A good metal spatula is an essential component of any cook’s toolkit. Often referred to as a turner or flipper—likely to avoid confusion with thicker silicone spatulas that are used to fold and scrape—it’s used to flip or transfer foods whenever we’re working with metal cook- or bakeware. (When cooking in more delicate nonstick pans, we prefer plastic spatulas.)
It had been a while since our last review, and we wanted to know if our old favorite, the Wüsthof Gourmet 12" Fish Spatula ($49.95), still held up to the competition. We bought 10 models priced from $4.53 to $49.95, including our previous winner, and put them through their paces, using them to flip and remove eggs, pancakes, burgers, fried fish, and home fries from a variety of cooking vessels and to transfer sugar cookies from a baking sheet to a wire rack. Five models were conventional spatulas, featuring sturdy square or rectangular heads, some slotted and some solid. The other five, including our former winner, were fish spatulas. Often found in restaurant kitchens, these spatulas feature long, tapered, slotted heads; as their name implies, they are traditionally used to lift and support slender fish fillets.
The good news? All the spatulas performed reasonably well and were able to get the food from point A to point B more or less intact. Still, a few factors made certain models easier, more comfortable, and generally more pleasant to use.
There’s a reason that professional cooks swear by fish spatulas. The spatulas’ unique head shape makes them versatile, allowing them to excel at flipping and moving not only delicate pieces of fish, but foods of different shapes and sizes. For one thing, the heads are roomy—on average, about 12 square inches, compared to 11 for the conventional models. They are also long and slim, tapering out from the base, so they can nimbly navigate even the tightest spaces, such as the 8-inch cast-iron skillet we used to make over-easy eggs. The length of the fish spatulas’ heads—5.5 inches on average for the models in our lineup—was particularly important. Longer heads act as more extensive landing strips for food to travel along, so food didn’t fall right off or get squashed when we shoved a little too forcefully to get the spatula under the food.
By contrast, the heads of the five conventional metal spatulas in our lineup were squat and rectangular, which made them a little awkward to maneuver in confined spaces. Because the heads are shorter than a fish spatula’s (most were less than 4 inches long), fragile foods such as pancakes and soft cookies sometimes hit the back end and got dented if we slid the spatula under them too vigorously; heavier foods such as pub burgers sometimes fell backward onto the cooking surface. And these spatulas’ smaller surface areas meant that long fish fillets and large pancakes sometimes draped over the sides a bit precariously.
In addition, most of the conventional spatulas in our lineup had heads that were either too rigid and thick (more than 1 millimeter), making it harder to get under food without damaging it, or too flexible and thin (0.2 millimeters), buckling slightly when we lifted the 1/2-pound pub burgers. Fish spatulas hit the sweet spot: At 0.8 to 0.9 millimeters thick, their moderately flexible heads hugged the cooking surface and slipped easily under all foods without tearing or bumping them, but they were still substantial enough to support heavier foods and do a little scraping when foods stuck.
Fish spatulas had advantages on the other end as well. Their handles—all 4.5 to 5 inches long—moved our hands closer to the action and gave us more control for flipping and scooping. By contrast, the handles on conventional spatulas were simply too long—8 to 9 inches on the most unwieldy models—leaving us to poke clumsily at the food from afar.
More generally, we preferred handles of moderate thickness, about 2.5 to 3.25 inches around. Thinner, flatter handles cramped our hands after extended use, and thicker handles were hard for smaller-handed users to hold. We also liked handles made of textured wood or plastic, as these were easier to grasp than smooth metal, especially when wet or greasy.
By the conclusion of testing, one thing was clear: We significantly preferred fish spatulas to conventional models. Two products swam to the top of our rankings. They are nearly identical, with moderately long, medium-thick handles made of easy-to-hold plastic. Both also have large, long heads that could lift any food without damaging it and just enough flexibility for good control. There was just one small critical difference between the two models: the curvature of the head. Once again, our old favorite from Wüsthof had the edge—literally. The end of its head curves upward with a pronounced swoop, affording more leverage for prying up roasted potatoes or lifting the corner of a pancake to check its browning. The curved head also positions hands higher, putting them at a safer distance from hot pans. At $49.95, it’s not cheap, but we think it’s a worthy investment, considering how frequently we use it. That said, our Best Buy, the MIU France Flexible Fish Turner—Slotted ($16.57), was a very close second. Its head is nearly flat, so it can’t command quite the same amount of leverage as our winner and it brings your knuckles a little closer to the hot pan. But it performed almost as well—and at a third of the price.