All I Want for Christmas Is a Vitamix: The Kitchen Gift Guide
It's that time of the year. The candles are ready for lighting, the greenery is beswagged, the festive lights are hung, and the old family recipes are coming out, ready for exuberant overeating. And of course, it's time to buy gifts -- which in my household usually means a kitchen item.
There's a reason that someone, possibly me, has dubbed our kitchen "the Appliance Museum." Except it's one of those hands-on museums where all the stuff actually gets used. I love cooking, and I love gadgets to cook with. So here, forthwith, are (more than) a few of my favorite things. You'll see a lot of old favorites along with a few new additions that have graced my kitchen this year.
Stocking Stuffers (under $25)
Microplane zester I start this guide with the same thing every year: the microplane zester. That's for two reasons. First, it's amazingly useful: It removes just the zest, not the bitter white pith, so you can add lots of lovely citrusy zest to your sauces, custards and desserts without endangering your knuckles on the old box graters. It also makes lovely clouds of Parmesan or chocolate for toppings. But the other reason it's a great gift is that a surprising number of cooks don't know about the magic of a zester, so if they don't have one, they'll be very happy.
Salt pig Most frequent cooks, including me, like to have their salt out on the counter, where they can dig in for easy sprinkling. This provides an attractive place to keep your salt next to the stove, free from splatters but available for free dipping.
Disposal genie OK, this is not a romantic present. I wouldn't make this the sole treat under the tree for the spouse, unless you've already signed the separation papers. Nonetheless, it's a very handy little gadget that lets water drain while preventing your precious cutlery from falling into the disposal and turning into a Found Art project.
Fish spatula People who know me are always surprised to see me recommend this, because I hate the taste of cooked fish. Good news! You do not need to be a fish lover to be a fish spatula lover. It's just a nice, wide spatula that eases the task of flipping, moving or plating your larger, more unwieldy items. I don't use it every day -- but when I do use it, I really need it.
OXO basting brush Bulb basters are basically useless for the task of basting; they fail to draw or come apart at the worst possible moment, bathing your hand in boiling animal fat. They're also no good for barbecue sauce, marinades, mop sauce or any of the many other liquids you might want to transfer onto a savory piece of meat. The answer is a basting brush, but in recent years, they've become terrible -- the bristles start coming out almost before you start using them, which is great for adding fiber to your diet but not so good for your culinary reputation. Most of the silicone substitutes keep their bristles but don't do very well at actually transferring liquid to meat. OXO has finally solved this problem, to my immense relief. I like the longer-handled model particularly -- excellent for grilling or reaching into a hot oven.
Pizza cutter Even if you don't eat pizza, these are very useful for cutting up pastry, dividing sandwiches or quesadillas, or sectioning your rustic-style apple galette. There are basically two kinds: the traditional handle model and the kind that you cup in your hand. Both are good, but the important thing is solid construction and a nice, sharp blade -- don't pick up a flimsy supermarket model that will dull quickly. I like our KitchenAid, but Alton Brown swears by this Zyliss model.
Pizza mesh The McSuderman household has a fierce commitment to Crispy. Crispy is easy to achieve on the top of your food -- just turn on the broiler. But it's tricky on the bottom, because steam gets trapped under your food and makes it soggy. You can solve this by frying your food, but after you have the first heart attack, your doctor will make you stop. So enter the pizza mesh, which allows air to circulate under the food, crisping it on both sides.
Spice measuring spoons What's the biggest problem with measuring spoons? That's right: They don't fit in your jar. So you try to delicately tap it out onto the bowl of the spoon, losing half your spices to the counter or the sink. These spoons solve that problem with a long bowl that will fit through the mouth of most spice jars. They're metal, so they won't break, and attached to a ring, so you won't lose them. Not, perhaps, the most romantic of gifts, but ever so useful.
12-inch tongs Some chefs hate them; I can't live without them. I use them for everything from pulling pasta out of boiling water to check doneness to flipping chicken cutlets to lifting the steamer basket out of my pressure cooker. I like the OXO model with the silicone head, because it won't scratch nonstick pans, and it has solid construction with a good locking mechanism. If your loved one doesn't have any tongs, there's a very good chance this will change their cooking for the better.
