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The Annual Kitchen Gift Guide for a Brave New World

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The bells are jingling … the holly is sprigging … there are pine needles everywhere. That must mean it’s time for your annual kitchen gift guide.

In previous years, I’ve organized this by price, but after the political earthquakes this year, everything has been shaken up, including the gift guide. This year the organizing principle is “What sort of cook are you shopping for?” There are many, many different sorts of cooks, and our rule is “To each according to their ability, to each according to their needs …” (Unless otherwise stated, products are available at Amazon.com.)

My First Kitchen

They just graduated from college, or they’re getting their first apartment. OK, maybe they’re getting divorced, in which case I recommend bundling some of these offerings with a nice bottle of scotch. Whatever the reason, this person is setting up housekeeping for the first time (or from scratch). What sort of necessities can you offer to help them get started?

Tongs, $13

Tongs are a super-useful kitchen utensil: I use them to stir my pasta, turn my stew meat and toss my salads. I like these particular tongs because they have little legs that keep them from smearing whatever you’ve been cooking all over your counter. You cannot quite substitute tongs for all the other utensils in your kitchen. But you can come surprisingly close.

Decent measuring spoons, $14

Round measuring spoons are useless. Oh, I get the theory: They’re round! It’s easier to get the stuff out! Which is true, except that you can’t get the stuff in in the first place, because to a first approximation, 0 percent of the larger spoons will fit in your spice jars. I like these because they have useful sizes (1/8 and 3/4 of a teaspoon), and they’re stainless steel, so they’ll pretty much last forever.

6-piece utensil set, $15

I love exotic utensils. But they are not, well, necessary. The basic activities of stirring, flipping and lifting were performed by our ancestors long before they had the 35-piece Utensil Set With Titanium Holder and Diamond Accents, on special at Amazon this week for $2,000.

When it comes to choosing a set of utensils for your new householder, there are two directions you can go: durable and cheap. I have chosen “cheap” because “durable” means stainless steel, and five gets you 10 that the first thing your giftee is going to buy is a nonstick pan on which none of those utensils may be safely used. They can set these on fire, break them trying to pry apart frozen chicken breasts, and otherwise abuse them, and no one is going to be like “Oh, no, I was saving those for the grandchildren!

Bialetti ceramic nonstick pan, $22

I have a fraught relationship with nonstick pans. They’re basically only good for two things: eggs, and melting cheese into a thin wafer that you can shape into salad bowls or other fancy-ish dinner party fare. They won’t take high heat, which means that their usage is pretty limited, and no matter what the manufacturer says, that coating will scratch if you routinely use metal utensils in it, and then you’ll have to throw the pan out. On the other hand, people do eat a lot of eggs. And let’s be honest: Your starter cook is going to use a nonstick pan, no matter how lyrically you elaborate the benefits of high-end stainless steel. Might as well get him a decent one. These are affordable, reasonably durable, not so light as the cheaper pans (so you won’t get hot spots), and the 10-inch size is the most versatile.

8-quart pasta pot, $25

Here is what I look for in a pasta pot, in its entirety: Is it large? We can have a long, loving conversation about how much it matters to have a nice, heavy pot that holds heat so that the water will come back to boil faster after you add the pasta. That would be fun -- and pointless. You know what holds heat well? Another two quarts of boiling water.

Most people cook pasta in too little water, then they are surprised when the starch shed by the pasta -- and floating around in the measly little puddle they’re trying to cook it in -- makes the final product gummy. Yes, more water takes a little longer to heat up. On the other hand, the result doesn’t taste like glue. That seems like an eminently fair trade.

Pyrex mixing bowls, $30

Mixing bowls: You need them. Their form has been perfected over millennia. It is hard to wax too lyrical about any particular mixing bowl (except the Pourfect bowls in the next section, for bakers; these are a specialty product that won’t do much for non-bakers). I like these because they are nice enough to double as serving bowls and stack together for easy storage.

