The Gotta-Have-It-All Kitchen Gift Guide
Stocking Stuffers (under $25)
Microplane zester The lemon zester is, hands down, the thing that people are most apt to tell me about when they mention the kitchen gift guide. It’s such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference, because lemon zest is the key to making so many things delicious, from baked goods to salad dressings, and the normal procedure for removing it also involves removing the skin from your knuckles with a box grater. But don’t just use this for zest. Use it for coarse-grating nutmeg over eggnog, chocolate over whipped cream or mousse, or cheese over pasta or salad.
High-quality jar-shaped measuring spoons You wouldn’t think there’d be much to say about measuring spoons -- at least unless you’ve spent time hunting for your spoons, trying to divine the size of a cheap plastic one that has had its printing wash off in the dishwasher, or gently tapping spices out into the bowl of a round tablespoon that won’t fit into your jar. So what do I look for in a set of measuring spoons? Solid stainless steel, markings that are etched rather than printed on the handles, bowls that are long rather than round, and spoons that are attached to a ring so that I can hang them on a hook rather than hunt for them in my utensil drawer -- something like this set. A six-piece set with the 3/4-teaspoon measure turns out to be surprisingly useful if you can find one.
Extra-large spatula A few years back, we somehow acquired a fish spatula. I don’t know how, because I hate cooked fish. This was when I realized that a very big spatula is an extremely handy thing to have around. Others seem to have realized this, too, as big spatulas seem to be proliferating. We now also have a pancake turner, a grill spatula and even this novelty item, which turns out to be useful for moving things like pizzas. I almost never use my regular spatulas, because the wide ones are so much more handy.
OXO locking tongs are useful for a number of things, from turning bits of meat for browning, to fishing pasta out of boiling water in order to check doneness, to tossing salads. I have three kinds -- metal for steel pans, silicone-head for nonstick pans, and a pair of ice tongs from an ice bucket we barely use that has been repurposed as a kitchen tool. If you are only going to have one pair, and you’re buying for someone who owns nonstick pans, remember that longer is more generally useful, and silicone heads can be used in metal pans but metal heads cannot be used on nonstick pans.
Egg separator I learned to separate eggs the old-fashioned way: by passing the yolk back and forth between the two halves of the eggshell. If you’re not oversensitive about the snot-like feeling of raw egg whites -- and have carefully washed your hands -- then you can simply break the egg into your palm and let the whites run out into the bowl between your fingers. But if you want the speed of the hand method without the mess, you need an egg separator. Especially good for beginning but aspirational cooks, who will need separated egg whites but may be intimidated by the prospect of producing them.
Umai dry bags These folks contacted me early in the year to ask me if I was interested in trying their system for dry-aging steak in your fridge. Home dry aging is hard to do, because plastic-wrapped meat will funk up, and meat left exposed will absorb smells from your fridge and funk up everything else nearby it. I was pretty skeptical that their bags were going to work, but they ended up converting me.
Home dry aging is still not precisely easy -- you need a big hunk of meat (I like a prime bone-in rib roast), and it needs to have a hefty fat cap on it, because you’re going to end up trimming quite a bit off of the outside after the aging process is over, and you don’t want to be trimming away actual meat. Then you put it in the bags, which you are supposed to vacuum-seal, but I confess, I never got the hang of the vacuum sealing and ended up pushing the air out using the water displacement method, followed by sealing with a nice, tight rubber band. Finally, you leave it in the fridge for a month or so, cut off some steaks, slice off the green-looking bits from the edges, and grill what’s left.
Thinking this sounds like way too much work and complication? Before you make that decision, the steaks were awesome. I’m not saying that David Burke is going to serve my dry-aged Costco ribeyes at Primehouse, but I’d estimate we got about 90 percent of the way there, and they were better than what we’ve had at some very fancy local steakhouses. And we spent less for eight good steaks than we would have to take the two of us out for steaks and a bottle of wine.
