Picking a chopping board is actually easier than you think, if in doubt - buy wooden end grain boards.
The edge on your knife is extremely thin and prone to damage if it pressed up against anything too hard. So when choosing a chopping board you want one that has some "give" in it that the blade can press into easily. Think of it like running barefoot, you'd rather do it on a wet sandy beach than a concrete car park. Your knife is no different.
The general consensus between chefs, knife experts and food hygienists is that wood are the best. Avoid glass, marble, bamboo and steel as these are just too hard. End grain wood boards are the most suitable for preserving the longevity of your expensive kitchen knife. If you want to know more read on.
There are a number of different types of wooden boards. Let's just throw those £4.99 specials from the discount store on to the fire shall we? You know the ones, looked a bargain but are now more bent than a banana, split and of next to no use for anything but kindling. Just because it's wood does not make it good.
The superior board of all the available wood boards is the end grain cutting board. Made from hard woods including cherry, maple, cedar, walnut and teak and traditionally used in the manufacture of butchers' blocks, end grain boards are glued pieces of wood with the grain perpendicular to the surface of the board. This allows the wood fibres to absorb the impact of the knife blade by allowing it to go between the wood fibres.
This prevents the edge of the blade rolling, denting or chipping and therefore preserving the sharpness of the blade. Any cuts to the board soon "heal" up when wiped down with a damp cloth, the grain swells a little to repair itself, clever, no wonder our local butcher swears by them. The work involved in making them and the quality of the wood means they are expensive but they are the right tool for the job, simple as that.
The thickness of an end grain board is usually over 4cm high, this enables the board to be resurfaced many times. The thickness also provides stability and a tough durable surface. If you buy one and look after it it will last you a lifetime. Edge Grain boards in comparison to end grain are manufactured with pieces of hard wood glued with the wood fibres parallel to the surface of the board. These boards are much easier to make and are therefore cheaper. They do not share the same benefits with regard to knife care as the end grain as you are cutting across the grain.
Frequency of refinishing depends on the thickness of the board. They look the part but are not as good to the knife as end grain. Good quality end and edge grain boards are manufactured with food grade glue and finished with non toxic oils. Olive and vegetable oils are not suitable as they turn rancid, tainting food.
You will need to re-oil your board once in a while. Instructions should come with any good board. As a rule of thumb we oiled ours with boiled linseed oil once a month for the first 6 and now only do it about twice a year.
It is also believed that wood has antimicrobial properties and enzymes that make for an inhospitable environment for bacteria to grow. This belief was supported by research carried out by Cliver and Kaspari (1994) (The antimicrobial properties of wood) published in the Journal of Food Protection and supported by the World Health Organisation. Plastic boards were inoculated with e.coli (including 0157),salmonella and liseteria.
Wood was found to have 98-99% less bacteria following this than plastic. Phew! Aside from the knife protecting properties and hygiene benefits of wood boards, they really can be a beautiful addition to a domestic kitchen, especially end grain. If cared for correctly will last a lifetime and probably beyond to pass down the generations.
Bamboo boards are sold as the 'eco friendly' chopping board due to bamboo being fast growing, biodegradable, it's cultivation being free of pesticides and not having a negative impact on pandas. Due to its fast growing abilities bamboo is cheap compared to end grain hardwood. However, bamboo is really hard and there is no grain for the knife to go into. As a result it gives the knife a hard time when cutting on it and will quickly lead to a blunt knife.
Manufacturers claim that bamboo is tougher than maple and oak, it is lightweight (lending itself to easy transfer to sink for cleaning), strong and durable and that knives won't suffer friction blunting as can happen with wood or plastic. The strength of the bamboo means that heavy duty cutting can be done without shattering or splintering the surface of the board.
It is also claimed that bamboo is a hygienic option as due to the hardness of the wood, it sustains very few grooves and gashes from knives which may harbour bacteria. Some knife manufacturers do not recommend bamboo boards for their knives due to the hardness of the wood and its potential to damage the blade as it does not absorb the impact of the knife unlike end grain wood boards. Bamboo does have a tendency to absorb stains and will warp if immersed in water.
Bamboo boards should be oiled 2-3 weekly with food grade mineral oil.
Plastic (polyethylene) boards do have a number of benefits in that they are light weight so food is easily transferable to cooking pot or bin. They are also highly recommended by food hygienists especially in commercial kitchens to reduce the risk of food contamination linked with wood boards (see section on wood boards for further information on this). Plastic can withstand exposure to water including being placed in a dishwasher.
It can also tolerate harsh chemical cleaning by bleach and will not retain such chemicals to later contaminate food. However, it is believed that the softer nature of plastic is susceptible to scoring by knives and the resulting cuts and grooves can harbour bacteria, even following thorough cleaning. Knives are also prone to friction blunting as the plastic does not absorb the impact of the blade as seen with end grain wood boards. Plastic boards can be unstable and are therefore prone to slipping increasing the risk of hand injuries. Let's be honest, they don't look pretty and need to be replaced more frequently than wooden ones.
End grain cutting boards might well be the most expensive option but they're by far the best for maintaining your knife sharpness and for their natural anti-bacterial properties. They also look amazing!