Surgical tongs I first ran into these at Rogue 24; chef R.J. Cooper uses them instead of chopsticks. And for those of us who didn't grow up in China, they are a great substitute. If you like to cook Asian food, these can spare your guests a lot of embarrassment.
Giant ice cube trays Cocktail makers face a trade-off between getting your drink cold and diluting it. The solution is giant ice cubes, which maximize cold and minimize the surface area for melting. You can get very fancy ones that make spheres, but they're a pain in the butt to use; I like these, which are made of silicone and make a number of cubes at a time. But don't just limit yourself to ice cubes: These are also a great way to freeze ingredients, like a single serving of pesto or a block of cheese grits to be breaded and deep-fried.
Twine dispenser If you're cooking much, you're probably going to end up needing twine. Trussing roasts, tying up your bouquet garni, securing a cheesecloth cover on a bowl -- a twine dispenser with a cutter on top makes these one-handed operations, which is a good thing, because in general, when I'm using twine, I need both hands and could really use a third.
Ball whisk There really is no substitute for a whisk; nothing else blends and stirs so well. A ball whisk is not some sort of miracle machine; it will not aerate twice as well or anything. But it gives you a little extra lift, and it doesn't cost much, so why not splash out and get something different?
Egg separator Separating eggs is not difficult. But for someone who's never done so, it is daunting; the shell-to-shell method seems complicated, and the let-the-white-run-through-your-fingers-while-you-cup-the-yolk-in-your-palm method seems, well, gross. Enter an egg separator. You crack the egg into the bowl, and the yolk stays put while the white runs into the cup below. Suddenly meringues, angel food cakes and egg white omelets are all within reach of a novice.
Gravy separator This looks just like a giant measuring cup, and it can be used that way. But it's actually designed to let you separate fat from gravy or other liquids. Pour the pan juices or stock into the separator, let it sit for a few minutes while the fat rises to the top, and then pour out most of the liquid, leaving the fat behind. Because the spout draws from the bottom, the fat will be the last thing that runs out. Great for anyone who does a lot of roasts and braises.
Silicone steamer This is such a useful little kitchen gadget. Works in a regular pot, a pressure cooker, a slow cooker -- you can even use it in the oven as a sort of makeshift roasting rack if you don't let the heat get too high. Safe even for your nonstick pots.
Blade coffee grinder Every year I put this on the list, and every year the coffee snobs sniff at me because blade grinders aren't as good as burr grinders. And you know what? They're right. Burr grinders are better, which is why we use one. But the difference between a cheap blade grinder and using pre-ground coffee is much larger than the difference between a burr grinder and a blade grinder. If you're not sure if you're ready to take the leap, try yourself out on this.
Splatter guard If you regularly fry, even pan-frying, you need one of these. It keeps your stovetop from being covered in a thick layer of grease (a thin layer is inevitable, I'm afraid). More important, it keeps your hands from getting splattered with oil.
Spill stopper This is an incredibly clever little invention from Kuhn Rikon: a lid that keeps your pots from boiling over, because the silicone flaps break up the bubbles. I've been using it for years now and haven't had a boil-over yet. There's not really that much extra to say about it: If you boil things, and they sometimes boil over, this is a nifty addition to your kitchen.
Kitchen shears A good pair of kitchen shears does everything from spatchcocking a chicken to opening those horrible clamshell packages that everything seems to come in. But why not just use scissors? I hear you cry. The answer is that kitchen shears break apart so that you can clean them. Otherwise, organic matter will accumulate in the joints, and the next thing you know, the bacteria will be planning a frontal assault on your intestines.
Butter boat Butter lovers are faced with an eternal conundrum: Leave it in the fridge, in which case it will be too hard to spread on your bread, or leave it on the counter and risk having it go rancid. The butter boat is the solution to this problem. It uses evaporative cooling to keep the butter soft, but it slows the process that turns it rancid. And unlike butter bells, it will not leave you with a lump of butter in a greasy pool of water.
Hand chopper If you've seen the ads for the Slap Chop, you know what this is: You hit the top, it cuts the food. Hit it multiple times, and it dices your foods into small pieces. Excellent for someone who doesn't have room for a food processor; also handy for someone who does but doesn't want to deploy it for every small job. I like the OXO for its solid construction and ease of cleaning; the KitchenAid is also good. This is my go-to gift for people who are just starting out in their first apartment.
