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Spatulas — Not All Created Equal

by Elizabeth Skipper | July 3rd, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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spatulaKnowing what I wanted to write about this week, I asked my daughter while she was here what her favorite spatula was. “The blue one I had when I lived in my last place,” she answered without hesitation. Ah, so she clearly had a preference. I asked what made it her favorite. She said the fact that it had a short offset handle and the blade was long (rather than the other way around), it wasn’t too thick, and it had a thin edge.

I brought out my favorite spatula and asked, “You mean like this one?”

“Yes, exactly,” she replied, “except mine was plastic.” Mine’s metal with a wooden handle, but is otherwise just as she described. Why are we so fond of this particular design of spatula?

For starters, the blade is long enough to reach all the way under something like an egg, so you can pick it up without half the egg hanging off the end and breaking. It’s long enough to pick two medium-size cookies at a time off a sheet pan. Without being flimsy, it’s flexible enough to bend gracefully when gently loosening food from a pan, and thin enough not to tear a pancake. The long slots that run lengthwise through it allow for drainage of anything being cooked in much fat. The front edge is slightly angled from side to side, so the tip can be wedged into tight spots.

She didn’t know the manufacturer of the plastic spatula, and I don’t know who made mine. All I know is that it’s old enough to be made in the USA, and it’s from the era of wooden painted handles, although all the paint’s long since been peeled off. I’ve been looking unsuccessfully for a similar one for my travel kit for some time now. I wonder what it would cost to have one reproduced? The closest I’ve come is of roughly the same vintage, but the handle’s not offset. That feature allows easier maneuvering of the spatula inside the confines of a frying pan.

It’s always interesting to see what others use and like. At a friend’s house the other day, I turned up what looked to me to be a pretty useless tool. It was short and stubby, the blade perhaps two inches square. “What on earth do you have a silly thing like this for?” I asked (not always being as tactful as I should be.) To my surprise, she somewhat defensively declared it their “favorite.” Some day I’ll ask for a demonstration of how she uses it. While I can’t see using it for cooking, though, I can imagine it working well for removing brownies or other bar cookies from the baking pan.

We also call rubber (or these days, often silicone) scrapers, spatulas. In cooking school we were taught to differentiate between scrapers and the above tool, which were referred to as turners. Anyone will know what you’re talking about if you refer to a scraper as a spatula; I’m just mentioning the nomenclature here for clarification. This article is about the metal version.

There are the spatulas which pastry bakers use for dealing with cake and frostings. There are long or short, stiff or flexible, straight or offset ones, each serving a particular purpose. Long straight spatulas work best for spreading frosting on the sides of a cake; use an offset icing spatula for fillings and frosting the tops. Sometimes you’ll find a serrated spatula, which can be used to slice a freshly baked cake into thin layers.

Specified for fish, a spatula with an thin, slotted, angled blade works superbly for working its way under a filet without tearing it; and those same features mean it will work well for breaded cutlets and the like. I have one of metal I use for these tasks, and another in heat-resistant plastic that I like to use for moving stir-fries around on the rare occasions I use a non-stick pan.

Sandwich spreaders are a type of spatula. Short and stubby with an oval blade, they’re perfect for spreading butter, mayonnaise, and fillings on bread. Most are serrated, but I actually tried to file the serrations off one of mine. Designed for the purpose of cutting, they’re too short to do the job well, in my opinion, and leave marks on spreads, if you care about that sort of thing.

So next time you’re out hunting for a spatula, don’t just pick up the first one you see at a reasonable price. Some are far superior to the majority of what’s being offered. Think about the points I’ve made above, of what you’ve liked and disliked about the ones you’ve used in the past, how you’ll store it (some of those large ergonomic handles take up a lot of room in a utensil jar or drawer – do you really need that feature?), and its intended use. Avoid buying a tin fiddle – your temper and your cooking will thank you.

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