Pizza mesh Moisture is the enemy of crispiness. A pizza mesh mitigates this problem by exposing the bottom of what you’re cooking to air, so that it can’t be softened by steam trapped between the food and the metal pan. Obviously, this is useful for pizza, but we also use them for oven-baked quesadillas, breaded chicken, and anything else that typically comes out inadequately crispy in a home oven. (Put a cookie sheet on the rack underneath if you’re worried about dripping cheese.) The metal ones are prettier, but the nonstick mesh has stood us in good stead.
OXO silicone basting brush You may not have noticed, but for a while, America was in the midst of the Great Pastry Brush Crisis. It was seemingly impossible to get a decent brush at a regular store; the traditional brushes were so cheaply made that one newly purchased item actually left clumps of hair all over my turkey, as if it was molting. The silicone brushes didn’t shed, but they also did not usefully convey liquids to their appointed destinations. Finally, to my immense relief, OXO solved the problem, with a small size that’s good for pastry and a large size that’s excellent for baking.
Silicone pie-making equipment I recently had dinner with a friend who said, “I finally tried a silicone pastry mat, and it makes a huge difference! Suddenly it’s so easy, I just want to make pie all the time.” Naturally, I went home and moped, because I seem to have been speaking into a vacuum all these years. Anyone who has read me on food should know by now my strong commitment to the use of silicone in pastry making. You don’t want a silicone pie pan -- like most people who’ve experimented with silicone pans, I quickly concluded that “floppy” is not a desirable quality in your bakeware. However, if you’re going to make pie (and you should!), then in my humble opinion, everything else you use should be silicone: silicone rolling pin, silicone pastry mat, silicone pie shield. Why? Because silicone is very not-sticky. That makes it very much easier to roll out your crust, and to move it from mat to pan. Niftily, silicone is also incredibly easy to store, because you can just crush it into any old shape.
Other silicone goodies Silicone ice cube trays are great -- a little floppy to put into the freezer, but the ice cubes come out super-easily. We have silicone ice cube trays in three sizes -- large, huge and giant round spheres (they melt slower, reducing the dilution of your drink). We use them not only to make ice cubes, but also to freeze things like cheese grits for deep frying. I also have silpat mats for baking and candy making, as well as a silicone steamer. Basically, anything that benefits from reduced stickiness or flexibility is a good candidate for silicone. As mentioned above, this does not include baking pans.
Pot lids If you’re anything like me, lids are a problem. Tupperware lids are a problem, and pot lids are a problem -- they take up space, and you can never find the one that matches the container you want to use. I can’t help you with the Tupperware, I’m afraid; my working theory is that there is a colony, somewhere in the remote mountains, that Tupperware lids spend their entire lives trying to escape to. Many of them will succeed, and you’ll just have to accept that. But pot lids have a solution: universal lids. I like the ones from RSVP, which are affordable, give a good seal, and offer a clear glass window so you can watch your food cook. I keep two on my pot rack, and underneath the stove I’ve tucked my Kuhn Rikon spill stopper, a silicone lid that uses central flaps to break up air bubbles and keep things from boiling over. Between these three, I’ve been able to move the rest of the pot lids to the basement, where for all I care, they can escape to whatever Shangri-La awaits them. Yes, these are not the most romantic gifts. But they are some of the most useful.
Pizza cutter These are incredibly handy, and not just for pizza -- they’re excellent for cutting pastry or dividing sandwiches. They basically come in two models: wheels and handle models. Either way, you’re looking for a solid blade and a handle that will let you put good pressure down.
Ice cream scoop The scoops that have levers to tip the ice cream out always look appealing, but they tend to be flimsy, and they quail in the face of hard ice cream. Eschew the gimmicks and get something with strong construction. Use a spoon to free the ice cream if necessary.
Olive oil mister Instead of spraying pans with Pam, you can use your own olive oil, which is not only handy, but also provides a better flavor. I’m not saying this will change your life, but it’s nice to have around.
Twine dispenser If you use kitchen twine -- and you are trussing your chickens before you roast them, aren’t you? -- then it’s handy to have a dispenser to keep it from tangling. Look for one with a cutter that can be used with one hand while the other hand holds the legs.
