Most of us spend so much time and money equipping our home kitchens with the best cookware pieces, like a shiny try-ply stainless steel frying pan or a bright-colored enameled Dutch oven.
Yet, when we get to cooking with them, we end up using cheap, impractical, and uncomfortable spatulas. The good news is that a trusty spatula, the unrecognized workhorse in your daily cooking, isn’t hard to find.
As long as you know what to look for, you can find one at a reasonable price that will take your cooking to the next level and which will probably last you a lifetime.
Table of Contents
- The Three Types of Spatulas
- Steel, Silicone, or Wood Spatula?
- Why Do Spatulas Have Holes?
- What Spatula to Use With Cast Iron?
- What Spatula to Use With Stainless Steel?
- What Spatula to Use With Carbon Steel?
- Can You Recycle Old Spatulas?
The Three Types of Spatulas
Spatulas come in all shapes and forms—and cookware marketers will try to convince you that you need every single one of them. But the only three you should care about as a home cook are:
- The turner spatula for searing and grilling meat (even when we’re talking meat substitutes);
- The scraper spatula for folding ingredients into whipped cream and scraping out sticky doughts or batters from bowls;
- The icing spatula for applying icings, frostings, and buttercreams.
So here’s everything you need to know about them, along with my best product picks for those of you who might be hunting for good ones.
The Turner Spatula
Turner spatulas help you lift and flip foods, like thick-cut steak, burger patties, or salmon fillets, on your skillet, flat-top griddle, or outside grill.
There are two types of turner spatulas: flat and slotted. While one is better-suited for red meat and poultry and the other for seafood and vegetables, slotted spatulas are easier to use and more versatile.
Flat spatulas have stubby and rectangular heads about 4 1/2 inches long. They’re best for picking up and flipping over heavy and hearty pieces of food, smashing burger patties Shake Shack-style, chopping up ribeye steak for Philly cheesesteak, or pressing down on grilled cheese sandwiches.
Slotted spatulas, also known as “fish spatulas,” have tapered and slotted heads typically 5 1/2 inches long. They’re ideal for slipping under and flipping delicate foods, like fish fillets or fried eggs, that tend to break apart into pieces under their weight or mangle easily.
Slotted spatulas also double up for fishing out poached eggs and collecting fried foods, as the slots allow any excess liquids or fats to drip away. The same can’t be said for their flat counterparts.
Turner spatulas, flat or slotted, are typically made of stainless steel, wood, or silicone.
Which material is best?
Stainless steel is the most practical choice of material for a turner spatula: metal spatulas are thin enough to slip under most cuts of meat yet sufficiently sturdy for carrying around cooked foods like lasagne and quiche.
Metal utensils are safe to use in stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, and anodized aluminum cookware.
The exception to the rule is if you’re using non-stick cookware. Using metal utensils on Teflon pans and pots can scratch the coating and damage your vessel beyond repair. Use a silicone spatula instead.
Silicone spatulas are the better choice for non-stick cooking than ones made of wood as they’re flexible and therefore bend, allowing you to slip them under big pieces of food without having to chase them around in your frying pan.
How to choose one?
When choosing a turner spatula, flat or slotted, always go for one from a reputable brand.
This, at least to me, serves as an unwritten guarantee that the way it’s built—and the materials it’s made from—are of top quality for the price.
Long-time readers know my golden rule for buying pretty much anything, and that’s “buy it nice or buy it twice.”
The spatula should come with a sturdy and durable head that’s flexible enough without being overly bendy. This applies to spatulas made of both stainless steel and silicone, with wood being the exception.
The handle should have no rough edges and be generally comfortable for you to hold. Ideally, it’s made of wood, bakelite, or another material that insulates it from heat so that you won’t have to hold the spatula with a kitchen towel after having left it in the pan.
This spatula from the world’s best pocket knife maker comes with a stainless-steel head that’s flexible enough to slip under fish, yet sturdy enough to carry thick-cut steak or a big burger patty.
Made in China / 11 x 3 x 0.75 inches / 2.4 ounces
For non-stick cookware
Made from exoglass, a hygienic, heat-resistant, and dishwasher-safe material developed by French cookware maker Matfer Bourgeat, this spatula will help you turn fish and omelets without mangling, especially if you cook non-stick.
Made in France / 12 x 3.5 x 0.12 inches / 1.76 ounces
This thin and wide 12.5-inch wood spatula is about as good as wooden utensils get. It’s handcrafted in Italy from beautiful and long-lasting olive wood sourced from the southern part of the country. Clean it only by hand.
Made in Italy / 12.5 x 2.15 x 0.8 inches / 2 ounces
The Scraper Spatula
A heat-resistant silicone spatula, also known as a “scraper spatula,” is a baker’s best friend.
