when they show them off to their friends. It’s about allowing something to do its job.
Guitars are made for playing, cars are made for driving, songs are made for singing, lips are made for kissing and cutting boards are made for cutting. Come hell or high water this cutting board was going to see some action. But to ensure longevity I was going to have to figure out how to take good care of the thing. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Bacteria, a cook’s worst enemy
Well, that’s not entirely true. There are cases when a cook needs a little bacterial help, as in the cheese-making process. But on the subject of wooden cutting boards we would like to minimize the bacteria on our surface. A well-maintained board will absorb a good deal of bacteria and deal with it internally through a natural process. This helps the argument that in some ways wooden boards are safer than plastic or other materials. This DOES NOT suggest we should be lax about the way we clean the surface of the board.
Let’s talk about the don’ts. Don’t submerge the cutting board. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Don’t scratch it with a chisel. The first step is simply soap and water to wash off the excess food. It’s best to let the board dry on its side rather than flat. It’s a bit dangerous to do that with mine, so I usually prop it up at an angle and block it in with something heavy.
To further disinfect it’s best to use a spray bottle of diluted white vinegar. This also works wonders on cleaning stainless steel. A spray bottle is your best bet. Mist it pretty good and allow it to air dry. This can also be done with bleach, but I hate the smell. If you do opt for bleach use one teaspoon for a quart of water.
Get the stink out
Odor can be a problem. With wood the best start is with coarse salt. Sprinkle it on the board and rub it in with a half a lemon. The salt absorbs a good bit of odor and the lemon adds a better scent. It also helps to neutralize. Let it stand for a couple of minutes before wiping it clean. Baking soda also works well, using it pretty much the same way.
Ignore the club soda
When it comes to stains a finer kosher salt also has absorptive properties. But there are going to be times when it just won’t do it. When a tough stain is stubborn enough to stick around you may have to resort to sanding.
Sanding requires fine-grit sandpaper for this job. We aren’t trying to take off an entire layer, are we? Here is the important part. You should sand with the grain, not against it. When it’s all said and done, you have to give the wood a drink of oil.
Oiling wood prevents drying and cracking. It’s the preferred method of conditioning a cutting board, and the general consensus is that mineral oil works best. Coat that joker with a clean rag and wipe off the excess. It’s almost like you are seasoning it, the way we do cast iron. How often you need to do this depends on humidity, altitude, etc., but most websites would tell you to do it monthly.
I admit I don’t do it monthly. Maybe if my kitchen were a bit busier I would, but I also only floss when I have something stuck between my teeth, if that tells you anything. Avoid olive oil and vegetable oils. They will turn on you.
I hope you have a cutting board as special as mine. I certainly don’t have the skill to make one this nice, so I hope to keep it long enough to pass it on to my kids. Thanks, dad. You’re forever in my kitchen. It cost nothing, but it’s priceless.