The Spill Stopper, $30

Courtesy of Kuhn Rikon

If you are a parent sending your child off into their first solo apartment, set a timer and wait. You will not have to wait long before said child calls and says, in a rather tremulous voice, “Mom … I was making cream sauce and it boiled over and now it’s like welded to the stove … how do I get it off, Mommy?” This gift is about the weirdest thing anyone will ever pull out from under the tree, but it may also be the most useful. Drop this lid over your pot, and it can’t boil over; the liquid bubbles up through the lid, and it breaks up the bubbles so they can’t form that towering, airy structure that’s so impressive before it collapses onto your stove and becomes a permanent part of the finish.

The Penzeys 8-Jar Herb Gift Pack, $36, Penzeys.com

For the cook who doesn’t have anything. It is possible to turn out an OK dinner with that jar of McCormick oregano that has been sitting in the cupboard since the Clinton administration, but as any chef will tell you, the better your ingredients, the better your results. These are the basics of Italian and French and American cooking, which is where beginning cooks are wont to start.

Oxo can opener, grater/slicer and vegetable peeler, $60 total

I don’t know why someone doesn’t sell these things as a set. They all occupy the same small box in my mental file cabinet: things that you will forget to buy for your new kitchen until you are standing there with seven potatoes that need to be shredded and an unopened can of plum tomatoes on the counter for the Rosti sauce. These are kitchen essentials, and Oxo always makes good ones, both durable and easy to use. I especially like their grater/slicer idea, which has a nice, compact form factor for storage and offers a lot of versatility.

Shun chef’s knife, $134

Those smug, annoying chefs you see on television saying that you can do everything with a Dutch oven and a good chef’s knife? Yeah, they’re basically right, even though I experience an overwhelming desire to pelt them with julienned carrots every time they say it. The 8-inch is a good starter knife, because it strikes a nice balance between short (easier to control) and long (more leverage to cut through heavy things). If you are only going to have one knife, this, or something like it, should be that knife. I’m a Shun partisan, but many speak well of Victorinox’s (much cheaper) offerings.

Duxtop tri-ply induction-ready stainless steel pans, $160

Longtime readers know that I am ideologically opposed to sets -- each cook is different, which means they need different pans, knives and other accouterments. The only thing I buy in sets is silverware. However. Your starter chef may not have time to lovingly assemble their ideal kitchen before starting out. If you want to jump-start them, this is a nice way to do it: mid-priced, heavy stainless steel, and ready for an induction burner if they decide they want to do something fancier.

What not to buy them: Large sets of nonstick pans, which will die tragically young; knife sets; masses of utensils; cast-iron pans they will allow to rust.

The Baker

I am, at heart, a baker. Baking is chemistry mixed with violent assault: whipping, beating, creaming. I’m sort of surprised it hasn’t yet had a 10-episode season on HBO.

What to get for the baker on your list? These are a few of my favorite things …

Egg separator, $8

Bakers come in all experience levels. Those of us who have been doing it for a while probably separate our eggs using the provided shells. But that can be nerve-racking for a beginning baker, so the egg separator is a nice idea … sort of training wheels for your first meringue or soufflé.

Oxo pastry brush, $8

As I noted last year, America’s long national nightmare is finally over. I am referring to the years in which it seemed literally impossible to buy a decent pastry brush. 

Courtesy of Oxo

You could get cheap traditional models made in China, which shed. Into your food. No one is that desperate to get more fiber in their diet.

Or you could get a silicone model, which has a nice feature -- the bristles stay on the brush -- but does not move any meaningful amount of liquid to its destination. Oxo finally solved that problem with a silicone brush that actually works. Oxo, a grateful nation salutes you.

Cake-decorating turntable and spatula, $23

If you make a lot of cakes, then these things are super-handy. I’m not saying you can’t frost a cake using the traditional butter-knife-and-plate arrangement. I’m just asking why you would, when there are now such affordable alternatives?

