The use of wooden utensils, surfaces and equipment has been a long-debated topic in the hygiene and food safety industry. Each person seems to have their own valid opinion, with supporting research and evidence. Even more so, is the aesthetic motivation for the use of wood rather than any other hygienic benefit.
We will attempt to discuss the pro’s and cons for the use of wooden utensils in the kitchen and make practical recommendations for the use of wood in this article.
We all know that wood and wooden spoons have been in use in traditional cooking since the recording of time, and is still in use in many countries. There are certainly practical uses of wooden equipment versus other materials such as plastic (nylon) and stainless steel. Such as heat conduction, no reaction to acidic foods and they do not scratch pots.
There has been a long-standing opinion that wooden equipment is less hygienic than other materials. A recent change in perception that wood is, in fact, better than the other materials discussed above.
Several articles cover this topic, and the common theme seems to be:
“Wood looks better over time…”, “wood feels and presents well…”, “wood is more durable..”
Some of the ‘facts’ described talk about the natural anti-bacterial nature of wood. So let’s discuss this first.
Anti-Bacterial properties of wooden utensils
- Certain woods do have some anti-bacterial properties, and much like lemons in nature, do not have pathogenic bacteria growing in them.
- This, however, does not mean that bacteria cannot grow and survive once exposed to the environment. And so, much like lemon, you cannot use wood to kill bacteria.
- A common misunderstanding with the term ‘anti-bacterial properties’, is that these properties will kill bacteria. This is simply not true. And you will have bacteria grow in sliced lemons as you will in wooden equipment.
Wooden utensils are porous and tend to absorb water
- Wood is a porous material, and the common theme in food safety is that non-porous material must be used in the kitchen, to allow effective and efficient cleaning and disinfection to take place.
- Absorption of water is a key factor in hygiene and the prevention of bacterial growth. The less water is available, the less likely bacteria will grow and survive.
- Wood also retains flavours and odours from foods.
Cross-contamination linked to wooden utensils
Some research indicates that there has been no direct link between the use of wooden utensils and food poisoning. The reason for this is most likely because this would be a cross-contamination factor, which often cannot be shown to have one single link, separate from other cross-contamination causes, such as hand washing, storage of foods etc.
However, there are some things we must accept, wood in itself is no different than any other material used in the kitchen is kept in a good condition and is well maintained.
This is again a misunderstanding and is misleading in how research and other articles draw their conclusions. There is a simple defining factor here, wood is porous. This makes the material difficult to clean and disinfect. This alone in a commercial kitchen means this material really should be used.
However, research has shown, that bacteria do in fact grow in wooden material, and allows a biofilm of bacteria to grow, survive and flourish. This, by the way, is not unique to wood and does occur on any kitchen equipment. The interesting part of the research is that bacteria tend to stay in the wood, and does not easily transfer from the cutting board/spoon into foods. It is only when the material becomes damaged or peels off, that it releases the bacteria that has built up in the wood.
See here for the article showing all the research.
Condition of Wooden Utensils
There is a significant factor, that all the research and articles seemingly forgot to mention. Wood splinters. Splinters from wood is a physical contamination concern from especially wooden spoons and no one wants splinter stuck in their throat.
Most of the recommendations seem to suggest alternatives, allowances, special conditions, if this, then that scenarios. These include, use one spoon for stews, and another for chicken etc. Not an easy thing to do if they are not easily identifiable. Ultimately, there is a trend in using more and more wood in the kitchen. And in all honesty, wood can be used in the kitchen and especially in areas that have a low bacterial load, such as serving boards.
But here’s why we wouldn’t recommend it:
- Wooden equipment needs to be kept dry in order to be kept in a good condition.
- The oils and coatings used to conserve and protect wood are not food safe, meaning that if these get into the foods, there could be a real risk.
- Because wood needs to be kept dry, it becomes difficult to clean and disinfect these items.
- Kitchens don’t follow the above, and 9/10 boards and spoons are damaged.
- These damaged areas harbour bacteria and allow the bacteria and moulds to be released into the foods.
So, you’ve decided to stick with wood. How do you then ensure these items are well maintained and free from damage?
- Wooden utensils should be hand washed with hot water and a mild detergent. Sprayed with a sanitiser and allowed to dry completely.
- Wooden equipment could technically be cleaned in the dishwasher, however it’s not a good idea, due to the high temperatures of the cycles that can dry them out.
- If your wooden spoons or cutting board start to look dry or fuzzy, periodically rub them with mineral oil or a longer lasting beeswax conditioner. Don’t use food-based oil like vegetable or olive oil, since these can go rancid.
- Wooden cutting boards and spoons can eventually split as they dry out or are exposed to extreme temperature changes. Discard split wooden tools, because food could get trapped in the cracks and allow bacteria to grow.
- Stains or roughness can be rubbed away with a piece of fine sandpaper.
However, you feel about wood, following the correct procedures and policies is the only constant.
For more information on the food safety pillars check the ebook on Amazon.