Wednesday, November 30, 2011

John Boos Cutting Board (and it's short life in my kitchen)

Wood or plastic -- the never-ending debate about the least glamorous kitchen tool.  You'd think that after hundreds (if not thousands) of years of making cutting boards, people would finally perfect this piece of equipment, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

First of all, let me admit that I am a plastic board person.  The bacteria issue is just ridiculous.  The entire food industry uses them and NSF (National Sanitation Foundation ) approves them.  If you worry about bacteria in plastic boards, you'd better stop eating out.  If you have a dishwasher, sanitizing a plastic board is a piece of cake, and if you don't, there is always bleach.  My problem with plastic boards was their appearance in cooking videos.  Many vegetables are light in color and cutting them on a white board doesn't provide good contrast.  Why do you think all the boards on Food TV are wood?  Because that's what professionals use in restaurants?  Give me a break!  There was also the supposed issue of plastic boards dulling the knives faster than wood.  It never seemed to be a problem with my regular knives because I steel them daily, but now that I got a Japanese knife and spent hours reading very geeky knife forums, I bent down to peer-pressure and started looking for a wood board.  

Cook's Illustrated, whose recommendations on equipment are usually solid, changes its mind on cutting boards almost every year.  So, when I started looking at which board I should buy, I was scratching my head for about a month.  Finally, I picked John Boos Maple 18 x 12 x 1.75-in. End Grain Cutting Board for $76.  My past experience with a wood board was been terrible.  In spite of all the TLC, it still ended up warping and splitting in less than a year of use.  But that was a cheap board from Crate and Barrel.  I was hoping that John Boos would last longer.  I followed all the instructions to the letter.  Didn't soak in water, dried immediately after hand-washing, oiled couple of times in the first week of use.  The results?  4 days later, the board was warped, and it wouldn't stay put on the counter.  What about the wet towel trick to prevent the board from sliding?  That works great with plastic boards, but means death for a wood board.  Contact with moisture means more warping and splitting.

While the board lasted, it was a lovely surface to work on, so I was hoping there was some way to reverse the warp.  I contacted John Boos and they instructed me to wrap the board in plastic and put a heavy weight on it for 4 days.  I tried that.  It didn't work.  Luckily, I bought this board from, whose customer service was outstanding.  They said they'd take the board back, give me a refund, and even pay for my shipping back charges.  So that was the end of the Boos board, and I was back in the market.  

I decided to take a look at restaurant supply stores on-line, and found a Winco 12 x 18 x 1.75 edge-grain board for about $32 including shipping.  In theory, edge-grain boards are not as gentle on knives as end-grain boards, but they tend to warp and split a bit less since they absorb less moisture.  After 1 month of use, my board is still in exactly the same shape as it was new.  The working surface was a tad too smooth and slippery when the board was brand new, but now that I broke it in, it feels good.  Is it really better on knives than my plastic board?  Hard to tell, but the chopping motion does feel a little better.  As all thick wood boards of this size, it's heavy, so I can't comfortable lift it up to swipe the vegetables into a pot or bowl.  When I am dealing with small amounts, I can scoop them with a knife, but for large amounts, I have to dirty my pastry scraper that doubles as a food scooper.  Not the end of the world, but not ideal.  Washing this board is a bit of a pain because of its weight.  Ideally, the weight would help it stay put on the counter while I am chopping. It sort of does.  Sort of.  I feel it shifting a bit, so I end up putting a dry terry cloth towel underneath.  

In the end, I still reach for my plastic boards when I am making dinner.  My favorite one is an 18x12x0.5 Winco plastic (polyethylene) board.  Put a damp paper towel underneath, and you are ready to go.  It's large enough to fit a lot of veggies, and light enough to lift comfortably to a bowl or pot.  Doesn't nick much or grab the knife's edge.  10.5x111 OXO boards are not bad either.  They are smaller and lighter than my Winco plastic board, so even easier to clean.  The rubber feet wear out quickly and stabilizing them takes a lot more paper towel since it needs to go under the feel, not under the middle of the board.  They do get nicked a lot more, and grip the edge a lot stronger.  When I move the knife over a bit while rocking it back and forth on the board, I sometimes feel a snap around the edge.  It just doesn't feel quite right.  But with regular steel use, it's no biggie.    


bkida said...

