Moisture is the biggest enemy of your wood or bamboo cutting board. The more water your board absorbs, the more vulnerable it is to warping or separating along glue lines as it dries. As we learned from Adam Senalik, general research engineer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, wet cutting boards are also softer than dry ones; that means they’re more likely to scar if you try to cut on them when they’re saturated with water. With this in mind, the best thing you can do for your board is keep out moisture.
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Seasoning Your Board
Like a cast-iron pan, a wood or bamboo cutting board needs to be seasoned before use. When you season a board, you are laying down a protective coating of oil or wax that will repel water and prevent it from being absorbed by the board. Some boards come preseasoned, allowing you to skip this step, but most come bare, with no layer of oil.
We like to season our boards with spoon butter or board cream, a mixture of beeswax and mineral oil that can either be made or purchased online. Using a clean cloth, rub your board with the butter, making sure you cover any exposed surface that might come in contact with water—front, back, sides, and feet, if they’re wood or bamboo. Let the mixture sit on the board for 24 hours to absorb, and then buff off the excess. Usually one coat is sufficient to keep out water.
You can also use mineral oil. Building up a good seasoning with mineral oil takes more time but is less expensive. Again, use a clean cloth to apply the mineral oil over the entire surface of the board. It should absorb readily. Use a generous amount and let it sit for a minute before wiping off any excess, redistributing the oil to any thirsty or dry spots. You want to make sure the board is well coated with oil, but you don’t want to soak the board in it—in some cases, too much oil can actually erode the glue that holds the different pieces of wood together. Let the board absorb the oil overnight, and then repeat the process a few times. Because mineral oil is thinner than spoon butter, it’ll take longer to develop a thick, water-repellent layer.
In both cases, you’ll know that your cutting board is properly seasoned when a bead of water sits on top of the board and doesn’t immediately sink in.
Washing Your Board
To clean your board, you can scrub it with either hot, soapy water or a diluted bleach solution—about 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, according to Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. It’s easier to do this in the sink, but if your board is very big or very heavy, it’s okay to clean it where it sits—although, as Gravely put it, “you’ll just have to be willing to make a mess on your counter.” You can’t simply wipe it down with a wet sponge and call it a day, though. “Scrub the cutting board well with a hot, soapy washcloth,” says Gravely, “and then wipe it down several times with a wet cloth or paper towels until you can really tell that it is clean.” You’ll still need to lift the board to clean its underside, too.
After you’ve washed the board, don’t let it drip dry; instead, pat off as much moisture as you can with a clean dish towel. Store it upright or in a position that maximizes airflow and prevents moisture from being trapped between the board and the counter.
Maintaining Your Board
There’s no hard-and-fast schedule for maintaining your board—it all depends on how often and how aggressively you use and wash it, as washing can erode the protective coating. Treat your board when it starts to look dry and ashy and water sinks into it instead of beading up on top. The board should look lustrous and have a satiny, faintly oily resistance under your fingertips. With a little care, your board should last a lifetime.