When I was 19 years old, my mother gave me a KitchenAid mixer. That sums up a lot of things about my family: We cook a lot, we eat a lot, and for gifts, we give each other kitchen gear. Friends refer to our house as "The Appliance Museum," and I have to say, they have a point. On the other hand, it's a delicious hobby.
Below are the items I recommend for the cook in your life, even if you're that cook. Unless otherwise noted, everything is something I have used and loved. Hope they can bring happy cooking to all this holiday season.
Stocking Stuffers (up to $25)
Microplane grater, $13 Every list starts with a microplane grater, because there is nothing that makes such a big difference at such a little price. Box graters are OK for cheese, but there's nothing more irritating than scraping your knuckles on the fine grater when you're trying to zest a lemon or grate a bit of chocolate on top of your cocoa. That's where the microplane grater comes in. It's basically impossible to hurt yourself, and it does a superior job of zesting and fine grating, taking just a very thin layer off the surface. I like to use it to make fluffy clouds of parmesan on top of a salad or chocolate on top of a cake. And it pops in the dishwasher and comes out clean.
Reference fridge magnet, $7.50 Ever get to the middle of a recipe and realize you don't have a quart measure on hand? How many cups is that? You could look it up on Google, but your hands are covered in gook. That's where reference fridge magnets come in: handy information in an easily available (and washable) format. Favorites: common measurement equivalents, measurements for doubling or dividing a recipe, and "how long can I keep this thing before I eat it, again?"
Salt pig, $8 What's the No. 1 seasoning you use in cooking? Unless you're on a special hypertension diet, the answer is salt. It's in everything. So it's nice to have it where you can easily grab a teaspoon whenever you need it. Enter the salt pig, which keeps your salt in the open, for easy dipping, but protects it from spatters. If the cook in your life doesn't have one, I'm betting he or she will be pleasantly surprised by this. For the less whimsical chef, there are ones that don't look like pigs.
Swivel Store spice rack, $9 The kitchen guide has, over the years, chronicled my attempts to solve the Spice Problem. The Swivel Store so far appears to be the terminal solution. Spices are stored neatly away, then you pull out the shelf when you need to find something. There's also this model, which stores them horizontally rather than vertically, and it gets very good reviews.
Disposal genie, $10 If the Oxo vegetable peeler is the least romantic gift ever, the disposal genie is surely in second place. It's basically a slightly better disposal blocker; it lets the stuff you want to go in the disposal (water, small bits of food) get in, while the cutlery stays safely in the sink. If you aren't quite ready to stuff this in a stocking, think about stuffing it in your own disposal.
Fish spatula, $10 One day, I noticed that I had a fish spatula. I can't remember buying it, although I'm sure I did. Which is somewhat surprising, because I don't actually much care for cooked fish. At any rate, I left it on the wall for about six months, on the off chance that I might someday cook fish. And then I realized that it was the perfect size for transferring roasts to the Crock-Pot, or lifting a little pizza off the stone. All of which to say, a fish spatula is really useful even if you don't like fish. Any large, delicate job is made better with an oversize spatula, and short of this one, a fish spatula is about as big as you can get.
Basting brush, $12 Basting brushes are indispensable. Unfortunately, the kind my mother had, which lasted forever and did an excellent job of moving delicious pan juices atop your bird, is getting very hard to find. The bristles on the last brush I had came out in clumps, all over the roast. And silicone brushes didn't seem like a great substitute -- until Oxo came up with this model, which does a splendid job. Obviously, its uses are not limited to baking; it's also indispensable for brushing garlic oil atop your bread or jam onto a torte.
Pizza cutter, $12 Everyone needs a good, sharp pizza cutter, even if you don't eat pizza. They're excellent for cutting off hunks of dough for bread sticks or cinnamon rolls, quickly dividing quesadillas or grilled cheese sandwiches, or dividing pie crust or pastry into neat sections. Also, of course, good for pizza. Look for one with a nice, heavy, sharp blade and a good hand feel; I like our KitchenAid, but they're phasing it out, and the remaining ones are kind of absurdly expensive. Oxo makes a good-looking one, and Alton Brown swears by this Zyliss, so I've been tempted to try it.
Pizza mesh, $12.50 Husband is sort of obsessed with crispy things. I never have to worry about burning our dinner, because if I happen to cook things too long, his eyes light up at the sight of all the blackened bits. If he were a Muppet, he'd be Crispy Monster. The pizza mesh is perfect for making oven-baked treats for the Crispy Monster in your life, because it allows air to circulate around the bottom, as well as the top. Note that I have not actually made pizza on this, but I have made all manner of frozen tidbits and bread-based items, with excellent results. If you want to make things that drip, put a pan underneath to catch it.
Spice-measuring spoons, $13 Measuring spoons are not, perhaps, romantic. But they are necessary, and they have a tendency to disappear. I don't know whether they get thrown out or run off to the Pyrenees to form an underground culinary resistance, but either way, they're not always around when you need them. I like this set because the bowls are nice and long rather than round. Round measuring spoons are generally fine, but they have an insanely annoying downside, which is that they will not fit into most spice containers. The set has six measuring spoons, delivering some useful half sizes not often available, and the spoons are linked with a loop for easy hanging on the wall. I'm not saying you'll never lose your measuring spoons if you hang them on the wall . . . but you'll probably lose them less.
12-inch tongs, $13 Good silicone-tipped tongs are on the list of things I absolutely can't live without. It's not just getting meat out of hot liquid, or flipping over dumplings halfway through the cook, but also lifting the steamer basket out of the pressure cooker and retrieving hot pans from awkward positions. Oh, and you can stir with them, too. I like the Oxos, which have a nice locking mechanism and have endured years of daily abuse without cracking. They come in various lengths, but I have never found that there's any advantage to shorter tongs, and it's occasionally very nice to be able to fetch something from a full foot away.
