What is a Spatula? Tracing the Origins of the Handy Kitchen Tool

spatulas in a white jar inside the kitchen

Last week I was making a cake, and as my hubby came into the kitchen, I asked him to hand me a spatula. He gave me a dumbfounded look followed by the question: What is a spatula?

Now, I have a large crock full of different spatulas that I use all of the time, but I never thought about how to answer the question, what is a spatula?

What Is a Spatula?

According to Merriam-Webster, a spatula is a thin, flat implement used especially for spreading or mixing soft substances, scooping, or lifting.

But then, according to the Cambridge dictionary, a spatula is a cooking utensil with a wide, flat blade that is not sharp, used especially for lifting food out of pans.

Well, for a quick answer, both of those definitions answer the question of what is a spatula, even though they differ slightly. But spatulas are so much more.

Pharmaceuticals or flys?

Not only do we need an answer to what is a spatula, but also when was this incredible and invaluable kitchen tool invented?

The first honors go to Galen, a Roman physician. In the second century, he invented a bronze implement pointed on one end with a shallow spoonlike square on the other. He used it for stirring and applying medications and called it a spathomele.

Then there was Horace Spatula of Hungary; he claimed the invention of the spatula in 1798. He invented it to kill the common housefly. Sadly for Horace, a similar design was being developed in England with the name "fly swatter."

And finally, there's John Spaduala, from New York, who is said to have invented the spatula in the 1880s. At that time, workers in restaurant kitchens knew it as the "Spaduala tool." The story goes that in the late 1880s, John was working as a chef's apprentice under Hans Krugar, a very hot-tempered chef.

One day, when John failed to add a sufficient amount of beets to the stew, Hans slammed a heavy pot lid onto John's fingers. Sadly, that left John with a deformed, useless hand. But, it inspired John to invent his Spaduala tool, which was the first of many of John's kitchen tool inventions.

Whether it was a tool for stirring pharmaceuticals, a pre-cursor to the fly swatter, or a kitchen tool to help a chef's apprentice with squashed fingers, the spatula is an indispensable tool in today's kitchen.

So now we have two questions: Who invented the spatula and what is a spatula? The former is uncertain. But at least we can answer the latter.

Types

When you sort through all the different spatulas available, you'll find they fit into one of three categories. They are either an off-set, a scraper, or a turner.

Turners can turn an over-easy egg, flip that sizzling burger, or lift a tender filet of fish. Offsets can spread frosting on a cake or smooth out your brownie batter before it goes into the oven. And scrapers can scrape down the batter from a bowl as you're mixing, gently folding ingredients, or stirring your chocolate as it melts to a smooth ganache.

Not only are there different types of spatulas, but they make each of those types out of different materials. A rubber or silicone spatula will be the best at scraping that batter off the side of the bowl and for use in non-stick pans. A metal or silicone spatula can flip those eggs in any pan. And a metal turner is what you need when you're grilling.

Ideally, your utensil drawer will have at least one large and one small offset spatula, a set of silicone scraper spatulas, a fish turner, a collection of silicone turners for your non-stick pans, and one or two turners for pancakes and your grill.

Offset

This spatula is also called a frosting or cake offset spatula. The most common use of this type of spatula is frosting cakes and leveling batters in pans.

But there are also some professional style offset turner spatulas that are great for flipping burgers in your cast iron pans or on your grill.

The design of an offset spatula is similar to that of a palette knife that painters use. It is a long and narrow spatula that most often has a thin, blunt, metal blade attached to a plastic or wood handle.

Typically, offset spatula blades are stainless steel, and the handles are either wood, silicone, or plastic.

When holding this spatula, the metal blade sits lower than the handle, which makes it ergonomically easy to frost cakes or reach into pans to level batters. And you can do both without getting your knuckles into the frosting or the batter.

Offset spatulas come in a variety of sizes. The most common are from 6 inches to 13 inches in length, with the blades from 4 inches to 8 inches.

Use the smallest ones for frosting cupcakes and cookies or leveling batter in small pans. The large offset spatulas are perfect for frosting layer cakes and sheet cakes. And they work well when leveling the batter in larger pans before you put them in the oven.

