Food-safe oils - which type should you be using?

“What is the best oil to treat wooden utensils and cutting boards with?”

It’s a question everyone asks when purchasing a cutting board and it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. There are old-fashioned treatments and modern oil blends that all claim to be the best way to preserve wood used in the kitchen.  So let’s take a look at your options for treating wood, and clear up the confusion.

There are essentially two kinds of oil used for treating wood… oils that harden, and oils that don’t harden.

Oils that harden, including polyurethane and varnish are basically what you’ve got on your furniture. If you smell these based on the odor alone it should be obvious why they are not good for anything that comes into contact with food. These oils create a shell around the wood that, with use, will eventually crack and chip off in your food. Not recommended.

Oils that don’t harden include food-based oils… linseed oil, tung oil, walnut oil, etc. - and petroleum-based oils like mineral oil. These all offer safe protection. But they’re not all equal.

Food based oils like olive, corn, vegetable, and canola oils will never dry and eventually will chip off into your food like hardening oils, but they can discolor your utensils, thicken, and go rancid, giving your cutting boards a rotten smell. Have you ever see an old cutting board that someone is selling at a garage sale that is yellow and sticky on the surface? It is that way because they most likely treated the board for years with one of these food-based oils. These oils are especially troublesome when used on cutting boards that don’t get a thorough washing often enough.

An exception to the typical food-based oils, is walnut oil. It’s widely recommended because it doesn’t go rancid. It dries, unlike the other oils in your kitchen. However, it can still get a tacky feel. If you’re a believer in walnut oil, be sure to apply it only to utensils you use and wash often. That should help keep it from developing a thick, sticky coating. Also, remember some people are allergic to nut and nut products. If nobody in your family or you know you’ll not have guests that are allergic, you are good to go.

Another option is Tung oil. It does a good job. It will dry and harden well, which will keep it from going rancid. But for me it creates a bit if a sticky buildup. And anyway, to get a proper coating you’ll need to spend 5 or 6 days applying multiple coats and drying and sanding between each. Nice for furniture or art pieces, not so nice for kitchen utensils.

Beeswax. As a primary coating this sounds like a good thing, but the problem is that it wears off easily with time and heavy usage. As a primary coating wax, and even the addition of wax to mineral oil, is very thick and is harder to apply and restricts the depth to which it can soak in. So, beeswax is great – but only as a topcoat to the primary oil applied.

So, we’re down to petroleum based oils, and within that category is our recommendation for treating your utensils - mineral oil. Mineral oil gets a bad rap from time to time because it is petroleum based. If you are anti petroleum products, that’s your thing and that’s just fine. We’re not here to convince you otherwise, we’re just here to tell you what works best for oiling cutting boards.

Mineral oil has a lot of great qualities when it comes to treating wood that will be in contact with food. Here are a few of its benefits:

 - It’s 100% food safe
 - It quickly penetrates the tight grain of the hardest hardwoods
 - It will never go rancid like food-based oils
 - It never leaves a sticky residue
 - It is odorless
 - It has a decades-long shelf life