I appreciate the honesty. I've been using bamboo lately and I like how they are holding up. However I doubt that I am anywhere nearly as attentive to keeping my knives as sharp so it's difficult for me to know what kind of wear they are creating on the blade. I sharpen my Hinckle about every 2 months or so. The bamboo board is comparatively lighter, it's very durable and easy to clean and it is a more sustainable product than other hardwoods. My new rule of thumb is plastic or acrylic for meats and bamboo for fruits and veggies. Variety is the spice of life.

Helen said...

I've only tried edge-grain bamboo and found it to be really hard (worse on knives than plastic). Of course, end-grain bamboo should be softer and might work quite well.

TheAler said...

I use an anti slip mat under my cutting boards no matter what material the board is. The require no water which eliminates the issues with wet clothes under wood. I pick them up at the dollar store. It is a rubber mat with many holes in it, however, I'm not sure what they call them. I have also had no issues putting them through the dishwasher.

Laura said...

I too have been using a pair of bamboo boards for a few years now. Bought the set of large and small from Costco for an amount of money that was negligible. They have not warped, split and are fairly resistant to scarring. The only thing that bothers me a bit is a darkness in the corners of the edge drain on the board. Looks like I never clean them properly which is not the case and they are used daily.

Helen said...

Thanks for letting me know about bamboo boards at costco. are they end-grain or edge-grain?

Anonymous said...

I'd second the comment on the Boos boards:

Bought one a while back...the pieces split at the edges (the short side). I oiled the crap out of them and they swelled up and the gap went away temporarily but that doesn't work any more. Complained to Boos and was pretty much blown off like you. Their CS'd think they'd want to protect their great reputation but noooo... :-P

The bamboo boards on amazon don't have great reviews either...seems the glue for the end grain doesn't last. Maybe teak next for me...

Kari said...

I have a 4" thick Boos end-grain block (on a SSTL cart) and I love cutting on it but the individual pieces of maple have swelled/shrunk at varying rates so I have 2 or 3 spots where there are 1/8" gaps all the way through the block. I have to keep them filled with paraffin just to use the thing. I tried contacting the company and they were no help at all. Really disappointing for such an expensive piece of equipment.

Anonymous said...

i've used boos boards before. I had no issues. This site does a good job of giving the reviews I love the juice grooves on the boos boards. Just recently I used it to cut watermelon and there was zero spill because of the juice groovers. Its awesome. Just try it.


Anonymous said...

Please note that bamboo is not a wood, and hence endgrain bamboo is not really endgrain. Bamboo is a grass and is made to boards with lots of glue.
I've made many endgrain cutting boards and have never seen one warp. They key is proper wood selection and saturating it with oil before use. My 2 year old board is flat as glass today with daily use.

Unknown said...

Boos boards are extremely inconsistent in quality. Unfortunately, they often bow (especially newer ones) and sometimes completely split. Many people buy them because of their name (which many magazines love to promote), and often wind up with a bad taste in their mouth regarding wooden boards because many Boos products hold up poorly, even with the best of upkeep. Another reason many Boos products warp is because certain products are overly thin.

In other words, Boos is Shun of cutting boards. The company is sensationalized & sells more on branding than quality, prices are outrageous relative to the quality/performance, and much better options exist, some which are much less expensive.

A less expensive board maker of much higher quality is Michigan Maple AKA Wood Welded. They have edge grain and end grain boards (most are NSF certified). End grain is ideal because it is the most durable when cared for, self-healing & good at hiding scars, easy to refinish, ideal for withstanding impact when used as a butcher block, and super easy going on knives (end grain maple as the best possible surface). (Cooks Illustrated has claimed on a few occasions that end grain is the least durable between face grain, edge grain, and end grain...this is 100% untrue and an end grain board from a competent artisan is as durable as it gets. The problem is they weren't testing good quality end grain maple boards, likely compounded by user error such as inappropriate upkeep.)

Cooks Illustrated drives me nuts when they do parts on cutting boards as they are a terrible source for this kind of information and they often overlook the nicest brands in favor of the sensationalized ones that are more expensive primarily due to a name. They have advocated teak, which is a terrible wood for a board (and some concerns regarding toxicity exist). They also advocate bamboo, which is brutal on knife blades and very expensive due to the short service life. They also tend to overlook the research which shows wooden boards are the most sanitary because they actively kill the pathogens in food that tend to make us sick (no other material does this.) Some of the things they write make me wonder if the person making the claim is on heroin or something.

Your experience is totally unacceptable for a board priced like that. A good maple board should last DECADES when cared for, if not indefinitely. And despite you caring for it properly, it (along with many other Boos products) did not provide even minimally acceptable longevity.