Nonstick egg pan, $15 I don't use nonstick pans for much -- they prevent the food from developing the fond, the delicious brown sticky bits that impart so much flavor. But there are uses where nothing else will do. For example, making parmesan cheese bowls for a fancy dinner. And, of course, for cooking eggs. We use the Bialette Arte 8-inch, which has a good shape, heats evenly and has held up well through daily use. If you can't find that one, look for a pan that's not too thin, as it risks burning; you want something thick enough to retain and distribute heat evenly across your cooking.
Silicone ice cube trays, $15 Ice cube trays? Really? What's next, toothpicks? But seriously: Silicone ice cube trays are extremely useful, and they're not just good for ice cubes. I use them to freeze cheese grits so that I can bread them and deep-fry them. (Recipe available upon request.) My husband uses them to freeze peanut butter for smoothies. Make pesto in the summer and freeze it in individual servings for those dark winter days, or fill it with cookie dough so you can pop out individual cookies for baking. Why silicone? Because you can remove the cubes individually, and they pop out perfectly, with no sticking.
Twine dispenser, $15 In these days of pre-trussed roasts, kitchen twine is not as indispensable as it used to be. But when you do need to tie a turkey's legs together or bundle up your herbs for a stew, there aren't many good substitutes. Contra the sound, kitchen twine is not that scratchy-looking stuff they used to bundle up newspapers with; it's a clean, soft thread that won't come apart in your cooking or leave flavors or fibers in your food. I have this festive twine dispenser with a chicken on top, but you can also find more streamlined models. The important thing to look for is a well-situated cutting blade on top so that you can pull and cut the twine with one hand. When you're trying to hold a turkey's legs together while wrapping them in twine, you aren't likely to have a second hand free for cutting.
Ball whisk, $15 I'm not saying that you can't whisk something perfectly well with a good, old-fashioned kitchen utensil. But the balls on the end give your whisking a little extra oomph, and they look cool. Plus, this isn't actually much more expensive than a regular whisk, so why not go for the gusto?
Oxo vegetable peeler set, $15 Is this the least romantic gift ever? It might be the least romantic gift ever. But if you're still using that old peeler your mom bought down at the hardware store in 1972, it's time to upgrade. I can't explain why the Oxo peelers are better exactly; they just are. They fit well in your hands, and they take a nice thin layer off rather than gouging out half the potato -- or, conversely, forcing you to stand at the sink for half an hour taking tiny, dainty little dabs of skin off here and there. If you're making potatoes for Christmas, get this as a gift for someone, if only yourself.
Silicone prep bowls, $15 I bought the most adorable set of prep bowls for Thanksgiving at Target. Made by Wilton, they were silicone and had handy measuring lines on the inside of the bowl. Unfortunately, I rashly gave them to my mother on the theory that it would be easy to find another set. Amazon, Target and Wilton's website deny all knowledge of these bowls. This Le Creuset set is the closest thing I can find: It has four bowls, not five, but you get the idea. For large amounts, I like the Pourfect bowls (see below), but for small items such as vanilla or nuts, these are insanely useful.
Ice cream scoop, $15 An ice cream scoop is another area where quality makes all the difference: You need something heavy enough to dig out a frozen dessert without bending. Pay no attention to unneeded features like little levers that pop out the scoop. (Ice cream is not very sticky, and the mechanism is quite likely to break, shortening the life of your scoop. Just look for a heavy scoop that fits nicely in your hand, like this one.)
Egg separator, $15 Technically, you do not need an egg separator; you can do it by carefully moving the yolk back and forth between the halves of the shells, or by breaking the egg into a well-washed palm and letting the whites run into a bowl. But the eggshell maneuver can be tricky, especially for beginners, and the "yolk in the hand" squicks a lot of people out, particularly people who don't cook all that much. Beginner cooks should not be deprived of the joys of egg whites by lack of skill or excessive squickiness. That's where the egg separator comes in: You break the egg into it, the yolk runs out, et voila: separated eggs. I like this Kuhn Rikon, which is a bit fussy but lets you neatly flip the yolks into a separate container when you're done.
Gravy separator, $15 It's possible to separate the fat from pan drippings or soup without using a fat separator. Unfortunately, it's also disgusting, time-consuming and extremely messy. Fat separators operate on a basic principle: Fat rises to the top of the liquid, so if you put the spout at the bottom, it should be possible to pour off all the liquid while leaving the fat in the cup. Just pour your liquid into the separator, let it stand for five minutes or so, and then pour the defatted juices into your gravy or soup bowl. It's one of those things that you don't realize are utterly necessary until you have it, and then you couldn't be parted for love or money.
Silicone steamer, $16 My mother had a handy little collapsible steamer when I was growing up that we used for almost everything. This is the next generation: It takes immense abuse, can be used in nonstick pots and will store almost anywhere. It has little legs to keep your food out of the water, and because it's silicone, you can squeeze it into a pot that isn't quite big enough. I use it several times a week in the pressure cooker.
Coffee grinder, $16 Apropos of the discussion above, coffee has a lot of delicious volatiles that disappear pretty quickly after the stuff is ground. Grinding your own is cheap and easy with a simple blade grinder. It doesn't do quite as good a job as a burr grinder -- the grind isn't perfectly consistent, and the friction slightly heats the coffee, which changes the flavor. But the difference between pre-ground coffee and coffee freshly ground in a blade grinder is much larger than the difference between a blade grinder and a burr grinder -- and at $25, blade-ground coffee is much more accessible. These grinders also make great spice grinders, though you should not use the same one you use for coffee.
Splatter guard, $17 If you saute a lot, you will have noticed that everything -- the stovetop, your cupboards, you -- gets covered in oil. You can't get rid of that problem entirely, but you can control it by deploying a splatter guard. It prevents big drops of oil from leaping out of the pan and onto inopportune places such as your tender, exposed skin. It also prevents you from having to clean disgusting quantities of used oil off your cooktop.
Kyocera ceramic slicer, $20 Like a lot of cooks, I've toyed with the idea of getting a mandoline, and maybe I still will one day. But they're bulky and hard to store, which means that you'll be reluctant to pull it out in the first place. And longtime readers know my rule: If you won't be bothered to use it, don't buy it in the first place. The ceramic slicer has four settings, from very thin for fancy canapes to just right for salads. And it hangs right on my wall with my other kitchen utensils.
