Forget the great Shakespearean question of life, many people ask “Is this thing a spatula or a turner?”
Now for most of us we say, “are you kidding me, I know what a spatula is.” Do you really?
In fact, working in the retail shop, we get this question all the time. If not the question above, people ask for a spatula when they really mean a turner.
Spatula or Turner
There are three basic categories for spatulas – the classic spatula, a turner and an icing spatula.
First, a spatula.
This is what most people think of when they think spatula. The first spatulas popular with homemakers were made from plastic 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 plastic ones have never been heat tempered and will melt if left in contact with high heat. They look like this…
Spatulas are flat and come in various widths and colors. If made of plastic, they are generally molded from a single piece and tend to be the most affordable options. The basic rubber spatulas have a plastic handle. You now find spatulas made from silicone rubber and which have heat tolerances up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit (425 Celsius). 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 the 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 most commonly called spoonula. Additionally, you will now find slotted spoonulas.
I would save the wooden spatulas for use in skillets and woks, as they 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 baking sheet, or for turning food so the other side can cook. We have all used them for foods like pancakes, bacon, ham, hamburgers, fish, potatoes, eggs and cookies. The turner is the where people ask for a spatula and 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 raised. Some very specific versions of turners are known as fish spatulas. These 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 degrees Fahrenheit (204 to 260 Celsius). As with “regular” spatulas, the more heat the turner can withstand, the more it will cost. But be warned, leaving a spatula in the pan can cause them to melt or warp. Pan surface temperatures can easily reach 650F (343C), well above many turners limits.
Unless you want to buy new pans, don’t use metal spatulas in non-stick pans. Also, metal spatulas can 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.
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 are not sold everywhere. The icing spatula is long and thin and will vary in length depending on the size of area to be iced. Typically they are metal with plastic or wood handles. You will also find all plastic versions. 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 which 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 be warned, some companies use all these spatula related terms interchangeably, so happy hunting. Our lesson is now at an end.
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