Wood’s Poor Cousin

Every morning in restaurant kitchens around the world, a silent musical-chairs kind of game gets played. But instead of seats, cooks warily monitor a diminishing number of cutting boards. The best boards always get grabbed first, and you learn quickly which are the favorites—they’re the flattest, smoothest, and cleanest. It’s a pleasure to methodically dice a pile of carrots into tiny brunoise with your favorite knife playing harmoniously against a board you love. You can always bring your own knives to work, but no cook brings his own board, even though a bad board can ruin your day.

In the first of two columns on the subject, I’ll review the best plastic cutting boards available today. (Next week, we’ll look at the best wood cutting boards.) Many home chefs may recoil at the p-word, but they shouldn’t. Plastic cutting boards are widely used in commercial kitchens over wood because they’re cheap, lightweight, dishwasher safe, and easy to maintain—you don’t need to oil them, as you do with most wood boards.

The downsides are that they can warp, stain, and get nicked more easily than their wood counterparts.

Some people are convinced that plastic boards harbor less bacteria than wood, but this hasn’t been definitively proved. It’s important to be vigilant about sanitation and cross-contamination on any cutting surface. Many restaurant kitchens use easily identifiable red boards only for cutting raw meat. (Red boards also hide bloodstains better.)

Home chefs can enjoy the same benefits of plastic cutting boards as pro chefs do. To find the best, I tested a range of products. I found that inferior plastic boards were typically made of low- rather than high-density polyethylene or polypropylene, and more readily scratched, stained, and soaked up odors. (There are few things worse than oniony brownies.) The best were made of polypropylene.

To test the boards, I finely chopped Italian parsley leaves to see how they’d hold up to repeated strikes with my knife. I also chopped garlic to test their odor resistance, and red beets to check for staining. The best two, each with distinctive features, were the original Gripper board by Architec, and the new folding board by OXO. I also liked the silicone mats by Silicone Zone, although they are not boards, per se. All three products performed almost equally well, they were resistant to scores, and any stains and aromas faded after a few hand and dishwasher washings.

The Gripper, G14 (11 by 14 inches)
By Architec, $14.95

Slipping is a dangerous problem with many plastic boards, and you’d best put a damp paper towel underneath them to keep them stable. Not with the Gripper, though, whose underside is lined with soft rubbery feet that grip your countertop. The feet are injection molded, not just stuck on, so they’ll never pop off like those of some brands. The cutting side is made of polypropylene, with a cutout handle at one end of the rounded-corner rectangular board. One of the most appealing features is the range of colors available: 12 different rainbow shades, from basic white to blood red. I love the purple.

I don’t like that the Gripper isn’t reversible, because of the rubber feet on one side. I’ll have to remember to move my food around the board to keep from wearing out one particular spot. But with its easy-grab handle and the fact that I can just plop it on the counter and go, it’s become the first board I reach for.

Good Grips Large Folding Cutting Board, 1063788
By OXO, $24.99

The coolest thing about the OXO board is that it unfolds like a book to double in size, from 10.5 by 15 inches to 15 by 21 inches. It grips with two black rubber edges along the entire length of the 15-inch sides and is reversible. Plus, you have a third clean side to work with that’s revealed when the board is unfolded.

The board stayed steady when I used it unfolded. But after I folded it and flipped it over, it began to slide, as only one of the rubbery edges was touching the countertop. There’s also a narrow channel down the center—which is the inside of the hinge—that you have to watch out for when working with juicy foods like tomatoes because the liquid runs out.

This board is my travel board when catering or working at friends’ homes. While it’s not perfectly secure on its own and a little clunky for a fast grab from my home kitchen cabinet, its expandability ensures that my knives and I have turf in just about any strange kitchen.

“Cut by Emblem” Flexible Cutting Boards, 7022
By Silicone Zone, $11.95

Despite their name, these are not cutting boards—they’re cutting mats. Each of the set of four is a different color and is coded with a emblem—a green carrot for vegetables, a red cow, a yellow chicken, and a blue fish. One side is coated with rubbery-feeling silicone, which is supposed to make the mats nonskid but doesn’t.

The mats address the issue of cross-contamination with their cute and colorful bold graphics and shapes, but they are no replacement for a cutting board. They’re way too thin to protect your blades for serious chopping, but they’re a great supplement to a board for little things. I like to use them when I need to chop fresh herbs for a final touch after I’ve cut raw meat on my board. I just slap down a damp paper towel, then a cutting mat, without having to wash my board in the sink. They’re a lot cheaper and easier to store than four more cutting boards. Plus they can be easily carried over to the stove and curved to funnel food directly into a pot.