Kuhn Rikon spice grinder Freshly ground spices are to the regular powdered kind as freshly ground coffee is to pre-ground coffee. You can buy an extra coffee grinder and grind them, but if you'd rather do it manually, the Kuhn Rikon spice grinder does a great job. Holds a good quantity of spices to grind, and it's very easy to clean -- just put some coarse salt through the grinder.
Bodum tea press I like loose tea, and I especially like teapots that make it easy to brew a nice, big pot of it. This is basically a French press for tea. It's also stylish, dishwasher-safe, and has stood up at our household through years of winter afternoons and summer colds.
Universal pot lids If you're like our household, you have far more pot lids than places to store them. We saved ourselves a lot of kitchen space by rationalizing down to three lids: the lid to my giant saute pan and two universal lids, large and small. They have one-inch steps inside, so they fit snugly on any pan. It's much more convenient than hunting for exactly the lid you want at your hour of need.
Amco refrigerator magnets These are very handy references of kitchen information. My favorite is the easy guide for doubling or splitting recipes, but there are several other good ones. Yes, you can look it up on your phone, but not without getting your phone dirty.
Silicone baking mats Hate having food stuck to your pans? Enter these mats, which line your pans and prevent your baked goods from sticking. I've washed them in the dishwasher without incident, but you really don't need to; the mats are so nonstick that you can usually wipe anything off with a sponge and water. Especially valuable for candymakers and people who make delicate tortes that usually require fussing around with wax paper. Now you can just invert the pan and peel off the mat.
Lodge cast-iron skillet Cast iron is not for everyone; it's fussy to clean and care for, and it's very heavy. But it simply can't be beat for putting a sear on meat. It also transfers seamlessly between stovetop and oven at any temperature, and it will last forever. I have a little 8-inch that my husband brought to our marriage as well as a giant 13-inch, and use them both all the time. Especially good for guys, who often seem to take a bit of macho pride in packing heavy iron.
Thoughtful Trinkets ($25 to $50)
Salad spinner Yes, you can wash and dry your lettuce in this. But it's also good for getting a light, even coating of dressing on the salad after it's washed and dried. Or cleaning your sandy vegetables, such as bok choy and leeks (fill with water and vegetables, put it in the sink and spin). The technology is pretty simple -- centrifugal force -- so there's no need to worry about whether you're getting the absolute latest in salad spinner technology. The technology that operates a salad spinner has been around for billions of years. Just get one that looks solid and is the right size for the family.
Nonstick egg pan If you read this list every year, you know the drill: I use nonstick for basically two things. One is eggs, and the other is making Parmesan cheese crisps or bowls. Because I make Parmesan cheese crisps about once a year, this is basically our egg pan. I don't like nonstick for other uses because it won't take damage, and you can't sear in it, but it is superb for doing exactly one thing. That thing is saving you from having to take egg off your stainless steel pans with steel wool. I like the Bialetti Arte model, which has taken a beating and kept going for years.
Mandoline I've been resisting the mandoline for years. You need to take it out to use it, and how much better could it be than a ceramic slicer? But this year I gave in and the answer is: enough better that I got rid of my ceramic slicer. (Though if you're looking for a stocking stuffer that doesn't take up much space, the ceramic slicer is still a good choice.) If you make a lot of sliced vegetables -- zucchini, summer squash or root vegetables such as potatoes and beets -- then it will save you a lot of time. But a warning that you have to use the hand guard, and this is not for the clumsy, because you can cut yourself badly if you're not careful. You can go very expensive with these, but the OXO model I have does a fine job and doesn't cost an outrageous amount.
Quilted silicone oven mitts For years, I've been recommending silicone oven mitts. They're heatproof and waterproof, which has obvious advantages in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the early models were also inflexible. The quilted version combines the best aspects of silicone with the flexibility of a traditional mitt. Know someone who keeps burning themselves? Stuff a few of these in their stocking.
2-cup sauce pan A little saucepan is actually super-useful, and no one ever buys one. It's the perfect size for melting a little bit of butter or heating the liquid for sauces and mashed potatoes. And it doubles as a 2-cup measure in a pinch.
