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[Photographs: Donna Currie]

Wooden spoons have been around... oh, since sticks were invented, probably. How many other kitchen tools do you use that have changed so little since your grandmother's time? Sure, you can find them made from bamboo or fancy olive wood. You can find them with holes in them, or made into unique shapes. But still, they're pretty much the same spoons.

My favorite wooden has lasted longer than many tools that were more expensive, and since then I've acquired even more wooden spoons. It's an unusual day in the kitchen when I don't use a wooden spoon to stir something.

But wooden spoons are useful for things other than stirring. Here are a few of my favorites.

Focaccia Dimpling

When you make focaccia, you need to dimple the surface just before baking. If you don't want to get your fingers all greasy again, just use the handle end of a wooden spoon to do the poking. And, bonus! It's kind of fun to randomly stab the dough.

Lid Venting

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There are times when you want to leave the lid of a pot slightly open during cooking to allow a little steam to escape, but trying to position a lid just-so on a pot isn't always easy. A wooden spoon in the pot or laid crosswise on the rim can serve to keep the lid vented. The great thing about using a wooden spoon is that it won't get hot, so you can still move it easily if needed.

Food Shaping

If you like making decorative foodstuffs, like bite-sized appetizers, a wooden spoon can come in handy for shaping things. For example, parmesan crisps. You can roll them around the handle for a tube, drape them over the handle for taco-shaped crisps, or lay them on the spoon for gently curved bowls.

Other foods that start off soft and pliable—like ice cream cone shells, pizzelles, or krumkake—can be draped over a wooden spoon handle to create a fillable taco-like shape.

Measuring Reductions

When a recipe calls for reducing a liquid by half (or any amount), how do you actually judge that reduction? If you're looking down into a pot, it's hard to judge the depth of liquid. But you can measure it. You don't need a ruler, though. Just dip the handle of your wooden spoon into the liquid, just like you use a dipstick to measure the oil in your car. Then mark the line - use a rubber band, or make a little mark with a food-safe marker. Or some liquids will stick to the handle well enough that you might not need to mark it at all.

Then, when you think you've reduced enough, just let that spoon take another dip and compare the new line to the old one.

It's a Jar!

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There's an old joke: when is a door not a door? When it's ajar. Sometimes you need to leave your oven door slightly ajar for a recipe after you turn off the heat, but if you're moving around in the kitchen, there's always a chance you'll bump the door and close it accidentally. A wooden spoon stuck in the door will keep it open.

Cake Poking

Poke cakes were popular years ago, but I've noticed them coming back into fashion. The Jello-based poke cakes require stabbing with a fork or skewer, but the pudding-based poke cakes need larger holes. The handle of a wooden spoon is perfect for forming those holes.

Mini Tart Shell Prodding

If you want to make mini tart shells, you can certainly use your fingers to press the pastry into the cups of the pan, but the handle of a wooden spoon doesn't have a pesky fingernail that gets in the way. For large pies, I often use the bottom of a measuring cup for the same purpose, but in the tight confines of a mini muffin pan, a wooden spoon handle is a good size.

Cabinet Deterrent

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If you live with small, inquisitive creatures who like to open cabinet drawers, a wooden spoon across or through the cabinet handles can often be enough to thwart the creature from gaining entry.

Of course, if you have an aggressive chewer, this could ruin a good wooden spoon. And most spouses can figure it out pretty quickly. But for tiny persons and less-enthusiastic dogs, at least it gives you time to intervene.

Foam Reducing

If you're boiling something that's likely to foam up, a wooden spoon laid across the top of the pot will thwart the bubbles and help keep it from foaming over. It breaks the surface tension so the bubbles don't form, sort of like sticking your finger into a foaming beer to keep the foam from rising too high. It's not foolproof—a vigorously boiling pot can still boil over. But a simmering foamy concoction will be much safer with that spoon on top.

Pasta Drying

If you ever make your own pasta, you need some way to keep it from sticking together after it's made. Short pasta can be spread out on baking sheets, but long pasta is a little more problematic, since it's hard to keep the strands separated. You can douse it with flour or you can buy a dedicated rack for hanging it. Or, you can use the handles of your wooden spoons. Flour the handles a bit, and the pasta won't stick.

The tricky part is finding some place to suspend those spoons. If you've got tall stockpots, you can hang them there. Or between a pile of books. Or... I'm sure you can think of something.

Oil-Temperature Measuring

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Did you know that you can use a wooden spoon to tell if your oil is hot enough? And it works with small amounts of oil. Just dunk the spoon handle into the oil, and if you see bubbles, the oil is hot enough. At first, you'll see larger, slower bubbles, but as the oil gets hotter, there will be smaller, faster bubbles—about the same bubbling action you'd see when you put food in the pan.

If you need an exact temperature for a larger amount of oil, use a thermometer. But if you're just testing to see if your chicken will sizzle, the wooden spoon works really well.

The nice thing about this method is that it works even when you've got a small amount of oil that would make it difficult to measure with a thermometer. And, unlike the "toss a drop of water in the oil" method, you won't have the crazy spattering.

Uses for Half a Wooden Spoon

While my favorite wooden spoons are my older ones, there comes a time when they might be too old for cooking, but that doesn't mean you can't find something else to do with them. A wooden spoon can be used as a plant stake or garden marker; you can write on the spoon or the handle, so you know which peppers are the really hot ones.

And I'm sure the crafty folks have other ideas.

So, what unusual ways do you use your wooden spoons?

About the author: Resident yeast whisperer and bread baking columnist Donna Currie also has a serious gadget habit. When her father-in-law heard about this column, he upgraded the nickname for her kitchen from "gadget world" to "gadget heaven." You can find her on her blog, Cookistry or follow her on Twitter at @dbcurrie.

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