When making sticky batter or enriched dough, a scraper spatula helps you achieve better outcomes by scraping out the residue from the inside of your mixing bowl. It also comes in handy for folding ingredients into whipped creams, yogurts, and cookie batters.
Silicone utensils are a must-have for non-stick cooking. Manufacturers of enameled cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens say that metal utensils can be used in them, but most of them recommend cooking with silicone instead.
Heat-resistant spatulas cost more than ones made of plastic. However, they won’t melt when they come into contact with the hot edges of your frying pan because they’re typically capable of handling heat of up to 600°F (315°C).
Don’t confuse a scraper spatula with a dough cutter. One is made of silicone and helps you scrape out sticky dough from a bowl; the other of stainless steel with a sharp blade for scraping off bread and pizza doughs from a flat working surface and slicing them into smaller pieces.
How to select a silicone spatula?
As America’s Test Kitchen team found when trying some of the best-selling silicone spatulas on the market, smaller heads moved less food with each pass, which led to most cooking tasks taking longer and feeling more like chores.
When in doubt, go for a scraper spatula with a face approximately 3 to 4 inches in height and 2.25 to 2.5 inches in width. These dimensions make it large enough to cover a good quantity of food but compact enough to fit into the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer.
Sharp-angled spatulas look like they’re there to make scraping doughs and stirring ingredients into them more straightforward, but, in reality, they’re less convenient. There’s less surface area that comes into contact with the food, which makes them less efficient.
Here’s how to measure—especially when comparing spatulas in the bakeware department of your favorite brick-and-mortar store:
Look for a silicone spatula with one straight edge and one curved corner, which allows you to make the best of both worlds.
Preferably single-piece and not with a detachable head. Liquids, creams, and pieces of food get stuck in the ridges. And the head falls off in the worst moments!
Spatulas with wooden handles don’t have a long lifespan and are not dishwasher-safe. Don’t fall for bulky handles or handles with designs that feature weird holes or engraved logos on them. They can be (and very often are) uncomfortable to hold.
This scraper spatula is made from heat-resistant silicone, has a non-slip grip for hassle-free use, and features a stainless steel rod in its core to hold up to the most demanding of uses in your home kitchen. As an added bonus, you can pick from six colors if black spatulas ain’t your thing.
Made in China / 11.2 x 2.25 x 0.5 inches / 3.2 ounces
The Icing Spatula
Long and thin, icing spatulas (also known as “cake spatulas”) help you apply icings, frostings, and buttercreams to cakes, cupcakes, and all sorts of other desserts.
An icing spatula is like the gentler cousin of a butter knife. It doubles as an excellent tool for spreading butter, jam, marmalade, chutney, and cream cheese on thin slices of cake or bread.
But don’t rush to find too many uses for them; the blades are somewhat thin and prone to denting. Once they sustain a dent, it will show up in the form of irregularities on your icing (usually not the kind you’d want to see).
The best icing spatulas come with a flexible stainless steel blade that offers just the right amount of bend when you need it and a comfortable wooden handle for a good and steady grip.
The typical length of icing spatulas varies anywhere from 5 inches to 14 inches, straight or offset. Straight spatulas give you optimal control and offset spatulas help you apply dramatic swirls of icing on your cakes. The distance also keeps the icing from ending up on your knuckles.
As baker and food writer Dede Wilson points out over at Bakepedia, which icing spatula is the right one for you depends on many factors, from your height, posture, flexibility, or stiffness to your elbows and wrists.
If this is your first time buying one and you’re having a hard time choosing on the Internet, a useful thing to do might be to go to the store and try a few options out at the bakeware aisle (then buy one or two and extend your experiments at home).
Best straight spatula
With a tapered blade for even flexibility and a wooden handle with two rivets, this straight spatula will easily turn in your favorite tool for most icing tasks.
Made in Canada / 11 x 1.25 x 0.5 inches / 1.92 ounces
Steel, Silicone, or Wood Spatula?
Most spatulas are made from stainless steel, silicone, and wood—and which is best is a debate that will probably never end.
Apart from a few non-negotiables, like the requirement to not use metal utensils in Teflon-coated frying pans or the fact that silicone utensils are best for mixing doughs, creams, and batters, the type of spatula you cook with ultimately comes down to your personal choice.
So here are the key differences.
Stainless steel spatulas are sturdy and long-lasting. They are generally heat-proof and dishwasher-safe (unless the manufacturer of yours has explicitly stated otherwise in the owner’s manual).
Their most significant strength is also their most common weakness: the slim blade is easy to slip under the trickest and stickiest foods but will bend and warp just as readily if the steel is too thin.
