These are three very different things, but the one thing they all have in common is this: Their purpose cannot be fulfilled by anything else. (Also they all live in the utensil crock next to the stove, if you are the kind of person who keeps a utensil crock next to the stove.) Let us take them one by one:
A wooden spoon is a spoon made of wood. Or bamboo, sometimes, but it is for the most part easily identified by the fact that it is a spoon. Made of wood. Why not made of metal or plastic? Because here are the qualities you are looking for in your go-to cooking spoon: It should have poor heat conductivity, so it doesn’t overly cool or warm anything temperature-sensitive it gets stuck into. It should be durable, so it doesn’t snap in half or melt or explode. And like a good name-brand deodorant, it should be both strong and soft, so it can get all the good stuff up off the bottom of the pan, but also not scrape the living hell out of the bottom of the pan. Wooden spoons are handed down through generations (I cook daily with one stolen, surreptitiously, from my parents’ house) but they’re also wicked cheap to buy new.
My pick: I like long-handled, flat-bellied spoons, like this set of 18-Inch Wooden Cooking Mixing Spoons made of birch, ten bucks for two.
A ladle is the easiest way to get liquid out of one vessel and into another vessel, assuming that at least one of the following applies: (1) The first vessel can’t be conveniently lifted and poured; (2) It would be unbecoming (or perhaps painful) to use a cup or mug or something to do the liquid-scooping; (3) The first vessel contains a liquid that contains solids, like a soup with noodles or veggies or meat in it, and the solids are of varying weights and densities and have striated within the pot, and you’d like to create portioned servings that contain equal parts of each component of the soup, so the long handle on something like a ladle allows you to get deep in the pot and then lift, getting a remarkably accurate approximation of the balance of various stuffs in the pot. Ladles, man. They’re on it.
My pick: Pretty much any ladle will get ‘er done. I like this red KitchenAid nylon ladle because it’s red. I like this Stainless Steel “Professional Quality” ladle ladle because it is free from bullshit, and also because the bowl holds exactly 8 ounces so it’s useful as a measure of yield and other quantities.
A whisk is really a marvel. Do you need to introduce air to your egg whites? Whisk. Do you need to even out the lumpy roux in your stew? Whisk. Do you need to smooth your cake batter to a glossy texture? Whisk. Do you have a whole lot of stuff that you just need to stir up really really thoroughly, like dry ingredients for baking or a lot of small things in a pot? Whisk. Do you need to get in a good tricep workout? Whisk. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing a whisk can do that an egg beater or an immersion blender can’t also probably do. But a whisk will do it all, and just as well, and there’s also the delightful fact that the most common shape—this stretched-out teardrop—is known as a “balloon whisk,” which is just great.
My pick: Silicone whisks for nonstick vessels, metal whisks for the rest.