Is Cedar Good for Cutting Boards: Cons and Pros

Is Cedar Good for Cutting Boards: Pros and Cons

The ideal wood for a cutting board endures the rigors of chopping, boasts excellent water resistance, is safe for food contact, and preserves the sharpness of kitchen knives, among other characteristics. Cedar is well-known for its aromatic, spicy qualities and is commonly used to line closets or chests, as well as in musical instruments and decorative items. However, Is Cedar Good for Cutting Boards?

Is Cedar Good for Cutting Boards
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Cedar is not recommended for cutting boards. It is relatively soft, with a Janka hardness rating of only 350 lbf for Western red cedar and 900 lbf for Eastern red cedar, which means it is prone to scratching, denting, and warping, lacking durability. Additionally, cedar contains oils that can be toxic and may seep into food, posing a health risk.

While cedar’s visual appeal is undeniable, the functionality and safety of the cutting board are far more important. This article will delve into the reasons why cedar is not an advisable choice for cutting boards. Continue reading for a detailed analysis.

What is cedar wood?

Cedar, from the genus Cedrus, is an evergreen conifer within the Pinaceae family, originating from the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean, including the Atlas and Himalayas, but it can also be found in North America. In the Himalayas, cedars thrive at altitudes between 1,500 and 4,000 meters, while in the Mediterranean, they are found at elevations of 1,200 to 2,200 meters.

Cedars grow at a moderate rate of about 25 inches annually and hold significant economic and cultural value. Among the various cedar species, the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and the Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) are particularly valued.

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The Eastern red cedar is characterized by its reddish-brown heartwood and paler yellow sapwood, with a mildly resinous fragrance. The Western red cedar, on the other hand, typically displays a reddish to pinkish brown hue in its heartwood with yellowish sapwood and emits a stronger, more distinctly cedar aroma. Both species feature a straight grain pattern, although the texture of the Western red cedar is generally coarser.

Cedar wood properties

Cedar wood has been utilized in a plethora of ways throughout history, ranging from its mention as a type of incense in the Bible, known as the cedar of Lebanon, to contemporary applications like linings for cedar chests, pencil and paper production, fence posts, shingles, and shakes. It is also popular in the manufacture of musical instruments due to its advantageous physical properties.

Here’s why cedar wood is chosen for such diverse uses:

  1. Lightweight Nature: Cedar wood is particularly favored for furniture such as chests and wardrobes due to its lightness. Its open cell structure and low density mean a cubic foot of cedar weighs just 21 lbs, facilitating easier handling and crafting compared to denser woods.
  2. Resistance to Decay and Insects: Cedar’s high resistance to decay and insects is one of its most valued properties. Natural compounds within the wood serve as preservatives, making cedar an excellent choice for outdoor applications like garden furniture and fencing.
  3. Ease of Finishing: The wood’s ability to absorb stains, sealers, and other finishes effectively makes it a versatile option for both interior and exterior finishes. Preferred finishes on cedar include water-based polyurethane, linseed oil, and shellac.
  4. Aesthetic Appeal: The appeal of any woodworking project often hinges on the wood’s grain and texture. Cedar’s attractive, uniform texture and straight grain pattern enhance its suitability for decorative items, furniture, and musical instruments.
  5. Workability: Cedar is relatively easy to cut, shape, and sand, making it a preferred material for a variety of woodworking projects. Its easy-bending properties also contribute to its use in musical instrument manufacturing.
  6. Sweet Aroma: Cedar’s distinct and pleasant aroma is not only a sensory benefit but also serves a practical purpose. It acts as a natural moth repellent, which is why cedar is commonly used in closets and chests to protect clothing.
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Cedar wood as a cutting board material

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Cedar wood, with its distinct properties, might seem like an attractive option for crafting cutting boards due to several beneficial attributes. However, there are significant drawbacks that need consideration before choosing it for such a purpose. Here’s a detailed look at the pros and cons of using cedar wood as a cutting board material:

Pros

  1. Antimicrobial Properties: Cedar wood naturally possesses antibacterial and antifungal qualities, which can help inhibit the growth of bacteria, making it a hygienic choice.
  2. Aesthetic Appeal: The unique reddish-brown heartwood and lighter sapwood of cedar offer a visually appealing contrast that isn’t typically found in other woods used for cutting boards.
  3. Resistance to Rot: Due to its inherent resistance to decay, cedar is well-suited for environments exposed to moisture, which is a common condition for cutting boards.