Belkin kitchen tablet stand Tablets are great in the kitchen; they're actually easier to use than a cookbook. But this brings the problem of keeping it upright while you cook. There are a lot of kitchen tablet stands on the market. I like this one for three reasons: It's easy to clean, it's not hideously expensive, and it comes with a stylus so you can touch-scroll up without smearing raw cookie batter all over the screen.
Paderno spiralizer If you're into Paleo dieting or raw food, you've probably already heard about this. It cuts your vegetables into thin spirals shaped like noodles. If you use peeled zucchini, you can get something that looks reasonably like spaghetti. Paleo and raw foodies claim that you really can't tell the difference and will think that you are eating spaghetti, which is false. However, it's also not exactly unlike spaghetti -- in your mouth, it feels roughly like al dente pasta, pairs well with Italian sauces, and unless you hate zucchini, the added flavor isn't unpleasant. The main difficulty is that it can only be cooked quickly in a saucepan for a few minutes, and it needs to be served right away, because it will quickly congeal into something decidedly unappetizing-looking after about 15 minutes. So why is it on this list? Because the zucchini "pasta" is actually pretty tasty and low-calorie, and you can do neat things with French fries, sweet potato "noodles," and other dishes based around firm, roughly conical vegetables. I have the four-blade "deluxe" model, but it's not obvious to me that this represents any significant improvement over the cheaper three-blade model. But reviews all pretty much agree that this is the company to buy from, as the other versions tend to break.
Rabbit corkscrew With the plastic corks that many wineries are now using, it's more important than ever to have a good corkscrew. The Rabbit is my pick; it takes up a little more space than a traditional corkscrew, but it's absolutely foolproof. It's especially good for people who aren't that strong and don't have the time or energy to spend 20 minutes trying to wrestle with a recalcitrant bottle of wine.
Silicone pastry mat and silicone rolling pin Pastry making is a dying art, which is a pity, because with silicone, it's easier than ever. The surfaces are nonstick, meaning that you don't need to use as much flour, meaning that you get a more delicate final product. This is a gift you should give as a pair, because it's when used together that these two are most effective.
Stick blender One of the most common questions I get asked is "What sort of stick blender should I get?" The answer is the same as with Crock-Pots: The basic models are pretty good, so don't trade up unless you have a very specific reason. My model is made by a Venezuelan company called Miallegro, and I chose it because it came with a bracket that let me affix it to the wall. It's done two years of solid service in my kitchen, beating eggs, whipping cream and, y'know, pureeing. However, other models are also fine: Braun, KitchenAid and Cuisinart will all make you a fine puree. There are cordless models too, which are nice, but also really heavy, so unless you desperately need cord-free action, my advice is to stick with a plug-in.
Food mill If you want to make applesauce or jam, you should get a food mill. It lets you cook whole fruit with the skins on, then run them through the mill, removing the skins as you process: better color and flavor, less work. It won't substitute for a food processor, but it's a decent stand-in for a hand blender.
Pourfect bowls I love these things so much. They're funny-looking, and they're not actually ideal as bowls because of their shape; I'd mix my cookie batter in something else. But that's not what these bowls are for. These bowls are the perfect prep set. Sift your dry ingredients, crack your eggs, mix your liquids in these bowls. Then enjoy the ease of pouring it into your pan or mixer. The spout is cleverly shaped to allow you to dispense easily -- you can fill a bottle without drips or pour out eggs into a cake batter one at a time. The high sides prevent dry ingredients from flying everywhere. And there's a nifty slot underneath the spout that latches onto the edge of your mixing bowl and allows you to get every last ounce out. I use them every time I bake.
Generous Gifts ($50 to $150)
Chemex coffeemaker I don't care what you say about the authenticity of it all: I like my potatoes washed and my coffee filtered. If you share that opinion, and you nevertheless want a way to make coffee without an expensive or unreliable machine, toss the French press and get yourself a Chemex. Easy to use, affordable and makes a great cup of coffee.
Tupperware cake taker If you bake a lot, you are going to end up wanting to take your baking places -- the homes of friends, the county fair. Unfortunately, if that baked good is bedecked with frosting, meringue or other delicate embellishments, you risk ruining your work before it arrives. Enter this cake taker, which in my humble opinion is the best on the market. It has a nice, high dome to protect your frosting, a base designed to prevent your cake or pie from skidding into the sides, and a solid locking mechanism to keep dome joined to base. Perfect for the regular baker or potlucker on your list.
