Wooden spoons are one of the oldest cooking tools found by archaeologists in Bronze-Age settlements and Egyptian tombs, and home cooks love them to this day. Wooden spoons are useful for a variety of tasks, such as mixing stiff cookie dough, browning roux, scraping up fond for stews and sauces, sautéing onions, stirring soups, or breaking up ground beef or sausage as it cooks. In the test kitchen, we use them to stir and scrape, particularly when we need more leverage than a softer silicone spatula can provide, and when we want to protect the surface of nonstick pans or enameled cast-iron pans. We also appreciate that they’re made from a renewable resource.
Recently, our longtime favorite wooden spoon was discontinued, and as we looked for replacements, we came across many spoons with bells and whistles purported to improve on the basic model. We found “corner” spoons with an asymmetrical point, spoons with flat scraping tips and high sides like a shovel, spoons that are as flat as ice pop sticks, mash-ups of spoons with other tools such as Scottish “spurtles” (designed for stirring porridge), and notched “lazy” spoons that perch on the pot edge. We bought 13 spoons, priced from about $4 to about $36, of various styles and made of various materials, including bamboo and cherry, olive, beech, acacia, and teak woods.
To test their mettle, we used them all to make Indian-Style Curry with Potatoes, Cauliflower, Peas, and Chickpeas; Weeknight Tagliatelle with Bolognese Sauce; and Classic Chewy Oatmeal Cookies. We also asked a variety of testers, including lefties, to use every spoon to break up Italian sausage as it browned in a skillet. After each cooking test, we washed the spoons with a sponge and hot, soapy water; dried them carefully; and observed their conditions, including whether they’d retained odors or become stained. Finally, we washed them in the dishwasher 10 times, tried to snap their handles like twigs, and checked for wear and tear. We rated them on performance, ease of use, cleanup and durability.
The biggest factor in determining whether a spoon was effective was the shape of its head. Spoons with thinner front edges were easier to slip underneath food to scrape or scoop than those with thick front edges that felt blunt and clumsy. Scoop-shaped spoons helped us lift and move more food at a time than flatter, paddle-style models. Heads that were wider overall were more effective than narrower ones. Traditional round- or oval-headed spoons varied in the amount of scraping area they provided; most of these needed to be held at an angle to get enough of a scraping zone. On the other hand, we were surprised to find that spoon heads with pointed “corners” were less effective than spoons with rounded heads—too often the points felt like they were in the way as we scooped, scraped, and turned food, particularly as we rounded the edges of a skillet or pot. Some heads were spatula shaped, but while the heads of five spoons in our lineup had flat front edges, three of these were simply not wide enough—less than 2 inches across—to scrape efficiently, meaning that we had to use many extra strokes. Two had heads that were wider: Of these, one was just over 2 inches, but its front edge was not straight all the way across; it was roughly finished, leaving it slightly concave in the center, so it was like scraping with a pitchfork rather than a shovel. Only one spoon had a truly flat front edge that was wide enough (2.25 inches across). Its head was broad enough to scrape up fond and move food around a pan with fewer strokes than other spoons yet slim enough to maneuver easily. And the scooped shape of its head helped us transfer food efficiently.