Silicone spatulas are hygienic, can go in the dishwasher, and, depending on the model, can withstand heat from 450°F (230°C) to 600°F (315°C). They’re the right kind of tool for baking and non-stick cooking.
In my experience (and that of my closest friends who like to bake), single-piece silicone spatulas perform better than those with detachable blades. Not only do the blades detach in the worst moments, but dish soap or food residue can get left behind in the ridges.
Wooden spatulas are beautiful, Teflon-safe, and eco-friendly.
Since wood is porous and can swell or break when it soaks up too much moisture, wooden spatulas shouldn’t go in the dishwasher and can only be cleaned by hand.
I’m not too fond of wooden spatulas because they pick up stains and catch smells from whatever it is that you’re cooking. The salmon you cooked for dinner a couple of nights ago? You probably ate all the leftovers already, but your the wooden spatula you used for turning it will keep reminding you of it for days.
Why Do Spatulas Have Holes?
Some spatulas have round holes (called “pierced spatulas”) or rectangular slots (called “slotted spatulas”). Have you ever wondered why that is?
The holes make the blade of the spatula more flexible so that it can curve and slide under sticky foods like fried eggs or fish fillets. They also allow excess liquids or fats to drip off the spatula when you’re using it to fish out poached eggs or collect deep-fried chicken.
As an added benefit, slotted spatulas have less surface area for raw foods to stick to. So they are more “non-stick” compared to their bulkier flat counterparts.
No wonder why slotted spatulas are also known as “fish spatulas!” Unless you’re careful when you move it around or flip it over in your pan, fish can break apart into pieces. Light and nimble, a slotted spatula is undoubtedly the right tool for the job.
Don’t get fooled by the name, though. Second only to your chef’s knife, a fish spatula (if you skimmed through this post, be sure to check out my picks above) is one of the most versatile utensils in your entire kitchen.
What Spatula to Use With Cast Iron?
Cast iron skillets take a while to get up to heat. But once they do, they’re capable of holding on to that heat well and distribute it evenly, without cold spots.
Cast iron the best cookware choice for browning steak, pan-frying burgers, cooking chicken breasts, and searing salmon, all of which call for a sturdy stainless steel spatula. Go for a flat spatula if you like to smash your burgers, and a slotted one in case you don’t.
Don’t worry about using metal utensils in a cast iron skillet. The seasoning consists of carbonated oil, and—while it’s easy to get off with soapy water—it will take you way too much elbow grease and a whole lot of scraping to wear it out with just a spatula.
When in doubt, go for the American-made Dexter Russell Hamburger Turner. It’s flat, comes in the most standard 6 inches by 3 inches size, and flexes well right when you need it to. And the handle is firmly attached to the blade using not two (the usual) but three rivets.
What Spatula to Use With Stainless Steel?
One of the many advantages of stainless steel cookware is that you can use utensils made of any material on it without having to worry about scratching or damaging the coating—there is none.
The best spatula for your stainless steel frying pan depends on what you’re cooking with it:
Use a slotted stainless steel spatula for tender foods like fish, eggs, and pancakes, and a wooden spatula for scraping out the fond when you’re deglazing the pan.
Be sure to check out my picks above if you haven’t.
What Spatula to Use With Carbon Steel?
Woks are typically made of carbon steel. What spatula should you use with them?
Carbon steel, like its heavier cousin cast iron, needs to be seasoned every now and then. Though most carbon steel skillet and wok manufacturers will tell you that you can use utensils made of any material with them, the reality is that utensils with overly rough edges can scratch the seasoning off.
The best utensils to use with a carbon steel wok are a traditional “chuan” spatula and a “hoak” ladle made of iron. Alternatively, you could go for ones made of stainless steel or heat-resistant silicone.
My favorites are the thick and heavy ZhenSanHuan Chinese Traditional Hand-Made Iron Spatula & Ladle Wok. The weight of them takes some getting used to, but, once you do, you won’t be able to make asian food without them.
If you’re looking for a spatula to cook non-asian food with in your carbon steel skillet, any of my flipper spatula picks above will work!
Can You Recycle Old Spatulas?
Don’t throw your old spatulas in the bin. Instead, list them for sale on Craigslist or eBay.
If that sounds like too much of a hassle, donate them to your local thrift store—they’ll find a second life in someone else’s kitchen!
Stainless steel utensils are considered scrap metal, as long as they’re made entirely of steel or you’ve disassembled them from their non-metal handles.
Finding a recycling site that accepts silicone cookware can be challenging to do. One option, though it’s pricey, is to recycle old silicone bakeware using TerraCycle’s mail-out service called Zero Waste Kitchen Box.