On the Chopping Block

See last week’s Gear column for a look at the best plastic cutting boards.

When it comes to cutting boards, there’s no better surface to use than wood. The subtle bite of the blade as it hits the grain, the beauty of the wood as it ages, and the mellow resonance of the chops can be some of the most appealing aspects of preparing food. At Tang Frères, the enormous Asian supermarket in Paris, countermen thwack sharp cleavers into roasted meats (like crunchy-skinned pork) that are spread out on a well-worn, foot-thick, half-yard-wide tree stump. Although this sort of traditional Chinese chopping block looks as if it would be amazingly satisfying to use, you’ll want something smaller and less primitive for your home kitchen.

I tested three great models made of different types of wood. The first was an Epicurean fiberboard—a newer kind of wood board that doesn’t require oiling. (Typically, you’ll need to regularly rub mineral oil, a food-safe, fast-drying, rancidity-free product, into wood boards so that they won’t dry out and crack.) Next, I tested a Totally Bamboo–brand bamboo board, and finally, a classic Boos maple chopping block. As in last week’s column on plastic boards, I finely chopped parsley, sliced juicy red beets, and smashed garlic to see how badly the boards stained and retained odors. I gave points for a perfectly smooth surface that didn’t crack or become overly distressed through wash and wear. And I looked for wood that was soft enough to give just slightly with a powerful chop, which is easier on the wrists, just to the point of leaving faint marks in the wood rather than deep gouges.

Kitchen Series, 15 X 11 Slate
By Epicurean Cutting Surfaces, $24.99

Epicurean boards are made of Richlite, primarily paper fiber laminated into hard, lightweight sheets. This environmentally friendly material was created for airplanes and is also used for skateboard ramps. The cutting boards not only don’t require oiling, but they are also dishwasher safe. Harder than plastic, they’re less likely to scar deeply and harbor bacteria. They’re also heat resistant up to 350°F (polypropylene boards melt at 320°F).

The boards come in three thicknesses, with the thinnest only one-quarter inch thick. They are available in natural wood and slate colors—the latter makes an especially cool-looking serving piece.

Before I used the board for the first time, it smelled faintly of rubber tires. By the time I finished washing it by hand and drying it, the smell had faded but was still noticeable. After the second wash the smell was gone.

The scores left in the board from chopping parsley were barely noticeable, and the black finish completely hid the green as well as red stains from the beets. The nonporous surface barely smelled of garlic after being washed. While the board was noticeably harder than plastic and other wood boards, it was still comfortable to work with, allowing a good bite and rock to the knife.

Malibu Groove Vertical Grain (20-1330 VG)
By Totally Bamboo, $30

Totally Bamboo was one of the first manufacturers of bamboo cutting boards, introducing its line in 2001. Unlike some other makers, they use only the denser, lower portion of bamboo poles; they use a proprietary food-grade glue; and they don’t stain but instead heat the bamboo to caramelize it for color.

Bamboo is actually a grass, not wood, that can be as strong as steel. In Hong Kong, it’s used as high-rise construction scaffolding. It’s a sustainable material that can grow as fast as two feet a day to a harvestable maturity in as little as 4 years, compared with 14 years for sustainable hardwood. Bamboo boards are light and 16 percent harder than maple—which makes them durable with some give. The downsides are that they’re not dishwasher safe, and they require oiling.

I picked the Malibu Groove style because of its size, perimeter juice trough, and lightweight yet sturdy three-quarter-inch thickness. I like the vertical grain because the thin strips look distinctively bamboo to me.

After the first few washings, I noticed that soft, fine splinters had developed. Totally Bamboo cofounder Tom Sullivan calls it “bamboo fuzz” and promised that it’s harmless. He explained that the fuzz materializes on all bamboo boards within the first week of use and then disappears. It did.

The board resisted parsley and beet scores well, but still comfortably cushioned my knife edge. The faint coloring washed off easily, as did the garlic aroma. It also looks good enough to double as a tray.

Solid Maple End Grain Reversible Chinese Chopping Block
By John Boos & Co., $64.99

The first time I took a knife to this Boos chopping block was like the first time I stepped outside in a pair of Christian Louboutin heels. The virginal surface of the board—like the shoes’ signature red soles—is so beautiful that you hate to make the first cut—or take the first step. And they’re both a little high but surprisingly comfortable.

Like the shoes, Boos boards are a status symbol, seen on the countertops of restaurant and television chefs, including and Martha Stewart. They’re coveted not only for their beautiful craftsmanship but also for their proven durability. Made in Effingham, Illinois, since 1887, Boos blocks were for generations the staple in general stores and butcher shops, and they were even used by the Allied Forces in World War II.

This block is a stunner and a heavyweight, tipping in at 11 pounds. Grips are cut into the ends, but they’re shallow. I was a little concerned about dropping the block on my foot when moving it.

Under the knife, though, it was a pleasure—buffering yet supportive. Parsley and beet juice, as well as garlic smells, disappeared. My minimally visible knife strokes enhanced the appearance like delicate etching.

If I had to pick only one wood or wood-alternative board (in the case of the bamboo), my brain tells me I should go for the dishwasher-safe Epicurean or the environmentally friendly Totally Bamboo. But my heart and my hand reach for the gorgeous variation on the traditional Chinese chopping block made by John Boos.