Lodge 7-quart cast-iron Dutch oven If you are literally only going to have one pan in your kitchen, this should be that pan -- it will do duty as saucepan, rustic-style bread baker, stockpot, skillet and roaster. There are a few big downsides to a big cast-iron pot like this: It's heavy, can't be put in the dishwasher, and you should not use it to cook a slow-simmered tomato sauce or anything with wine, because the acid will interact with the iron and do terrible things to your food (brief cooking with tomato -- say, 10 minutes -- is fine as long as your pan is well-seasoned). So what are the advantages? These pans are cheap, indestructible and get really hot, so you get a great sear. They can literally last for decades. Use enameled cast iron for your tomato- or wine-based stews, but for everything else, this is a terrific all-around pot at a budget price.
Crock-Pot Slow cooking is back, and frankly, it should never have left. There's nothing more convenient than putting a nice pot of food on in the morning and coming home to a fresh, hot meal by dinnertime. You can get fancy ones from All-Clad or Breville, but this is a really, really simple appliance: an electric circuit and a timer. There's no need to go upscale unless you really care about how it looks. Otherwise, stick with this basic model, which has a timer, a warm setting and plenty of room for delicious slow-cooked goodness.
Cookbook stand I like to use the iPad in the kitchen, but of course, I still have a lot of cookbooks. Unfortunately, many of the pages are stuck together from cooking accidents. So I'm happy to say that I've finally found the perfect cookbook stand. It's easy to use, has a cover to protect your books from splashes, and can hold the book at a variety of angles. Folds flat to store, but looks good enough that it lives on our counter.
Cuisinart electric kettle Yup, this boils water. Do you need it? No. Your stove also boils water. But it is handy to have an electric kettle, which doesn't need to be watched, because it has an auto shut-off, so you can't burn out the bottom. As with stick blenders, any basic model will be fine; boiling water is about the least complicated task one does in the kitchen. Capresso makes a fancy see-through one, which seems very pretty, but it's no better at its basic job than my beloved Cuisinart, which has survived years of abuse (including melting part of the bottom when I set it on the stove) and still works great.
Warming tray and buffet server Great for people who entertain a lot. Gently warms your food so that it doesn't get cold, but also doesn't dry it out. Absolutely useless for anyone except people who like to lay out a nice, hot party buffet -- and absolutely indispensable for those who do.
Capresso burr grinder If you really like coffee, then you will want to go for the gusto and get a burr grinder. Blade grinders create friction and heat the beans, and they don't always give you an even grind. A burr grinder allows you to precisely select the strength of your grind, and it won't change your flavor by friction-roasting the beans. It also makes it easy to grind precisely the amount of coffee you want. If you have a coffee lover on your list and they don't have a burr grinder, I promise they will be glad to get one.
Waring Pro digital deep fryer There is one advantage to getting a good deep fryer: delicious fried food in just minutes. This is also the disadvantage of getting a good deep fryer; we strictly ration the number of times a year that we're allowed to pull this out. I like this Waring, which is far and away the best of the home models I looked at. The oil heats up quickly and stays hot, because it's got a nice, large capacity. The thermostat is accurate, within reason, and it's not that hard to clean. But this is one appliance that shouldn't be left on the counter, because you'll be too tempted to use it.
ISI Gourmet Whip Plus If you've ever seen those whipped cream dispensers at Starbucks, you know what this looks like. The twist is that this one does hot soups as well as cold creams. Now, I'm not going to tell you that foamed hot soups are something that your kitchen can't do without. But it's a nice party trick for everything from little soup appetizers to hot cocoa at the end of the night. And if you're shopping for the chef who has everything . . . well, they probably don't have this.
Copper salt and pepper mills If you look at furniture and housewares catalogs, it seems that the entire country is determined to turn their tract homes into ersatz Provencal farmhouses. And OK, maybe someone on this gift guide, possibly someone whose name rhymes with "Eggin'," purchased dining room chairs that were described in the manufacturer copy as "French vintage" with "the elegant restraint emblematic of neoclassicism." But you don't need oversized cornices and a grumpy gardener named Jacques to like these grinders. They work well, are kitchen-safe, and have a lever action that makes things easier on arthritic parents. They also look great on your table. Like all metal, they will tarnish, especially the salt grinder, but a half a lemon dipped in table salt will quickly restore them to their original shine.
