“But is it clean?” Food safety and wood ware

In yesterday’s post, a commenter raised the issue of the safety of wood ware.

“I was told growing up that wood cutting boards, and wooden utensils can get scratches or grooves in them through normal wear and tear. These grooves can trap food particles in them and go bad causing food health issues.”

That’s a great point to bring up. It applies especially when you’re talking about something like a cutting board, which will get a bunch of small cuts criss-crossing the surface as you use it. But when you consider the fact that wood is porous, even without marring the surface with knife cuts, won’t bacteria find lots of places to hide and multiply in wooden bowls, cutting boards, and utensils?

Researchers at the University of California – Davis, led by Dean O. Cliver, PhD, took a look at the safety of wood and plastic cutting boards.

“Our safety concern was that bacteria such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, which might contaminate a work surface when raw meat was being prepared, ought not remain on the surface to contaminate other foods that might be eaten without further cooking. We soon found that disease bacteria such as these were not recoverable from wooden surfaces in a short time after they were applied, unless very large numbers were used.”

There appears to be some anti-bacterial factor in wood that prevents bacteria from living and multiplying. What exactly that mechanism is wasn’t clear from Cliver’s team’s research, but their conclusion is that “wooden cutting boards are not a hazard to human health, but plastic cutting boards may be.”

So you can relax. Use good hygiene on your wooden bowls, cutting boards, and utensils–for example, wash them with warm soapy water, and don’t use the same cutting board for fruits and vegetables right after cutting meat. But the bottom line is that you have more to worry about, in terms of food safety, from the plastics in your kitchen.

The care and feeding of wood ware

Still life with wooden bowlsWhen you have utilitarian wood ware–cutting boards,  wooden spoons, fruit or salad bowls–keep in mind that it needs regular care. It’s not difficult or complicated, but there are a few things to remember.

Cleaning: Hand wash wooden utensils with warm water and regular dish soap, rinse well, and dry with a towel. It’s always good to let wood items air dry before putting them away. Never wash them in a dishwasher or let them soak in water.

Refreshing the finish: Regardless of the type of finish originally used on your wooden bowls, spoons and cutting boards, as you use them, they will start to look dull and dried out. Rubbing in a bit of walnut oil or mineral oil with a clean, lint free cloth will help bring the finish back to life again. If the wood seems really “thirsty,” you might need to repeat this a few times. If you have some available, you can also rub on a bit of beeswax, and then buff it with a soft cloth. Go light on the wax, because a little will go a long way.

IMPORTANT: Do NOT use ordinary vegetable oil or olive oil on your wood kitchen ware. These oils will go rancid, and if you’ve ever smelled rancid oil, you know you don’t want your salad bowl smelling like that!

Additional notes: Wooden items WILL be stained by things like berries or barbeque sauce. Some people view those stains as added character and patina. If you don’t care for that idea, then use a bit of common sense regarding what you put in your bowls, on your cutting boards, or stir with your spoons. If it will stain clothing, it will stain wood.

Also keep in mind that wood moves. It expands and shrinks with changes in the humidity in your house, and with changes in temperature. Avoid rapid temperature and moisture changes, which can cause the wood to crack.

Silver maple shimmer

Another silver maple bowl that has a beautiful chatoyance. It’s not the ripple that you see in curly maple, but it’s striking. I’m doing a little experiment with this one: it’s finished with walnut oil, which takes a little longer to cure but is completely food-safe. (Note: pretty much every finish is “food safe” once it’s fully cured, but walnut oil starts out food safe, since it is food. But it also has the advantage of being able to cure to a solid finish without going rancid.)

UPDATE: This bowl is available on Etsy.

10 1/8″ diameter, 2 1/4″ high.

Bowl 113 (6)

Interior shot of that figure.

Bowl 113 (1)