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Germ warfare has turned choosing a simple kitchen tool into a headache. The arguments aren't clear-cut.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published June 2, 2004

  photo
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Cutting boards come in all sorts of sizes and materials.
From left: Snow River hardwood board, $9.99; Counter Art tempered glass, $16; Totally Bamboo Tonga, $59.95; Joyce Chen Spot ‘N Chop polyethylene board, $14.95; Oneida polypropylene board, $7.99; Gripper Barboard, $5.99; Totally Bamboo Mahi Groove, $55; Oregon Red Alder board, $19.95; Norpro Cut ‘n Slice flexible cutting mats, $19.95.

We've certainly gotten ourselves into a dither about cutting boards.

We regard them suspiciously. What bacterial evil lurks on the surface or just below? Are we risking serious illness every time we make a chicken salad with celery?

Forget paper or plastic, we want to know if we should buy wood or plastic. Wood looks better, but we've heard plastic is more sanitary. Tempered glass would seem to offer permanent resistence to bacteria but the sound of a knife hitting glass recalls nails skating across a chalkboard. Separate boards for raw meat and everything else appear imperative. But wouldn't disposable cutting sheets keep us confidently out of harm's way?

Whoa, that's a lot of worry about a generally innocuous piece of kitchen equipment. It's also a lot of emphasis on one aspect of selecting a cutting board. Storage, aesthetics, usage and cost should also be considered.

Truth is, almost any cutting board is safe, as long as it is cleaned and cared for properly. Even wood, which is most commonly criticized as a germ-monger, is back in favor.

In fact, wood may be better than plastic, says Mary Keith, a food, nutrition and health specialist at the Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension.

"The most recent research says wood, as long as it's hard wood and not cracked, is as safe, if not safer, than plastic," Keith says.

Scarred or deeply grooved plastic cutting boards should be thrown away, she says. Once bacteria gets into the grooves of a plastic board, soap or diluted bleach solutions can't get through to kill them.

"Wood will expel the bacteria and let the antibacterial cleaning agents in," Keith says. Even so, cracked wood boards should be discarded unless they can be sanded smooth again.

To clean plastic or wood boards, scrub with hot water and soap, then sanitize in the dishwasher or with a solution of 1 teaspoon bleach mixed with 1 quart water. Commercial disinfectants such as Clorox Clean-up are also useful.

The most hygienic of all materials is glass or marble, but few serious cooks would use these exclusively.

"They are hellacious on knives," Keith says. "They dull your knives so much faster."

Sharpening knives too often shortens their life span. And protecting the knife's edge is one of the purposes of cutting boards.

The other is protecting the surface underneath, says Burt Wolf, TV food and travel journalist. (Wolf's current PBS show, Travel and Traditions, airs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays on WUSF-Ch. 16.)

Wolf uses his wood and plastic boards interchangeably, snubbing advice from the U.S. Deparment of Agriculture to designate one board for raw meat only.

Ah, but he does have pliable, color-coded plastic cutting sheets that he lays over the wood and plastic when he's working with raw meat. Saran's disposable cutting sheets offer the same protection.

"I do think it's a bad idea to have chicken blood on your tomatoes," he says. Yes, that does sound unsavory.

But Wolf is not scared of bacteria. Bring it on, he says, lest his immune system get so weak it can't fend anything off.

"If you have a little bacteria, it's good because you build up an immunity; if you have none you don't build up immunity and if you have too much, you die," he says.

All this worry about bacteria is not unfounded, Keith says. We don't clean as thoroughly as our grandmothers and we use microwave ovens which don't kill bacteria during cooking as well as ovens and stoves. Plus, our demands for asparagus in September and grapes in January require that produce be imported, usually from South America. The longer the produce is in transit, the more time bacteria has to collect on it.

And then get transferred to our cutting boards.

"If you think about what has changed from our mother's age to our age, there are an awful lot more cancer survivors, elderly and (people living with) HIV," Keith says.

That population has to be extremely cautious about the conditions in which food is prepared, she says.

But that isn't the entire population, for sure. Avid cook and baker Shirley Buttacavoli of Holiday has six, maybe more, cutting boards and doesn't worry much about them making her sick. She's learned long ago from Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, not to wash her wood cutting board but rather just wipe it with a cloth. Water, he said, causes warping.

Uh-oh.

"I've been doing that for years, and no one has died, or even been sick from anything out of my kitchen yet," says the office manager for Tlati Inc. in Tarpon Springs. Lest she sound like the Cook Most Likely to Endanger, Buttacavoli does use a separate cutting board for raw meat.

To keep her wooden board in good condition, Buttacavoli rubs it regularly with English-made Orange Wax which she buys from the Williams-Sonoma catalog for $12 for 5 ounces. "Guess that's why they are lasting so many years," she says.

Pam Potesta, who with Elise Free, owns the Beans About Cooking kitchen shops (Northwood Plaza, 2520-B McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; (727) 726-1596 and 100-G Indian Rocks Road N, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 588-3303), says rubbing wood boards with wax or mineral oil once a month will prevent them from cracking.

"The oil is just like moisturizer for the skin," she says.

Potesta has these suggestions for buying cutting boards:

* Consider your counter or storage space. Make sure you have the space to store or display the board. Folks with small kitchens should go with smaller and fewer boards. Big kitchen islands beg for killer hunks of wood like the chefs' favorite John Boos boards that can measure 45 by 75 inches or more.

* If you want only one board, make sure it can be used on both sides. Use one side for raw meats, the other for everything else. Some brands, such as Joyce Chen's Spot 'N Chop line, are already marked with colored dots to help you remember which side is for what.

* Buy cutting boards that fit the job. Small boards are good for travel or slicing limes, lemons and tomatoes. Glass boards protect counter tops from messes and are adequate for making sandwiches, but are not all-purpose boards. Large boards with a groove around the edge to catch juices are best for carving meat and poultry. Granite or marble slabs are for rolling dough or putting under hot plates; avoid cutting on them or risk ruining knives.

* Find a comfortable board. Size, weight and texture are individual tastes. Price is also a factor: Spend as little as $5 on a small plastic board and as much as $190 on a bamboo chopping block.

Flimsy bamboo seems the least likely material for a cutting board, but it has become popular for both them and flooring. Totally Bamboo of Southern California makes a line of cutting boards that's sold at Beans About Cooking and other specialty stores in the Tampa Bay area including Bamboozle in Pass-a-Grille, Imported in Clearwater Beach, the Rolling Pin in Brandon and Sweet Sage Coffee Cafe in North Redington Shores.

The boards are so lovely it's almost a shame to take a knife to them. They are silky smooth and can easily double as serving pieces. Bamboo is a grass, rather than a wood, and groves regenerate themselves about every 18 months after being cut down. For people worried about the decimation of hard wood forests, bamboo is a good option.

As if we need it, more to think about in the quest for a cutting board.

- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or by e-mail at krieta@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 10:04:10]

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