However, if you are willing to pay for Boos, you can probably also afford some of the best cutting boards in the world!!! Many of the high-end Boos are priced close to the boards made by BoardSmith. BoardSmith is widely regarded as one of the best (or the best) makers of boards in the entire industry. They run circles around Boos and the quality will blow you away!

My daily use board is a 15x15 Michigan Maple 2 inch butcher block, in end grain maple. It was about $50 delivered to my door. The quality is outstanding, especially for the price.

ALVIN's cutting mats are also worth mentioning. I find they are as close to end grain maple as any product I have used, and like end grain maple they can self-heal the abrasions made by the blade to some degree.

Helen said...

Hi Zac,

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. I'll look into BoardSmith boards. I actually got a $30 Winco edge grain board that has served me well for years. No warping. I am amazed at how common John Boos boards are even in professional kitchens considering the poor quality and high price.


Unknown said...

I've been looking to develop markets for acetylated southern yellow pine. One potential product category is cutting boards. Acetylated wood is treated with acetic anhydride, an organic chemical used to make acetaminophen and acetate. It reduces the ability for wood to absorb moisture, thereby reducing cupping, warping and splitting. Second, the acetic acid that bonds in the wood cell walls is a natural anti microbial. It is similar to very strong vinegar. Think "pickled wood".

I've run samples repeatedly in the dishwasher with virtually no warpage. The wood is southern yellow pine.It is 25% more dense and 15% harder than ordinary syp. It had been developed as building product typically exposed to extreme environmental conditions. Cutting boards, by comparison are a relatively benign application. We are looking at 2x12x14 boards.
I'd love to hear back from all you gourmands.

Anonymous said...

Another idea, although a more expensive one, is to buy your wood cutting boards from a local woodworker. There are many woodworkers that make fantastic pieces of art, or more basic functional boards. (yes, I include myself among them). When buying from an art and crafts fair, you are getting a handmade, functional piece of art that gets all the attention to detail that a fine piece of furniture is given, for a price that is pretty darn comparable to any of the higher end boards on the market. The difference? Each board is make one at a time, inspected one at a time. Wood workers will take into account the density of the woods used, the moisture content of woods used, as both of these variables can affect the movement of your board. We (at least the ones I know) have your board cured properly before you buy it, so it is done correctly. You also have piece of mind because we actually care about you as a customer, as we normally make a product that will last decades, our only hope of repeat business is that you love your boards so much that you think of us when wedding and other gifts are needed. We use many techniques that are meant to help your board service your needs for decades to come, such as biscuits, splines, book matching. Not to mention that we are inspecting all joints throughout all processes of your board's creation. Wood boards can be a piece of art that you get to use every day, and can be made with a level of detail that will insure you years of use, but you are not ever going to find that at your local big box store. And Gary, looking at the MSDS for acetic anhydride, you are going to have an uphill battle talking people into using something has that a warning as dangerous for both skin contact and ingestion.

Thank you for letting me give my two cents. Brendan from C Squared Wood Products

Anonymous said...

I had the same experience as many here: babied the heck out of the board followed all the care instructions and then some only to have it warp in the first few months and then eventually crack/ split. Terrible and useless support from the company. A waste of time, money and trees.

Anonymous said...

I am a woodworker and have made many butcher blocks and cutting boards. Most of the problems with warping boards is the fault of the owner and not the company or carpenter that made it. All sides of the board must be sealed with oil on a regular basis. If you just seal the top and sides, your board is guaranteed to warp. When I look at the picture of the board shown by the op, the warping looks to be caused by the back not being properly sealed.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest you look at Cotton and Dust cutting boards. I have several and they are spectacularly made. 4 years not one single problem.

Unknown said...

I have a large platics cutting board at home which gets used every day for everything! they are easy to wash and maintain..

kmjelde said...

Thank you for this write up. I have recently been promoted to executive chef and as a reward for myself, I purchased the biggest boos block end grain board I could afford. After a week of treatment, I used it to make dinner. I made sure to wipe after each vegetable cut and followed the instructions when cleaning at the finish. Woke up this morning and the board is nearly a bowl! Currently, I have is pressing under a sheet tray with a heavy mixer and some pots and pans but I am not hopeful.
It really was a wonderful cutting surface, the knife felt great on it.
Your write up helps me feel less crazy (since I too, followed instructions).