The First Butchers Block Was Actually Used by Blacksmiths in the Nineteenth Century
In the 1800s blacksmiths practiced their trade on the stumps of trees, shaping fire-hot iron into horseshoes by hammering them on anvils. Although effective, this practice had it limitations. After all, not every smithie’s shop was located near a convenient tree stump or two. This led to the idea of mounting thick slices of tree trunks atop wooden legs so that these makeshift tables could be strategically located and moved around the shops. Blacksmiths marveled at how well the cross-sectioned slabs - just like the tree stumps before them - absorbed the explosive impacts of hammer against anvil.
John Boos & Co. Brought Chopping Block Tables to the Masses
Recognizing that butchers too, had need for sturdy wooden tables on which they could chop and carve meat for resale, the forefathers of Boos & Co. began peddling their chop-block tables to meat shops and the butchers block was born. In the first half of the twentieth century these versatile blocks migrated from corner meat markets to supermarkets, then to restaurants and delis, and finally, into America’s kitchens.
The End-grain Butcher Block Was the First, and Remains the Strongest
Those first chopping block tables – essentially cross section slices of the trees from which they were cut - exposed the wood’s end-grain (i.e., the grain patterns found on cut or sawed “ends” of wood). As such, these tables capitalized on the vertical strength and resilience of hardwood. They could readily withstand the blunt force of even sledge hammers, as well as sharp blades. The next innovation in this evolutionary tale involved the creation of a “composite” block for cutting, slicing and chopping. In essence, numerous miniature blocks, each showing off a small rectangular segment of the rings of the source tree, were melded together by way of adhesive and physical pressure. The result was an exceedingly attractive and rugged cutting surface. Since each rectangle contributes a unique grain-print (analogous to a finger print) and color profile, the finished surface had the appearance of a rich checkerboard or a fine tapestry. To this day many people still associate the term butcher block exclusively with this particular look and structure: end-grain style. While there are two other construction styles used in the making of butcher block tables, countertops and cutting boards – edge-grain and blended – authentic butcher blocks come in end-grain style.
Choose a Natural Oil or Varnish Finish for Your Butcher's Block
If you expect to do lots of food preparation on yours, such as cutting, slicing, dicing and chopping, then you would be best advised to choose an end-grain butcher block with a food-safe, natural oil finish. The wood fibers of these cut ends are less susceptible to nicks from knives or gouges from sharp-edged kitchen implements. Realize however, that you will need to re-apply oil to the board about every 3 or 4 weeks in order to keep it moisturized for safe use and longer life. If, on the other hand, your interest in butcher blocks traces to their fine-furniture look and you’re not up for regular re-oiling, then you should consider a block with a semi-gloss, varnish finish. John Boos, the leading American butcher block manufacturer, offers such a finish branded as Varnique. Wood surfaces finished with Varnique do not require regular maintenance and are quite easy to clean using just soapy water and a sponge or cloth rag or towel. Note however, that varnished surfaces should not be cut upon since knife blades can cut into and scar their surfaces, leaving them unprotected from spills that could otherwise impregnate the wood. Instead, we recommend using a cutting board placed on the top of the block.
Want a Butcher Block That's Great for Baking? It's a Toss-up between Natural Oil and Varnish
Home bakers need a sturdy work table with a smooth surface on which they can sprinkle flour and knead and roll dough. Butcher blocks make perfect baking tables. In fact, they’re great for all sorts of food preparation tasks and they’re equally meritorious as surfaces on which you can present home-baked goods. You can feel confident using them for serving everything from appetizers to desserts, including even main courses like roasts, turkeys or hams that need carving.
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