Dump Those Sticky Spatulas

The chemicals in hot chili peppers, known as capsaicin, can sting  --  especially if you touch your eyes or nose.
The chemicals in hot chili peppers, known as capsaicin, can sting -- especially if you touch your eyes or nose. (By Melissa Cannarozzi For The Washington Post)
By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I have numerous Rubbermaid spatulas in my kitchen drawer. Some feel very sticky, even though they look clean and I know they have been hand washed recently. Are they clean? Should they be discarded? Will this same sticky feeling eventually develop with silicone spatulas?

Your tacky spatulas are made of rubber, as spatulas have been for decades. Today, the rubber spatula has been superseded by silicone, which is a cinch to maintain.

But first, have you always wondered, as I have, why a company that makes plastic consumer products is named Rubbermaid? (If not, please wonder. I'll wait.) A call to what is now Newell Rubbermaid Inc. solved the mystery. It seems that in the early 1920s, one James R. Caldwell invented and patented the rubber dust pan and other rubber household cleaning tools, branding them Rubbermaid. After selling them door to door, he formed a partnership with the Wooster (Ohio) Rubber Co., a small manufacturer of toy balloons. Thus was born what became a $6 billion-plus conglomerate.

Today, Newell Rubbermaid says none of its household products, with the exception of its rubber gloves, is made from natural rubber. That may be literally true, but your Rubbermaid spatulas are indeed made of rubber -- synthetic rubber, which doesn't contain the natural latex to which some people are allergic.

Whether natural or synthetic, rubber is des tr oyed by heat and by fats and oils. Although your washed spatulas looked clean after washing, they probably retained a thin layer of oil, which ate away at the rubber, turning it soft and sticky. There is no remedy for that so, yes, throw them out and buy silicone spatulas.

Silicone is impervious to fats and oils and is much more resistant to heat, so you can use it in contact with hot foods. How hot? That's the cook's dilemma.

Silicone is not a single substance, but a family of silicon-based polymers with a wide variety of compositions, properties and uses, from breast implants to Silly Putty. Various brands of silicone spatulas, therefore, claim that they are "heat resistant" or "heat proof" up to anywhere from 425 to 900 degrees, although what those terms actually mean is anybody's guess. While it may be prudent to buy the ones with the highest claimed temperatures, they tend to get stiffer as temperature claims go up, and flexibility is the hallmark of a versatile spatula.

Me? I buy the cheapest ones that are rated at 500 degrees, the maximum temperature of a roasting pan just out of the oven.

Can you guide me as to whether I need latex gloves to slice and dice hot peppers? Emeril does not use them, but Jacques Pepin says his hands are calloused from burns.

Pepin is undoubtedly referring to heat burns, not pepper burns.

The "burning" sensation in our mouths from hot chili peppers is caused by a family of closely related chemicals called capsaicinoids or, more simply, capsaicin. Capsaicin irritates the same nerves that transmit heat messages from the mouth and tongue to the brain, and the brain is fooled into thinking "Hot!" It may even order up defenses against real heat, such as sweating.

Capsaicin irritates our mucous membranes -- the linings of all our externally accessible body cavities, including the breathing path to the lungs and both ends of the digestive tract. Our outer skin is much less susceptible to capsaicin irritation, although some over-the-counter liniments for sore muscles are based on capsaicin's ability to inflame the skin, thereby stimulating blood flow, at least at the surface.

Hot peppers will not hurt intact skin, but they may sting any cuts on your hands. The only other hazard is that you may touch your eyes or nose with a capsaicin-tainted hand -- or a capsaicin-tainted glove, for that matter. Capsaicin is oily and persistent, and only a thorough washing with soap and hot water will remove pepper oil from your hands.

If Emeril's eyes ever tear after he handles hot peppers, you can bet he cries off camera.

This summer I bought a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share in which, in exchange for a modest annual fee, members receive fresh organic fruits and vegetables once a week from a local farm. A few weeks ago, I also received a dozen eggs -- so fresh, according to the accompanying newsletter, that they couldn't be hard-boiled for days. Why does freshness have anything to do with how they may be cooked?

It doesn't, really. You can cook them at any time from the moment they leave the hen.

In very fresh eggs, the albumen (egg white) is stuck tightly to that thin membrane just inside the shell. After you hard-cook such an egg, it may be difficult to peel away the shell without removing chunks of adhering white, leaving your egg as cratered as the surface of the moon.

As the egg ages and the albumen becomes more alkaline when carbon dioxide gas is lost through the porous shell, the white's grip on the membrane loosens and peeling becomes easier. Also, albumen coagulates more readily at higher alkalinities, so fresh eggs may take a mite longer to cook.

But don't let those minor inconveniences stop you. There's no flavor like that of a freshly laid egg, so eat 'em without delay.

LABELINGO: Perspicacious reader Mark J. Estren of McLean says that Trader Joe's really wants us to keep its Low Fat Parmesan Ranch Dressing refrigerated. In addition to several "Keep Refrigerated" warnings all over the bottle, there is a big yellow label reading, "Keep Refrigerated at All Times."

At all times? Apparently, the only way you can use this dressing is by preparing your salad inside a walk-in refrigerator.

Robert L. Wolke (http://www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.

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