This is an attempt to get this whole spatula business under control. Far too many things can be referred to as a "spatula" and there is little agreement among regional spatula-users as to what a spatula actually is.

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The oldest definition of a spatula is probably what Webster1913 claims: a thin, flat, dull, whippy metal blade with a rounded tip. Apparently these can be used to spread plaster and paint, but you should not confuse it with a trowel, which is what bricklayers would use to apply mortar. These days most people use either a trowel or a putty knife (also spatula-like) to spread plaster, and a palette knife to spread paint (not palettes). Webster1913 also implies that spatula might have also once referred to a digging spade (or shovel), but I've never heard it used in that way.

This definition could be considered identical to a cooking implement of basically the same design, commonly found in kitchens and used to spread butter, icing, etc. Essentially a fancy butter knife. Some spatulas of this type may have a sharp or serrated edge for whatever reason, and people may call this an "edged spatula" rather than just a "knife". Others may be bent down so as to be better at scraping flat things or manipulating food on a flat thing; these are "offset spatulas", but are dangerously close to being "turners" (to be discussed later).


Another obsolete definition of spatula is what we now call a tongue depressor: a flat wooden thing for doctors to mash our tongues down with. Kind of like a broad popsicle stick.

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Then there are the spatulas for scraping and stirring. Most of them are made of soft rubber on a plastic or metal handle, although I have seen wooden spatulas of this type. Rubber varieties would be called a "rubber spatula", and wooden varieties would be called (surprise!) a "wooden spatula". These spatulas are designed for manipulating liquidy or gooey mixtures in and out of a mixing bowl. They may not be stiff enough to replace a mixing spoon for cookie dough, for example, but they are great for scraping dough off the sides of a bowl. If you need to "fold" an ingredient into a liquidy mixture, this is the tool for you. They work especially well on stiffly beaten eggs for, say, a souffle.

Variations on this kind of spatula may be slotted and/or broad and curved for mixing drier foods, or even shaped into a spoon for more liquidy foods. Others may be wooden and have holes for mixing things.

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Now we get into the realm of things more specifically called "turners", but it's ok to call them spatulas or "metal spatulas" too. Sometimes they are made out of plastic instead. Turners are used to manipulate food on a griddle, or a grill, or a frying pan. They can be used to flip pancakes and hamburgers, cook eggs, or sautee onions. They are usually bent down to make it easer to run the blade along the cooking surface. A pie server could be considered a type of turner.

update: DejaMorgana informs me that The New Professional Chef, an authoritative culinary reference of sorts, does not use the term "turner" anywhere. While the word may not be in standard use in all food service lexicons, I feel that it is useful to make a linguistic distinction between the functions of a turner and other kinds of spatulas. You would look silly trying to fold a souffle with a pancake turner, and grilling hamburgers with a rubber spatula would be disastrous.

update: Master Villain claims that a turner may be called a "Fish Slice", and he is correct. From what I can tell, this is primarily a British term (alternatively, "fish trowel") and derives from a funny kind of knife-thing for slicing and serving fish that gradually became more and more spatula-like over the years. Eventually the term was applied to the more generic metal turner. Personally I find the idea of flipping my pancakes with a "fish slice" to be rather unsettling.

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Another type of turner does not have the thin portion in the middle, and instead has a bent blade. This makes them ideal for sauteeing, but less good for flipping things in a skillet. The large metal turners used by cooks and food service workers on large industrial grills are of this type, except bigger. American grill jockeys usually call it a spatula, or sometimes just a "spatch" or "spat". Sometimes this kind of turner may have a serrated edge, which would make it an "edged turner".

Spat"u*la (?; 135), n. [L. spatula, spathula, dim. of spatha a spatula: F. spatule. See Spade for digging.]

An implement shaped like a knife, flat, thin, and somewhat flexible, used for spreading paints, fine plasters, drugs in compounding prescriptions, etc. Cf. Palette knife, under Palette.


© Webster 1913.

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