Instant Pot 6-quart electric pressure cooker It's now been more than a year since my readers talked me into buying an electric pressure cooker, and I'm only sorry I waited so long. Pressure cooking is the mirror image of slow cooking: It speeds up braises and produces incredible flavor. The one drawback of slow cooking is that flavors can fade out over 12 hours of slow simmering. Pressure cooking intensifies flavors -- the soup broth is the best I've ever made. It's terrific for beans, obviously, and this model also does a great job with rice. If you can't decide between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker, get this model, because it also works as a slow cooker. I don't like it quite as well for slow cooking as my Crock-Pot, but it does a very serviceable job, and with all the other features, it makes a really great all-in-one gift for someone moving into their first home or an apartment dweller who doesn't have a lot of storage space in their kitchen.
Chinois and pestle with stand Let's be honest: This is a specialty gift. A chinois is for a cook who wants absolutely smooth, velvety sauces and purees and is willing to put in some extra time to get them. I don't use my chinois all that often, but it is indispensable for the things it does well, like make the best applesauce you've ever had. This is a great gift to pair with the ISI gourmet whip, because you need a very fine puree to make foams. But it's also great on its own for someone who's intensely serious about their food presentation. I like this one because the mesh is really fine; often the ones you see just have little holes, which don't do any better a job than a food mill would.
Food saver vacuum sealer Initially, I bought this to go with our sous-vide setup, which is still its primary use. But it turned out to be pretty nifty in its own right. Don't believe the commercials that have you buying stuff in bulk and vacuum sealing everything in your kitchen; it takes about a minute to vacuum seal one item, so you're unlikely to use this multiple times a day. However, it is a great way to buy expensive meat or cheese in bulk and then section it out for later, or freeze pre-prepped roasts and slow-cooker meals. Over time, this can save you a lot of money, as well as let you shift your food prep to a more convenient time. It also makes sous vide a lot easier, and as you'll see below, I'm a sous-vide evangelical. The model doesn't matter that much; I have a medium-expensive automatic model, but the manual ones also work very well.
Zojirushi 5-cup rice cooker I was skeptical about rice cookers -- until I got one for our wedding. I already knew how to make good rice. But I didn't know how to make absolutely perfect fluffy rice every single time, then keep it warm for hours or even days. This has definitely earned its place on my counter, and if you have a big rice eater in your family or someone who's going gluten-free, consider putting this under the tree.
SodaStream The advertising copy claims that the SodaStream will save you money. This is probably not true. But it does save you space and shopping time. It gives you seltzer on demand, and a drawer will store enough soda mix -- in all different flavors -- to make cases and cases worth of soda. Very good for seltzer drinkers or for families with kids who all want something different. The models range in price, and you'll have to decide how much you want to spend. In my opinion, spending extra to get the glass carafes is worth it; spending extra to be able to customize your carbonation level probably isn't, as you can customize quite well just by holding down the lever longer.
Extravagant Gestures ($150 and up)
Enameled cast-iron Dutch oven This doesn't have to be that expensive -- Lodge makes some very nice ones at a fraction of the cost of Le Creuset. But I think every frequent cook should have one. I love my cast-iron Dutch oven for most things, but many of my stews won't work in it because they involve some sort of acid such as tomato juice or wine. So enter the enameled cast-iron pot, which comes in pretty colors, but more important prevents the metal from reacting with your braising liquid. A 5-quart is probably the most practical all-around size, but little ones are nice for a young couple, and giant 7- or 8-quart models are a great choice for anyone who likes to entertain a crowd. Enamel won't take high heat, so stick with regular cast iron for the stovetop. But for the oven, enamelware is more versatile.
All-Clad stainless steel skillet I have a lot of pans. But the most useful all-arounder is a 10-inch skillet: big enough for most things without being so big that the food gets lost or requires 6 quarts of liquid to deglaze. It's much better to have one really solid pan than three that warp or develop hot spots, so if you know someone who's starting out, this is a really nice way to help them do so.