Longer spoons were better: Models we tested ranged from 10 inches to 13.5 inches in overall length. The shortest, with a 4-inch head and 6-inch handle, left our hands and forearms too close to spitting fat and heat when we were sautéing onions or other foods at the bottom of a Dutch oven. Our top several picks were at least 12 inches long. Equally important to how comfortable and secure a spoon felt in our hands was the shape of its handle, especially when we needed to apply pressure. Two spoons from the same manufacturer shared a thick, club-like handle that felt clumsy, and they were especially awkward for testers with smaller hands, though their heft came in handy for tasks such as pushing through thick oatmeal cookie dough. A model with a handle that was as flat as an ice pop stick was uncomfortable when we needed to squeeze it. The notched handles of two “lazy” spoons got mixed reactions: Some testers found that the broad bump in the handle where the notch was cut was uncomfortable and interrupted their grip; others found that it was a good place to rest a thumb for leverage. Two spoons with very skinny, round, stick-like handles were hard to grab securely and fatigued our hands, and a third with a wider elliptical shape and raised ridges designed for arthritic hands felt uncomfortable for some testers to hold. After trying all these innovations, it turned out that our favorite two models had fairly simple handles: They lacked ergonomic bumps or swoops; instead, they were round with flat top surfaces, which gave us a place to brace a thumb. Along their lengths, both handles tapered down gently from the tip, thinning slightly as they approached the bowl. This neutral, gradual shape offered the most affordance, a term experts use to describe ergonomic shapes that allow for a variety of grips and hand sizes.
The spoons we tested were made of more than a half-dozen types of wood (one was made of bamboo), but in our testing, we felt that the finish of a spoon mattered more than the material used to make it. One had a glossy finish that felt smooth to our hands, but this finish made the head too slick to hold on to food—and that lovely finish chipped off in patches after our abuse test of being washed in the dishwasher 10 times. Other spoons arrived feeling rough and scratchy and stayed that way throughout testing; a few testers strongly objected to the way these felt in hand. Our top picks were sanded smooth but not slick, with enough texture to grip food while still feeling good to hold. The lineup of spoons ranged in weight from 0.67 ounces to 3.4 ounces. The lightest spoon was too tiny and inadequate as we worked. Our favorites weighed about 1.5 ounces and felt comfortable and maneuverable, which proved important, since heavier spoons tired our hands.
Although we washed the spoons by hand after each test, many of them—especially those made of a lighter-colored, more roughly finished wood—remained yellowed and fragrant after they’d soaked in turmeric-tinted curry, despite being washed in hot, soapy water with a sponge. Our top picks resisted stains and odors a bit better than other spoons in the lineup that were lighter in color or made of wood with more porous texture and cleaned up well after hand-washing, but after 10 cycles in the dishwasher, all stains and odors disappeared from all of the spoons. What also disappeared were the pleasant colors and finishes of most of our spoons, which emerged dried and faded. Two spoons in our lineup became severely damaged after 10 trips through the dishwasher: The lengthwise strips of bamboo that made up one model unglued and separated, and an olive-wood spoon sported a crack through the head. As a result, we don’t recommend using the dishwasher or leaving wooden tools to soak in water. Wood is a natural substance that will swell as it absorbs water and then shrink (and potentially crack) as it dries. After these tests we feel confident that wooden tools should be washed by hand with hot, soapy water and dried with a dish towel after each use—and occasionally oiled like a cutting board—to prolong their useful life.
At the end of testing we had a tie, so we chose co-winners, one innovative design—Jonathan’s Spoons Spootle, which combines a spatula-like broad, thin leading edge that was a whiz at scraping, with a round bowl that made scooping easy—and one classic design that our grandmothers would recognize as a wooden spoon—the FAAY 13.5" Teak Cooking Spoon. Both winners were remarkably light and easy to maneuver without fatigue; their heads featured scooped bowls and thin front edges that lent themselves to efficient scraping and scooping (though we “give the edge”—sorry!—to the innovative model for the slightly easier scraping it afforded). Both models had rounded handles with flatter tops that gently tapered from the end to the bowl. These designs made them comfortable to hold and easy to grip in a variety of hand positions as needed for stirring, scraping, or scooping. They were also long enough to keep our hands far from hot pan surfaces while still providing good leverage. Both spoons felt sturdy and were easy to clean and their finishes stayed smooth and stain and odor-free after extensive testing. The Spootle from Jonathan’s Spoons, handmade in Pennsylvania, costs more, at around $28, while the FAAY Teak Cooking Spoon, handmade in Thailand, is priced a bit lower, at about $11. We’d be happy to reach for either one in the kitchen.