During my last semester of college, I lived with a woman named Brenda. I had just gotten back from a semester abroad and all my friends already had homes, so I took to craigslist and found myself a sublet. Brenda had a 3-story row house filled with beautiful things in the Italian Market section of Philadelphia. Her basement (which you entered through a trapdoor in the kitchen) was filled with power tools that she taught me to use and a kiln that she used to fire pottery she made in her studio. In her turquoise kitchen she had a collection of wooden spoons from all over the world and a heavy wooden cutting board that I loved.
I haven’t seen Brenda since I moved after graduation in 2011, but I made this wood butter thinking about her kitchen. I had always saved pretty things for special occasions, but Brenda used her Japanese spoons and hand-thrown bowls every day and taught me to do the same. Life’s short; use the good china, you know? Using things is part of what makes them special. On a shelf, they’re cold and impersonal, but use them every day and they become part of you: something worth passing on to people you love.
In the spirit of using the good china every day, I’ve been working on balms and salves that will keep my pretty things pretty, even through lots of
use love. This wood butter will keep cutting boards, spoons, hammers, awls, butcher blocks, and whatever else you can throw it at good for years so that one day, you’ll be able to pass them on.
A few notes on the ingredients I’ve chosen. A lot of people will tell you to avoid mineral oil at all costs because it’s derived from petroleum. While don’t like contributing to the demand for gas any more than the next person, I’m not so quick to jump on the anti-mineral oil band wagon. True, I wouldn’t want to rub it on my skin (although, to be fair, I eat buckeyes that have been made with a mixture of chocolate and paraffin every year at Christmas and I haven’t died yet), but considering the alternatives, I use mineral oil on my cutting boards.
Most oils are derived from organic sources – that’s organic in the sense that they come from living things, not organic like the produce you can buy at the grocery store. This is a good thing: sesame oil makes fantastic stir fry, olive oil is the most delicious thing to dip bread in, and almond oil is great for moisturizing skin. But organic oils eventually spoil. This means that if you rub it into a spoon, the spoon will eventually turn rancid. Mineral oil is non-drying; it stays liquid for nearly forever which means that it will flow into wood’s cracks and holes to keep it protected.
There are a few organic oils that won’t go bad, the most common one being walnut oil. If you’ve got the money for walnut oil, by all means use it. Another good organic oil is raw linseed or flax oil. Don’t confuse this – it’s made from cold-pressed flax seeds – with the stuff you can buy at an art store. That kind of linseed oil is boiled and isn’t food safe. Both walnut and flax oil are drying oils, which means that they will polymerize and form a hard plastic-like coating over time.
Beeswax is great because it turns hard-to-work-with, liquid oil into a solid that can be stored easily and even sent through the mail if you happen to have a far-away friend who likes to cook. Additionally, beeswax never goes bad and is water-repellent, lending a bit more protection to your mixture.
Finally, I added a few drops of citrusy essential oils. I used a combination of lemon and lemongrass because, combined, they smell sweet like a meyer lemon and add a little anti-bacterial punch to your butter. Grapefruit, sweet orange, or lime would be excellent substitutes if lemon isn’t your thing.
- Pyrex measuring cup
- Container(s) for storage
- 45 g beeswax
- 180 g mineral oil
- 10 drops lemon essential oil
- 10 drops lemongrass essential oil
- Create a double boiler by placing the rag in the bottom of the pot (so that your glass measuring cup doesn’t rattle), filling the pot part way full with water, and placing the glass measuring cup in the water. Put this contraption on the stove.
- Measure the beeswax and mineral oil in a glass measuring cup.
- Place the glass measuring up back in the pot of water and stir until all the beeswax melts.
- Remove the glass measuring cup from the pot and add the essential oils. Stir and immediate pour into a container.
If you’re buttering up kitchen tools, it’s best to give them a solid cleaning before applying wood butter that will lock in any little beasties hanging out on your spoon or cutting board.
I use The Kitchn’s method:
- Sprinkle the cutting board with coarse salt.
- Using a lemon half with the cut side down, scour the surface, squeezing slightly to release the lemon juice as you go.
- Let sit for 5 minutes, and then scrape the gray, dirty liquid into a small bowl using a bench scraper, and discard.
- Give the surface a final rinse with a clean wet sponge.
After cleaning, let your tools dry throughly before buttering. To butter, apply a coat using your fingers or a rag, allow the butter to soak in overnight, then use a rag to wipe off the excess. I clean and butter my tools about every other month, but anywhere from one a week to one a year works too.