Friday, January 21, 2011

Kitchen basics: the chopping block

Food nerds, such as I am, can get a little obsessive about their tools; walking into a kitchen supply store is pretty much like a kid walking into a toy store. Going to a department store or any other place that sells kitchen supplies becomes an exercise in geekitude, as we are unable to look at, handle and assess (mostly by snorting in contempt) the wares available. That does not stop us from buying some of them, mostly at liquidation stores (like Homesense) because you do end up finding good deals.

You do also end up, like me, with a drawer full of knives, but that's a question of addiction, more than cookery, and that's for another blog.

Once that you've picked up some dependable knives, you need a cutting surface to use them on. Sure, you could work straight on the counter top, if you didn't care about the damage you'd cause to it, or on a plate, if you don't mind messing up your knives; there are times when you don't feel like taking out the boards and you just really want a piece of cheese, and that's okay. Just don't make it a habit and start butchering chickens straight on the cheap melamine counter top; if anything, you'd be less likely to get your security deposit back when you move out.

Cutting boards come in all sorts of size, shape, material and price, making that choice somewhat trickier than expected. Its easy to get all excited about marble or glass, they look cool and fancy, boosting your ego by looking good; on the other hand, they are about the worse sort of material to use for cutting surfaces. They are very hard, which wear down your knife blades. Its not that they are useless, they do have their purpose, but overall, they should mostly be used as presentation platforms. They will make you look cooler when you have people over and serve the ready-to-eat bites (like sushi) on those cool boards.

The two general materials you want to look for are plastic and wood. There are exclusive proponents to each, and I do prefer wood for most general purposes, but plastic does have its place as well, if only for the convenience of cleaning.

In a way, the board will determine by itself the most efficient use for it: a large heavy board will be better for heavier work, like carving up rutabagas, prepping squashes, breaking bones and other heavy duty labor; a light flexible board is for slicing work, especially if it has to be transferred to a cooking pot afterward; a small board will be useful for small work, like dealing with garlic, slicing cheese, or prepping citrus for your cocktail.

 So, what cutting should you get? Well, first off you'll want something of a middle ground: big enough to handle a full chicken, but small enough to drag out for cutting cheese or citrus. You'll probably want something with a grove all along the edge on one side; this is to catch the juices from either meats or produce. It should be heavy and solid enough to not crack or move around too much when handling serious chopping duty, but light enough that you can lift it one handed when you need to transfer the cut bits to the cooking pot. Whether its wood or plastic I'll leave it up to you and your own preferences; you have to take into account the ease of cleaning and durability, for that plastic does come out on top. I'm just a wood man, that's my style.

Once that you've got a basic board and you feel that its time to maybe diversify a little, you'll want to look at three boards:

a thick, solid butcher's block

a small but handy board for small or detailed work

and a thin flexible sheet for all that chopping that needs to be moved around.

While the butcher's block should definitely be wood, and the small board is ambivalent on its material composition, the thin boards are made from plastic. They are very convenient as they can be rolled, which allows them to be stored in your tool jar, and cheap enough to be easily replaceable if they crack. I used to get mine at the local dollar store chain and they came in pairs.

To wrap this up, some advice:

-as much as possible, clean your board (and knives) when you're done using them. This is especially true if you cut meat or acidic produce like citrus or tomato. The easiest thing to have on hand is a spritzer with a bleach-water mix in the proportion of one-to-ten. When you're done with the meat, spray the surface; this will kill the surface bacteria that could cause contamination.

-Lay down either a kitchen towel or a piece of kitchen drawer liner under the board.

This will prevent the board from sliding around when you're doing the chopping work with your sharp blades. Besides the friction between the board and the counter, it helps dealing with the possible fats and juices from your chopping victims from needing a bigger mop-up than necessary.

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