Kitchen shears, $20 If your Target already has a microplane grater, for my money, kitchen shears are the next most useful gift. They do everything from opening packages to taking the back out of a chicken. The most important things are that they have a heavy blade, come from a decent company and have the ability to be taken apart to be washed. You do not want bacteria setting up colonies in the joints of your shears, delivering little salmonella bombs into your dishes and eventually evolving the intelligence that will allow them to overthrow you and assume control of the kitchen.
Butter boat, $20 Hard butter is the bane of cooks and bread-eaters everywhere. But how to keep a stock of soft butter available all the time? Some people use butter bells, but I've never had any success with them; I always seem to end up with the lump of butter falling out of the storage lid and sitting in a greasy pool of water. I like the butter boat, which uses evaporative cooling to keep your butter at room temperature without going rancid. Just change the water in the bottom every few days, and your butter should stay sweet and spreadable year-round. I actually have two -- one for salted and one for unsalted.
Hand chopper, $20 This is an especially great gift for anyone who doesn't have a food processor, but it's really handy even if you do. Basically, you slap the top and a blade comes down and cuts your food; as it retracts again, it rotates, so a few slaps gives you a pretty fine cut. Great for herbs, nuts, onions or almost anything else you'd like to mince. I like the Oxo model, which is solidly made and comes apart for thorough cleaning in the dishwasher.
Wilton Trim-N-Turn rotating cake stand, $20 This is a gift that is only useful to people who want to decorate cakes. But if you have someone like that in your life, this is very useful indeed. If you want to get really even piping, it's hard to do without a stand that rotates. If you want to move the cake to something a little fancier for eating, well, you just bought a fish spatula, didn't you?
Kuhn Rikon spice grinder, $20 If you've only ever used spices out of the bottle, fresh spices are a revelation. Grinding spices exposes more of their surface area to air, so the volatile chemicals that provide the flavor evaporate. That's why pre-ground black pepper is bitter and harsh, and fresh-ground black pepper is divinely spicy. You probably have a pepper mill, but that's hardly the only spice you can grind fresh: cinnamon, nutmeg, dried ginger, cloves . . . you can even make your own mustard. The Kuhn Rikon grinder is nice because it's easy to clean (just grind some coarse salt) and holds a good quantity of spices to grind.
Spill stopper, $21 The spill stopper was my find of the year last year, and I still love it. It's basically a silicone lid that you put over your pot that makes it impossible to boil over; the ingenious design breaks up the air bubbles so that they can't form enough foam to escape the pot. Before I owned the spill stopper, I'm not sure I ever managed to scald milk without getting some on the stovetop; now it's perfectly neat, every time.
Belkin kitchen tablet stand, $22.50 I love using the iPad in the kitchen -- if you haven't checked it out, the Epicurious app is a huge improvement over a regular cookbook. The problem is, I don't love worrying about spilling liquid on my iPad in the kitchen. I got a holder that was supposed to stick to the wall, but it lasted about 10 minutes before falling off. Enter the Belkin stand, which holds your tablet upright and comes with a nifty stylus you can use if your hands are covered in food.
Quilted silicone oven mitt, $25 I've always liked silicone oven mitts, which stand heat amazingly well; they're also waterproof, so even if hot liquid spills on you, you don't end up with your hand wrapped in a boiling hot pain-mitten. But they have one drawback, which is that they're not as flexible as regular oven mitts. Well, that's changed with the invention of cloth-silicone hybrids. I have no idea how they've managed it, but these mitts combine the flexibility of fabric with the waterproof insulation of silicone. Highly recommend.
Warming gravy boat, $25 Everyone laughed when I put a warming gravy boat on my registry. All I can say is they're not laughing as they pour delicious, piping-hot gravy over their holiday turkey. It's inexpensive, reasonably attractive, and you'll find that you appreciate warm gravy -- or hot fudge sauce -- more than you thought when you first contemplated this purchase.
Salad spinner, $25 I held out on buying a salad spinner for years -- what's wrong with paper towels? -- but I now have to admit I was wrong. It's great not just for washing and drying your greens, but also for spinning the sand out of bok choy and leeks (fill with water and vegetables, put in the sink, spin), as well as for dressing your salad perfectly evenly. As far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no particularly exciting salad-spinning technology out there that mandates you buy a particular brand; I've been quite happy with the one I bought at Costco, whose chief notable special feature was that it was available at Costco. Pick one whose size and style you like.
Tea press, $25 I like loose tea. It stays fresher, and I enjoy the ritual of making it. But it's messy unless you have a tea press like this one, which keeps the tea leaves neatly inside a washable filter, then squeezes the extra liquid out of them to extract maximum flavor. I particularly like this Bodum because it has a glass pot, so you can see your tea, with a plastic frame around it to keep your furniture from getting scarred by the hot container.
Thoughtful Trinkets ($25 to $50)
Koolatron drink fridge, $30 I drink a really absurd amount of soda. Perhaps 2014 will be the year I finally quit, but until then, I love these little mini-fridges, which keep six cans of soda cold. Soda or bottled water is really all it can handle; it doesn't get cool enough for food, or dairy. But it does that one thing very well. For someone who wants to have a cold drink handy at their desk, this is an adorable present.
2-cup saucepan, $30 When they're thinking about pans, people tend to neglect the virtues of the very small saucepan, but there's nothing like it when you just want to melt a couple of tablespoons of butter or heat a splash of brandy for the plum pudding. Also doubles as a 2-cup measure, which is handy.
Tupperware cake taker, $30 If, like me, you bake a lot, then, like me, you will probably find yourself needing to take your baking somewhere. The Tupperware cake taker is the one that graces my own cakes and pies. It has a nice big domed lid that locks onto the base, allowing you to carry a three-layer cake without the frosting touching anything.
Cookbook stand, $35 While I love my iPad stand, I still have a lot of cookbooks . . . many of them with pages gummed together by old food. The solution for this is a cookbook stand, which holds your books largely out of harm's way. I've been using a simple model that just lets the book lie at an angle, but I just ordered this one, which has a splatter guard to hold your pages open while protecting them from, er, your cooking.
