THE SELECTION of the proper chopping board is as important as the selection of the proper knife.
Too hard a cutting surface will quickly dull, or in some cases actually ruin knives. Too soft a surface will not give sufficient resilience for the correct handling of knives. Good cutting boards are manufactured in three different materials: wood, rubber and polyethylene. The best wood for a chopping or cutting board is something hard like maple. It is not so rigid that it will destroy a knive blade nor so firm as to give your wrist the cook's version of tennis elbow. And it will not add any flavor of its own to the food.
The ultimate chopping blocks are made of laminated squares of end grain wood held together by a series of tongue-and-groove arrangements. Through the mid 1950s this was the common construction for most butcher blocks and virtually every commercial butcher in the United States had one, standing on four thick legs. This type of board can be found in a 2-inch thickness with outside dimensions of 10-by-10 inches, 12-by-12 inches and 12-by-16 inches. There are sturdy feet on these boards to protect countertops, and they're so attractive they make excellent serving boards for dry foods. (Dry foods only because there is no drip groove around the outer edge.) Prices range from $19 to $32.
A second style of wood chopping board is made of laminated lengthwise strips of hardwood. In the past, this type of construction was not as strong as end grain grooving. But today, the industrial techniques for curing wood and electronically bonding the strips together with recently developed glues is so advanced that these boards are sufficiently strong and warp-resistant. The better brands have been sanded to a satin-smooth finish and hand-rubbed with protective oil. Boards made by Carborundum, Reliance and J&D Brauner are quite dependable.
Avoid cutting boards that are made from a single piece of flat wood. They tend to split. I would also skip the round cutting boards imported from the Orient. Most of them are made of woods that are too absorbent and the round shape is impractical. Their circular shape was dictated by the tree trunk from which they were sliced, and food is constantly sliding off the edge.
The best way to clean a wooden kitchen surface is to scrape off all food residue with a steel scraper or spatula. Then sprinkle the board with coarse salt. Take half a lemon, from which you have removed the juice, and using the lemon as you would a wash cloth, scrub the salt on the surface. The salt and the lemon interact to form a mild acid which cleans the wood. Rinse the surface with cold water after all stains have been removed.
If the board is in really bad shape it is sometimes possible to remove stains by sponging the surface with ordinary household bleach. Be careful to limit the time that the bleach is in contact with the board: Wood is porous and may absorb the bleach. Sponge it quickly and then run cold water over the surface. Never use soap or detergents which will weaken the wood fibers.
A number of years ago the federal government introduced a regulation that prohibited the use of wooden work surfaces in industrial food processing areas. The agency felt that wood was too porous, that it accepts grease too easily, that the grease is difficult -- if not impossible -- to remove, and that as a consequence there is a tendency to breed bacteria. This desire for a germ-free environment has led to the development of hard rubber chopping boards. They are available from restaurant supply houses in 1-inch thicknesses at sizes from 18-by-12 inches to 24-by-18 inches and retail for about $12 to $20. Most of these boards have a distinct odor during the first weeks of use which is highly reminiscent of spoiled milk. Eventually the smell will die out, and the board itself is excellent.
The third type of board available today is made of opaque white polyethylene. It is easier to keep clean than any wooden board because it is non-absorbent and it will not discolor. Smells, stains and grease wash away with scouring powder or bleach. I have been putting these boards into my dishwasher for over five years and except for a slight dulling of the surface gloss, there has been no discernible effect. As with any plastic-based material, it is important to avoid contact between the board and any extremely hot objects that might cause melting or scorching. These boards are available from Taylor & Ng in 1/2-inch thicknesses at sizes 10 1/2-by-16 1/2 inches at $15.50, 12 1/2-by-18 1/2 inches at $19.90 and 15-by-20 inches at $28.30. Similar boards are also marketed under the Joyce Chen label in the following sizes: 17-by-10 inches at $13 and 14-by-8 inches at $10. Select a board with a hole at one end. It makes the board extremely convenient to hang.