The 14th Annual Kitchen Gift Guide
(Bloomberg View) -- My annual kitchen gift guide is now 14 years old. Over the years I’ve played with the format, trying to keep it fresh even when many of the recommendations stay the same from year to year. (A classic never goes out of style …)
Last year I switched from grouping by price to grouping by giftee. And this year, I decided to ask my Twitter followers what they wanted to see more of.
The answer, it turned out, was cookbooks, more gifts for young people just building their first home, upgrades for young people who have learned how to cook dinner for themselves and now need some really decent equipment, and more more more from my go-to cocktail expert, aka my spouse. Well, readers, I heard you, and I have delivered. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous whatever-else-you-may-be-celebrating in December.
The Starter Kitchen
Every so often, I like to think “What would I put in my kitchen if I had to start all over again?” This is a tricky question, because my family is so food-centric that I got my KitchenAid stand mixer years before I got my own kitchen to put it in. But If I wanted to set up a kitchen from scratch for someone who needs everything, but perhaps not everything necessary to whip up an eight-course gourmet meal, this is what I’d buy them. Yes, they could get by with one good chef’s knife, one good Dutch oven and a paring knife. But let’s be honest: The chefs who say that kind of stuff tend to do most of their cooking in kitchens where large staffs do most of the tedious stuff. Also, they’ve spent years dedicated to learning their craft.
Most folks want a nonstick pan for eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches, some measuring cups, maybe some utensils. So I laid out the basic kit for doing everything from making pasta to roasting a chicken and tried to do it in as few pieces as possible, so that it could be stored in a tiny kitchen.
Everything in this section is of decent quality; nothing is fancy. Give your starter chef some time to learn what they like to cook when they have to do it every night, and also how to treat their equipment. (No, you should not use your expensive chef’s knife to take the neck off a champagne bottle, folks.) I’ve offered suggestions for brands I know and trust, but you don’t need to think too hard about this; if you find a substitute on special somewhere, buy it. Costco, for example, generally has splendid, modestly priced stainless-steel cookware sets, which I’ve recommended to many people and used myself at their houses.
What you should think hard about is the one thing I have prioritized on this list: Every piece of cookware should be induction-ready. Induction is a miracle; for the first time, people who don’t have access to a gas line can have a cooktop that offers power and responsiveness. I suspect that induction is the future for every kitchen.
And yet, as we prepare to embark upon a major home remodel, we are not even looking at induction. Why? Because I bought my first pan 20-odd years ago, and many of my favorites cannot be used on an induction cooktop, which works only if the pan has sufficient amounts of cast iron or decently ferromagnetic stainless steel. (Not all stainless is induction-compatible, a lesson many cooks have learned to their chagrin.) Your starter chef probably won’t have an induction cooktop in their first apartment, but someday they will probably want one, so make it easy for them to make the transition.
Here’s the truth about nonstick pans: They all die eventually. Better-quality pans will wait longer before giving up the ghost; through care, and harpy-like shrieking at anyone who tries to stick a metal utensil into them, I’ve managed to hang onto a couple of the Calphalon saucepans from a set I bought in the 1990s. But most of their brethren have already gone to the Great Cooktop in the Sky, and these are on their last legs; at this point, I’m taking my glasses off before I use them so that I can pretend I don’t see the scratches.
Moreover, nonstick pans can’t take high heat (it does literally toxic things to the coating). And high heat — lots of thick metal, durably bolted together so that it won’t deform when you blast it with BTUs — is the only reason to pay a lot of money for a pan. So when you’re buying a nonstick pan, don’t think of it as an investment. “Investment” nonstick pans are going to be reliable money-losers.
You should not buy the very cheapest pans, which are too thin to cook food evenly, but you also should not pay more than $20 or $30 for one. I literally buy our egg pans at the supermarket, and they are just fine for making an omelet or a grilled cheese sandwich, the only things I ever use them for.
Oxo is not the only company I buy utensils from, but it is always my first choice; it makes great, usable products at terrific price points. Not everything in this set is very useful (meat-tenderizing hammers, for example, are only good for a single task: shelling nuts). But this has all the bases covered, ensuring that the chick who has just flown the nest will not, as I once did, plan an elaborate housewarming party around homemade pasta sauce only to discover, as they started to cook, that they had six cans of good-quality Italian tomatoes, and no can opener.
In general, I oppose buying pans in sets, or knives in sets, or anything in sets. The set designer is apt to have very different ideas than I do about what the most useful sizes and shapes are.
But fledgling homemakers have no idea what sorts of pans they will want — are they the kind of person who wants to make veal scaloppine in a high-quality skillet, or broccoli tempura in a good saute pan? A good utilitarian set offers them the basics they’ll need to start finding out.
I chose the Cuisinart set because it was the cheapest stainless-steel set on Amazon that was a) induction-ready and b) from a manufacturer I trust. But if you find a similar set on sale somewhere else, get that. However, I would not buy a set with more than a couple of skillets, a couple of saute pans, and a pasta pot. When your giftee discovers they need a bigger or smaller pan, a fish poacher or a fondue pot, they can buy it out of their earnings, or put it on next year’s Christmas list.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think everyone should have one of these. They’re pretty, of course, but they’re also terribly useful. Stews, casseroles, even baking bread — mine comes out on a regular basis. Lodge doesn’t have the cachet of Le Creuset or Staub, but it also doesn’t have the price, and it makes a fine cast-iron product.