All-Clad 6-quart stainless steel saute pan For larger families, entertainers or people who like to make stews, a large saute pan is invaluable. Mine has held everything from venison cubes for browning to masses of mushrooms for a tart. Again, this is not a pan where you want to cheap out: You want one that's really big and solidly constructed, which for me means the 13-inch All-Clad. Be warned, however: The vast expanses of this beautiful pan will not do you much good on a dinky 24-inch electric stove, so this is probably not for a new grad who's just moved into their first apartment. On the other hand, it's perfect for a budding chef who has their first gas stove to play with.
Ultra-wide-mouth food processor I'm just going to quote myself from last year:
The KitchenAid food processor that I used to recommend (and own) has unfortunately gone out of production, and America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t love the replacement. So let’s talk about what to look for in a food processor. No. 1: multiple work bowls, so that you can prep a multistep dish without having to wash the bowls. No. 2: an ultra-wide-mouth feeder so that you don’t have to, say, cut down a block of cheese you want to shred into smaller chunks. No. 3: a big, powerful motor. And No. 4: lots of blades. You probably won’t use them all that much, but it’s nice to have the option. If you entertain a lot or take food to potlucks, you’ll be surprised at how handy you’ll find the slicing and shredding blades. As always, don’t buy anything you’re not willing to leave on the counter, because like stand mixers, these are heavy machines that you’ll be reluctant to get out if they’re stored away.
KitchenAid now offers a pro model that looks really cool and gets good reviews. But it's pricey; at lower price points, Cuisinart still seems to be the model to beat.
Dyna-Glo gas grill When our trusty old model died, we thought long and hard before buying this model. Now, however, we're thrilled with it. It's smaller than our old grill, but it packs a ton of BTUs into that small space, which means that we can sear the eyebrows off a cow at 20 paces. The smaller size also makes this absolutely perfect for people like us, who have city-sized yards rather than vast acreage. You can always get a little hibachi charcoal grill to supplement the main grill at parties -- and you'll still have spent less, and taken up less space, than you would have buying a bigger grill with equivalent firepower.
Breville Smart Oven If all you want to make is toast, do not get a toaster oven; a cheap toaster from Target will make toast faster and more efficiently. But if you want a single all-around appliance for baking and toasting, and we do, the Breville makes excellent toast. It's also a great second oven, for which I am grateful on holidays, and in the summer, when I hate heating up the kitchen with the big oven. The Breville does convection, has a special setting for frozen foods, and can bake at temperatures up to 500 degrees. Now that Cuisinart no longer makes its quasi-commercial convection ovens, this is the best model around.
Technivorm Moccamaster This is, by acclaim and personal experience, the best drip coffeemaker out there. It doesn't grind the beans, have a timer or ask if you would like a fresh hot egg sandwich with that. It just does one thing: make amazing coffee. The thermal carafe will keep a fresh pot hot for hours without a heating element, so you don't get that "cooked" taste that coffee has after it's been sitting on the heat for a while. If you're shopping for a coffee lover who's still stuck with their old Mr. Coffee, I promise, they'll love the upgrade.
Sous-vide machine The cost of sous vide is falling, which means everyone should get one. Sous vide gently cooks food in a water bath at a precise temperature, which means that it is literally impossible to overcook your food. Usually, when we cook, we're applying higher heat to the outside and stopping when the inside gets to the target temperature. Sous vide gets the whole dish to exactly the same temperature. Since you can't overcook, you can cook the food for a very long time -- think three-day medium-rare short ribs, falling off the bone. When the food is done, just take it out of the bag, sear the meat for a few minutes on each side to get that delicious brown crust, and serve. It is the killer application for meat, and every carnivore should have one.
I have the SousVide Supreme Demi, which is basically an electric water bath. For years, that's been the most widely and easily available setup, and I'm still happy to recommend it. But over the last year, we've seen inverters get cheap enough for ordinary gifting. An inverter clips to the side of a pot full of water, then heats and circulates the water according to the settings. I don't have one of these, so I can't review personally, but people speak very well of the Anova model, which costs less than the SousVide Supreme and also takes up less storage space.
