Recently, after becoming interested in Nakiri vegetable knives, I happened upon the YouTube channel of an amateur reviewer by the name of MrKnifeFanatic. About halfway through one of his videos, I had a stray, yet significant, observation: His wooden cutting board, instead of being made from long, narrow planks of wood, was composed of many equisized squares, resulting in a checkerboard-like pattern.
A quick search revealed that it was an end-grain cutting board, meaning that it was constructed so that the fibers of the wood face upwards and make up the cutting surface. Because boards like this require more individual pieces of wood, and are generally more difficult to make, they tend to be more expensive than edge-grain boards, the more universal and cost-effective option for those who appreciate wooden cutting surfaces. Price aside, however, end-grain boards, like the one used by MrKnifeFanatic, are oftentimes preferred among passionate home cooks because they are easier on blade edges. If properly maintained, they are also more sanitary.
The theory behind this functionality is simple enough: the orientation of the wood fibers receive the blade better than the long edge of a wooden plank. Because the blade is being caught between the natural separation of the fibers, which close back up over time, end-grain boards carry a reputation for being “self healing.” As a result, sharp knives do not make permanent, lasting cuts in the wood — cuts that quickly become filled with bacteria, eventually rotting from the inside out.
That said, end-grain boards are not perfect. At least not for everyone. They are porous, absorbing more liquid than edge-grain boards, and, as a result, must be cleaned shortly after use. They also require more frequent conditioning (with food-grade mineral oil, for example) to prevent drying, warping or cracking over time. It’s important to remember, too, that not all end-grain boards are created equal.
The best, I’ve found, are those with offset construction, like those made by Nils Wessel of Brooklyn Butcher Blocks, which sell for $150, or the BoardSMITH, a mom-and-pop based in Dallas (with boards starting around $120). The advantage of a brickwork pattern is that the integrity of the board is stronger and it holds its shape better than checkered end-grain boards. If you decide to go this route, you will find boards available in different types of wood. Though oak is pretty, go with maple (the industry standard), which is championed for its weight, hardness and very tight grain structure. (As a plus: it’s also cheaper.)
If you hardly cook, or are simply lazy about cleanup, I would not recommend you spend the money on an end-grain board. Buy a cheap plastic cutting surface (I like the brand Progressive) and don’t think too much about it. But if you care about your kitchen knives, and have invested in top-of-the-line steel, maintenance is a part of the deal. And that means using the right cutting surface.