Forget the reference to Shakespeare’s life pondering riddle, people tend toward simpler questions, such as “Is this thing called a spatula or a turner?”
In culinary retail, this question comes up with some regularity; customers ask the staff for a spatula when they really want a turner. From time to time, Kitchenboy get asked this question at parties by people who aren’t sure, but don’t want to look silly in front of retail staff.
Most of us would say, “Oh please, I know what a spatula is.”
Do you really?
Spatula or Turner?
There are three basic categories for spatulas – the classic spatula, a turner and an icing spatula.
To start, let’s look at the classic spatula.
This is what most people think of when you mention the word spatula. The first spatulas, popular with homemakers, were made from plastic and/or rubber. The primary purpose is to get all the batter or soft dough from a mixing bowl, but other uses include folding and blending ingredients, where a more gentle approach is required.
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; most basic rubber spatulas will have a plastic handle.
These lesser expensive plastic styles are not, nor have ever been, heat tempered and will melt if left in contact with a high heat source. The newer, more popular, spatulas are made from silicone rubber and 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 the newer silicone versions are made from wood, metal and sometimes, silicone formed over a metal core. Another benefit – these colored silicone spatulas won’t stain like the lesser expensive rubber/plastic ones. Note: the higher the heat tolerances, the higher the price.
Staying with the classic spatula, another available style has a spatula head shaped like a spoon, and conveniently called spoonula. You may sometimes now find slotted spoonulas, but they are less widely available.
Yes, there are wooden spatulas, typically for use in skillets and woks, but they tend not to be good for bowl work. However, I do use wooden spatulas as dough or batter stirring tools. Spatulas designed for Asian cooking are generally made from bamboo.
The turner is the product that some people have in mind when they ask for a spatula, this creates frustration when kitchen shop employees direct them to the “other” spatulas.
Sometimes known as pancake turner, this tool is used for turning food so the other side can cook and then lifting or removing food from a pan. We have all used them while preparing pancakes, bacon, hamburgers, fish, potatoes, eggs and cookies.
Turner spatulas come in a variety shapes, sizes and are made from an array of materials. Most of the more affordable turners available 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, with most able to 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 it to melt or warp. Pan surface temperatures can easily exceed 650°F (343°C), well above many turners limits.
Some turners are equipped with slots in them to allow fats and juices to drip through as the food is raised out of the pan. There are very specific versions of turners known as fish spatulas. The fish spatula tends to be longer and/or wider to enable the cook to lift an entire fillet without breaking it. These fish turners are available 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 for it specifically.
Another word of caution, unless you want to buy new pans, don’t use metal spatulas on non-stick surfaces. Metal spatulas can also scratch the bottoms of 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. Icing spatulas have a very specific purpose and, unlike their classic “cousins,” are mostly found only in specialty shops.
The icing spatula is long and thin, available in varying lengths, the size of which is based on surface area to be iced. They are typically constructed of metal, with plastic or wood handles, but you can buy icing spatulas made entirely of plastic.
Within the icing spatulas, there are two styles – offset and straight blade. The offset versions are designed to keep your fingers out of the icing, always a good idea.
In some specialty kitchen shops, you may also see long wooden spatulas, which resemble icing spatulas, that are used for turning crepes, pancakes and any number of similar 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 or silicone and have a rounded edge.
If the scraper is metal with straight flat edge then it is called a board scraper, which is used for working with bread dough.
Our lesson is at an end, but one final word of caution: because this isn’t confusing enough, some manufactures use all these spatula related terms interchangeably. Happy shopping!
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