Strainer set, $40 Sieves are pretty much invaluable, not just for straining pasta or washing vegetables, but also for taking unwanted solids out of soup or showering a delicate layer of confectioner's sugar or cocoa atop a cake. A nice set of graduated sizes lets you strain everything from a stockpot full of soup to a single cocktail. It's a very nice gift for someone who's starting out or whose colander is looking a bit ratty.
Cast-iron skillet, $40 You can't beat a cast-iron skillet for quality-to-price ratio. Cast iron is the perfect thing to sear in, because it gets really, really hot and holds that heat for a long time. We have an 8-inch and a 13-inch, but if you're going to get just one, I recommend the larger size. Cast iron is a bit fussy -- you don't want to leave it standing in water, because it will rust, and you can't use soap, because it will strip the seasoning out. But it's surprisingly easy to clean: Scrub with a bit of stainless steel, then dry by putting it on a high burner for a minute. And it goes from stovetop to oven with no problem. Just be careful with the handles, which will get as hot as the rest of the pan and sear your hand if you're not careful.
Chemex coffeemaker, $40 My husband drinks at least a pot of coffee a day, so as you can imagine, our household has about every way you can imagine to make coffee. In my opinion, this is the best way to make it without an electric brewer. I don't like French-press coffee, which I often find raw and bitter. The Chemex uses paper filters so you get the smoother taste of filtered coffee; plus, it's easy to use and inexpensive. It's great for anyone who doesn't have the space for an electric machine or who doesn't make coffee enough to justify one.
Rabbit corkscrew,$45 A good corkscrew has always been important, but now that a lot of bottlers are using plastic corks, which seem to be made with some kind of weapons-grade impervious composite, a good corkscrew is absolutely vital. The rabbit takes up a little more space than the old-fashioned models, but it's absolutely foolproof. Especially good if you know someone who has a little difficulty with their hands.
Silicone pastry mat and silicone rolling pin, $50 for both The secret to delicate, flaky pastry and pie crust is to not add too much flour. Unfortunately, the secret of keeping your delicate, flaky pastry pie crust from sticking to board and rolling pin is flour. This is one of the reasons that pie crust is hard. Fortunately, modern science has solved this problem with silicone mats and rolling pins. It's basically impossible for anything to stick, which means that you can use less flour and get a melt-in-your-mouth pastry almost every time. I like to give these in a set, because it's not much good having a rolling pin that doesn't stick if the pie crust is still glued to your counter. Mats with circles to show you how big to make your crust for various sizes of pie pan are nice, but the main thing is to have a silicone mat. Silpats double as nonstick sheets for cooking delicate pastries.
Food mill, $50 If you want to make things such as homemade applesauce, a food mill is the easiest way to separate the delicious puree from the peels and seeds and other material you want to discard. There are electric mills available, but unless you have serious issues with hand or arm strength, I wouldn't be bothered; a manual mill is easier to store and less fuss. Use it for fruit purees and butters, smooth vegetable soups, and anything else where you need very smooth consistency.
Generous Gifts ($50 to $150)
Crock-Pot, $60 As soon as the frost is on the pumpkin, the slow cooker is on my counter. It has a summer home on a shelf in our basement, but its winter home is in our kitchen, cooking soups and stews several times a week. Why get a Crock-Pot instead of just making your stews and pot roasts in a Dutch oven? The short answer is "because you have a job"; you can't leave the oven on all day while you're at work, but you can pop your food in the slow cooker in the morning, then come home to a delicious hot meal 12 hours later. As a bonus, you can serve out of your Crock-Pot and keep the food hot; we use them at winter parties for mulled cider and at Thanksgiving to cook and serve our mashed potatoes.
There are very pricey slow cookers made by All-Clad and Breville, which look lovely but are hard to justify on functionality. Slow cookers just aren't that complicated: It's a fairly simple heating circuit, a thermostat and a couple of digital controls. Crock-Pots work just fine, and they cost a couple of hundred dollars less. Look for one that's large (at least 5 quarts) and has both low and high settings, as well as a "warm" setting that it can switch to after the cooking is done.
Not much changes in the world of slow cookers, but this year, Crock-Pot brought out a few innovations: the Crock-Pot hookup, which allows you to daisy-chain as many as six pots in a row off of one plug, and the iStir, which has an attachment in the lid to periodically stir your food as it cooks. I've tried each a little bit, and they're both worth looking at. The hookup version is really a server more than a cooker -- the largest size is 3.5 quarts, which is good for dips and that sort of thing but a little small for holiday entrees. But it's convenient to only need one plug, and they're built to stack, so you can store a bunch of them in a pretty small space. If you entertain a lot, you might want to think about picking up a few of these.
The iStir, meanwhile, is a regular large-capacity Crock-Pot with the stirring attachment. I'm excited by it, but I also had a hard time thinking of Crock-Pot foods I wanted to stir. I made an ordinary beef bourguignon in it recently, which came out fantastic (the meat was slightly more broken up than it otherwise would have been, but that made it even more delicious).
Which is not to say that the stir feature is useless -- I think that cooks are probably going to find a lot of uses for it. But I think of it as a bit of an experimental appliance at the moment; it's an investment in discovering new things you can do with a Crock-Pot.
Miallegro stick blender, $65 You can spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at stick blenders, reading the specifications on stick blenders, wading through reviews of angry stick blender partisans insisting that theirs is better than whatever garbage the competitors are selling. Or you can relax and do something more interesting, because it just doesn't matter that much; these machines aren't that complicated. I chose the Miallegro because it came with a wall mount, and you know my rule: If it's not in easy reach, don't buy it, because you won't use it. Miallegro is a Venezuelan company, and I'm pleased to report that their immersion blender does a very fine job of scrambling eggs, whipping cream and pureeing soup. It also has a lot of different blender tips that you can change using a special tool, but I never have; I use the whisk head and the chopping head, and they have served me admirably.
Many companies also sell rechargeable models, which gives you more freedom of movement, but beware: These blenders are quite heavy, and the handles are large. If you have any issues with strength, or you have arthritis, you should stick with a plug-in model.
