They won’t scratch your nonstick surfaces or melt in high-temp sauces, but are the ligneous ladles a health hazard? Find out.
Visit any kitchen supply store, and you’ll find myriad options with which you can stir your many recipes. Plastic, stainless steel, wooden, silicone, nylon—you have as many options as you could possibly want.
However, there’s really only one you need: the wooden spoon.
What’s so great about wooden spoons?
Wooden spoons are superior to other materials for five primary reasons:
1. They won’t scratch the finish off nonstick surfaces or leave scars on delicate copper pans. That’s especially important for dishes that require a lot of stirring, like caramel, risotto, and candies.
2. They’re “warm.” Wooden spoons plopped into a high-temp candy or other temperature-sensitive recipe won’t “shock” the mixtures and cause immediate crystallization. They also aren’t conductive, which means they won’t draw heat out of the dish—and they won’t burn your hand.
4. They’re heat resistant. They won’t melt in hot syrups or when rested against a hot pan or stove eye. That doesn’t mean they won’t burn, of course, but even wooden spoons with burned bits are useable. They also don’t release chemicals when used in hot dishes as some plastics can.
5. They’re recipe safe. Some metal utensils can react with acidic foods, like tomato sauces and lemon curds. Wooden spoons will not affect the flavor of foods, and they’re unlikely to absorb flavors too.
Are wooden spoons sanitary?
Wooden spoons have been used for decades, centuries even. They started to fall out of favor in the bacteria-phobic 1990s and were replaced with cheaper plastics and harsher stainless steel. However, research suggests wooden spoons are safe to use in your kitchen.
Yes, wood is porous, and it may draw in liquids and oils from the food you’re cooking. However, one study found that those liquids—and any bacteria hiding in them—do not return to the surface once they’re wicked into the wood’s cells. Those bacteria also do not multiply and eventually die.
The best way to eliminate bacteria from the surface of a spoon—wooden or otherwise—is to wash it after cooking with soap and hot water. Anything on the outside of the spoon will be rinsed away.
If you want, you can also use a diluted bleach solution to disinfect your wooden spoons. Restaurants employ this step, plus a high-temp dishwasher cycle, to eliminate bacteria on the surface of these versatile utensils. At home, however, this isn’t really necessary unless you just prefer to go the extra mile.
That said, even great things come with some caveats: Wooden spoons are durable, but they can crack, especially if you use them repeatedly in extremely hot dishes or wash them in a dishwasher. The drying cycle is particularly dangerous to wooden spoons.
Food can get stuck in those cracks and crevices, which can lead to bacterial growth you can’t easily wash or clean away. If your spoons start to show these signs of damage, it’s better to pitch them and start new.
How to care for wooden spoons
If you decide to welcome wooden spoons to your utensil collection, make sure you buy hard, dense wooden spoons. Look for ones made with maple, olive, or hickory woods. Pine spoons are inexpensive, but they’re soft and may soak up more juices and oils. A spoon-making Renaissance is happening among many woodworkers today, so check your local farmers’ market for beautiful handmade options. We also like this Staub Olivewood Cook’s Spoon (surlatable.com, $25). At just $5 or $6, the OXO Wooden Spoon (surlatable.com) is also a great option.
When you cook with spoons, protect them from dishwasher damage by hand washing with hot water and a mild detergent. Let them air dry to prevent contaminating them with germs from a hand towel.
If you buy high-quality wooden spoons, you can protect them, and they may become family heirlooms. When they start to look dry or “fuzzy,” rub the spoon with food-grade mineral oil (surlatable.com, $7). You can buy some at kitchen supply stores or home goods stores. (Be sure to buy the kind intended for use on wood, not your intestines.) Let the spoon set and absorb the oil overnight, then wipe away any excess and wash with soap and water before using it again.
Lastly, if you can’t bring yourself to use wooden spoons, despite this reassurance that it’s perfectly safe to do so, silicone utensils are a great second-string option. They, like wooden spoons, are strong enough for thick dishes, won’t conduct heat or “shock” ingredients, won’t scratch surfaces, are melt resistant, and won’t absorb flavors. However, silicone isn’t as strong as wood, so it may not work as well for tasks like scraping fond off the bottom of a pan.