Inessential Tools: Spurtle

July 15, 2015

As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities—but we also have to rely on our tools. Some we couldn't cook without (knives, pots, pans). Others we don't necessarily need, but sure are glad we have around. Here, we talk about those trusty, albeit inessential, tools.

Today: A traditional Scottish spurtle—what it is, what it's supposed to do, and what it isn't supposed to be used for but could be used for.

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Let's start with a disclaimer: I'm one of the least Scottish people you'll ever meet. Some of the following will blatantly flout convention, but I am aware of this. 

It's been a year since I studied abroad in Edinburgh, but I still miss its windy streets and beautiful buildings. I went to Scotland with romantic ideas of fairies, Harry Potter, and foot-stomping reels, and came away with rudimentary knowledge of Scottish Gaelic and a deeper understanding of the country's fractured history and present turmoil simmering beneath pristine travel-agency posters. I also came back with a spurtle. 

Traditionally, spurtles are used to stir oatmeal, the slim tip perfect for keeping the oats from clumping together. Now, the Scots take porridge very seriously. There's an entire porridge-making competition held annually in the Highlands, now in its 22nd year, for which the prize is a golden spurtle. You can find spurtles on Etsy, and they're a good souvenir if you're heading off to Scotland and need to bring something back for the avid oatmeal eater in your life. 

More: Craving oatmeal now? Here are a few recipes to get your mind stirring.

I ate the oatmeal I still dream about and aspire to make at a beautiful second floor bistro on Nicolson Street, down the street from my flat. I'll be honest here: I went because one of its previous incarnations happened to be a café where J.K. Rowling used to write. The porridge was silky and simple, with whole milk in a shallow puddle on heavy oats and a dollop of homemade jam on top. I think about it a lot while I'm standing over a pot, stirring with my spurtle.

I love oatmeal, especially when it's made with steel-cut oats, but I'm unaccustomed to eating it regularly—even though I know it's good for me and easy to make. But I don't want my beloved spurtle to just sit there, an easy target for questions like: "What is that thing, and why?" Also, I have a college kid's kitchen that often calls for semi-desperate measures.

With a flat-bottomed bowl, or even a pot, the flat end of the spurtle handle is put to good use as a pestle. The wood is sturdy, and crushes seeds, herbs, and pods admirably. I also use it when all of my wooden spoons are lying morosely in the sink, and I need something to stir soup, stat. Lastly, and this is when I'm really desperate and can't find a suitably shaped bottle, I use it as a rolling pin. It's a little difficult, since the ends are tapered, but it gets my cookie dough flattened faster than if I were to use my hands to try to mash it all into one even width. 

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Do you have kitchen tools that you use in ways that are completely different than intended? Share with us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • slopowers
  • JFK
  • .Bill
  • Bob
  • jim
Jenny Xu

Written by: Jenny Xu

Dorm baker and connoisseur of digestive biscuits.


slopowers November 16, 2023
I was making a shortbread kind of tart and was having issues with it breaking apart as I tried to shape into the mold. I have a wooden tool I use for pastry but it's just a bit too big.
Out came my spurtle which was perfect for smoothing the pastry into the mold and fixing any little cracks that occurred. My spurtle is not tapered at the end so it worked beautifully.
JFK May 5, 2021
I blame the Victorians for inventing the concept of single-use items which lurk unused and unloved at the back of shelves and drawers around the planet. A spurtle is certainly not only for porridge, but is much like any other versatile kitchen implement. A spurtle was traditionally used for anything liquid that needed stirring in a cooking pot, not just porridge. So Shakespeare's three witches would have used a spurtle to stir their cauldron, for example. Any soup, stew, risotto, scrambled eggs, etc would be the better for using a spurtle, some of which are flattened paddles more like spatulas, not the round pointy wand-type along the lines of the one shown in Mark Weinberg's admirable photo above. Your time in Scotland should also have taught you how frugal Scottish society is by nature. Whether rounded or flattened, the number of spurtles one can shape from a piece of wood would far outnumber the number of spoons, which far less waste. Not all spurtles could be used as you describe, but can and are used to flip eggs or baked items such as biscuits and scones (US: cookies and biscuits). Please remember cooking is like any other art or craft, so use what works for you. And in a student household, necessity is the mother of invention, so you may yet find yourself using your spurtle as a convenient back scratcher too. ;) Keep up the good work. :) JFK
.Bill January 15, 2019
The spurtle is also great for stirring bolognese and polenta.
Bob January 1, 2016
Great work.
jim September 8, 2015
toothpick for those that have a molar or bicuspid removed temporarily or permanently. Especially in the UK or NH
Nancy September 1, 2015
or as a make-do molinillo for Mexican hot chocolate, or muddler for mint juleps at Kentucky Derby time or whenever you want one.
Ali R. July 15, 2015
Also not Scottish, but I love my spurtle. It's most frequently used for stirring porridge in the mornings. Mine's a bit too skinny to use to crush spices or to roll out dough, but it's perfect for mixing dough before kneading!
Jenny X. July 16, 2015
Ooh, I never even thought about using it to mix dough! Adding that to the repertoire :)