For obvious reasons, it's important to finish kitchen surfaces like counters and cutting boards with substances that are food safe. Luckily, there’s a range of finishes—often called cutting board finishes—that fit this bill.
Pure Tung Oil
Pure tung oil is a food safe wood finishing extracted from the nut of the China wood tree. While it’s available at most hardware stores, the downside to this finish is that it’s difficult to apply and requires an abundance of coats to make it water resistant enough to use in the kitchen.
Some have worried that this finish might affect those with nut allergies or sensitivities, and it never hurts to consult with an allergist if you're worried, but negative reactions are very unlikely.
This food safe finish option is a very popular oil in today’s market for cooking purposes. It’s commonly used on butcher blocks and cutting boards. The distilled or fractionated variations are the best for wood finishing, as this process keeps them from going rancid.
Since this is a natural substance, it’s no surprise that it’s food safe. Food grade beeswax is refined straight from honeycombs that bees reside and work in. With all its other applications, from candles to lip gloss, it may be a shock that people use beeswax as a wood finish, but mixed with some kind of oil it's a pleasant smelling finish that’s safe for culinary prep.
Oil will make the substance more water resistant, but it still shouldn’t be exposed to high heat, as it can melt. Beeswax is also commonly used in fruit glazes, gel capsules, and chewing gum.
Raw Linseed Oil
This finish is pressed from flax seeds, themselves an edible substance, so it's a natural for kitchens, and in fact it's so safe that it can go straight from seed to container to counter, without any processing in between. This finish has a long curing time—from weeks to a month—but it looks great on wood. Like mineral oil, it has a low water resistance level and and requires frequent reapplication.
Harvested in India, shellac is a water resistant finish secreted by the lac bug. Its- most water resistant form of it is the flake variety. If enough of this substance is applied, it leaves a desirable glossy finish. Is it safe to consume? You bet! In fact, some candy is coated with it, proving that point.
This finish is known to resist water and alcohol and has a pleasant, sweet smell. It can go rancid if not cured properly, so it needs to be exposed to adequate oxygen after application. It isn’t known to affect those with nut allergies, but it should still be used with caution in especially sensitive cases.
This colorless and odorless oil is derived from petroleum, and is a great way to seal wood in the kitchen. This oil differs from tung in that it’s easy to apply. However, it does have low water resistance, which means it will need frequent reapplication in the kitchen—almost monthly if it's on a surface getting heavy use.
It's commonly used on butcher block tables and cutting boards, but if this substance is not maintained properly, it will get brittle and cracked.
Choosing a Finish: Penetrating Oil vs Surface Sealer
Now that you know the options, you’re likely wondering how to choose which to use in your kitchen. The biggest question you need to answer is whether you want a penetrating oil or surface sealer.
The main difference is that oils soak down into the wood, living inside of them. While this option offers less protection, it’s easier to apply, and leaves the wood looking more natural.
Surface sealers, known as “film finishes,” don’t soak into the wood. Instead, they stay on the surface, leaving a barrier that acts as a protection for the wood. Surface sealers can be trickier to apply, but they have a glossier, more eye-catching appearance.