Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will drop by with a list of tools or a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with—if you haven't already. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can fan The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.—The Mgmt.
Short of being born a woman in Italy and waiting for your daughter to have a child, nothing makes you feel like an Italian grandmother more than slowly and deliberately stirring a lazily simmering pot of ragú with a wooden spoon.
When it comes to wooden spoons, chefs and home cooks alike can get pretty serious. I nearly cried the day I finally cracked the handle on the spoon that lasted me through nine years and thirteen different kitchens—a flat-headed beechwood model that I think I stole from my mother's unused utensil drawer. It was so well-used that the handle had conformed to the shape of my hand, and the head had been worn into an angle that perfectly fits the corner of my Dutch oven.
Alas, like so many great relationships, this one had to come to an end and I've since been forced to search for a suitable replacement. Here are the criteria that I use:
- Stirring is a spoon's primary task. It's got to have a wide surface area so that you can move a significant amount of food around the pot with limited effort
- Scraping is necessary to get cooking food off the bottom of the pot or for deglazing the browned bits off the bottom of the pan when making a pan sauce or braise. A good spoon should be able to do this efficiently and effectively
- Tasting as you go is a necessity. A good spoon will have a bowl large enough to lift up liquids or small pieces of solids, but not so large that you can't fit the end in your mouth
The main factors that affect these criteria are material and shape.
When it comes to stirring spoons, there are a couple of newfangled options on the market, but they both fall flat.
Heat-resistant nylon spoons like these ones from Cuisinart ($8.99) are enjoying a brief moment in the sun these days, but I can't understand why. They are simply too hard to work properly. Sure maybe they won't break after 9 years, but they won't give slightly the way a wooden spoon does. You may as well be using metal. They do exactly what a wooden spoon does, only worse, and for more money. Ludicrous.
On the other hand, rubber spatulas, like the fabulous ones from Le Creuset ($12) have the opposite problem. Their flexible heads are great for scraping out sauces or folding meringues, but have you ever tried deglazing a pan with one? It's a nonstarter.
Only true wood will do, and the best are hard, lightweight, durable woods like beech, maple, or the new eco-friendly favorite of many manufacturers, bamboo. Wood is naturally a little giving, which allows you to more easily scrape and stir contents on the bottom of a pot or pan, pressing on the spoon to give better contact. It's also softer on the hands, and with time, will slowly conform to the shape of your hand and pot.
Round headed spoons like these cheap, functional models from H.A. Mack ($3.95) are the classic, consisting of a circular or oval-shaped bowl at the end of the handle. They are good for stirring and for lifting soups and sauces for tasting. They do, however, have two major drawbacks. First off, because of their completely round shape, it's very difficult to make contact with a large surface of the pan bottom at the same time, making it a pain to scrape up browned bits when deglazing a stew or making a pan sauce. The second issue is this:
They simply don't fit into the corners of a straight-walled sauté pan or Dutch oven. That can get seriously frustrating when you're stirring a full pot of creamy risotto and the bits of shallot or rice continuously get stuck and burnt into the corners of the pan. It's the cooking equivalent of trying to read a book outdoors on a windy day—painfully annoying.
A couple of clever manufacturers have come up with solutions to both of these problems by flattening out the heads of their spoons. These generally come in two shapes:
The completely flat-headed, symmetrical model, like the one pictured from Mario Batali ($5.95) at first glance seems like a fantastic option. It's got a flat head for scraping and a bowl for tasting out of. It also unfortunately flares out around the sides, completely negating the benefits of its squared-off corners. You still can't fit it into the corner of a pot.
The model on the right is a solid maple number I picked up for a whopping $19.95 from Williams-Sonoma. Its pointy edge effectively solves the corner dilemma, but it lacks a large enough flat surface for effective scraping. It's also got a handle that's too short, requiring my to dip my knuckles in ragú Bolognese if I want to cook for more than a half dozen people.
Both do better than the classic round model, but still fall short of the mark.
The Winning Model
Our winner combines all of the essential functions of a wooden spoon into one hot little multitasking number. The Spoontula Utensil Set from Bambu ($15.95 for set of three) is shaped just like a traditional round wooden spoon, giving you a small rounded bowl to taste out of. On the other side, it's got a flat-headed extension which ends in a sharp corner, allowing you to not only scrape the bottom of a pan effectively, but to scrape all the way up to the very edge of the pot.
And for you eco-buffs out there, the bamboo is also certified organic. Tell that to your grandmother next time she asks you what you've done with your life.
NB: Do remember that, like knives, wives, and magic wands, no matter how much someone tells you that one is better than another, a good wooden spoon is an entirely personal decision. If it feels right in your hand, it's probably the right one for you.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.