Cons

  1. Softness: Cedar wood is softer than ideal cutting board materials, with a Janka hardness rating of only 350 lbf for Western red cedar and 900 lbf for Eastern red cedar. These values fall short of the optimal range (900 to 1500 lbf) for cutting board woods, which includes hardwoods like maple and walnut. This softness results in a surface that is easily marked by knives, leading to dents and scratches that are not only unsightly but also make cleaning more challenging.
  2. Brittleness: Cedar’s lower hardness and strength increase its likelihood of splitting or cracking, particularly under frequent use or accidental impacts.
  3. Toxic Oils: The natural oils in cedar, which are toxic to insects and used as a moth repellent, could potentially leach into food placed on the cutting board. These oils contain compounds like thujic acid and pinene, which, in higher concentrations, could pose health risks, such as respiratory issues or skin irritation.
  4. Tannin Stains: Cedar wood contains tannins that can bond with proteins and carbohydrates to create tan-coloured stains, which might also stain your hands during use. This can be an inconvenience when using the wood for kitchen applications.
  5. Lingering Odor: While cedar’s aroma is often considered pleasant, it can be overpowering in a kitchen setting. The scent might permeate food items, altering their taste and potentially detracting from the culinary experience.

The Dilemma of Cedar as Cutting Boards

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Indeed, cedar wood’s natural resistance to decay and rot might initially suggest it as an excellent candidate for cutting boards. However, the situation is nuanced and reveals why it might not be the best choice for this purpose.

While cedar’s rot-resistant qualities are beneficial, its classification as a softwood reveals a critical drawback for cutting board use—it lacks durability. The soft nature of cedar means it is prone to damage from everyday kitchen use, especially from cutting and chopping. This results in the wood surface developing grooves and cuts more quickly than hardwoods.

These imperfections in the wood are not just aesthetic concerns. They can become harbours for bacteria and other contaminants, potentially leading to foodborne illnesses. Once these grooves form, they can be difficult to thoroughly clean and sanitise, making the board less safe over time.

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In contrast, hardwoods like maple, walnut, and bamboo offer greater durability, which means they do not easily succumb to knife marks. Their denser and harder surfaces make them less likely to develop deep cuts that can harbor harmful bacteria. For these reasons, hardwoods are generally preferred for cutting boards in both residential and professional kitchens. They provide a balance of durability and safety, ensuring a longer-lasting, more hygienic surface for food preparation.

How to Make Cedar Food-Safe

If you’re set on using cedar for a cutting board due to its aesthetic appeal or other qualities, there are steps you can take to mitigate some of its drawbacks. Properly sealing the wood is crucial to making it more suitable and safer for use as a cutting board.

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Steps to Properly Seal Cedar for Cutting Board Use:

  1. Choose the Right Sealant: Select a food-safe sealant that is specifically designed for use on cutting boards. These sealants should provide a durable, hard finish that resists knife cuts. Options include food-grade mineral oil, beeswax, or a combination of both. Avoid common furniture finishes and cooking oils, as these can become rancid or are not durable enough for cutting board use.
  2. Prepare the Wood: Before applying any sealant, ensure the cedar surface is smooth and clean. Sand the wood with fine-grit sandpaper to remove any rough patches or previous finishes that might interfere with the sealing process. Wipe down the surface with a damp cloth to remove any dust.
  3. Apply the Sealant: Apply the chosen sealant according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For mineral oil, apply a generous amount to the surface of the wood and use a clean cloth to spread it evenly. Allow the oil to soak into the wood for several hours or overnight. For beeswax, you might need to melt the wax and mix it with the oil before application.
  4. Buff the Surface: Once the oil has soaked in, wipe off any excess with a clean cloth. If using a beeswax mixture, buff the surface to a smooth finish. This step helps to create a barrier that moisture and bacteria cannot easily penetrate.
  5. Maintain Regularly: Regular maintenance is key to keeping a cedar cutting board safe and functional. Reapply the sealant every few months or more frequently if the board sees heavy use. Always clean the board thoroughly after use and dry it completely to prevent water damage.
  6. Monitor for Damage: Regularly inspect the cutting board for deep cuts, grooves, or any other damage. If significant damage occurs, it may be necessary to re-sand the surface and reapply the sealant to maintain its protective layer.