A unique use of an offset spatula is flipping quarter-sized pancakes. And painters who love doing "dirty pours" use this spatula to coax paint to the edges of their canvas.

Scraper

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Scraper spatulas are also called rubber or silicone spatulas, because of the material used to make them. But the primary function of this type of spatula is to scrape bowls and pans and blend or fold ingredients.

Scraper spatulas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some have shapes perfect for scraping that last bit of mayonnaise out of the jar. And some have shapes large enough to scramble fluffy eggs in your non-stick pan.

Some scraper spatulas are a perfect size and shape for scraping down batter from your mixing bowl. And others are large enough to fold several beaten egg whites into batters for a light as a feather mousse.

Because silicone and rubber spatulas are not metal, they're perfect for gentle folding, blending, and mixing. Their smooth edges won't cut or pierce ingredients.

A scraper spatula is a two-part tool: a handle and the blade. Although the blade of these types of spatulas are rubber or silicone, not the metal you think of when you hear the word blade.

The most common shape of the blade is a slight trapezoid, with the top being a bit more narrow than the bottom. The blade top can either be square, to reach into corners, or round, or one of each for more flexibility.

But they come in a variety of sizes for different functions. And silicone spatulas can handle heat hot enough to scrape pots as you cook sauces like cheese or tomato sauce. Silicone's higher heat resistance is one reason silicone is quickly replacing rubber and nylon in most kitchen tools.

Crafters love silicone spatulas when they work with hot glue. The silicone spatula acts like a third, burn-proof finger when you're trying to hot glue two objects together. That's unique, don't you agree?

Turner

Turner spatulas are often called flat, flip, pancake, and fish turners. Their primary function is to flip things over and remove them from the pan.

They're the spatulas you use to flip your burgers, eggs, and anything that needs to have attention on both sides. And they come in many sizes and shapes.

They make these spatulas in metal (mostly stainless steel), nylon, and silicone. While you can use nylon and silicone spatulas in all cookware, you should only use metal spatulas in cookware not coated with non-stick materials.

Turner spatulas usually have a more extended handle and a head that has slots or is solid. Slotted heads are useful for lifting items out of sauce or grease. Solid heads are suitable for flipping pancakes, crabcakes, and anything that might fall apart easily.

For non-stick use

One of the crucial things to look for when buying spatulas for non-stick cookware is the heat resistance of the spatula.

For non-stick cookware, which has a maximum heat recommendation of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, they recommend you use nylon or silicone spatulas to protect the non-stick surface. Metal utensils, including spatulas, can scratch and damage the non-stick coating.

However, the maximum heat recommendation for many nylon spatulas is 450 degrees Fahrenheit. So they could melt when cooking at higher temperatures. Silicone is a better choice because the maximum heat recommendation for many silicone spatulas is 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

This difference in heat resistance is one of the reasons silicone spatulas are becoming the spatula of choice for use in non-stick cookware.

For all other uses

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You can use the nylon and silicone spatulas in your regular cookware. But it's worth repeating that you should pay attention to the heat resistance, or you will end up with melted tools.

A useful turner spatula is the fish turner, which is typically metal, although they are available in nylon and silicone. They are usually longer than most turners, and they have several long slots. While they are useful for many other spatula jobs, their primary function is to flip and lift delicate filets of fish gently.

When you need a spatula for the grill, leave the nylon and silicone inside and bring on the metal. And make it a metal spatula with a long handle.

If you're looking for a unique way to use the turner spatulas you have to give a nod to Horace Spatula of Hungary and use it as a fly swatter. But if you do, use a nylon or silicone spatula, so you don't scratch whatever surface where the fly lands.

And while we're talking silicone, a silicone fish turner would make a fun bubble blower and some different looking bubbles.

Frost, Scrape, Turn, and Serve

What is a spatula? They are invaluable tools for your kitchen that flip, scrape, stir, mix, spread, scoop, lift, blend, and fold. They come in many shapes and sizes and are available in metal, nylon, and silicone.

Make your kitchen chores easier by including at least one of each type of spatula in your kitchen utensil drawer. Or fill a crock with them and you too can be stimied when someone asks you what is a spatula.

Let us know in the comments below how many spatulas are in your utensil drawer and how you would answer, "What is a spatula?"

Featured Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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