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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cooking With Wooden Utensils

Nothing's As Good As Wood

My home kitchen is chock full of the latest modern equipment. There are full-sized and mini food processors, a blender, an immersion blender, stand and hand mixers, a countertop oven with a built-in rotisserie feature, a microwave, a fryer, a Keurig coffeemaker, a vacuum sealer, a couple of crockpots, an induction burner, an array of gleaming stainless steel, cast iron, and non-stick cookware, a mandoline slicer, a yard-long magnetic strip festooned with a variety of knives, and drawers full of gadgets from apple slicers to zesters. And there amidst all the latest culinary trappings are my wooden spoons and spatulas.

“Wooden spoons?” you query. “In the age of plastic and silicone, you have wooden spoons?” Yep. And I wouldn't be without them. Oh, I have a few plastic, metal, and silicone utensils around, but their use is generally limited to specific tasks. For instance, flexible silicone spatulas are great for scraping out mixing bowls and we have some plastic turners that we use on our non-stick griddle. Plastic and metal spoons are handy as serving pieces. But my real kitchen workhorses are all made of wood.

“But isn't wood terribly old fashioned?” you ask. “Aren't modern materials much cleaner, safer, and sturdier?” The answers are, “yes,” “no,” “no,” and no.”

First, the “old fashioned” part. Yeah, wooden spoons have been around since the dawn of time and I don't think there's an Italian anywhere who doesn't have a memory of a nonna without a wooden spoon in her hand. I know a lot of those nonne – and some professional chefs as well – who swear that the wooden spoons actually contribute something to the flavor of some dishes. The theory is that a wooden spoon that's been used to stir, say, spaghetti sauce for many, many years actually picks up subtle flavors and imparts them to subsequent batches of sauce. Could be true; I don't know.

I do know I prefer wood over other materials for a variety of practical reasons, the first of which is comfort. A good wooden spoon just feels good in your hand. And if you don't think that's important, make a batch of risotto or polenta or something else that requires a lot of stirring. Hand fatigue is pretty common with clunky, poorly designed implements. Most wooden spoons have rounded handles, which makes stirring easier and more effective – and more comfortable. Wooden spoons also give you a good, strong handle to grip so you don't have to worry about it breaking if you're working with something a little stout. You can't always say that with plastic.

Wooden spoons make better tools for scraping the sides and bottom of your pan. The rounded bowl of a wooden spoon is much more conducive to effective scraping than the angled or oval edges of plastic or metal spoons. This is important for several reasons, beginning with the ability of wooden spoons to pass through more delicate foods and ingredients without smashing or bruising them the way harder edged spoons sometimes can. Then there's your cookware to consider. If you're cooking in cast iron or stainless steel, the construction and material of your utensils doesn't much matter. But if you're using non-stick cookware, metal and hard plastic spoons and spatulas are useless. They will seriously scratch and damage the surface of your pans. Wood won't do that.

Wooden spoons are non-reactive and non-conductive. If you're cooking something acidic, like tomato sauce or lemon curd, metal spoons can react with the acids in your ingredients and leave a slight metallic taste behind. Reactive metals can even affect the color of the food you are cooking. Wood, being non-reactive, won't do any of that. And because wood is a poor conductor of heat, you don't have to worry about burning your hand if your wooden spoon is in contact with a hot ingredient or a hot surface for an extended period of time.

Metal utensils can rust over time and the edges can become uneven and jagged from use. Plastic can melt at high temperatures and can also break down at the edges, leaving tiny bits of plastic in the food you're preparing. Some plastics can release toxic chemicals when heated, so if your plastic is not BPA-free, it may pose a significant health risk. None of those things are issues with wood.

Now, on the topic of cleanliness, I know a lot of people who think that wood is somehow “dirtier” than plastic or metal. That it's harder to clean and sanitize. And that's not true. Like wood cutting boards, wooden utensils have natural anti-bacterial properties. Scratches and pits that develop in plastic or metal will harbor bacteria. Not so with wood. Bacteria that get into cracks and scratches in wood become trapped within and are held there until they die and become inert. They cannot be released into whatever it is you're cooking. The same can't be said of other materials, especially plastic, which will even resist the efforts of chlorine bleach to get at germs buried deep in scratches and pits.

Wooden spoons are durable, beautiful, and better for the environment. Wood is a natural, renewable resource and a good wooden spoon can last for decades. I have spoons that served in my mother's kitchen and they're in as good a condition now as they were back then. And, I'm sorry, but you can have all the sleek, gleaming surfaces and flashy colors; give me the soft, natural beauty of wood any day. We have a big annual artisan craft show in our town every Fall and my wife and I always visit a particular booth that features hand-crafted wooden utensils. We have purchased spoons, spatulas, bowls, spreaders, honey dippers and a variety of other beautiful wooden items for home use and to give as gifts. My left-handed spouse even found a spatula designed and crafted for lefties.

As with any kitchen appliance or utensil, you get what you pay for. Always look for hardwood utensils; cherry, maple, and walnut are good choices. Oak, beech, and birch are also popular. Olive wood is widely used and bamboo, although technically not “wood,” is also good. Cheaper soft woods, like pine, tend to soak up a lot of oils and juices from whatever you're cooking and they can also leach an off, “piney,” flavor into your dish.

As I mentioned, I still use many of my mom's wooden spoons. They have to be thirty or forty years old. But they're in good shape partly because they're wood and partly because they're well cared for. My wooden spoons have never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Wooden utensils should always be washed by hand and dried promptly. The high temperatures of a dishwasher, especially in the drying cycle, can cause wooden utensils (and knife handles, by the way) to dry out and crack. This is similar to the reason you should never leave a wooden spoon submerged in a liquid, be it a soup, a sauce, or hot dishwater. Wood being porous, exposure to water and liquids, especially hot liquids, can cause the wood to break down and deteriorate. That's why culinary school instructors will smack you with a wooden spoon if they find one sticking out of your soup or sauce.

And with that in mind, wooden utensils, knife handles, and cutting boards should all be treated on a regular basis to keep them from drying out or deteriorating. Every couple of months, rub your wood kitchen stuff with a little food-grade mineral oil. Let the oil sit and soak in for a couple of hours or overnight, then wipe off the excess and you're good to go. Doing this on a regular basis will ensure your wooden utensils will remain beautiful and will last as long as mine have.

Old-fashioned? Who cares! For my money, nothing's as good as wood.

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