Forget the great Shakespearean question of life, I am often asked “Is this thing called a spatula or a turner?”
Most of us would say, “Oh please, I know what a spatula is.”
Do you really?
In fact, when I worked in a culinary retail shop, this question came up all the time. From time to time, I get asked this question at parties by people who aren’t sure themselves.
Customers go shopping and ask the retail staff for a spatula when they really want a turner.
Spatula or Turner?
There are three basic categories for spatulas – the classic spatula, a turner and an icing spatula.
First, the classic spatula.
This is what most people think of as a spatula. The first spatulas popular with homemakers were made from plastic and/or rubber. The main purpose is to scrape bowls to get all the batter or soft dough from a mixing bowl. They are also used for folding and blending ingredients where a more gentle approach is needed. The lesser expensive plastic ones are not, nor have been heat tempered and will melt if left in contact with a high heat source.
Classic spatulas generally have a flat head and come in various widths and colors. If made of plastic, they are typically molded from a single piece and tend to be the most affordable options. The basic rubber spatulas will have a plastic handle.
The newer and more popular spatulas made from silicone rubber have heat tolerances up to 800°F (425°C). This may seem excessive but if you are using the spatula to stir a cream sauce or something similar in a saucepan on the stove, you will find the high heat silicone invaluable. The handles on these newer silicone versions are made from wood, metal and sometimes, silicone formed over a metal core. Also, these colored silicone spatulas won’t stain like the lesser expensive rubber/plastic ones. The higher the heat tolerances, the higher the price.
There are also spatulas with a thicker head, shaped like a spoon and commonly called spoonula. You will sometimes now find slotted spoonulas.
Yes there are wooden spatulas, typically for use in skillets and woks, and these tend not to be good for bowl work. I do use wooden spatulas as dough or batter stirring tools. Spatulas for Asian cooking are generally made from bamboo.
A turner, sometimes known also as pancake turner, is a tool for lifting or removing food from a pan, or for turning food so the other side can cook. We have all used them while cooking foods like pancakes, bacon, ham, hamburgers, fish, potatoes, eggs and cookies.
The turner is the product that some people have in mind when they ask for a spatula and sometimes get frustrated when kitchen shop employees direct them to the “other” spatulas.
Some turners have slots in them to allow fats and juices to drip through when the food is raised out of the pan. There are very specific versions of turners are known as fish spatulas. The fish spatulas tend to be longer and/or wider to enable the cook to lift an entire fillet without breaking. These fish turners come with or without slots, but most have slots.
If you want to avoid confusion in the kitchen shop, just ask for a turner or turning spatula. If you need a fish spatula ask specifically for it.
Turner spatulas come in a variety shapes and sizes and are made from varying materials. Most of the more affordable turners you will find in kitchen shops are made of nylon or silicone covered metal. This switch to nylon or silicone was done so that they can be used in either metal or non-stick pans. All are heat tempered to some extent, most can withstand 400 to 500°F (204 to 260°C). As with “regular” spatulas, the more heat the turner can withstand, the more it will cost. But be warned, leaving a spatula resting in the pan can cause them to melt or warp. Pan surface temperatures can easily reach 650°F (343°C), well above many turners limits.
Another word of caution, unless you want to buy new pans, don’t use metal spatulas in non-stick pans. Metal spatulas can also scratch the bottoms of even your best stainless steel cookware so if keeping a visually clean pan surface is important, use caution when turning food.
And finally, icing spatulas.
Most people consider icing spatulas to be just another type of “regular” spatula; I don’t. The reason is that these spatulas have a very specific purpose and unlike most spatulas are not widely available.
The icing spatula is long and thin and will vary in length depending on the size of area to be iced. Typically they are constructed of metal with plastic or wood handles. You can also buy icing spatulas made entirely of plastic.
There are icing spatula variations such as offset versus straight blade. The offset versions help keep your fingers out of the icing, always a good idea.
You will also see long wooden spatulas, which look like wood icing spatulas that are used for turning crepes, pancakes and all forms of batter based foods.
One final note, there are products called bowl scrapers which are used for just that, scraping a bowl clean, mostly of thicker batters and dough. They are not spatulas. The bowl scrappers are made of plastic and have a rounded edge.
If the scraper is metal with flat edge then it is called a board scraper which is used for working with bread doughs.
Now that our lesson is at an end, one final warning: because the term isn’t confusing enough, some manufacturing companies use all these spatula related terms interchangeably. Happy shopping!
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