Thoughtful Presents ($25 to $50)
Pourfect bowls These bowls are not the best thing to beat up a cake in, because their funny shape makes this awkward. They are, however, the cleverest prep bowls on the market. The pouring lip is cleverly shaped to let you dispense one egg at a time, the sides have a built-in shield to guide the contents of the bowl out the spout instead of over the sides, and there’s even a handy little ledge under the pouring lip that grips the edge of your mixer bowl to help you pour. They also have measuring lines inside the edge -- very handy for wet ingredients. I mix almost everything in these bowls before it goes into my stand mixer, and I am evangelical about their usefulness.
Pen thermometer Most digital thermometers are, to put it politely, useless. Yes, I too have fallen for the siren call of a probe that can be left in while you cook and alert you when the food is done. I have fallen many times. I am basically the 13-year-old girl of digital thermometer consumers. And much like 13-year-old boys, these sorts of thermometers come in two varieties: those that stop performing shortly after you commit to them, and those that are never any good at all. I had returned to the old analog models that you can purchase in a supermarket for $5, which work very well. They still work very well, but if you want something that reads a little faster and gives you a precise number, I can now happily recommend the Lavatools digital pen thermometer. Makes a great gift for middle-age people who suddenly cannot read any print smaller than a newspaper headline announcing the start of another world war.
Lodge cast iron pans Nonstick and cast iron are the extremes of cookware; nonstick is really only useful for moderate-temperature cooking (because it won’t sear your food, and the manufacturers usually advise against using them on high temperatures), while traditional cast iron is at its best when you’re trying to cook something at a very, very hot temperature. Oh, you can cook other things in it (though stay away from anything with wine, tomato or fruit juice unless the pan is well seasoned, or your food will end up tasting of iron). But these pans are the killer apps for searing meat and baking no-knead bread, because they get very, very hot and stay hot for a good long while. They’re also cheap as heck, compared to something like an All-Clad stainless steel pan. I have a 12-inch skillet, an 8-inch skillet, and a 7-quart Dutch oven, and I use them all. The upside is that these pans will last forever and keep getting better as the seasoning develops. The downside to cast iron is that it’s fussy to care for --soap will strip the seasoning, and leaving them wet will result in rust, so you have to carefully scrub it out with unsoaped steel wool and then dry it on the stove. All of which means that, despite the attractive price point, this is a gift for a serious meat-eater who is willing to commit to maintaining their cast iron, not for a casual cook who’s just gotten their first apartment. For those folks, think about the Bialetti nonstick ceramics below.
Bialetti ceramic pans I have been hesitant to join the ceramic nonstick revolution, in part because I already had nonstick pans, and as far as I am concerned, nonstick pans have exactly two uses: making eggs and making Parmesan cheese bowls. (Melt Parmesan cheese in a circle, cook until golden brown and crispy, remove from pan, and drape over an inverted bowl sprayed with Pam. Basically, a fancy way to serve salad if you’re trying to impress people who don’t know how easy it is to make Parmesan cheese bowls.) Also, I was a bit skeptical of the claims. However, I found one on sale at the supermarket for $20, and, well, it’s now getting at least daily use in the McSuderman household. In almost a year of heavy use, its surface has remained scratch-free, even though the Official Blog Spouse is not necessarily over-careful about using metal utensils in our nonstick equipment. It distributes heat well, with no hot spots at the moderate temperatures that nonstick cooking calls for.
Paderno four-blade spiralizer The spiralizer is a unitasker, and I’m generally skeptical of unitaskers. However, the one thing it does is kind of nifty, particularly if you’re trying to cut down on carbs. You can, with a little practice, turn zucchini into a reasonable facsimile of pasta. I’m not saying you will confuse it for pasta, but it will be a quite tasty substitute in your pasta-based dishes, and it has approximately the same calories and glycemic index as water. It does take practice, though -- you cook the “zoodles” in the sauce for only a couple of minutes, and with zoodles, there is a very fine line between “deliciously al dente” and “mmmm, slimy worms for dinner!” There’s also a bit of setup involved in getting your spiralizer ready to, um, spiralize. So don’t get this for someone who isn’t likely to make the effort to master the technique and use the machine, which is to say someone who loves zucchini and/or hates carbs with the white hot fire of a thousand suns. It will also make pretty good sweet potato curly oven fries, if you roll that way.
