Plastic Spatulas

Published July 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

Few people give much thought to choosing a good turner-style spatula. Most of us simply put up with tools that don’t particularly help us—and may even get in the way of our doing a better job as we flip or transport food. Whether they’re too long or too rigid, whether they have an awkwardly shaped head, a too-thick front edge that can’t slide easily under food, or a handle angle that forces our arm up or elbow out, most of these fly-swatter look-alikes tend to damage food. They can tear the whites and break the yolks of fried eggs, crumple warm cookies instead of lifting them neatly off the pan, melt in the heat when you’re flipping a burger, or drop your neat square of lasagna into a messy heap as you’re ferrying it to a plate. Because spatulas are fairly cheap, most people own a drawer full of assorted styles and brands. But wouldn’t it be better to own just the perfect spatula that feels natural and makes cooking easier? We wanted a plastic spatula that could protect the surface of our nonstick pans.

To this end, we scooped… read more

Few people give much thought to choosing a good turner-style spatula. Most of us simply put up with tools that don’t particularly help us—and may even get in the way of our doing a better job as we flip or transport food. Whether they’re too long or too rigid, whether they have an awkwardly shaped head, a too-thick front edge that can’t slide easily under food, or a handle angle that forces our arm up or elbow out, most of these fly-swatter look-alikes tend to damage food. They can tear the whites and break the yolks of fried eggs, crumple warm cookies instead of lifting them neatly off the pan, melt in the heat when you’re flipping a burger, or drop your neat square of lasagna into a messy heap as you’re ferrying it to a plate. Because spatulas are fairly cheap, most people own a drawer full of assorted styles and brands. But wouldn’t it be better to own just the perfect spatula that feels natural and makes cooking easier? We wanted a plastic spatula that could protect the surface of our nonstick pans.

To this end, we scooped up tools of varying prices, sizes and designs and started the evaluations with a basic challenge: frying eggs in an 8-inch skillet. Shoveling—and breaking—the delicate eggs in such cramped quarters winnowed the lineup to 5 spatulas; these graduated to tests with fresh-baked cookies, pans of lasagna, fluffy pancakes, and oversize hamburgers. To gauge heat resistance and strength, we then tried to melt them and even balance bricks on them.

Measure for Measure

The initial egg test pointed us to our first conclusion: A good spatula must have a slim front edge that can slip under any food with ease. Thicker-edged heads (approaching 2 millimeters) pushed the eggs around the skillet until the yolks turned dense and dry and the whites were rubbery and tough. (At that point we could have flipped the eggs with a forklift.) Our favorite plastic spatula measured less than 1 millimeter at the front edge and deftly shimmied under the eggs.

But nailing down the ideal head size was a balancing act—literally. If it was too narrow, it didn’t provide enough support. A cheap model that was less than 2 inches wide left the fried egg whites flopping unsupported on either side, causing them to rip; we immediately kicked this model out of the lineup. Conversely, a super-wide (4 5/8 inches) flipper was so bulky, it struggled to pick up a single pancake, burger, or cookie without knocking (or crushing) its neighbors. An overly long head was also a detriment. With a head alone measuring 8 inches from tip to end, one spatula literally kept us an arm’s length from the pan. Our conclusion: A rectangular, well-proportioned head—roughly 3 inches wide and 5 inches long—offers support without compromising dexterity.

The handle driving the head also plays a role; its length can mean the difference between a smooth ride and a fatal, food-fracturing accident. Spatulas with too-long handles seemed better proportioned for the blasting heat of a grill than the tame warmth of a griddle, but there was also such a thing as too small: With a 4½-inch-long head and barely 4¾-inch-long handle, a petite nylon spatula looked like a toy borrowed from a Playskool kitchen—and performed like one, too. The most successful spatulas fell between those two extremes—a distance that kept us safe while letting the spatula maneuver as a natural extension of our hands.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Our intuition told us the angled offset style of more traditional spatulas, which follow the curve of a pan, would give us the best leverage. To our surprise, we preferred only a slight offset to the grip; in fact, the handle on our top-rated spatula extended nearly straight out from the head. Steeper angles limited our movement, especially in small or deep pans.

Instead of an angled handle, we got more control with models that had flexible heads, which could bend slightly and slide under foods in any kind of pan. As for slots, some spatulas had them while others were solid sheets. Manufacturers claim the openings let grease drip off, but we saw little evidence of that. It turns out that the slots actually perform a more important function: They break up the surface of the spatula, reducing the friction of the food across the head and making it easier to slide under food. Our top-rated spatula had long, vertical cuts through the head for just enough slither potential. (Obviously, a good spatula can’t be too slippery or the food will slide right off—another point for our winner and its upturned edge.)

Although they have a place in the kitchen, plastic spatulas are fundamentally flawed: They melt. Look under the front edge of most plastic turners and you’ll see a rough, warped strip where it contacts the pan. Not only does this thicken the front edge, it traps food particles and becomes hard to clean. We put each plastic spatula in a hot cast-iron pan with a temperature probe to check manufacturer claims of heat resistance. With the exception of one silicone turner, all began to melt before the pan reached the advertised temperatures. Some even became molten: One spatula turned gooey and stretched like cheese on hot pizza as we lifted it off the skillet’s surface.

In the end, we flipped for the sleek agility and gently cradled head of a traditional plastic fish spatula, which performed well beyond its piscine job description and vastly outperformed the rest of the pack. This tool is essential to our everyday cooking arsenal.

Methodology:

We tested 10 plastic spatulas, eliminating 5 in the first round (testing each frying eggs over easy), for a final lineup of 5 plastic spatulas. Prices were paid in Boston-area stores or online.

FRONT EDGE: Thickness, in millimeters.

PERFORMANCE: We flipped fried eggs, pancakes, and burgers; transferred cookies from baking sheet to cooling rack; and cut and served lasagna.

DESIGN: We considered head size and shape, total length, handle comfort, material, and maneuverability.

STRENGTH: We assessed each spatula’s ability to handle heavy loads like lasagna—even a standard 4-pound brick—without buckling.

MELTING POINT: We tested heat-resistance claims of plastic spatulas by monitoring their performance in a cast-iron skillet fitted with a temperature probe.

These additional plastic spatulas were eliminated from the final lineup after testing: KitchenAid Cook’s Series Turner, KitchenAid Cook’s Series Angled Turner, Kuhn Rikon 12-Inch Silicone Turner, Norpro My Favorite Spatula, Cuisipro 11 1/2 –inch Fiberglass Turner

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