Silicone pastry and baking mats, $25 each

The non-stick, non-scratchy properties of silicone led to a brief fad for silicone bakeware. That was a terrible idea; no baker in history has ever written the words “I do love my pans, but I wish they were … floppier.” They were a misery to get out of the oven without breaking your cake or burning yourself. However, as pan liners, or as a base for rolling out your pastry, silicone shines. Baking with silicone guarantees that you’ll be able to remove the cookies without crushing or breaking; rolling out pastry with silicone means you can don’t have to use so much flour to keep it from sticking, which makes for a better final product. I used to also recommend silicone rolling pins, but I bought another one recently, and it was as light and useless as something out of a child’s play set, so I am no longer recommending one until I find a decently useful one again.

Bowl-scraper blade for KitchenAid mixer, $25

KitchenAids don’t make you scrape the bowl too much, because the beater moves around relative to the bowl. But they don’t get everything, every time, which is where this comes in. Basically, it’s for making anything with a thick, sticky batter, like a cookie. And once you’ve tried it, you’ll never want to go back to the standard blade that came with your mixer 20 years ago.

Cookbook holder, $30

I love this thing. I love it. I’m not saying I’d leave my husband for it. I’m just saying, honey, don’t force me to choose between you. It’s adjustable for different widths, and most important, it has an acrylic cover so that you do not end up with pages welded together with the remains of long-forgotten meals. True fact: More good cookbooks have been lost to this tragic disease than any other single cause of death.

Pourfect bowls, $45

I’m just going to come straight out with it: These things are kinda … weird. I mean, the bowl is a mature technology -- geriatric, even. Why mess with it, especially when it makes them harder to use for some purposes? You can certainly do basic mixing in these, and I do all the time; what they’re not good at is anything that you have to whale on for a couple of minutes straight. For that, you still want the classic circle.

So why get these? Because what they really are is amazing prep bowls. That spout produces a nice, tidy stream of anything that you put in them, and the guard keeps it from spilling over as you pour. So after you’ve sifted your dry ingredients, you can pour them straight into the mixer bowl without getting a cloud of flour everywhere. Or strain your fry oil into one, then easily pour it into a container for either storage and reuse, or disposal -- I don’t even know where my funnels are, because I haven’t used one in years. Or let your sauce settle so you can strain off the fat. There’s even a little lip under the spout that latches onto the edge of your mixing bowl and allows you to easily tip the bowl vertically to get those last drops … and a little ridge near the handle for cracking eggs … and measuring lines inside the bowls … what I’m saying is, these are really, really useful, and if you have a baker in your life, they should try them.

KitchenAid 6-quart mixer, $359

KitchenAid remains the tried-and-true classic for bakers. Oh, if they mostly make bread, it might be worth spending twice as much on an Electrolux, but for most of us, this standby is still the gold standard. It comes in many colors (do not splash out on the exotic ones, which will date faster than the eight-track and the pet rock). It has many, many accessories available, many of which are quite good. And the production problems of the previous decade -- which caused some users to complain about plastic gearboxes -- seem to have been resolved. I recommend sticking with the bigger bowl-lift model, as the tilt-head has a somewhat less powerful motor. And a bigger mixing bowl gives you what economists call “option value” -- which is to say, you can make a smaller batch in a big bowl, but you can’t make a bigger batch in a small bowl.

What not to buy them: specialty pans. If they want to make Ebelskiver, they have probably already figured that out and purchased the pan on their own.

The Gadget Freak

When we first married, my husband was, erm, somewhat resistant to my kitchen obsessions. He may or may not have dubbed our kitchen “the appliance museum.” Then one day he came to me, beaming. “I’ve figured it out,” he said. “You’re just a gearhead for kitchen tools.”

Well, yes. Yes, I am. So what do you get the person who likes shiny kitchen machines? Here are some suggestions.

Food Saver vacuum sealer, $129

The vacuum sealer is a bit of a specialty item. It’s basically good for three groups of people: hunters; people who come home from Costco with 10 pounds of brie and wonder if they’re really going to be able to eat it before it dries out; and people who are into sous vide (cooking in a low-temperature water bath). However, as far as I can tell, those three categories encompass 90 percent of the population of these United States. The manual models are cheaper but ever-so-slightly more of a pain to use, so I prefer the automatics.

