Your Cutting Board
If you use a kitchen knife, then chances are you are also using a cutting board. You don’t want to be cutting directly on a kitchen counter for a number of reasons, not the least of which is sanitation. Also, you don’t want to cut the surface of the counter if it is laminated, nor do you want to damage the edge of the knife if you have stone, metal or tile counters.
There are three basic types of cutting board: wood, plastic, and roll-up plastic. Wood is the absolute best surface for cutting on, because the knife can cut into the surface a small amount instead of slipping and sliding. This gives the knife both shock-absorption and traction, making the cutting process a lot easier.
The downside of wood boards is that they can trap bacteria, making them a potential food safety hazard. Wood absorbs liquid, and because it is organic it can also act as a temporary food source for bacteria. For this reason it is important to never cut raw meat, and preferably not even cooked meat, on a wood board. Also raw eggs, uncooked dairy, or anything that has a high possibility of carrying bacteria should not touch a wood board (although you should be safe with cheese).
Having said that, lots of people still use wood cutting surfaces exclusively, and there is a safe way to do this. If you are willing to wash down your cutting board with a strong bleach solution after each use, and rinse it off thoroughly with very hot water, you can drastically reduce the chance of cross-contamination of food-borne bacteria. But for the amount of work that that involves, I go with the next best thing: plastic cutting boards.
While plastic does not have the same sort of traction and absorption qualities that wood has, it is awfully close. The difference between wood and plastic is less than the difference between plastic and practically any other surface. Also, plastic will not absorb liquid, which means that sanitation is much easier, and the danger of cross contamination is no more than that of any plate or bowl or pot that you might use. Cleaning it is no more difficult than putting it in the dishwasher, or hand washing in hot, soapy water.
Also, lots of plastic boards have “moats” around the edges to collect liquid run-off from whatever you are cutting. This is very handy when cutting meat, as you don’t want the blood or juices running off onto the counter where they can spread bacteria.
The third type of cutting board, the roll-up type, has limited uses in my opinion. These boards are often sold as add-ons at home selling parties because they are relatively cheap, and are somewhat novel. If you have never seen one, they are basically sheets of plastic that can be rolled up, and then unrolled onto a flat surface to act as your cutting surface.
Any time I have seen them advertised, the claim is always made that they are indestructible. However, I have never had one last past a few uses. If you are using a good kitchen knife, it will have a sharp blade, and it is going cut into the board no matter what the manufacturer says. If it doesn’t, then it is going to slide around, and that is no good either. That means that you’ll eventually cut right through it, as eventually happened to me.
There are three benefits that come to mind for the roll-up cutting mats: 1. They are food-safe like the plastic cutting boards; 2. They are quite portable, making them good for outdoor trips where a large wood or plastic cutting board would take up too much space. However, it seems likely that you would do your cutting ahead of time rather than bringing whole foods and cutting them on site; 3. Because they are flexible it makes it easy to pour the chopped food into a pot or pan or whatever. But for my money, the only reason to buy one of these is to help a friend who is selling them.
If you decide to go with a wood board, then make sure to avoid any that have been stained or varnished, as any finish on the board will eventually end up in your food. Also, most wood cutting boards are made of many pieces of wood that are glued together. This is fine, but make sure that the individual pieces are arranged so they are standing on edge; in other words they are thicker up-and-down than they are side to side. This will stop the board from warping.
Also, avoid the slide-out cutting boards that are built into the kitchen drawers. They are difficult to clean, and if they have a little bit of food on them when they are returned to their hiding place, you are just begging for bacteria to start multiplying.
If you have money enough for just one cutting board, go with plastic. It is cheaper, safer, and will last a long time. Later when you can afford it, get a nice, large wooden one for veggies and fruit, and you will absolutely love it!