Why Cedar Cutting Boards Are Toxic to Humans?

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Toxicity and Aromatic Oils

Cedar wood contains aromatic oils and compounds such as thujone, which are naturally toxic to insects. While these oils help the tree crown survive by repelling pests, they can be problematic when the wood is used for cutting boards. The continuous contact with food can lead to these compounds leaching into food, potentially causing digestive issues like vomiting and nausea, as well as respiratory problems such as a runny nose and asthma.

Softness and Durability

Cedar is a softwood with relatively low stiffness, strength, and hardness compared to hardwoods like maple, commonly used for cutting boards. Here are some numerical values to illustrate cedar’s softness:

  • Stiffness: 1.11 Mpsi (million pounds per square inch)
  • Strength: 7500 psi (pounds per square inch)
  • Hardness: 4560 psi
  • These values show that cedar is much softer and less durable than preferred materials for cutting boards. The soft nature of the wood makes it susceptible to deep cuts from knives, which are hard to clean and can harbor bacteria.
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Maintenance and Longevity

Despite the inherent risks and disadvantages, red cedar is noted for its beauty and smooth texture, making it visually appealing in kitchen settings. Red cedar cutting boards are claimed to be food safe, stable, and capable of lasting 30-40 years with minimal maintenance. They also handle extreme temperatures well and have good fastening and gluing properties.

Safety Measures

When working with cedar, especially during the preparation stages like sawing or sanding, it’s crucial to wear appropriate safety gear to avoid inhaling cedar dust. Protective goggles and a good woodworking mask are recommended to minimize health risks.

Cedarwood alternatives for cutting boards

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Here’s an overview of some excellent alternatives to cedar for cutting boards, highlighting their unique qualities and advantages for kitchen use:

Hard Maple Wood

  • Janka Hardness Rating: 1450 lbf
  • Properties: Hard maple is highly favored for cutting boards due to its strength, durability, and resistance to odor absorption. Its non-porous nature makes it easy to clean and maintain, reducing the risk of bacteria retention.
  • Benefits: This wood is strong enough to withstand heavy daily use without suffering significant damage, making it ideal for both professional kitchens and home use.

Black Walnut Wood

  • Janka Hardness Rating: 1010 lbf
  • Properties: Walnut is known for its strength and density, which contribute to its durability as a cutting board material. It also features a rich dark color and a vibrant grain pattern that can add a touch of elegance to any kitchen.
  • Benefits: Beyond its visual appeal, walnut does not easily stain or absorb odors, making it a practical choice for cutting boards.

Teak Wood

  • Janka Hardness Rating: 1070 lbs
  • Properties: Teak is a popular choice due to its natural oiliness and tight grain pattern, which make it highly resistant to moisture and warping. This resilience is enhanced by the wood’s natural oils that negate the need for additional treatments.
  • Benefits: Teak’s durability and moisture resistance make it suitable for heavy-duty use and environments with high humidity, ensuring longevity and ease of maintenance.

Acacia Wood

  • Janka Hardness Rating: Between 1,500 – 2,000 lbs
  • Properties: Acacia is a tropical hardwood known for its extreme hardness and resistance to bacteria, which makes it exceptionally hygienic for cutting boards.
  • Benefits: Although its hardness might pose a risk to knife blades if not used carefully, acacia’s durability and bacterial resistance make it an excellent choice for busy kitchens where hygiene and board longevity are priorities.

Douglas Fir

  • Janka Hardness Rating: Between 660  lbs
  • Its straight grain and ease of handling make it perfect for joinery, millwork, and detailed woodworking.
  • Both Douglas fir and southern yellow pine are strong and durable wood species, each with unique qualities that are suitable for different applications. Overview southern Yellow Pine vs Douglas Fir.

Final

Cedar is not the best choice for a cutting board, despite its visual appeal and natural antimicrobial properties. It does not possess the necessary hardness and food safety characteristics required for a cutting board. We trust that this article has provided you with compelling reasons to steer clear of cedar wood for kitchen use.

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