Cuisinart electric kettle, $65 You may have gone to Britain and experienced the joy of their electric kettles, which heat up water for tea almost instantly. Sadly, you will not experience that joy on this side of the pond, because they use 220-volt power and we use 110, which apparently means that our electric kettles cannot heat up water as fast as theirs. However, an electric kettle is still extremely useful. It heats up water faster than a stovetop kettle (unless you have a quasi-commercial range), and you can't burn out the bottom of the pot. When my grandmother went blind and had to stop using the stove, we bought her one of these so that she could still at least make herself a pot of tea. Also excellent for offices and dorm rooms. I have this Cuisinart, which is nice because the kettle itself is wireless (there's a base with a heating element that plugs in), but if you're shopping for a real tea freak, you might want to look at this KitchenAid, which has extremely precise temperature control.
Pourfect mixing bowls and measuring set, $64 (also available for $40 without the measuring tools) I get very excited when I talk about these bowls. They're simply incredibly useful for baking. The shape will probably strike you as a bit strange, but that's what makes them so great: Your ingredients come out in a perfect, steady stream, with no mess. There's even a little hook under the spout that helps you balance it on the edge of a stand-mixer bowl to get the last drop of your ingredients into the mixer. You can crack a dozen eggs into one of these bowls, and the shape allows the bowl to dispense those eggs one at a time. They're simply the best prep bowls out there, as far as I'm concerned. The little silicone ones are great for small bits of ingredients, but for mixing together your liquids and your dry ingredients, these bowls cannot be beat.
Warming tray and buffet server, $70 A warming tray is only good for one thing: entertaining a crowd. That's something I do fairly often, and so I find this pretty useful. You can put canapes straight on the tray or turn it into a steam table with the included serving dishes. This is not for everyone, but it's very right for the people who would use it.
Burr grinder, $85 If you've been grinding your own coffee for a while, you (or your coffee-drinking loved one) may be thinking about switching to a burr grinder. It can be a pricey, but there are some benefits. First of all, you do get a better quality grind: The size is more even, and the beans don't get friction heat. Second of all, you can easily choose the fineness of your grind, rather than having to watch it closely until it reaches the point you want. And third of all, it drops the grinds into a neat little cup, minimizing spillage. We've been very happy with ours, a wedding gift from my editor that we still use every day.
Waring Pro digital deep fryer, $90 The best and worst thing about a deep fryer is the ability to have delicious, hot fried food whenever you want it. To save our arteries, we limit ourselves to frying one Sunday a month, and to save our noses from the smell of deep frying, we only use it in the backyard. With those caveats, I love this deep fryer. It's got a nice, large capacity, which matters not just because you can make more delicious fried foods, but also because the more oil it holds, the less the temperature of the oil will drop when you put food in it. Which means . . . crispier, more delicious fried things! The husband and I have a great deal of fun thinking up new things to fry in it. We haven't mastered tempura yet, but I think we're internationally competitive on hush puppies and deep-fried grits.
Isi Gourmet Whip Plus, $100 This is not an implement that you'll get out every day, unless you're running an ice cream shop. But it is a nice touch for everything from hot cocoa to your fanciest dinner parties. Basically, it's the kind of whipped cream dispenser you see at Starbucks or Haagen-Dazs, but it also handles hot liquids as well as cold. So you can top your tomato soup with a delicious warm parmesan foam, or put the soup itself into the charger and turn it into a fluffy cloud. Obviously, it's also good for fancy cold preparations. Make sure you use nitrous oxide capsules, however, because CO2 seltzer chargers, which look almost the same, will give the food a funny taste.
Copper salt and pepper mills, $110 for both Unless we have a friend coming over with a broken arm, we rarely put the electric mills on the table. Instead, we have these lovely copper models, which are unique-looking and also work exceptionally well. The long lever on the top is helpful for folks who have vision or hand strength problems, and they can be as formal or informal as your decor dictates.
Instant Pot 6-quart pressure cooker, $120 For years, readers have been telling me that I need to look into pressure cookers. Last year, I got an Instant Pot for Christmas, and now I'm sorry that I waited so long. The Instant Pot is a pretty good slow cooker and steamer combined with a top-notch pressure cooker, and it now lives on my counter year-round. Pressure cooking basically lets you cook food faster at a given temperature, and because it's under pressure, you can use less liquid. Yes, I know you've heard horror stories about the danger of exploding pressure cookers, but the modern models have a ton of fail-safes, and with the electric models like the Instant Pot, you can always leave the room if they make you nervous.
But it's terrific for soups and stews, lets you prepare beans in half the time, and does a very good job on vegetables -- you can't get them al dente, but with a one- to three-minute cooking time, you can get vegetables that are perfectly consistently cooked, with loads of flavor. Because "faster" isn't the only reason to like pressure cooking; the shorter cook also seems to improve the taste of many dishes. Soup, in particular, is superb, the best broth you've ever made.
The slow-cooker function is not as good as my trusty old Rival slow cooker, but it's good enough, and if you only have room for one appliance, this is a great choice -- especially if you find it hard to get organized for slow-cooking in the morning.
You'll want to get some cookbooks to go with your pressure cooker, and unfortunately, there don't seem to be a lot of great ones out there. I have the America's Test Kitchen cookbook, which is good but is basically a slight reworking of the slow-cooker cookbook I already had, so I didn't gain a lot of new recipes. I also bought "Miss Vickie's Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes," which has the most recipes and is invaluable as a reference, and "Great Food Fast," which is a little heavy on the convenience foods for me but has some solid, very easy dishes in it; my husband could eat the bourbon chicken every night of the week. But many of your best results will come from adapting your own favorite recipes to the faster cooking times.
Chinois and pestle, $120 If you're willing to put in a little more work and take up a little more space, a chinois may be in your future. Its mesh is finer than a food mill's, which means that you have to put in more work to get the food through -- but you are rewarded with a correspondingly more refined product. This makes the smoothest, most velvety applesauce or tomato soup you've ever eaten.
