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FAQs: Cutting Boards and Kitchen Counters--Selection and Care
What types of cutting boards and kitchen counters should consumers purchase? What sort of care do they need? Do they need to be sanitized after each use? In what ways do cleaning and sanitizing differ? How does one sanitize? Let's find out what Shelf Life Advice Board scientists advise.
First, some definitions: in your kitchen, cleaning means getting the "gunk" off of dishes, utensils, and whatever else has come in contact with your food. Cleaning gets rid of visible food particles and probably some invisible pathogens, too. But proper sanitizing takes cleaning an important step further by killing enough invisible pathogens to prevent cross-contamination and the risk of food-borne illness. If the cutting board used to cut up raw meat or vegetables is not sanitized before it's used to slice pizza or bread, disease-causing germs from the raw food could spread to these already-cooked foods.
Now are you feeling guilty because you never sanitize? Don't feel too bad. Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein thinks that most people skip this important second step: "The truth is that most people do not sanitize at home although more are doing so these days. Since scientists have shown that cutting boards are often very contaminated, it's interesting to me that people rarely get sick from these microorganisms. [In the U.S., foodborne illness affects an estimated 48 million people each year (one out of six), resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.] I suspect that the 'germs' are ones our body knows, so they don’t actually cause problems for most people."
Dr. Regenstein says this about his own household: "We do not sanitize. The key is to wash properly--with soap and some elbow grease." But the dishwasher sanitizes, so sanitizing with bleach is necessary only for counter tops and dishes and utensils that are not dishwasher-safe.
Let's find out more about how 4 of our Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board members deal with cutting boards and kitchen counters to keep their own kitchens safe.
Which should the home chef do first--clean or sanitize?
Clean the board, says food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter. If the item isn't cleaned first, the sanitizer won't be able to do its job. Organic material--such as protein and fat--will interfere.
What is the cleaning and sanitizing process, step by step?
Here's Dr. Cutter's advice: If the cutting board you just used is going right into the dishwasher, clean off the "gunk" (especially organic material that may be stuck on it). Use warm or hot water, rinse, and then put it in the dishwasher. The dishwasher will do the rest of the cleaning and sanitizing. Your dishwasher may have a sanitizing cycle and/or sanitizing rinse. If so, check with the instruction booklet for information on how to use these properly.
If you are planning to use the cutting board more than once before putting it in the dishwasher, it should be sanitized before each use. The best way to accomplish this is by spraying it with a bleach solution made by mixing1 teaspoon of UNSCENTED chlorine bleach in a gallon of cool to lukewarm water (not hot, about 70-80°F), food scientist Dr. Karin Allen points out. To get rid of any pathogens that can cause sickness, the cutting board should be left soaking in the bleach solution or on the counter drying (with the solution on it) for about 2 minutes. The solution does not need to be rinsed off or dried. The board should be left out to air dry completely.
According to Dr. Allen, commercial products such as antibacterial spray cleaners or wipes do not offer enough protection from the risk of contamination, especially if the surface is bumpy. "Wipes won't reach the hidden bacteria, but sprays will. The problem is that most sanitizing sprays contain chemicals that should not be ingested. If someone chooses to sanitize with a commercial spray, here's the process: spray the cleaned cutting board, let it sit for 2 minutes, then wash and rinse it again to remove any chemical residue. With a dilute solution of just bleach and water, it's not necessary to wash/rinse after sanitizing. With a stronger bleach and water solution, a rinse is needed after sanitizing."
Of course, cooked meat, poultry, or fish should NOT be put on the same plate that held the same food when it was raw--not until the plate was washed and sanitized.
Many cutting boards on the market have a rough surface. They're harder to clean, but the bumpy surface serves a purpose, says Dr. Allen: it keeps slippery foods (such as a tomato) from sliding around and causing the chef to cut himself/herself rather than the food product. When cleaning a cutting board with a rough surface, scrub hard. If it has a lot of scratches, nicks and gouges, replace it.
How many cutting boards should my kitchen have?
You can get by with only one if you want to sanitize after every use. But if you don't, it's handy to have at least 2 and, better yet, 3. In stores and online, some companies sell color-coded sets. Some people like to use 3 different colors: red for meats, green for produce, and white for bakery goods. Some cutting board sets contain 5 different colors.
Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser says, "Multiple boards are a must in homes that have a lot of cutting activities that go on simultaneously (e.g., vegetable chopping and meat trimming). Separate boards (and cutting utensils) that are easy to identify by color or shape can help save time and maintain food safety when preparing meals. You may not have time to properly wash and sanitize a single cutting board between uses. If you do have the time and energy to do so, then you can probably keep working with a single board that is properly washed and sanitized between uses."
What kinds of cutting boards are best?
Dr. Bowser offers this advice: "The best material for cutting boards are materials that have these characteristics: They're easy to clean (e.g., dishwasher safe), resistant to cutting (but will not dull knives), attractive, lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and resistant to bacterial growth. Wood is still one of the best materials that meets most of these criteria (except that dishwasher cleaning is not recommended). Some plastics work well, too."
Dr. Allen has these suggestions for cutting board selection and usage:
"I use mostly plastic ones, the type used commercially. They are made of high-density polyethylene. (Look for "HDPE" on the packaging.) They have a nonporous but bumpy surface. The rough surface minimizes the risk of an accident."
"Wood boards are fine for cutting bread. They won't damage knives. However, they are porous, so bacteria can get into them. If you use wood, don't put it in the dishwasher. Wash it by hand, and let it air dry completely. Never use one to cut meat."