Mandoline I have a love-hate relationship with mandolines. On the one hand, they quickly make beautifully even slices. On the other hand, they’re a little awkward to use, and they’re a good way to slice off a fingertip if you’re not very careful. There’s a reason that an Amazon search for these things also turns up results for cut-resistant kitchen gloves. However, for people who have trouble holding a knife or need to produce very large quantities of perfectly sized vegetable chips, it’s either a mandoline or one of those super-fancy food processor setups. My food processor has moved to the basement as a result of our Thermomix acquisition, which means the mandoline gets a lot of use. I have the basic OXO, which I’ve been pretty happy with, but my mother and I also saw this model at the Home and Housewares show in Chicago and liked it.
Tea press pot There’s nothing cozier than a fresh pot of loose-leaf tea when you’re sick or just come in from a cold winter day. I like the Bodums with the stainless steel filters, though this is not a super-advanced technology, so any press pot with a decent-looking filter will really do fine.
Slow cooker These have been the friend of working parents and potluck devotees for decades, and America’s Test Kitchen now has two very good slow-cooker books -- "Slow Cooker Revolution, Volumes I and II" -- that help you make actually good food, rather than tasteless mush. I have the basic Crock-Pot 6-quart model, which does a fine job. The fancier ones look prettier, but I have no reason to think they actually cook significantly better, so I stick with my modest workhorse. If you’re thinking about gifting a slow cooker, do think about including the books, which are by far the best collection of slow-cooker recipes out there.
Generous gifts ($50 to $150)
Stick blender Do you need a stick blender? No. You can always pour the stuff into your regular blender and puree. But this is often messy and not occasionally results in little burns, so people often want a stick blender. I myself use one frequently, not only for pureeing soup, but also for whipping cream in my measuring beakers. I used to take the position that it didn’t matter which stick blender you bought as long as it was made by a decent manufacturer, but OXO converted me last year to its new line of kitchen electrics. Its model is super-comfortable to hold, reasonably priced, and has nifty features like a lighted head so you can see into your pot.
Instant Pot The Instant Pot does not cook rice as well as a rice cooker does. It is not as handy as a 7-quart slow cooker. But it does both those things, and also makes yogurt, and is a pressure cooker to boot. Why would you want a pressure cooker, you ask? Two reasons: speed and flavor. Pressure not only cooks faster, but also produces some of the best broth I’ve ever had. I now preferentially do my soups and stews this way. And because it also does slow cooking and rice, you can consolidate a lot of the equipment on your counter. (You know my rule, right? A major piece of equipment has to live on your counter, or you won’t bother to use it.) There are fancier versions of this machine, like a lovely-looking Breville. But I’ve had fine results from my Instant Pot, at half the price.
Zojirushi rice cooker I was skeptical about rice cookers, and if you’ve experimented with those cheap models you can buy for $20 at Target, you’ve probably given up, as I had. But the Zojirushis really make excellent rice -- and keep it warm for hours, even days. Obviously not a gift for someone who is low-carbing. On the other hand, it’s a great present for someone who’s going gluten-free. You can spend a fortune on these machines, but I find that any of their fuzzy-logic models, often available at Costco, do an excellent job.
Copper salt and pepper mills No household should own a pepper shaker. If you’re going to use pre-ground pepper, you might as well just go to a friend who still smokes and get them to save their ashes for you to sprinkle over your food. Age kills the delicious volatiles that make fresh ground pepper the default spice of choice for western European food. Grinding salt offers less in the way of advantages, but while you’re going to grinding, you might as well go with a matched set. Now, almost any grinder set will do fine, but I like these; they’re attractive, offer a good grind, and the lever is easier for people with hand trouble to use than a traditional twist grinder. They do have to be polished a few times a year, but this takes five minutes and seems well worth it.
Roasting pan A good roasting pan -- heavy construction, durable, able to withstand high heat -- is a kitchen workhorse. You do not need one of the ultra-fancy models from All-Clad or Viking, but you also don’t want one of those thin aluminum jobs, because they won’t hold and transfer heat as evenly.
