How to Care for and Clean Built-in Butcher Block
With a trick from Jacques Pepin himself.
If you love to cook, a built-in butcher block can be a godsend. The ability to slice and dice to your hearts content, never worrying about a cutting board sliding around on a counter, is truly freeing. They tend to be significantly larger than any cutting board and can take a serious beating. They also tend to get more beautiful with age and use. Think about some of the old-school butcher shops you have visited, the ancient wooden blocks worn to rounded smoothness on the edges from decades of use.
Top quality butcher blocks are made from end-grain hardwoods, and many producers use woods that are healthy. Larch Wood Canada makes both cutting boards and custom built-in products from the larch tree, whose wood is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial as well as self-healing. You can chop away for years, and the surface will still look unmarred. Built-in butcher blocks are usually custom-order items, so you can add the features you most want, from thickness to built-in knife slots or garbage holes, drawers, or towel racks.
But that doesn’t mean the built-in cutting board is without its issues, and the primary one is cleaning and care. Built-ins cannot be just plopped in the sink for a proper wash, nor run through the dishwasher for sanitation (never put wooden items in the dishwasher), so cleaning them is a bit more complicated. And depending on the one you choose, they can be porous, so you have to think about how you want to use them.
How to Care for Your Built-in Butcher Block
Your built-in butcher block will last forever if you follow some basic rules. Firstly, keep it clean. More on that later. Secondly, keep it moisturized. Buy a good quality butcher block wax or oil (we like Boos Cream, $13) and once a week, after cleaning, put a generous layer on the top of your block right before bed and let it sit overnight to absorb, giving it a good wipe down in the morning to remove any excess wax or oil that was not absorbed. This will help to protect the wood from drying out.
Dry wood can be easily damaged and split, so if you don’t keep yours in good health, it can crack or little bits of wood can begin to flake off during use. We should all be eating a high fiber diet, but I draw the line at wood shavings! This waxing will also help prevent any moisture from foods getting absorbed into the surface of your wood. If after many years of use you find that you do have surface damage that is either preventing you from safely cutting food or is creating opportunities for contaminants to get absorbed into the wood, most blocks can be carefully sanded back down to reveal fresh wood. Just remember every layer you remove makes your block a bit shorter!
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How to Clean Your Built-in Butcher Block
I have a two-foot by two-foot, four-inch-thick, built-in butcher block in my kitchen, and I made a decision when it was installed that I was going to generally avoid prepping raw meats on it for food-safety reasons. This is because most often I am not just breaking down meats, I am doing so in the midst of preparing multiple dishes, and I did not want to ever risk cross-contamination—or have to prep the meat and then properly clean the butcher block before starting on the vegetables. If I am only prepping meat, like breaking down a larger piece into smaller portions for freezing, and not doing other cooking at the same time, then I will use the block.
Regardless, for everyday cleaning, I keep a spray bottle filled with a quart of water that has 3/4 of a teaspoon of chlorine bleach mixed in, which is a standard restaurant kitchen sanitizing liquid. After I use the butcher block, I spray it down, let it sit for a minute, and then wipe off. This amount of bleach will not cause any harmful effects to the food you prepare on the surface but will kill any bacteria or contaminants that might be on your block.
The Jacques Pepin Butcher Block Cleaning Method
Once a week I give it a more thorough cleaning before I wax it, and this process helps remove any surface build-up of either wax or food and helps to remove any odors that might be embedded in the wood. I got the technique from a friend of mine who tells a story about when she was working for a television chef and Jacques Pepin came to be a guest on the show. The first thing he did was lean over and sniff the butcher block. Then, not liking what he smelled, called for salt and lemons so he could clean it properly. She was mortified that the great chef was cleaning the block, but also watched carefully so she could repeat his technique.
He sprinkled a generous layer of kosher salt all over the block, cut a lemon in half, and took a half in each hand, and used the cut sides to begin to work the salt into a paste, going in small, even circles all over the board. He did this for a good few minutes, until most of the salt was dissolved, and the lemon halves were flattened and spent. Then he wiped the salt and lemon juice off the surface and went over it with a damp towel to be sure that there was no salt or lemon residue on the block. Then he sniffed again and nodded. This process is simple, sort of meditative, will fill your kitchen with fresh lemon scent, and will keep your butcher block at its best. I do this at the end of my Sunday evenings and then do my waxing, so that I wake up Monday morning with my block ready for another week of great cooking!