Caring for Wooden Utensils and Cutting Boards

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Wooden utensils and cutting boards take a bit more care, but they're surely worth it.

For cooking, I much prefer wooden spoons and spatulas to metal ones, primarily because they're less abusive to the food and to the pan. I'm less likely to end up crushing tender foods such as shell beans or risotto if I stir with a wooden spoon. Wooden utensils won't discolor food, they're poor heat conductors, they come in many shapes and sizes, and, finally, they just feel good in my hand.

Whether wooden cutting boards harbor or hinder harmful bacteria is still unclear. Recent studies at the University of Wisconsin suggested that wood has antibacterial properties that make it more sanitary than plastic. But further research has since refuted those initial studies, and so the best practice is to maintain two cutting boards: a plastic one (without nicks or cuts) for meat and poultry, and a wooden one for fruits and vegetables.

The best cleaning method for wooden utensils is a simple washing with hot water and detergent. As long as it smells all right, you needn't fear using a wooden utensil first to stir tomato sauce, cleaning it thoroughly, and then using it to stir crème anglaise. Clean cutting boards the same way, but if you've used the board for raw meat or poultry, add a bit of bleach to the soapy water--one or two teaspoons per quart of water is enough. If you want, rub a wooden board with mineral oil after several uses. Don't soak wooden utensils or boards in water or put them in the dishwasher because they're liable to crack.

A butcher-block table takes a bit more effort to clean. Add a small amount of bleach to a bowl of warm soapy water. Wash the table down with a coarse scrub pad, and then scrape the surface with a stainless-steel bench scraper (the kind used for cutting bread dough). Rinse the butcher block again with clean warm water, dry it, and then rub the surface with mineral oil, wiping off the excess.

Hardwoods are best for any cooking utensil or board. Maple is ideal, as are olive, cherry, and beech. These are all slow-growing trees; hence their wood has a tight grain and isn't as porous as trees that mature quickly, such as pine. Hardwoods won't absorb as many odors and isn't as prone to warping or cracking.

Wood butcher block can take much hard wear and tear, be resurfaced or repaired, and continue looking good for many years.

Before using a new butcher block, season it to prevent staining and absorption of food odors and bacteria.

A mineral oil finish is preferable to polyurethane or varnish because the oil finish is easy to maintain and to repair if the wood surface is damaged. An oil finish helps to prevent the wood from cracking or pulling apart at the seams. Although boiled linseed oil will work, mineral oil is preferred because it will not turn rancid.

Before applying oil to butcher block, warm the oil slightly. Apply oil with a soft cloth, in the direction of the grain, allowing the oil to soak in between each of the four or five coats required for the initial seasoning. After each treatment, wait about four to six hours and wipe off oil that did not soak into the wood. Re-oil the butcher block monthly or as often as needed.

Wood butcher block counters have all the characteristics of solid wood. They will shrink or expand as the moisture content of the wood changes. Extreme dryness may cause cracks. Any cracks that appear should be filled with wood filler, sanded smooth, and the entire block given a good coat of oil.

Oil finished butcher block tops may be cleaned as any other table top. A damp cloth with a detergent may be used; followed by a damp cloth to remove the detergent. Excessive water should be avoided. All water should be wiped up immediately. Cut raw meat and poultry on a smooth-surfaced plastic cutting board which can be scrubbed thoroughly with hot suds afterward.

Repeated use and cleaning will remove the oil finish. Periodically, warm mineral oil should be applied with an absorbent cloth or very fine steel wool to the surface and edges. Allow oil to soak in a few minutes, then remove all surface oil with a dry, clean cloth. Oxidation or hardening of the oil will take approximately 6 hours.

Here is some information on repairing cutting boards.

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