Breville Smart Scoop ice cream maker Ice cream makers are like deep fryers in one important respect: When they're good, it's something of a problem, because temptation constantly lurks in your cupboard. But if you already know you want to make ice cream, it's worth considering this model. Instead of a bowl you have to freeze ahead, this model has its own compressor, which means that you can have ice cream done in 60 minutes from the time you decide to make it. (Though you'll get better results if you thoroughly chill your liquid in advance.) I've had a great experience with the Breville, which has a nice, large capacity, easy-to-use controls, and produces superior results compared to a bowl-freeze model, because 30 minutes after you've taken the bowl out of the freezer, the cooling liquid inside the bowl is warming up and losing effectiveness, while the Breville is still churning away at -22 degrees Fahrenheit.
KitchenAid stand mixer The KitchenAid was my first appliance, and it is still in many ways my most beloved. My mother's must be going on 40 years old, and it is still working as well as the day she bought it. Mine is now approaching its quarter-century mark, strong as a horse. There are any number of attachments available; I don't use them, but I know many people who swear by their grain mills and pasta makers.
My recommendation is for the "professional" rather than artisan models. The tilt-head mixers tend to have less powerful motors (motors are heavy) and they're smaller, so if you want to double that cookie recipe, you're out of luck. KitchenAid makes models up to 7 quarts, but unless you're running a bakery or you're the Duggar family, I think that's overkill; normal recipes will get lost down there at the bottom of the bowl. Mine is a 5-quart, but I confess to occasional longing thoughts about a 6-quart.
When I got my mixer, you could have any color you wanted, as long as it was white. Now they come in the full rainbow of hues, but be careful. Today's Pantone Color of the Year is tomorrow's "I will stab my eyes out if I have to look at that one more minute." And your KitchenAid should always live on the counter, because it's heavy, and if you stick it in a cupboard, you will find yourself thinking, "Why don't I just make Rice Krispie treats" before you consider having to lift the thing out and set it up.
Vitamix blender Is there anyone who doesn't know Vitamix by now? It's an incredibly powerful blender with an incredibly efficient bowl design that will reduce just about anything to smithereens. The Vitamix makes fantastic cocktails, and it will also do many of the jobs of a food processor or hand mixer, such as making pesto or whipping cream. I am recommending this by proxy, as I have a different, even more ridiculous blender/food processor thing (see below). But if you're buying for someone who consumes a lot of smoothies and purees, and might want to, say, start getting into artisanal homemade nut butters in a big way, this is a fantastic gift. If you are buying for that sort of person but do not have $500 to drop on a blender, the consensus at the Home and Housewares show last year was that the Ninja pro line was the closest discount substitute.
Thermomix Just as the microplane zester always opens the list, this is my standard closer. It's hugely expensive and hard to explain: a blender and food processor combined with a scale and heating element.
Why would you want such a thing? Because it measures your ingredients, then cooks them, stirring, without your supervision.
If you want to know why this machine is so great, start with the mirepoix for your stew: Melt the butter in the bowl for a minute, toss in all your vegetables, chop for a few seconds at speed five, and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes. Rinse out the bowl so that your husband can make his morning smoothie -- whole fruits and vegetables pureed into a fine, velvety drink. Rinse out the bowl again because it's time to make some onion jam: bacon drippings, five onions and a tablespoon of sugar cooked at 100 degrees Celsius (the company is European), slowly stirring, for two to three hours until you have the most delicious hamburger topping you ever ate, with practically no work on your part. Want some asparagus hollandaise to go with your stew? Put all the ingredients into the bowl at once and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius.
It isn't that I don't know how to do those things; it's that this machine means I can do them much more often, because I don't need a four-hour block of free time to attack a labor-intensive recipe. It also saves space. Few other machines pack blender, scale, food processor and cooking element into such a small footprint. No other machine out there takes away so much of the tedious "active time" that you spend stirring things while they cook. The Thermomix means that we get more and better fresh-cooked meals, even when I am very busy.
However, there are a couple of drawbacks. For starters, it costs about twice as much as a top-of-the-line Vitamix, and it can only be purchased in Canada, because it does not distribute in the U.S. There's also a new Thermomix coming out sometime soon, which will have some sort of plug-in recipe modules you can use, so that even if you want one, you may want to wait. On the other hand, it may be offering a discount on the current model, and I have to tell you, the current model is pretty great.
This is not a gift for everyone. It is a very expensive and hard-to-get present for someone near and dear who does a whole lot of cooking. However, for that special person, there is no other gift that will deliver as much versatility, cooking power and free time.
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