Sous vide Sous vide has now gotten to the price point where there’s almost no excuse not to have one if you eat meat. Sous vide cooks things in a water bath, so instead of applying high heat to the outside until the inside reaches the desired temperature, the whole piece of meat is cooked in a water bath -- cooked perfectly evenly to the exact target temperature. It is literally impossible to overcook. That’s the first advantage, but the second advantage is that you can do things with sous vide that you can’t do any other way, such as a three-day short rib that’s medium-rare but as tender as a long braise. I have one of the old water-bath models, but immersion circulators, which clip to the side of your pot, take up less space and have now gotten down to the $100-$150 price point with decent reviews. The meat will come out an unappetizing gray on the outside, but just throw it on the grill or a well-heated stainless or cast iron pan for a quick sear, and you’ll get perfect results every single time.
Vacuum sealer If you’re going to sous vide, you will eventually probably want a vacuum sealer. Oh, you can get by with a Ziploc bag, a bowl of water, and a straw to get the air out via water displacement. But a vacuum sealer does a slightly better job and is handy for other uses, like buying meat in bulk and parceling it out into smaller servings for freezing. Obviously you can also pre-prep your sous vide packets in bulk, freeze them up, and toss them into the bath for a handy meal when you don’t really have time to cook. Food Saver remains the leader in the moderately priced consumer models, which basically come in two varieties: manual and automatic. I have a moderately priced automatic, and the automatics get slightly better reviews than the manual, though they will not work with your Umai dry bags.
Electric kettle Very handy to have around for regular tea drinkers, or anyone who often finds themselves in need of boiling water. It should be cordless, so you can easily carry it around the kitchen without unplugging and replugging. However, boiling water is not a very advanced technology, so you can do with a very basic one, though you can also pay more for a pretty one, or for a very fancy one that will allow you to choose the exact temperature of the water -- useful for people who are very fussy about their tea or make pour-over coffee.
Cuisinart griddler I should tell you right now that I do not hold with George Foreman grills; I like my meat seared, not steamed. On the other hand, I love panini sandwiches. I also like cooking French toast or pancakes on an electric griddle at the table, which lets me sit at the table with my guests and, equally important, lets me get the temperature exactly right for perfectly browned food. This grill does both -- makes great sandwiches and opens flat into a very good griddle. I’ve had mine for years, and it gets frequent use.
Induction burner If you’ve ever wished that you had a spare burner, a portable induction cooktop comes in very handy. It’s also great for bringing to the table to make your steak Diane or bananas Foster. Induction is safe for kids because it uses magnets, not a heated surface -- you can touch the burner when it’s on, and it’s completely cool. However, the downside is that because it uses magnets, it only works with cast iron and certain stainless steel alloys.
Extravagant Gestures ($150 and up)
Larchwood cutting boards I confess that I do not own one of these boards -- but I do long for one. Cutting boards should be wood, which protects your knives and can be periodically sanded down to keep bacteria from breeding in the cut marks. But my inexpensive bamboo boards work just fine, and I have not been able to steel myself to the expense of this lovely kitchen candy. But if you’re looking for something fancy to give the cook who seems to have everything, consider upgrading their cutting board.
Amazon Echo This is not, strictly speaking, a kitchen gadget. But it’s terrific for using while you’re cooking. It streams your music from Pandora and Amazon music, delivers news and podcasts, will perform simple conversions -- how many pounds in 500 grams, for example -- and makes a pretty good Bluetooth speaker if you prefer to listen to Spotify or iTunes. And it does all of this at voice command when your hands are covered in gunk.
The massive saute pan Anyone who cooks for groups needs at least one massive pan for browning large quantities of things. While it’s pricey, I love my All-Clad 5-quart pan, which handles everything from stir fries to shallow fat frying. And because of its all-metal construction, it can also go in the oven or under the broiler to finish up.