Sous vide circulator, $120

Sous vide has gotten cheap. Immersion circulators, which let you use a water bath to cook food at a low and consistent temperature, are now close to the $100 price point, which means that I think this is now a must-have for the kitchen. “But Megan,” I hear you cry, “I have been cooking for years without this!” Indeed. But have you been making three-day medium-rare short ribs, so tender that they almost melt in your mouth? Sous vide is simply magical for meat and fish: You literally cannot overcook or undercook your food. And it allows you to do technical things -- like those three-day short ribs -- that cannot be achieved any other way. It is the rare gadget that benefits the beginning cook who can barely boil water and the master chef alike. Note that while a vacuum sealer is not strictly required to do sous vide, it does make things a lot easier.

Breville Fast Slow Pro electric pressure cooker, $200

I allowed someone to talk me into buying an electric pressure cooker a few years back, and boy, am I glad they did. Pressure cooking is not good for everything, but it produces amazingly flavorful broths, and its speed means that you can sit up at 5 p.m., murmur, “Oh, dear, I was going to make beef bourguignon today, wasn’t I?” and still have it on the table at a reasonable hour.

There are less expensive models available, but the one I used to use (the Instant Pot, still a fine basic pressure cooker) wasn’t all that good as a slow cooker or rice cooker. The Breville does all these tasks well, in one package -- and I don’t know about you, but my counter space is at a premium.

Breville Smart Oven, $250

It’s the best toaster oven on the market, no contest. It actually makes good toast, a task that toaster ovens often fail at. It is also a good oven substitute, provided you aren’t looking to cook a three-layer cake or a 20-pound turkey.

Breville Smart Scoop ice cream maker, $375

I am not going to recommend that you buy an ice cream maker, exactly, because then you are going to make delicious, delicious ice cream all the time and have a heart attack. On the other hand -- what a way to go.

Why would you buy this, instead of a cheaper model? Because the ones where you have to freeze the bowl ahead of time take a lot of careful planning and freezer space, and sometimes they don’t quite do the job. This one has its own compressor, and it will keep churning without losing its cool until the mixture is thoroughly frozen. It’s a great machine for people who love ice cream. And who doesn’t love ice cream?

Warning: Now we are leaping from the generous but not heart-attack-inducing price point of the Breville Smart Scoop to the “Honey, where are my nitroglycerin pills?” panic of the next two items. They are the most expensive things on the list; I am well aware that most people are not going to buy them. I do not include such items lightly. But I have found them shockingly useful.

Thermomix, about $1,800, available only through sales consultants

Why would you buy what looks like an $1,800 blender?

Photographer: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Because it’s a blender that cooks your food.

Maybe that doesn’t sound all that useful to you. So picture tossing all the ingredients for hollandaise in the container, unmixed, pressing a few buttons, and coming back to find it done 10 minutes later.

That’s just one thing you can do with this machine that you can’t really do with anything else. Make a meringue using exact timing instead of standing there watching it. Weigh your ingredients precisely in the same bowl in which you will then mix and cook them. Cook a soup, then puree it without resorting to the dissatisfactions of a stick blender or the heart-stopping fun of pouring hot soup into the blender bowl. Tell it to cook onion jam, constantly stirring for a few hours while the onions slowly caramelize. Get the contents of the bowl to an exact precise temperature.

It is, in other words, really, really useful.

It also combines multiple appliances into one: scale, food processor, blender, steamer. It will even do stand-mixer tasks (though for those I personally still turn to the KitchenAid). For people with small kitchens, that’s huge, which is why these sell well in Europe.

It lets you make great food even when you’re really pressed for time, and it keeps you from having to stand over what you’re cooking. If you’re busy, and you can spare the cash, it’s a surprisingly good investment.

PolyScience induction burner, $1,800

This thing is amazing. It’s the coolest thing I’ve tried since the Thermomix. It is, to be sure, a specialty product. But it’s a great specialty product.

Basically, it’s an induction burner that also has a temperature probe to regulate the temperature. I’ve used it as a deep fryer, to make candy, to do sous vide and slow cooking, and, of course, just to cook regular things. Spectacular success with all of them, and in the case of deep frying, it was much better than our dedicated appliance. It is both precise and powerful, and while it’s larger than a normal induction burner, it’s got a smaller footprint than all the appliances it replaces.

