What To Do When Your Cutting Board Reeks Of Onion

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Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

Here's something I haven't been able to solve: How does one get the onion smell out of wooden cutting boards? I like onions; I like strawberries. I don't like strawberries that taste of onions.

Yours is an exceedingly good question, in that onion-smelling cutting boards are so very, very common a problem to have in the kitchen, and also because it gives me an excuse, as if I need one, to write up a Monster Cutting-Board Care post.

For our purposes today, we'll focus on wood, bamboo, and plastic cutting boards. Glass cutting boards are the Devil's own chopping surface, and marble isn't common enough for us to spend time discussing its care beyond making these two points: a) avoid any acid-based cleaners, which can cause pitting, and b) dish soap and/or bleach are the best products to use to get marble boards clean.


Since the question was specifically about smells permeating a wooden board, let's first start with some best practices for the handling of wooden cutting boards.

  • Don't submerge wooden boards in water, as soaking can cause the wood to expand and warp. A soaked board can also develop mildew.
  • Always dry wooden cutting boards immediately after washing to prevent mold and warping.
  • Don't put wooden cutting boards in the dishwasher, as the heat can cause splitting and/or warping.
  • If you use a wooden cutting board for resting and/or carving meat, don't allow blood to pool on it for an extended period of time.
  • Use a board oil to condition the wood—mineral or coconut oils are your best bets, as others, like olive or canola oils, can go rancid. Some people swear by almond or walnut oils, but those are costly and may create spoilage problems. In terms of how often to oil your board, that's largely up to you. Some people are religious about oiling their boards once a week; others only do so once a year. A good compromise is once a month, but again, that's just a guideline that you can adjust as appropriate based on factors like frequency and manner of use, climate, board quality, and how much time you're willing to devote to cutting-board care.

The Raw-Meat Conundrum

There's a fairly common school of thought when it comes to cutting boards that goes something like this: Use your wooden boards for vegetables and other less bacteria-y foodstuffs, and use a plastic board for cutting raw meat. The idea is that the plastic boards can go into the dishwasher, where they will become clean as a whistle thanks to the high heat.


The problem, as is so often the case, is Science.

Fucking Science, you guys. Can we get rid of Science? Naw, I'm just kidding, I love Science. Let's keep Science around a little longer.


Anyway, here's what Science has to say about the use of plastic vs. wooden or bamboo cutting boards for raw meat: Wood or bamboo is preferred over plastic. I KNOW! My mind is so blown. So look, you can click through to that link and read a not-very-long-but-also-a-bit-dry explanation, or you can stick with my version of the UC-Davis study's findings, which is: Plastic boards that have been used—that is, nicked—over time, harbor more bacteria than do similarly used wooden boards.

You can take away from this whatever you like, though I would suggest just not worrying all too much and using the board you prefer. Why am I being so flip about that? Well, for all that I trust that the UC-Davis study's findings are sound, there are also equally reliable sources out there that say plastic boards are the way to go when it comes to handling raw meat. So I've decided to not worry, and you can all join me in not worrying, too.


But! If you want to worry, by all means, go ahead and worry.

Regardless of your general level of anxiety about the relative germiness of your cutting boards, the following will probably be helpful in helping you to decide which of the many (many, many) methods for cleaning, deodorizing, and disinfecting a cutting board is right for you.


The Burneko Method

Look, I've got an Official Kitchen Cooking-Type Person on call, and it would be foolish of me not to consult him to ask how he manages his cutting-board health. So I did! Here's what Albert had to say for himself:

I have my method, which seems to work okay, but for all I know may very well be poisoning me and my family to death slowly. I also have no less than three cutting boards, starting with two cheapish plastic (I think?) ones that fit in the dishwasher, so I just give them a pre-scrub and then sock them in the dishwasher. I try to use the plastic cutting boards for meat, because I trust the dishwasher (on its highest heat setting) to sterilize them. And then I have a larger, wooden butcher-block-type thing that I spray with a cleaner that has bleach in it. Which makes it very clean-seeming! But probably also is poisoning us maybe? I rinse afterward. Most of the time. At my autopsy they're gonna find that my organs are a gleaming white. "Wow, this guy bleached himself from the inside out!"


Now, we already know, because Science told us, that those plastic cutting boards 'Bert is throwing in the dishwasher are probably going to be what kills him and his family in the end, but I also want to say, as a human (or a close approximation thereof; the jury is still out on whether or not I'm actually human), that this is an absolutely fine approach.

The Lemon Technique

Our LW asked specifically about removing smells from his wooden cutting board, and for that, lemon is The Thing. (Also baking soda, but we'll get to that in a sec.) Cut a lemon in half, put it cut-side-down on the board, and scrub away. Then rinse well with warm water and you should be all set.


If you need extra scrubbing power along with your odor remover, salt + lemon juice will scour and also lighten stained boards.

More About That Salt

If your board has gotten overly moist, sprinkle the entire surface with coarse salt and allow it to sit for a few hours, up to overnight; the salt will pull out excess moisture.


The Bleach-The-Hell-Out-Of-It Approach

At the risk of stoking the rage of the BLEACH MONSTER people out there, yeah, go ahead and use some bleach to clean your boards. Or don't! If you are bleach-averse, that is okay. Skip right ahead to the next section. (If you're vinegar-averse, probably just go read a different column.)


You can use the same bleach solution—one teaspoon bleach diluted in two quarts water—for both plastic and wooden boards. The difference is in application: You can soak a plastic board, but not a wooden one. For wood, just dip a paper towel or spare kitchen rag in the bleach solution, wipe the board, rinse well, and then dry.


White Vinegar, The Gentler Bleach

You want to use full-strength white vinegar, undiluted, for the cleaning of wooden and plastic boards. The vinegar will disinfect, and if you use it in concert with some baking soda, it will also eliminate odors (like the ones from those onions), as well as create a cool volcano effect. Sprinkle the board with the baking soda, then spritz on the vinegar using a spray bottle. Allow it to bubble and foam for about five minutes, then rinse and dry well.


More About That Baking Soda

Let's say your board is stained and stinky, but not necessarily from anything particularly bacteria-y. In that case, a paste of equal parts baking soda, salt, and water (one to two teaspoons of each should do you) will be your new bestie. Use that paste to scrub the board, then allow it to sit for about 10 minutes before rinsing and drying.


Hydrogen Peroxide: The Dark Horse

Hydrogen peroxide is another great bleach alternative that will kill lurking bacteria. Look for the 3-percent stuff, which will be plenty strong enough to kill any nasties. To use, dampen a clean kitchen rag or paper towel with the peroxide, and wipe the board. Then wash as usual and dry well.


How To Choose A Cutting Board

Given all of that information, you might be wondering what is the best kind of cutting board to buy. The Sweethome, which is a site every last one of you should know about because it is oh my God so good [disclosure: I have served as an expert source therein] recommends wood boards over both plastic and bamboo.


Are You Still Reading This?

I admire your stamina.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.


Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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