EVERY kitchen's got, or should have, the coffee can on the counter filled with wooden spoons, spatula, wire whisk, skimmer and rubber scraper. Inexpensive, battered and utterly essential, they are the small wonders of the kitchen.
These items tend to be the teddy bears of the kitchen, the items that you cling to until one of you goes. One cook told me he finally was going to replace the wooden spoon he'd had for years. I asked why. It had turned into a fork, he said.
Your wooden spoons will turn into forks less quickly if they're made of hard wood. The elite of wooden utensils are made from olive or boxwood, and besides being close-grained and therefore sturdy and relatively impervious to liquid, they are beautiful. Beech and sycamore are softer, but still better than the lightweight, balsa-like stuff.
My own personal favorite is an olivewood curved spatula, a utensil that looks like a slightly askew one-piece wooden pancake turner with a gently curving head. I use it for everything from tossing sautee'ing mushrooms to turning hamburgers. One side of the head is more or less pointed (which makes it nice for getting into corners of saucepans), the other more or less curved.
Another favorite is a boxwood spatula that looks like a wooden spoon with a completely flat bowl. The advantage of the flattened bowl is that it can be scraped off easily against the side of the pan. This is the utensil to have for stirring sauces and soups. It comes in various lengths, from about 9 inches to about 16 inches.
Other useful wooden pieces are the long paddle-like spatula that is good for stirring as well as for spreading and turning, and a funny-looking spoon with a hole in it. You stir in one direction and liquid swirls through the hole in the other direction, making blending faster.
Wooden utensils have several advantages over metal. They don't scratch your pots and pans--you can use them with nonstick pans and with tin-lined copper. They are easy to hold onto with greasy or wet hands and they don't conduct heat well, meaning the handle won't heat up as you stir. They shouldn't be put in the dishwasher; an occasional oiling with vegetable oil will reinforce their waterproof qualities.
Although many kitchen stores around town carry a hardwood spoon or two, they generally are hard to come by. La Cuisine in Alexandria consistently carries a good supply of hardwood spoons and spatulas of various sizes, the majority costing under $5.
There is just as much variation in wire whisks as there is in wooden utensils. With a giant balloon whisk--one whose head is very nearly round--you can whip egg whites as fast by hand as you can by machine because the configuration of the wires allows you to incorporate a lot of air, fast. With a more flexible, shorter whisk you can make hollandaise or salad dressing, or whip cream. (With a wide bowl, a flexible whisk, and a simple zigzag motion you can whip half a pint of heavy cream in about 90 seconds.)
When you're buying a whisk, swallow your pride and try out your motions in the store. Pretend you're whipping cream or making hollandaise and see if the whisk feels comfortable in your hand. Although the extra-long whisks look temptingly professional, they may only get in your way if you aren't cooking for battalions. Pay attention to the handle, too. A metal handle will stand up better but also gets slippery when it's wet or greasy. But unlike wooden handles, they can go in the dish washer.
Skimmers are perforated metal or wire disks attached to a handle. Chinese wire skimmers with bamboo handles are great for fishing fried foods out of hot oil. Some are even big enough to scoop out a whole wokful at one time. Fine wire mesh or perforated metal skimmers are necessary for skimming the top of your fine stock. They also work for turning or lifting tender foods like fish fillets, or for draining small quantities of vegetables. And finally, everybody needs a rubber spatula. They come long (for getting out the last of the cake batter from your deepest mixing bowl) to tiny (for scraping out the mustard jar). Rubber spatulas never should be left sitting in hot foods as they tend to lend a rubbery taste. And they last longer if they aren't put in the dishwasher.