Lello pasta maker I have visions of myself making my own pasta by hand, carefully feeding it through the roller and cutting out the shapes. When it comes time to do it, however, I always end up looking for the box. A pasta maker takes the tedious labor out of it and lets you have fresh pasta for a few moments of work. It is not exactly “set and forget” -- you have to time the kneading of the dough, then sit by the machine to cut off the pasta as it extrudes. So it still isn’t as handy as a box of dried pasta, but I find it worth the work.
Breville ice cream machine I made ice cream for years in the KitchenAid attachment, but a few years ago I broke down and purchased a compressor machine. You need to make a fair amount of ice cream to justify this, as it is expensive, and it also takes up quite a bit of space. But if you do, a compressor machine eliminates the need to find space in your freezer for pre-freezing the bowl. You can have ice cream almost as soon as you think of it -- though for the sake of your arteries I do not recommend making it as often as you think of it. The Breville is easy to use, offers a variety of settings for things like gelato and traditional ice cream, and does a very good job.
KitchenAid 6-quart mixer If you’re going to bake a lot, you’re going to want a stand mixer. I’m partial to KitchenAid. While there were complaints from bread makers a few years back that it had gone to plastic gears -- which couldn’t hold up to the rigors of a heavy dough -- the larger pro models have all-steel gears and lead the Cooks Illustrated ratings. A lot of people prefer tilt-head mixers, which make it slightly easier to free the bowl, but they come in for criticism on cooks' forums for being underpowered, and once you get used to a bowl-lift model, you won’t even remember that you cared. KitchenAids also have a large number of attachments that turn them into everything from an ice cream maker to a grain mill to a stirring cooker, and with the exception of the meat grinder, which left streaks of motor oil in our meat, I’ve been very pleased with every one I’ve tried. They also come in a splendid array of colors, but I’d be cautious about that -- today’s glorious tangerine is tomorrow’s painfully dated harvest gold.
Breville toaster oven A good toaster oven is a wondrous appliance. It substitutes for your oven at big holiday meals or on hot summer days, and of course, it also makes toast. A bad toaster oven, on the other hand, is not much better than sticking your toast under the broiler. I’m a fan of the Breville, which really is a decent oven substitute, offering excellent convection and adequate broiling along with making pretty good toast.
Technivorm Moccamaster It doesn’t grind the beans. It doesn’t make cappuccino. It doesn’t have a timer or any other fancy automatic features. All it does is make absolutely perfect coffee at the exact right temperature, depositing it into a thermal carafe that keeps it warm for hours without giving it that overcooked taste.
Thermomix Just as I always begin with the humble lemon zester, I always end the guide with this machine, which is the opposite: a hypertrophied kitchen appliance that chops, stirs and even cooks the food for you. Being able to cook and stir at once reduces a lot of tedious kitchen tasks, from sauce-making to caramelizing onions for bacon jam to a few seconds of prep work. No other appliance in my kitchen has done so much to save me time and effort in the kitchen, making it easy to produce great food even when I don’t feel I have time to cook.
Do I need a Thermomix? No one needs one. But no other machine is going to let you stick all the ingredients for bechamel or hollandaise into the jar, press a few buttons and walk away, returning 10 minutes later to a perfectly done sauce. Or caramelize onions without standing over the stove for an hour. Or make a cooked frosting without fiddling with a double boiler. It also does normal kitchen tasks: It’s a very good blender, whips creams and egg whites, and even works as a metric scale. So I’m awfully glad I have a Thermomix, even though I’m perfectly capable of doing all those things by hand.
The sticking point is the price. The TM31 model I have retailed for about $1,600; the new TM5, for which I don’t have reliable pricing information, seem to be coming in at around $1,800 for somewhat more bells and whistles. They are incredibly constructed and seem to last forever, but that’s still a heck of a lot of money to spend on a kitchen electric. The good news is that if you want one, they are now being distributed in the U.S., so you no longer have to skulk off to Canada to order one.
Who is this for? Someone who cooks a lot and would like to cook more. Someone who wants to consolidate their food processor, scale, steamer and blender into a single countertop appliance. Someone who you’re willing to spend a whole lot of money on. But they will, I promise, be very grateful. If I had to pick one appliance to keep for my kitchen, I’d go back to toasting bread in the oven and keep this.
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