When I teach a cooking class, I try to get a 'feel' for what level my students have achieved thus far. I am constantly amazed at the lack of basic knowledge of techniques, even from those who say they are 'experienced professional kitchen staff'. I can only conclude that many restaurants must be satisfied with sloppy techniques.
If you do any real cooking at all (as opposed to 'warming-up' prepackaged foods), then you will be spending a good bit of time doing 'prep', or preparing food to be cooked. This will involve a lot of cutting and slicing. Of course, good quality cutlery is essential, if you want to do a good job, but using the proper cutting surface is equally as important. I have personally witnessed so-called 'professional' staff use a very expensive, and valuable 5-Star Henckels Chef Knife to cut something directly on a stainless-steel prep table. I wanted to scream and pull my hair out! Of course, the $100.00+ knife was ruined. While a Henkels is certainly valuable enough to warrant the expense of re-grinding the edge, it will never be the same as the factory edge, and is only good enough for back-up use from then on. Cutting boards protect the fine edge on your cutlery, and help keep your prep area clean and sterile.
There are many types of cutting boards, each suitable for different tasks. With this in mind, here are some tips on buying a cutting board. The first consideration is material. There are only two materials worth considering; polymers, also known as 'poly', and wood. Each has its good points and bad points, and sometimes, the choice may just be up to personal preference. A lot depends on what types of cuisine you prepare.
Poly cutting boards come in three basic shapes, with many sizes in each shape available. As far as size, you should use the largest cutting board that you have space for. A large cutting board makes chopping and slicing much easier. It is a good idea to have several cutting boards for different tasks. For example, I have several color-coded large poly cutting boards, one for raw meat, one for raw poultry, one for fish, and one for vegetables. I do not mix them up, because this guards against cross-contamination (I also have two complete cutlery sets, one for meat, and one for veggies, and a special fillet knife for the same reason). You can use smaller boards for dicing garlic and onions. I also have a long rectangular board that I only use for fish. I attached a spring clamp to one end of it to hold the fishes head, or tail, making filleting and pan-dressing much easier. As you can see, there are many good reasons for having a lot of cutting boards. Another reason is that if you have just one cutting board, and you just finished cutting raw meat, before you can chop any vegetables, you must stop, and wash and sterilize the board, to avoid cross-contamination (of course, you can also rinse it, and then use the other side, but for safety, I prefer using separate boards....). With more than one board, you can simply place that one in the sink to wash after the food is all prepped, and use another clean board for veggies.
As far as shapes, the choices are square, useful for chopping and dicing, rectangular, best for slicing meat, poultry, and fish, and round, good for small work, like pickles, garlic, and small fruits. There are many advantages to poly boards. They are not very heavy, making them easy to store, and move. They come in many colors, making it easy to color-code them for special uses. They are inexpensive, with most very good, pro-quality boards under $40.00. They are stain-proof. You can slice beets on them, and rinse them off, and they will be clean as a whistle. They are impervious to 'divots', or grooves from knife blades, even with heavy use from meat-cleavers. Divots can harbor bacteria (but don't be fooled. Bacteria can also live on flat surfaces, so you need to keep your boards sterile). Since poly boards are non-porous, there is no place for bacteria to hide, so when you rinse them with chlorine bleach and water, they come out sterile. Most restaurants use poly boards.
Wood cutting boards are beautiful, very heavy and stable, and very old-school. As wooden cutting boards age, they become even more beautiful. Hardwood cutting boards like rock maple are a pleasure to use, much like fly casting with a bamboo fly rod. Wood cutting boards are much taller, as a rule, than poly boards, making tasks like creating garlic and onion pastes much easier. However, care must be taken not to slice into the wood, causing 'divots' for bacteria to hide in. Also, wood cutting boards are very expensive, and take up a lot more storage space. While they cannot be color-coded, they can be labeled. Wood is porous, and bacteria can hide in the pores, making sterilization difficult. And wooden cutting boards require much more care and maintenance. This is the main reason why restaurants use poly boards, as a rule. You may occasionally run across a wooden board with a groove around the edge. These are carving boards, and not for general use. They fall into the cutesy, 'give-as-a-wedding-gift' category.
Whichever style and material you use, you should avoid any cutting boards that have cute little 'feet' on the bottom. They do not prevent the board from sliding, and only allow you to use one side of the board, even though you are paying for two.
It is important to use a cutting board properly. The way to set up a board is to take a clean kitchen towel, get it damp with a chlorine bleach and water solution, then ring it out. Now, you can fold it to slightly larger than the board, lay it flat on your prep area, and set the board on top of it. The board will not slide or shift, no matter how hard you chop or slice, and the damp towel will catch and sterilize any blood, or run-off, making clean-up much easier and faster.
Cutting boards require periodic maintenance. Wooden cutting boards need to be oiled with mineral oil at least once a week, to prevent bacteria from living in the pores. Do not use vegetable, coconut, or olive oil, as they will go rancid quickly, and for obvious reasons, do not use any non-edible oil. Mineral oil is best. Also, you need a metal scraper to clean wooden boards, and they need to be sanded smooth once every year or so to remove cutting marks. Poly boards just need to be kept clean and sterile. If they do get marked, you can buy a special planer that will restore the board's smoothness, but I have never needed to do this with a poly board.
A good cutting board can go a long way towards making your life easier. I hope these few tips on buying a cutting board will help you make informed selections.