Food saver vacuum sealer, $80 to $150 I got the food saver to go with our sous-vide machine (see below), but it's pretty great in its own right. Obviously, it extends the shelf life of your refrigerated and frozen things -- just like you saw on television! It's great for hunters or folks who roast their own coffee. But it also turns out to be an excellent way to quickly marinate; the vacuum opens up the fibers of the meat and lets the marinade penetrate more quickly. Seal it in the bag with a little marinade, or if you want to immerse it in liquid (the food saver can't handle that), you can buy a special marinating attachment pretty cheaply. With food savers, you basically have a choice between manual or automatic models; the manuals use slightly less bag, which saves you a bit of money, but the automatic ones are slightly easier to use. We splurged on the automatic and haven't regretted it.
Zojirushi 5-cup rice cooker, $135 I was pretty skeptical about rice cookers -- I mean, I already know how to make rice. Then a friend bought me one for our wedding. And now everyone in my family has one. The rice cooker makes better rice than you do, especially brown rice. It does it without watching. And it will keep the rice warm for you if you realize you're not quite ready for dinner. Zojirushi makes the best rice cookers, and some of their models can get crazy-expensive, using pressure and induction to produce what must be the platonic ideal of cooked rice. But I've been extremely happy with their mid-range 5-cup model; its fuzzy-logic circuitry monitors the steam coming out of the rice to determine when it's perfectly done. As I said to the Zojirushi rep at last year's International Home and Housewares Show, it's hard for me to imagine needing to upgrade, because it's hard for me to imagine the rice being any better than my model already does it.
Electric salt and pepper mills, $140 for both My mother bought these after she hurt her hand, and I was skeptical, until I realized that it's actually quite useful to be able to stir the pot with one hand while you salt and pepper with the other. The Peugeot mills are particularly nice because they let you easily select the fineness of the grind, but I also like this model, which has the salt and pepper in one mill.
SodaStream home soda maker, $80 to $180 We got the SodaStream Penguin (now discontinued) for our wedding and have been using it more and more over time. Appliances like this have network effects: The more people have them, the more useful they get. A bigger audience has enabled SodaStream to offer more flavors to mix in with your seltzer, and that means that you can buy replacement cartridges and soda mix at more and more places.
SodaStream is often pitched as saving you money, which it probably does somewhat, but the real thing it saves us is space. We have a drawer full of soda mix flavors that would take us a small room to store as cans and bottles. And we never realize that we're out of club soda until someone wants a mojito.
I like the Penguin because of the glass bottles -- I'm slightly paranoid about chemicals leaching into food, and anyway, glass doesn't get cloudy in the dishwasher. The machines that use plastic bottles are often cheaper, and some of them have some cool-looking features, such as the ability to digitally select the level of carbonation you want. But really, the most basic model will do everything you want, which is produce carbonated beverages whenever you want them.
Extravagant Gestures (more than $150)
Enameled cast-iron 6-quart Dutch oven, $80 to $315 But what if you don't want any of these expensive gadgets? What if you just want to braise and stew the old-fashioned way? Then you'll probably want to look at an enameled Dutch oven. They come in all sizes, but for general all-around use, I like the 6-quart -- big enough for a big party or for leftovers at home. Le Creuset's are the best known of these, but Staub also makes good ones, and Lodge, a great company that made both my cast-iron skillets, has some lovely-looking lower-priced entries. I advise against buying pans with a celebrity's name on it; someone has to pay the celebrity, and the easiest way to do so is to take the money out of quality.
Enameled cast iron can't take high heat the way regular cast iron does, so you can't use it to sear. But it doesn't rust and doesn't require seasoning, and it's easier to clean. And it still holds heat beautifully, making it a perfect choice for long, slow braises.
Ultra-wide-mouth food processor, approximately $200 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.
Masterbuilt electric smoker, $220 Barbecue purists will insist that an electric smoker is a second-rate cheat that can't possibly produce good results. But while electric heat is terrible for a stovetop (it doesn't get as hot as gas, and it can't be adjusted quickly), it's great for anything that requires low, slow, even heat. Which is exactly what you want in a smoker. And electric smokers have automatic temperature control, which means you can walk away and do something else instead of tending your fire.
We bought a model with a window, which I'm sad to report is completely useless; you can't see the food through the smoke. What isn't useless was the side-loader; it enables you to put more chips in without opening the door and letting the smoke out and the cold air in. This second-generation model has the side-loader without the pretty-but-useless window.
Electric smokers do, however, have one downside: They can be destroyed by condensation. We thought we had our smoker well-covered, but a couple of bad rainstorms over the winter hopelessly corroded the inside. So don't get one unless you have a garage or dry shed where you can store it.
All-Clad saute pan, $229 Pans, like knives, are personal. I like aluminum for everyday use, because it's light and fast; cast iron for searing; stainless for sautes; and copper for slow simmers. So it's hard to generalize about "what pan you should get." But there's one pan that every cook needs if they don't have one: a really big, nice saute pan. These pans have high sides so that you can cook a whole lot of something on one burner. My preference for that is the All-Clad 12-inch saute pan: It's really big and distributes the heat evenly and quickly. This is where I brown meat and saute vegetables for braises, as well as cook up a whole mess of mushrooms to top a steak. If you haven't had a really nice, sizable pan for prepping big dishes, you are in for a very happy surprise.
Breville Smart Oven, $250 There are two basic approaches to your toasting appliance. If what you mostly want to make is toast, go to Target, find the cheapest toaster you can, and throw it away and get another when it breaks after a year. If you want a toaster oven, though, you need to care about its functionality and design.
I have to have a toaster oven in Washington, where turning the oven on in the summer is often an invitation to heat stroke. After I killed my old Cuisinart through an unfortunate misunderstanding about the proper uses of oven cleaner, I ultimately decided to buy the Breville, which has nine different cooking functions, from "toast" to "pizza." The functions are nice, but that's not really why I decided to get it; I got it because it had convection (which circulates air around your food for even cooking) and because it got top ratings for temperature control. And indeed, I've found it cooks evenly, browns well, and also makes a pretty good slice of toast. Plus, it's very well-insulated, so it doesn't heat up my kitchen or burn my hands. And it's stood up well after years of daily use.
