Despite appearances, bamboo is actually grass, not wood, and it sprouts up surprisingly fast; some bamboo varieties grow up to 36 inches in just 24 hours. This makes it a sustainable, cheap material for any number of products, including building materials, furniture, paper, clothing, and cutting boards.
Bamboo cutting boards, in particular, have become increasingly popular. They’re cheap, with one of the most popular 18 x 12 cutting boards on Amazon selling for only $16 (compared to the $215 of our favorite The Boardsmith model). They are naturally anti-microbial (though less so than natural wood), somewhat water resistant, and relatively low maintenance. They don’t require you to season and maintain them as often as wood. Because of all this, bamboo cutting boards sound pretty appealing. However, they’re terrible for your knives.
Why Are Bamboo Cutting Boards So Bad?
One of the best features of bamboo is also the reason why it’s bad for blades: bamboo is durable, hard, and strong. Most bamboo has a tensile strength of about 28,000 pounds per square inch. That’s the amount of pressure or stress that can be placed on the bamboo before it cracks or breaks. To put into perspective, steel has a tensile strength of 23,000 pounds per square inch.
Not only is bamboo strong, it’s also hard. Bamboo hardness is attributed to the high percentage of silica. Silica goes by a couple of different names, including silicon dioxide and quartz, and is the main component of ceramic and glass. (Bamboo leaf ash has actually been used as an ingredient component for ceramic glazes.) This means chopping on a bamboo cutting board is akin to doing so on a slab of porcelain or glass, something we recommend strongly against. And when you take a knife, made of steel, and hit it against a material that’s as hard and strong as bamboo, the softer material is the one that is going to give and become dull and damaged.
For these reasons, a lot of knife and food professionals are pretty adamant against bamboo cutting boards. Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco feels so strongly about bamboo cutting boards that they offer a discount to folks who “turn in” their old bamboo cutting boards for new wood ones. Josh Donald, co-owner of Bernal Cutlery, says, “We can usually tell when someone is using a bamboo board with their knives as the edge is usually mashed in a bit or has small chips depending on the hardness of the knife’s steel.”
Jared Schmidt, co-founder Schmidt Bros. agreed with that sentiment. “Bamboo cutting boards are great for their natural density, which helps to seal and protect the board against water damage and bacteria build-up. However, they are pretty brutal on your knife edge due to the hardness of the bamboo. While you can get away with light chopping on bamboo boards, we recommend end-grain cutting boards because they offer a high level of softness to reduce unnecessary knife dulling.”
What Cutting Board Material Should You Buy Instead?
Earl Gonzalez, master woodworker at EVG Design recommends “maple and walnut wood.'” (In fact, our favorite wooden cutting board, from The BoardSmith, is made from maple.) Donald, of Bernal Cutlery, agrees and also recommends Japanese Hinoki wood, a Cypress relative, if you use Japanese knives. “Hardwoods, like Maple and Walnut, will allow the knife to slide over them more than softwoods,” Donald says. “The hinoki cutting boards grab the knife edge a little more, as it’s a dense softwood, but it offers the best protection for the edges of very hard Japanese knives.”
What’s the best cutting board?
When we tested wooden cutting boards we ended up agreeing with Gonzalez and Donald, picking maple as our favorite material. We liked the Boardsmith Maple end grain cutting board, Brooklyn Butcher Block end-grain Maple cutting board, and the Brooklyn Butcher Block edge-grain Maple cutting board to all be great cutting boards. We also liked the Ironwood Gourmet Acacia wood cutting board as well, as a more budget friendly option.
Why are sharp knives important?
Experienced cooks know that a dull knife can be dangerous, as it is more prone to slipping and sliding. Keeping your knife sharp means honing it regularly and sharpening it when you feel it gets too dull.
Which knives are more durable?
Knives are rated on a Rockwell scale of hardness. Japanese-style knives tend to be thinner and harder, maintaining their edges longer. But they are also more fragile and can shatter or chip easily. Harder metal is more difficult to sharpen, too. Conversely, Western- or German-style knives are made of softer, thicker metal. This means they dull quicker, but are more durable.