A cutting board plays an important role in the cutting process, as it is interacting with the cutting edge in every cut on the board. Thus it is important to use cutting boards that match your cutting technique as well as your knives. Here a few things to aid in the choice of your board:
Stay away from hard materials!
Materials that are hard or even harder than your knife (stone, glass, steel) are not at all suitable as a cutting board, as cutting on them will dull your knife faster than you can look! As a general rule, the harder the board, the more it will dull your knife.
Match your board with your cutting technique.
If you are a rock-chopper, look for boards that are not too soft, since a sharp blade may get stuck in a soft board and interfere with the rocking motion.
Wood or plastic?
Both have their place in a kitchen and are materials recommended for cutting boards. Which one is better is a long debate that boils down to preference and to the importance of hygiene to you.
If you are very concerned about hygiene, buy plastic boards. They can easily be cleaned and sanitized. Due to this, they are widely used in commercial kitchens. The downside is that they usually are softer than wood. The softness can interfere with a rock-chopping motion. Also, sharp knives usually leave cuts in the surface, where dirt may get entrapped if not thoroughly cleaned.
Wooden boards are generally harder, so that the blade usually rocks nicely on the board and cuts leave less marks on the surface. Additionally, wood has the magic ability to “heal” naturally, closing-up cuts over time. The downside is that wood can’t be placed in a dishwasher. So it needs to be rinsed and scrubbed with soap and water, especially when cutting fish or meat. It can also be sanitized.
Small or big?
The clear answer is: both. Small cutting boards have the advantage of being light and nimble, making them easier to clean. So when cutting smaller amounts of food, a small board comes in handy. But when cutting larger amounts or sizes of food, a larger board is a must have. If one would only like to work with just one board, a medium size is recommended (around 14" x 10").
What kind of wood?
The most commonly used material for cutting boards in Japan is Hinoki (Japanese cypress). It’s light, durable, highly resistant to water (used for bathtubs!) and contains high amounts of wood tar that not only produces the typical fragrance. It’s also the reason for the anti-bacterial properties of the material, so that it’s ok to just wash and dry. At the end, it’s the material all Japanese Chef’s use to cut raw fish on. Hinoki is quite soft and thus very easy on even the sharpest edge. The softness is ideal for chopping and slicing, but not well suited to rock-chopping.
In the West, dense hardwood lumber with a closed grain is considered as the best suited material, with the most popular varieties being maple, walnut, cherry, teak and beech. They hold up well to cuts and resist moisture. Walnut and cherry are one the softer side and thus easy to edges. Maple and beech are harder, but still don’t blunt an edge easily. Teak has dark hues and thus is more stain resistant, but harder on the edge due to higher silica content in the wood. If one is one a budget, Acacia is a good choice. It's relatively affordable, yet stable, not too hard on the edge, and nice to look at with rich, hard hues.
One material that can’t be omitted is bamboo, although technically it’s not wood, but hard grass. It’s probably the most sustainable material, as it grows very quickly and doesn’t need chemicals to grow or harvest. On the other hand, one needs quite a bit of glue in production, which however is not a safety issue. The biggest downside is that they are quite hard on the edge, due to a high silica content.
Not recommendable are oak (soaks up a lot of water and hence prone to warping), tropical hardwoods (not sustainable, often treated with chemicals) and rosewood (tends to contain leach oil that can be toxic to people with sensitivities).
Edge grain or end grain?
Edge grain boards are produced from vertical cuts through a tree, so that one is cutting through the fibres. They can be thinner, are easier to make and thus cheaper, but warp more easily and are harder on knives.
Edge grain: fibres are split and scars remain
End grain boards are produced from horizontal cuts through a tree, exposing the rings of a tree and cutting into the fibres. The boards are thicker, more warp resistant, easier on the edge, will show less cutting scars, but are the most expensive to produce.
End grain: fibres are pushed aside and spring back
So what would be our recommendation?
Premium set-up for high-end Japanese knives:
large Hinoki board for slicing meat or fish
smaller Hinoki board for slicing or chopping
large Cherry end grain board for rock-chopping
Economy set-up for Western and Japanese knives:
large Acacia end grain or Beech edge grain board for rock-chopping
smaller Acacia end grin board for slicing and chopping of vegetables