Wood cutting boards have been a household staple for millennia. But in recent decades, bamboo cutting boards have entered the market as a cheaper, more sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing alternative. Both wood and bamboo cutting boards are versatile, easy to find, and durable, so which one should you have in your kitchen?
The main difference between bamboo and wood cutting boards is hardness and porosity. Wood is more porous, meaning it absorbs more moisture and odors, but it doesn’t blunt knives easily. Bamboo is harder and less knife-friendly, but it’s less porous, and therefore more moisture-resistant.
Compared to plastic cutting boards, both wood and bamboo are naturally sanitary and better for the environment. However, there are some key differences between wood and bamboo cutting boards. Let’s take a closer look at the two kinds of cutting boards so you can decide which is better for you.
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Characteristics of bamboo and wood cutting boards
Cutting boards are one the most important kitchen staples, used to chop, slice, and dice all kinds of food throughout the day. As a result, there’s a lot of debate about the best and most important qualities of a cutting board.
As with anything, which cutting board you decide to use in your kitchen depends entirely on your needs and preference. Do you want an aesthetically pleasing cutting board for charcuterie when you have guests over? Or a sturdy, solid board that won’t dull your knives?
To understand what makes a good cutting board, it’s important to understand the main characteristics, including what it’s made of.
Wood cutting boards are usually made from hardwoods such as maple, oak, beech, cherry, walnut, or teak. In some cases, it’s possible to use a single piece of wood to make a cutting block. More often, though, several boards are cut into strips, then glued together, sanded, and finished with a food-safe wood coating.
Bamboo, on the other hand, is technically a grass. Its stems or culms are hollow on the inside, which means that it’s impossible to harvest a solid slab of wood. All bamboo cutting boards are made from smaller strips cut to size, glued and clamped together, then sanded and coated.
The hardness of a chopping board determines how resistant it is to wear and dents caused by regularly using a knife. Softwood, such as pine or cedar, isn’t very resistant to dents and scratches. Hardwood, such as oak, teak, or beech, is sturdier and takes longer to show signs of knife damage.
The best way to assess hardness is with the Janka Hardness Test. Although it’s technically a grass, natural bamboo is incredibly hard. It scores up to 1,610 lbf (7,170 N) in the Janka Test which is higher than other hardwoods used for chopping boards, such as sugar maple (1,450 lbf) and black walnut (1,010 lbf).
Harder chopping boards are resistant to impact, but they can quickly dull your knives. A bamboo board may last you a long time, but the downside is that you’ll have to sharpen your knives more often.
Porosity determines how much moisture a wooden cutting board can absorb. Ideally, you’ll want a board that doesn’t retain too much moisture. If a chopping board is too porous, you might end up dealing with problems such as unpleasant smells, stains, swelling, warping, shrinking, and mold growth.
The porosity of wooden cutting boards varies depending whether they’re made out of open-grain or closed-grain wood. Oak, elm, ash, and hickory are open-grain woods, which means they’re more porous and absorb more moisture. Black walnut, maple, birch, and cherry woods are closed-grain, and therefore less porous.
Bamboo has small pores clustered close together, which make it less porous than other hardwoods. A cutting board made from bamboo not only absorbs less moisture, but it’s also less likely to stain or develop unpleasant smells.
Believe it or not, wood is naturally antibacterial. In fact, scientists have confirmed that wood cutting boards are more sanitary than plastic ones, regardless of the wood type, whether the board was treated or untreated, or whether it was new or used.
Like wood, bamboo also has some natural antibacterial properties. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends bamboo cutting boards because they’re harder and less porous, which means they pose a lower risk of harboring harmful bacteria.
There are several studies to back this claim. One study looked into the efficacy of disinfectants on bamboo cutting boards and found that they contained fewer microbes than plastic boards. Meanwhile, another study concluded that, although it has no effect on fungi, bamboo fiber can inhibit bacterial growth.
Because you’ll end up using your cutting board so often, it’s important to consider the ergonomics. While ergonomic features such as handles, thickness, and juice grooves can be found on both wood and bamboo cutting boards, the two materials do handle slightly differently.
On the one hand, wood cutting boards are sturdy and comfortable to work with. They have a good grip and also tend to be heavier, which means they won’t slide around much on your kitchen counter.
On the other hand, bamboo weighs less than hardwood, but that also makes the cutting board more slippery. And because it has a harder surface, it can make more noise when you’re chopping something on it.