Technivorm Moccamaster, $300 I believe I may have mentioned that I live with a coffee fiend, and this is the fiend's machine of choice; we got it when we got married. The Technivorm has none of the bells and whistles that other high-end machines have: It doesn't grind the beans or have a timer so you can set it up in advance. It does only one thing: heats water to the absolute perfect temperature for making coffee. But it makes pretty much the best cup of drip coffee you can get, and the vacuum carafe keeps that coffee piping hot for hours, so you can have a second cup of steaming hot coffee without that burned flavor it gets from staying warm on a heating element.
Sous Vide Supreme Demi Water Oven, $329 A couple of years ago, my husband got me a Sous Vide Supreme for Christmas. I thought of it as a fancy toy to experiment with, and boy, was I wrong. If you eat meat, you should have a sous-vide cooker in your kitchen, because this is simply the killer app for meat. It delivers perfectly cooked meat or fish every single time -- just give it a quick sear on the grill or in a cast-iron pan and serve. A friend whose husband bought her a sous-vide cooker after trying sous-vided ribs at our house says that her 8-year-old son demanded that they take the sous-vide machine on vacation.
Basically, a sous-vide cooks the food in a water bath at a perfectly even temperature, so it's impossible to overcook. Most cooking involves applying a lot of heat to the outside of something until the core is the temperature you want. Because the sous-vide machine cooks at a precise temperature, the whole piece of meat is perfectly, exactly how you want it; it's literally impossible to overcook. You need to encase the meat tightly in plastic, which can be done with a straw and a plastic bag, but if you're going to use it a lot, you'll probably want to invest in a vacuum sealer, which can be bought pretty cheaply, and has other uses. (See above.)
We have the Sous Vide Supreme Demi, which is ample to make steaks for an eight-person dinner party. There's a larger model, which is correspondingly more expensive and takes up more space. And there are a lot of modestly priced immersion circulators coming out this year, which enable you to turn a regular pot into a sous-vide machine. They look very exciting, but I haven't tried any of them yet, so I can't recommend any particular model.
Breville Smart Scoop Ice Cream Maker, $400 This was the year that we finally broke down and got an ice cream maker with a compressor, thanks to a sale and a coupon. The upside of this kind of machine: You can freeze the ice cream more quickly, and to a harder consistency, than is possible with the models where you have to put a bowl in the freezer for 24 hours -- and you can make more than one batch without needing 24 hours to refreeze your bowl. The downside of this kind of machine: You can eat a whole lot of delicious, homemade ice cream. And not just the sweet kind; savory ice cream is one of my favorite tricks for an easy but impressive dinner party starter.
We have the Smart Scoop, which has a 1.5-quart capacity and the ability to select for harder or softer ice cream, as well as gelato and sorbet settings. We've been very happy with it . . . but we have to resolutely put it away again after I make one batch.
KitchenAid 6-quart stand mixer, $400 The KitchenAid stand mixer may be the ultimate appliance fetish. Last year at the housewares show, the KitchenAid display was dominated by a huge wall of KitchenAid mixers in a rainbow of colors, in front of which people would just sort of stop and gawk in awe. But while a lot of people do use them as counter candy, they're still phenomenal machines. The motor is powerful, and they offer an amazing array of attachments, from an ice-cream-making bowl to a grain mill. If you've got a serious cook in your life, this is a seriously great gift. I've now had mine for 20 years, and it's still going strong.
A lot of people are drawn to the artisan models because you can lift the head, but these models have a less powerful motor (motors are heavy), so I recommend the bowl-lift model -- 6-quart, if you have the money and the room. You'll be surprised at how quickly you get used to the fixed-head model. If you want to gussy up your gift a bit, throw in an extra bowl and a beater with a flexible scraping edge, which is useful for cake batter. If your giftee already has a KitchenAid mixer and you are thinking about attachments, I have been very fond of my ice cream bowl and my water bath (attaches to the bottom to help keep Italian meringues and other delicate cookery cool) but had very bad luck with the meat grinder.
The only caveat to a KitchenAid mixer is that breadmakers -- folks who regularly use their machine to knead multiple loaves at once -- have complained in recent years that KitchenAid moved production to China and switched to plastic gears, which can't handle really heavy kneading tasks. (This is apparently only a problem with large batches; if you make a couple of loaves at holidays, you should be fine.) But this year, KitchenAid is touting the all-metal construction of its six-quart KitchenAid Pro, assembled in Ohio, so breadmakers who have been looking at the Viking or this cool-looking Swedish model might want to give the KitchenAid another look; the most recent Cook's Illustrated reviews give the KitchenAid Pro top marks for kneading. And KitchenAid's versatility and ubiquity give you more options than you have with other brands.
Two notes: Don't get a KitchenAid, or any other top-notch mixer, unless it can live on your counter. A good stand mixer is big and heavy, which means you will hesitate before going to the trouble of pulling it out of wherever it lives. If a pricey appliance can't stay out, it should probably stay at the store.
Which brings me to my second point: All those colors on display looked great at the housewares show, but I'd stick with a simple choice such as black, white or gray. Nothing dates as fast as the color of the year, and a KitchenAid stand mixer is going to last you a long, long time. You don't want to be clawing your eyes out because the lime green mixer that looked so chic with your tangerine and eggshell kitchen in 2012 clashes madly with the cobalt and steel gray palette dictated by the fashion gods of 2022.
Vitamix blender, $400 to $700 By now, you've probably seen commercials and demonstrations for the Vitamix, a super-powerful blender that's used by many smoothie and coffee shops. I haven't reviewed it because I haven't had access to one -- until now. Mom used some of her Amex points to get the Vitamix 750, and I got to play with it. I have to say, it's pretty awesome. It will reduce basically anything you put into it into liquid -- or whip cream into a fluffy cloud. (It worked so fast at Thanksgiving that I had to stop the cycle early; I was worried the cream would turn into butter.) You can do what they call "whole fruit juicing": Stick an entire unpeeled fruit in there and get something with the consistency of juice in a couple of minutes. This is the steam engine of the smoothie craze.