You can replicate the frying and candy with a regular burner, a thermometer and careful watching -- and the slow cooking and sous vide with appliances dedicated to those tasks. And that would be a lot cheaper. I’m not going to tell you that you have to have this appliance. I am going to tell you that if you try this appliance, you will be desperate to find some way to get $1,800 so you can buy it and throw out all that other stuff. I rarely guarantee that your giftee will love what you get them. But I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who wouldn’t love this, because it’s so amazingly versatile.

What not to buy them: weird specialty items that do one task, like a doughnut-hole maker; anything that boasts of its Wi-Fi connection. If you are cooking with the sort of precise timing that demands instant notification, then you need to be in the kitchen, and the Wi-Fi is useless; on the other hand, if your dish can stand to have you be across town when it decides it’s done, then it will probably wait another half-hour for you to wander by and see how things are going. I have yet to find a single useful application for Wi-Fi, except wasting time by tracking the progress of your slow-cooker braised pork on your phone.

The Small or Nonexistent Kitchen

I grew up in Manhattan, and before I moved to Washington, I was living in a 435-square-foot apartment there. I am keenly aware that for some of us, space is at an absolute premium. We do not have room for a zillion utensils and 90 different gadgets. How do we finesse this? Combine, combine, combine. Alton Brown famously likes to decry “unitaskers,” but someone in a tiny kitchen needs to take this ethos to the next level; their gadgets must do as much as possible.

The problem is that multigadgets are often, well, bad. They do none of their tasks well, or, as with the coffee pots that also grind your coffee, they have too many points of failure and tend not to last long. There are, however, a couple of things that I really like as major multitaskers that can roll a lot of gadgets into one svelte package: the Breville Fast Slow Pro, the PolyScience induction burner and the Thermomix (see the reviews in the Gadget Freak section for all three).

Ah, you will say, but I do not have hundreds of dollars to drop on a product. Well, then, may I suggest universal pot lids ($22 for large, $16 for small)? These have produced an amazing improvement in my quality of life. Instead of a bin of lids that resists the assiduous attempts of two people to organize it, I have two lids hanging off my pot rack. A genius invention, and a must-have for the small kitchen.

And if you have no kitchen? Honestly, I’d be pretty well set with a Breville Smart Oven, my Thermomix and that PolyScience induction burner; together, those three things can do every kitchen task I undertake. Of course, one might argue that if you have the $3,500 it would take you to assemble this kit, you could, y’know, rent a place with a kitchen. But these items take up a lot less space than even the tiniest range. And if you’re in the middle of a major home renovation or similar, one or more is worth checking out as a stopgap.

What not to buy them: uselessly tiny versions of things, like 3-quart stand mixers; large pots; anything that does one task.

The Carnivore

Food writer Helen Rosner once defined dude cookery to me as “fire, blood and knives.” And yup, that seems to sum it up. Of course, ladies can do this sort of cooking, too. What to buy the person who wants to cook meat … meat … and more meat?

Sous vide

If you love meat, you should be doing sous vide (see review in the Gadget Freak section). I’m not going to tell you to stop doing all the other things you love, like smoking and braising. Just try sous vide. Trust me. You won’t regret it.

Digital pen thermometer, $25

I have had my heart broken by digital thermometers so many times, I could practically make my own Lifetime series. But this is it … the real deal … the final consummation of all my broken dreams. It reads instantly. It’s accurate. It’s going to be mine forever.

Oxo basting brush, $14

This is the bigger version of Oxo's pastry brush, and it's just as good. It is the only thing you should use for basting turkeys or slapping on barbecue sauce.

Electric smoker, $164

Yes, I know, the smoking snobs are curling their lips. Sorry, dude, electric is better for things that require relatively low, even heat. There is just no benefit to propane or charcoal unless you need an excuse to stand there and fiddle with the temperature for 12 hours. Don’t mess around with the ones with windows, because guess how useful that is when the smoker is filled with, um, smoke. But if you’re looking to take up smoking meat, these are fun and easy.