Depending on how often you use them, both wood and bamboo cutting boards require regular maintenance. They benefit from regular applications of food-grade mineral oil, and both can be sanded and varnished. However, bamboo cutting boards are harder, so they require less maintenance compared to wooden ones.
Most importantly, neither should ever be cleaned in a dishwasher, as the heat can destroy the protective coating and even cause warping. Instead, wood and bamboo cutting boards should be thoroughly washed with warm water and soap after each use. If the cutting board came into contact with raw or cooked meat, dairy, and eggs, make sure to disinfect it with a vinegar solution.
Compared to plastic, bamboo and wood cutting boards are decidedly more eco-friendly. But that doesn’t mean that harvesting the material has no impact on the environment.
Trees, for example, take decades to mature. Unless you use a sustainable harvesting process, such as coppicing, a cut tree may not grow back. Deforestation is a serious global concern, and although timber plantations work to reduce carbon emissions, they do not support biodiversity and wildlife conservation the same way natural forests do.
On the other hand, bamboo needs as little as 5 years to grow before you can harvest it for wood. It has a faster growth rate than any tree and can also regenerate quickly after harvesting, which makes it more sustainable. However, if left unchecked, bamboo can become invasive and, depending on where it’s grown.
When it comes to price, bamboo cutting boards tend to be cheaper than wooden ones. Differences in price are a result of a variety of reasons, including the time it takes to grow and harvest the resource as well as ease of manufacturing.
Of course, the price also depends on the size and design of the board, as well as the type of wood used. You can easily find a nice bamboo cutting board for an affordable price, while a comparable cutting board made from a nice hardwood can cost significantly more.
Wood vs bamboo cutting boards: which is best?
As you can see, bamboo and wood cutting boards each have their strengths and weaknesses. If you’re trying to decide which one to buy, here’s a quick recap:
|Wood cutting boards
|Bamboo cutting boards
|Have some antibacterial properties
|Comfortable to work with
|Less likely to warp
|Resistant to stains and odors
|Made from a more sustainable resource
|Need regular maintenance
|Need regular maintenance
|More likely to stain
|Can damage your knives
|Can be heavy and bulky
|Poor grip, can be slippery
Buying the right cutting board to meet your needs
For most people, the buying decision hinges on two questions: ‘Which cutting board will last longer?’ and ‘Which is more likely to blunt my knives?’. Concerns such as budget and aesthetic preferences are also important considerations.
A bamboo cutting board is best if you’re looking for an affordable yet sturdy cutting board intended for everyday use, and if you don’t mind having to regularly sharpen your knives.
A hardwood cutting board is a sturdy and ergonomic option for everyday use especially if you place great value on the longevity of your knives.
Keep in mind that all cutting boards will eventually show signs of wear and tear. Composite hardwood boards, including bamboo ones, tend to be structurally tougher than a single slab of wood. However, a poorly made cutting board will warp or bow faster regardless of the material it’s made from.
Finally, if not cared for or used correctly, any chopping board can develop scratches, dents, cracks, splinters, foul odors, and/or stains.
What kind of cutting board would a chef use?
You may think: whatever cutting board a chef uses is best for me. However, unlike the home cook, professional chefs need to adhere to FDA guidelines and use easy-to-sanitize cutting boards.
As a result, plastic chopping boards tend to be more common in professional kitchens as they’re durable, cheap to replace, and can be sanitized in a commercial dishwasher. Also, plastic boards are often color-coded, making it easier to prevent cross-contamination.
Do cutting boards contain formaldehyde?
All composite cutting boards, whether they’re made from wood or bamboo, are held together by food-grade glue and resin. Unfortunately, some of these glues and varnishes can contain formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical that can cause several other health problems.
In the U.S., the FDA includes melamine-formaldehyde and urea-formaldehyde on its list of coatings and adhesives suitable for food-contact surfaces. However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns about the health risks associated with wood-based products that contain urea-formaldehyde resins.
This doesn’t mean you should panic or get rid of all your composite cutting boards! Luckily, the usage of formaldehyde in composite wood cutting boards has decreased drastically in the last few decades. Additionally, any emissions that do occur decrease rapidly in the months following production.
To be on the safe side, replace old or worn cutting boards with ones that are specifically labeled as being formaldehyde-free.