The 750 is one of the higher-end models, but everyone I've talked to says that any of these machines will do an equally good job of pureeing the hell out of anything you can imagine -- the blades are so powerful that if you leave it on for six minutes, you can produce hot soup just from sheer friction. The high-end models have a variety of speed settings, which I think is useful enough to shell out extra money for, and some of them also come with pre-programmed settings for purees, whips and cleaning, which probably aren't worth the extra money. If you drink a lot of blended drinks and have the money, this is worth considering. I wouldn't get it if you use your blender to make milkshakes or margaritas four times a year. And if you don't have the money, everyone at the housewares show said that the Ninja was the best low-end substitute.
Thermomix, approximately $1,400 A few years back, when I was struggling with a book proposal, I said to my husband, "If I ever sell this damn thing, I'm buying a Thermomix." To which he replied, "Oh, sure, if you sell it, you can buy a Thermomix." Well, I did sell it, and a few days later, I ordered the world's most hypertrophied kitchen appliance.
The Thermomix is basically a Vitamix-caliber blender/food processor with a scale and a heating element. You can weigh the ingredients, chop up your vegetables, then cook the food all in one place. It's also a very good steamer (it comes with a basket that sits on top). French onion soup is easy for the first time -- just put your onions in, process for a few seconds, then cook for hours, with the machine slowly stirring, until they're beautifully caramelized. But the killer app is sauces and custards; you can literally put in all the ingredients for a hollandaise or a bechamel all at once, push a few buttons, then come back 10 minutes later to a perfectly cooked sauce. I use it every day.
Naturally, when I admitted to owning one of these, I triggered some hearty skepticism from folks who insisted that a "real cook" didn't need an absurdly expensive machine to make bechamel or hollandaise. And it's perfectly true: I don't need this machine. I already made perfectly good bechamel, hollandaise and creme brulee. I do not require mechanical assistance to saute an adequate mirepoix for my stews. And I know how to steam on the stovetop. So why buy expensive equipment to do it for me?
Because it's easier, and easy lowers the cost of making great food. I also know how to cook over an open fire, and with a few simple pieces of equipment, I can render most of my repertoire over hot coals. But I prefer to have a well-insulated gas stove with a well-calibrated thermostat so I don't have to waste my time with "try cakes" and drops of water skittering around the pan, or spend time tending my fire.
With the Thermomix, starting beef bourguignon in the morning is easy: Toss some vegetables into the machine for a mirepoix, and cook them while broiling my flat-packed chuck on both sides, then it's straight into the slow-cooker with the ingredients. Total active time: about five minutes, compared with the 15 to 30 minutes it would take to prep the vegetables by hand. Which means that it fits much more easily into an often-hectic morning schedule. It's also obviously great for dinner parties to be able to just toss your hollandaise ingredients in and tend to other things. And Husband uses it every day for smoothies. Few other pieces of equipment are this good at this many things. And the bowl even goes in the dishwasher!
On the downside, it's incredibly expensive. It isn't even sold in the U.S., for reasons I don't really understand; you have to order it from Canada, and I've heard that Thermomix is cracking down on this, which means you may eventually have to go to Canada to get one. No one needs this machine. But if you have a windfall you'd like to invest in cooking better food more often, you might want it.
I put knives in a special section because they vary so much. I have two rules about buying knives: First, make sure you know what kind of knives people like, and second, never buy a set. Knives are very personal -- what you need depends on what, and how, you like to cook. And sets are never personal; they're generalized to the lowest common denominator. So think twice before you buy a knife, and when you do, pay close attention to what your giftee likes and how he or she cooks.
I like Japanese knives. That doesn't mean they're made in Japan -- the model I like, Shun, is owned by Kershaw. Rather, it's a style of knife. The two main styles you'll see in stores are Japanese (Shun) and German (Henckels, Wusthof). Japanese knives have a finer edge, which makes them a little better for delicate work, but that also means that they'll dull more quickly and won't take as much abuse. German knives are sturdy and somewhat better at big, heavy jobs. But it's largely a matter of preference; you can do anything with either kind of knife. I have both kinds, but the majority of my knives are Shun.
The most basic knife kit is a chef's knife for chopping, a paring knife for small jobs and a serrated knife for baked goods and delicate vegetables. My choices for these are the Shun Ken Onion 10-inch chef's knife, the Shun Ken Onion 3-inch paring knife and the Shun 6-inch ultimate utility knife. For me, the balance and heft of the chef's knife are absolutely perfect, though if the knife is for a smaller woman, consider an 8- or 9-inch knife.
My next most favorite knife -- the one I've given as a wedding gift -- is the 4.5-inch chef's knife. It looks like a mini chef's knife, and that's exactly how you use it: for small chopping and slicing jobs.
If you eat a lot of bread, you should probably invest in a bread knife. No need to go overboard on a serrated knife; almost any one will do, provided the metal is thick enough to keep the bread stiff. For that matter, you could probably use a $5 saw from the hardware store.
After that, the sky's the limit. Santoku knives are a variation on a chef's knife, with a straight edge rather than one balanced to rock as you chop; I have the very nice Ken Onion model and love it. Boning knives are useful if you do a lot with meat and fish, as is a slicer. You can also add more paring knives in different sizes: I like the tiny bird's beak and the larger 4-inch. Professional chefs will tell you that they don't need all those knives, just a good chef's knife, and that's true, but you don't work with a team of sous chefs who travel with their own knives. If you ever want to invite anyone else into your kitchen, you will need more than one good chef's knife.
To go with your knives, you will need somewhere to store them. I favor this giant knife block from Shun, which has ample room for all your knives, unless you're trying to build your own armory. You'll also need something to cut on. Unscrupulous people will try to woo you with pretty glass boards, but resist their wiles: Glass will dull your knife. Get a bamboo or wooden board; they are soft enough to let your knives sink in, rather than destroy them, and you can periodically sand a bit off the top to make sure they don't collect bacteria, the way acrylic cutting boards do.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org