Umai dry bags, $35 from manufacturer

I was, let us say, very skeptical that I needed these bags to dry-age my own steak. Then I tried them. And now I buy them. You are not going to get all the way to David Burke's Primehouse-level dry-aged meat, because you don’t get the same caliber of cow that he does. But you can get, say, 90 percent of the way there at maybe 5 percent of the cost of eating there. You can also get bags for charcuterie. They call for using a vacuum sealer, but I never have; I use the water-displacement method, seal them tight with a rubber band, and get very good results.

Cleaver, $36

I’m going to be honest with you: I do not actually own a cleaver. Cleavers terrify me. Every time I contemplate owning one, I envision what my thumb would look like severed from my hand. But they’re pretty useful if you’re going to get into dismembering your own corpses … which is why they show up so often in horror movies.

Shun boning knife, $100

I do own this knife, and I love it. For the more gentle approach to separating meat from bones and cutting it apart into useful chunks. It’s lovely to look at, holds a good edge, and is surprisingly easy to maneuver while spatchcocking your birds and doing similarly gruesome tasks.

16-inch roasting pan, $57

I own a lovely Mauviel roaster. But I can’t really justify it; when you’re roasting, the oven, not the pan, is doing most of the work. The main things to look for in a pan are: Is it sturdy enough to withstand high heat? Does it have a rack I can stand the meat on to allow air to circulate? (Even the latter is really optional, as you can buy them separately.)

5-quart enamel Dutch oven, range of prices

I’m not picking a model because a lot of this is aesthetic. Le Creuset is lovely and will last forever. Is it lovely enough to justify paying five times what you’d pay for a Lodge? Ehhhhhh … each cook needs to decide that for themselves. Basically, this is a cast-iron Dutch oven with an enamel surface so you can cook with things that don’t play well with iron, such as wine and tomato (the acid will leach some iron into your food unless it’s very well seasoned). If you’re going to braise (aka “make stew and pot roast”), you should really have one.

Lodge cast-iron 12-inch frying pan, $60

Cast iron holds a lot of heat for a really long time, making it about the best possible tool for searing. Obviously, most people who eat meat like searing. So if you’re a mega-carnivore, you should probably get one. I like the big one just in case I’m searing steaks for a crowd.

Be warned, however, that cast iron takes maintenance: It is possible to ruin them with rust, and they can’t go in the dishwasher. The flip side is that they’re basically impervious to physical damage, so you never have to worry that you’ll ruin the finish by going at stuck-on food or similar with all the tools at your disposal.

What not to buy them: digital thermometers that have lovely probes you can leave in the oven. They sound awesome until you wonder why it’s been four hours and your roast is starting to smoke.

The Drinker

We have a strictly gendered division of labor in our kitchen. Me: inside food. Husband: outside food and beverages. He’s an overachiever, which means that we, like many in America, have jumped on the craft cocktail bandwagon.

He was kind enough to suggest a couple of things for someone who might be thinking of moving in a similar direction:

Mixing glass with strainer and bar spoon, $47 total

You probably have a cocktail shaker somewhere, if you like to drink cocktails. But some cocktails want a gentler hand. The glass and spoon allow you to circulate the liquid gently around the ice without agitating delicate ingredients that need a calm and soothing environment to do their best work.

Large silicone ice cube tray, $9

Why, you may be asking, would you want large ice cubes? Answer: They melt slower, so they don’t dilute your drink as much. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of making lovely cocktails, you want to taste the cocktail, not your tap water.

The spouse also, eternally, recommends the Best Coffeemaker Ever: the Technivorm Moccamaster, $273.

It’s pricey. It doesn’t grind the beans. It doesn’t even automatically make the coffee. Why would you buy this? Because it only does one thing, and perfectly: gets the water to the exact right temperature to make a perfect cup of coffee. That’s the only thing. But if you really care about your coffee, that’s the only thing.

What not to buy them: One of those super-expensive margarita machines that exist less to make drinks than to give you the fantasy that you will one day become the sort of person who has friends over for margaritas all the time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net