Ever notice how people congregate in the kitchen? Anthropologists say that's because the oven evokes the fire around which our ancestors gathered. More likely, it's because the kitchen is where the grownup toys are. And there's a gaggle of kitchen gadgets on the market that make great gifts for foodie friends.
The link between diet and health means more people are watching what they eat and how they prepare it. As a result, pressure cookers, which seal in more nutrients than other cooking methods, are making a comeback. No longer temperamental pots that threaten to spray edible shrapnel all over the kitchen, today's pressure cookers from makers such as Duromatic and Fagor ($109-$200) are built for safety. "They have terrific automatic decompression valves that eliminate any chance of an explosion," says Tex Harrison, president of Complements to the Chef, an Asheville (N.C.) kitchen-supply store (table).
Also appealing to the health-conscious are $20 yogurt strainers for making yogurt cheese, a low-fat alternative to sour cream or cream cheese. Other fatbusters include refillable olive-oil misters ($20) that spray a light film of oil on your food.
Recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have raised awareness of kitchen health hazards. Gifts that address such concerns include instant-read digital thermometers ($10-$15). Not only do they prevent you from eating undercooked and possibly bacteria-tainted food but "they keep you from mutilating pieces of meat on the grill to see if they're done," says TV cooking-show host and author Nathalie Dupree. Another way to avoid harm is to have multiple cutting boards for raw meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, and cooked foods. Williams-Sonoma offers a $58 polypropylene set of three with symbols for their intended uses. Kitchen & Co. sells inexpensive boards in a rainbow of colors, with durable spatulas to match.
If you have a baker on your list, consider giving willow dough-rising baskets ($30-$70). Used by French bakers for centuries, they allow excess moisture to escape, leading to a crispier crust. For the crunchiest breads, wrap up a $25-$35 baking stone, too. These heavy ceramic plates are porous, so they draw moisture from the crust as the bread bakes.
FORGOTTEN TRICKS. A variety of manual contraptions can make quick work of tedious tasks. Potato ricers ($13-$25) turn boiled potatoes or turnips into a fluffy mash, and cylindrical garlic peelers ($8) loosen skin from clove with a flick of the wrist. In the age of food processors, "many people have forgotten or just don't know how wonderful and effective these hand-powered gadgets are," says Jean Anderson, author of The American Century Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $35).
On the other end of the technological spectrum are digital cookbooks, such as The Complete Interactive Cookbook (Compton's NewMedia, $45) and Williams-Sonoma's Guide to Good Cooking (Broderbund, $39.95). Throw in NutriStaR (Hopkins Technology, $49.95), and you can find out the nutritional value of everything on the menu. If there is a creature stirring in the kitchen, don't be surprised to find it's the chef's mouse.