Cutting boards come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. You might have one made of glass, plastic, marble, wood, or even stainless steel.
No matter what kind of cutting board you use, it can easily become a source of contamination and foodborne illness if you’re not careful.
How can a cutting board make people sick?
Whenever you use a cutting board, foodborne pathogens can move from the food you’re preparing to the board. It doesn’t matter what kind of food you’re working with because all types of food can carry pathogens, from raw meat to lettuce to apples.
If you don’t clean and sanitize your cutting board often, these pathogens can grow to dangerous levels. Every time you use your board, pathogens can move to the food you prepare and make you, and everyone you serve, sick.
How to clean and sanitize different types of cutting boards
It’s important to note that cleaning and sanitizing aren’t the same thing. Cleaning refers to removing food particles, while sanitizing uses hot water (171°F minimum) or a chemical solution to kill pathogens. Both cleaning and sanitizing are important in preventing foodborne illness.
As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to clean and sanitize your cutting board after every use, even if you only used it for fresh produce. In addition, you should always clean and sanitize your cutting board after using it for a raw animal product, like meat.
In general, your cleaning and sanitizing process should look like this:
- Scrape off food particles
- Wash with warm, soapy water
- Rinse in clean water
- Sanitize (either in the dishwasher or by hand)
- Air dry or dry with a clean cloth
If you run into any stubborn food particles that are sticking to the board, try using vinegar, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, or baking soda to break them down. After they’ve been broken down, they should be easier to remove.
You could also try scrubbing your board with coarse salt and half a lemon — unless it’s made of marble, wood, or stainless steel. Don’t use abrasive or acidic cleaners on these types of cutting board because they will wear away the finish on the boards.
While the cleaning step will be very similar for all kinds of cutting boards, certain boards may need to be sanitized differently.
Glass, plastic, and stainless steel
After you’ve cleaned them, you can use a dishwasher to sanitize cutting boards made from glass, plastic, and stainless steel. The high heat in the dishwasher will help kill pathogens.
If you don’t have a dishwasher, use a sanitizer approved by the FDA for use on food-contact surfaces. There are three main approved sanitizers: chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium.
You can make a chlorine sanitizing solution at home by mixing one tablespoon of bleach into a gallon of water. Submerge your board in the solution and wait at least 10 seconds before taking it out and letting it air dry.
Note: a chlorine solution like this will remain effective for about a week, after which you’ll need to mix up a new one.
Marble and wood
If your cutting board is made of marble or wood, it shouldn’t go through the dishwasher. The abrupt temperature changes in a dishwasher can crack marble. Similarly, a wooden cutting board can be damaged in the dishwasher because the humid environment can quickly ruin wood.
Instead, after cleaning your marble or wooden cutting board, sanitize it by hand in a sanitizing solution. For marble, you can use the chlorine solution described above. For wood, it’s better to use a quaternary ammonium-based sanitizer like Mr. Clean.
According to North Carolina State University researcher Ben Chapman, quaternary ammonium is more effective at killing pathogens on organic surfaces like wood than other chemicals. Mix the sanitizer with water according to the dilution instructions on the label.
Immediately after the sanitizing step, dry your wooden cutting board with a clean towel or paper towel so it doesn’t have time to soak in moisture. For marble cutting boards, using a clean microfiber cloth to dry it will help prevent water stains.
When to replace your cutting board
All cutting boards have a limited life in your kitchen. The more cuts and scratches they accumulate, the harder it is to fully clean and sanitize them. Pathogens love to hide in deep scratches, so as soon as your board has a few deep scratches — or if it’s warped or cracked — it’s time to replace it.
Resurfacing a wooden board
Sometimes you can resurface a wooden cutting board instead of replacing it. This process has three steps:
- Clean and sanitize the board
- Sand the board until it’s smooth again
- Rub a food-grade mineral oil into the board
After cleaning and sanitizing your cutting board, use sandpaper to remove the cuts on its surface. Start with a rougher piece of sandpaper (the San Francisco Gate recommends 50 grit), then move to finer sandpaper (100 grit) to get the board really smooth.
Once you’ve removed the cuts and scratches from the board, it’s time to give it a protective oil covering. What’s Cooking America suggests using a mixture of USP-grade mineral oil and beeswax, while Good Housekeeping recommends a mixture of beeswax and coconut oil. Either one should work.
Cutting boards aren’t the only thing in your kitchen that you should keep clean and sanitized. For more information, check out our Food Safety for Home Kitchens course. You’ll be amazed by how much you learn in 15 minutes!
— Jessica Pettit