"Marble and glass cutting boards are fine for displaying foods but not for cutting. Even though glass shattering is a concern, the main issue is that they both dull your knives." Sharp knives are safer than dull ones," she explains.
Editor's note: my experience with a hardened glass board (sold by the Australian company Ashdene and shown in the photograph accompanying this article) has been very positive. The company calls this product a "surface saver" rather than a cutting board but also says it's "ideal for cutting and chopping." (I have never been brave enough to chop with mine, but cutting doesn't seem to harm it.) The packaging says it's easy to clean, heat-, scratch-, and odor- resistant, and made of toughened glass that's 25% thicker than the average surface saver. (Glass can be very durable. My glass earrings purchased in Venice many years ago refuse to break no matter how many times I drop them.) Does it dull my knives? I don't know.
Finally, here's a tip from the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter: Don't buy cutting boards treated with Triclosan, an antibacterial agent that is effective in reducing microbes. According to the newsletter, these boards are just as susceptible to contamination as those without the agent. Furthermore, the use of this antibacterial agent encourages an increase in antibiotic resistance.
It's not surprising that scientists are not always in total agreement as to which boards are best. According to a recent article in the Berkeley Wellness Letter, among studies comparing wood and plastic boards, some have concluded that wood transfers fewer bacteria to other foods, but others show that plastic causes less cross-contamination. The article concludes that either wood or plastic is okay as long as the user keeps the board clean and discards it when it's no longer in good condition.
What's the best type of kitchen counter to install in my home?
Kitchen counters need to be durable so they won't chip, crack, or scratch easily. Also, they should have a nonporous surface that's easy to clean and sanitize; porous surfaces invite the invasion of bacteria. Counters that are attractive may increase the value of a home, but if the surface is not practical and doesn't hold up well, it will need to be replaced, which is a sizable expense. Therefore, don't fall in love with a beautiful, shiny surface that won't serve you well over time. Before buying, ask questions and check online. Do some research about the pros and cons of the type you're considering before purchasing.
Dr. Allen recommends 1) stainless steel (which is what the food industry uses); 2) Corian (or a similar material); or 3) Formica. She does not recommend wood (butcher-block) counters for surfaces that are going to be used for active food preparation. Even if it's sealed, the wood is not protected forever; the seal will eventually wear away, and the porous wood is difficult to decontaminate.
When looking for kitchen counters, Dr. Bowser recommends selecting a product with the same qualities he listed for cutting boards. Then he adds this advice: "Since there is so much more area, the product should be fairly inexpensive. On the plus side, counters don't need to survive the dishwasher! Granite has been very popular, but I think it is too brittle, stains too easily, and is expensive. Stainless steel is my favorite for commercial applications but seems a bit cold for home use. My counters at home are covered with Formica. Formica is relatively inexpensive and surprisingly tough! It holds up to quite a bit of abuse. But sometimes it can look cheap. Some people love tile, but to me the grout lines can be problem areas for cleaning and bacterial growth. There is no ideal answer to this question."
How often should I sanitize my kitchen counters?
To some extent, that depends on how they're treated. When you come home, do you put some belongings on the floor and then move them to the kitchen counter? Do you have children who dump their schoolbooks or wet gloves there? If your shoes get muddy, do you clean them on the kitchen counter? After such actions, needless to say, it's a good idea to sanitize.
It's also a good idea to use a clean cutting board for food preparation rather than slicing and chopping right on the counter. As suggested above, kitchen counters frequently come in contact with objects that are not clean. And if your cat just loves to take a stroll on the counters--well, you get the message.
Our Board scientists advise cleaning first and then sanitizing before and after food preparation. Even if you're using a cutting board and not working directly on the counter, it's wise to clean and sanitize the counter area around the cutting board both before and after to get rid of splatter or drips, small droplets you can't see but may still be there. This may sound like a lot of trouble, but it doesn't take much time if you keep your spray bottle of bleach solution handy right under your kitchen sink. It's cheaper than buying commercial disinfecting sprays or antibacterial wipes and probably more effective.
Note: Dr. Cutter uses an antibacterial spray on her counters rather than a bleach solution. She likes the Windex multi-surface disinfectant. "It doesn't streak and is made of lactic acid." Why not bleach? "I have too many shirts that have been ruined by bleach."
So, how often should kitchen counters be cleaned? Here are our scientists' specific answers:
Dr. Regenstein: "In theory, one would sanitize before and after each meal. The problem is that few people are really going to do this."
Dr. Cutter: "Call me a neat freak, but I clean/sanitize my counters several times during the day." Kids and pets are part of her reason for doing so, but, even if you currently live with neither, before and after each food preparation is recommended.
Dr. Allen: "I think it's always advisable to clean and sanitize counters before and after food prep. Just because we didn't SEE something splash or drip doesn't mean it didn't." As for the kitchen table, in her home she cleans it before and after eating but doesn't sanitize a lot. "I don't put too much effort into sanitizing it. My food is on a plate, in a take-out box, or in a microwave tray, so it shouldn't be coming in contact with the table."
Dr. Bowser (after reading a draft of this article): "Washing and sanitizing before and after food preparation activities should be highlighted and reinforced (repeated)." Okay, Dr. Bowser, it's been repeated. Is anyone out there listening?
Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board members:
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science
www.dupont.com "Corian® Kitchen Countertops and Sinks for Beautiful Homes"
wikipedia.org Formica (plastic)
University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, "Cutting board conundrum"
ashdene.com "Surface Savers"