Caring for Wooden Cutting Boards
A cutting board is one of the first tools you’ll need in the kitchen. If you are choosing a new one for your home, pick a thick, sturdy board that won’t slide around when you cut on it. Wooden cutting boards are preferable to plastic ones for two important reasons: they are easier on your knives and they’re more beautiful. You can serve sliced salami directly on the wooden board you cut it on—it will look inviting and rustic. The same cannot be said for plastic.
Thick wooden cutting boards can be expensive. It’s worth your time to search for a gently used board. Look around at garage sales and online and ask your family and friends if they have any boards they are no longer using.
When Graham and I were living in Brooklyn, we once came upon a discarded wooden board. It was left by its previous owner on the sidewalk, propped up against a tree, only a few houses down from our apartment. We walked by it and, even though we were headed somewhere important and in somewhat of a rush, I picked it up and examined it, exclaiming to Graham, “Look! It’s a Boos block! These are really fancy.” He was skeptical. The board was in bad shape. Blue-green mold grew rampantly across one side, an apparent infestation, and probably the reason for which it was discarded. On the other side, a dark circular scar from a burn marked the center of the board like a bull’s eye. Despite Graham’s questioning looks, I ran back to our apartment with the gross board and left it outside on the fire escape.
Later, I did some research on how to sanitize and revitalize wooden boards. I learned that you should never submerge or soak wooden boards in water, even if they look like they could really use a bath, because the wood will swell and warp. Our board came from the dirty sidewalks of New York City, so I knew it needed drastic cleaning before I’d feel comfortable slicing an apple on it. I doused it with bleach and scrubbed with a rough sponge. Then I did that a few more times.
Once it had dried completely, we rented a power sander from Home Depot and used it to remove the top layer of the board. All the grime from the mold was gone and the burn mark disappeared, too. We switched to a finer sand paper and polished the board until it was smooth. The process took up most of the day and there was sawdust everywhere, but I had to admit the board looked practically new. It was several shades lighter in color and I loved the way it felt in my hands, heavy and solid and as velvety as a river stone.
Before we could bring it into our kitchen, it needed to be sealed and conditioned. You can buy food-grade mineral oil for this purpose, but I wasn’t totally convinced about its safety. Mineral oil is a byproduct of refining crude oil to make gasoline, and even though it is labeled “food-grade” here in the United States, it isn’t approved for food products in the European Union. It’s a cinch to make your own conditioning butter. There are only two ingredients: coconut oil and beeswax. I made a batch and rubbed all of it into both sides of the board, rubbing along the visible grain of the wood. As a bonus, my hands, which were dry from the winter, were also conditioned in the process. I set the board aside to absorb the butter overnight, then the following day I used a clean rag to buff away the excess butter.
Voilà! The once-gross board was clean, polished, and ready to be used.
Since then, we’ve chopped herbs on it, rolled out pie crusts, and assembled countless sandwiches. The board even made a cross-country move with us. It now lives on our Berkeley kitchen countertop. For everyday upkeep, we use a sponge to scrub the wooden board with soapy water. Thick boards like ours need a chance to dry evenly on both sides, otherwise they might warp. If we’ve gotten it quite wet, we prop it up so that air can circulate around both sides until the board is completely dry. About twice a year, we seal and protect the board with conditioning butter. You can also use the conditioning butter on other wooden kitchen tools, like spoons and spatulas. It’s still the best remedy I know for dry, chapped hands.
To use this butter, rub a small amount into the wooden tool or board, rubbing along the visible grain of the wood. Set the tool or board aside to absorb the butter overnight. The following day, use a clean rag to buff away any excess butter.
Makes 1 cup
6 ounces coconut oil
2 ounces beeswax
Pour a couple inches of water into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In an 8-ounce jar, combine the coconut oil and beeswax. You don’t have to be super precise with the weight measurements; it’s okay to eyeball a 3:1 ratio.
Place the jar into the pan of simmering water and heat gently until the beeswax has melted completely and the mixture is clear, stirring as needed to combine. Remove the jar from the water and set aside to cool and solidify.
Store, covered, at room temperature. Conditioning butter will keep for years.