When it comes to choosing a material for cutting boards and countertops, it's hard to know what's safest and best. We love wood at RealCraft and we think it can be a great choice for food preparation surfaces. But there's more that goes into it than other wood products like doors or shelves. Here's everything you need to know about food safe woods and food safe wood finishes.
Is wood food safe?
The short answer is mostly yes. But there are some wood species that are toxic, too soft, or susceptible to bacterial growth, so those are not recommended for food preparation surfaces.
What are food safe wood species?
As a rule of thumb, wood is food safe if the tree produces nuts, fruits, leaves, or sap that is edible. But you should also keep the Janka hardness rating in mind. This metric measures how hard a wood species is in pounds of force or lbf. You want a wood that's on the harder end of the spectrum so that knives won't dent or scratch it as easily. Additionally, opt for a closed-cell wood species. This means the wood is less likely to be a good environment for bad bacteria. Here are wood species that meet all three requirements:
- Sugar Maple: This is the gold standard for food-safe wood. It has excellent hardness, with a Janka hardness rating of 1,450 lbf. It's also not too hard, meaning knives won't get dulled. It's also tight grained and naturally water resistant. Maple is the most popular customer choice for our butcher block countertops.
- Beech: It has a Janka hardness rating of 1,300 lbf, so it is similar to Maple. It will also shrink the most. But Beech is less expensive, if you are looking for something more affordable that's still food safe.
- Walnut: Slightly softer than Beech or Maple, so it will show knife marks more easily. But Walnut is a good choice if you want something that camouflages darker stains. It has greater dimensional stability than Maple or Beech, so you won't have to condition it as often, either. But it is more prone to water damage than the other two, because its cells are not as closed.
And here are some wood species that we like for countertops, but wouldn't recommend for cutting boards, charcuterie boards, or other surfaces that see more wear and tear.
- Cherry: Janka hardness of 950 lbf, this wood species is considered food safe and has a beautiful reddish brown color that will naturally deepen over time. You can use this wood species for cutting boards, but you'll need to be vigilant about conditioning it to prevent water damage.
- Hickory: renowned for its strength, with a hardness rating of 1,820 lbf. It is more porous, so it's fine as an accent wood, but we wouldn't recommend it for a full cutting board.
What woods are not food safe?
Poisonous exotic hardwoods are not food safe. Open grained woods with visible pores are not optimal either, as they allow for bacterial growth. Avoid wood species like ash or red oak.
What is a food safe wood finish for cutting boards or charcuterie boards?
The wood species is just one aspect of food safety. The other is what wood finish you use. We think that naturally-derived finishes are best for food preparation surfaces. Don't use varnish or other sealants that could peel or crack--you don't want that stuff ending up in your food! Here are our recommendations for food-safe wood finishes:
- Osmo Top Oil: This is the product we use to finish all our wood countertops. It's made with plant-based oils and waxes. It's made in Germany and conforms to strict EU requirements for safety.
- Raw linseed oil: This oil comes from flax seeds. It gives wood surfaces a nice sheen, but it has a long curing time and requires frequent reapplication. Don't use boiled linseed oil, as it has additives that are not food safe.
- Food grade mineral oil: We don't usually love petrochemicals, but mineral oil is a common choice for conditioning cutting boards and other wood food preparation surfaces. It's highly purified and "inert" which means it's as bland as can be. A good choice for those with allergies, food grade mineral oil is cheap and easy to find. But make sure it is food grade.
- Beeswax: Mixed with other food-safe oils, beeswax creates a more water resistant finish. It has an unpleasant smell while it's drying, but it's an all-natural favorite.
- Carnauba wax: sometimes called Brazil wax, you can use it on its own to create a water-resistant wood finish.