Tupperware is the Secret Shame of virtually every household. I have been known to throw myself in front of the Tupperware cupboard when the mother-in-law gets too close, shouting “How about a game of Pictionary?” The unsightly piles of jumbled containers, the plastic avalanches that result when the door is opened with too much enthusiasm, the lids that … well, gosh, where did those lids get to? Tupperware is a constant reminder that we are all mortal, and this world is a vale of tears.
This set will not solve that problem.
There is no solution to the Tupperware problem. I don’t care how neat the containers look in the advertisement, all nested lovingly together; whoever empties your dishwasher is going to shove them into the cupboard as best they can without carefully renesting the stack. And the containers will retaliate by staging frequent breakouts. (The lids, being thinner, will frequently succeed in slipping their cage.) So there is no point in trying to find a storage set that will keep the Tupperware cupboard in order, because the only thing that can manage that is an armed guard.
What this set does do is seal tightly so that your food will stay fresh longer, and water can’t get in. You can turn these upside down, and the food will stay inside, instead of plopping down on the floor to check out the stain-resisting qualities of your grout. And since it’s reasonably priced, even someone on a modest salary can easily replace them after they lose all the lids.
There are three schools of thought on mixing bowls: metal, glass or plastic. Plastic will scar in your dishwasher. Glass will break, or be taken to someone’s house and forgotten because it’s pretty enough to bring for company. Metal will make horrible sounds when scraped with a metal utensil.
I have all three, but the metal ones are the ones I reach for oftenest, even though I hate that scraping sound. They’re cheap, tend to come in the best variety of sizes, and, for whatever reason, are usually the most conveniently shaped. I ordered a set of these from an Amazon Lightning Deal and have been very pleased with them — the rubber keeps them from skidding on the counter, the lids let me store make-ahead preparations in the fridge (at least until I lose them), and the grater is a little small but still pretty useful for modest amounts of cheese.
Even a basic cook should have more than one mesh strainer. They drain your pasta, yes, but they’re also where you wash little vegetables and fruits, and strain the solids out of your stock. (You are making stock, aren’t you? Of course you are. I’m embarrassed I asked.) If I have to choose between a colander and a strainer, I choose the strainer every time; a strainer will drain your pasta, but a colander is not going to do a darn thing to make your vichyssoise smoother.
A first kitchen is apt to be a small kitchen. But that doesn’t mean the chef won’t want to listen to music, or ask Alexa who was the czar of Russia in 1804. More practically, there are now a variety of cooking apps for Alexa, some of which are actually useful. If you don’t want your child calling you every 10 minutes to find out how to cook roast beef, invest a few dollars in a machine that can answer those questions for you.
My mother is a Luddite, which means that I spent years measuring liquid ingredients in dry measuring cups. I can, I am proud to say, fill a cup measure with water so that only surface tension is keeping it from spilling, then carry it all the way across the kitchen without wetting the floor.
But this is a silly skill, like knowing how to start an automobile with a crank. Buy them liquid as well as dry measures. And while there are fancier liquid measures out there that let you accurately fill them from the top as well as the sides, I still like Pyrex for durability. Teach them to set the cup on the counter and squat until the lines are eye level. It’s not just good practice, but it also ensures that their quadriceps will be in splendid shape when they decide to do a Tough Mudder instead of coming to your anniversary party.
There has not been much innovation in the standardized dry measure since it was popularized in the early 20th century. That means you need look only for three qualities: 1) cheap, 2) metal cups with the numbers etched in so that you don’t have to guess whether this is your third or your half cup after the dishwasher strips the paint off of the plastic and 3) long, narrow bowls on the measuring spoons. Long, narrow bowls are moderately harder to cleanly empty of sticky ingredients like honey or vanilla paste. But they more than make up for this flaw by fitting easily into the mouths of spice jars.
You could just buy them a blender; I have never bought into the notion that pouring hot soup into a blender was such an awful job that you need an implement that can be inserted straight into the pot. But something weird has happened to blenders. My mother’s original blender, from about 1960, was not fancy, but it would chew through steel filings if you decided you wanted to whip up a quick Brillo veloute for supper. Now blenders seem to come in two varieties: obscenely expensive and virtually useless.
So if you’re going to get a starter home something to puree with (and I think every home should have some implement that does this), I’d go with a stick blender. They will not puree as well as a really good blender, but luckily, you bought them mesh strainers to strain out those last stubborn shreds of vegetable matter. These will whip cream, puree soup and even make a serviceable breakfast smoothie, which is all a single person living alone for the first time is likely to need starting out.
In my experience, there is not a vast quality range in immersion blenders (though as with all kitchen electrics, it does not pay to buy the very cheapest brands). I used to look for ones that could be wall-mounted, but apparently everyone but me doesn’t want a wall mount, so now I just look for one from a decent brand. Breville makes good stuff, but so do KitchenAid, Braun and Cuisinart, if you find those brands at an appealing price point.
You can use basically any piece of thick fabric in a pinch (I once coached a recently divorced friend through removing a casserole from his oven using his duvet). But yes, they’re going to want to have potholders. These come in two varieties: cloth, which will burn you when hot liquid slops out of your pot, and silicone, which are a little too stiff. For beginning cooks, choose “stiff” over “Alexa, how do you treat second-degree burns?”
Tablets are an immense boon to cooking. No longer do you have to fuss with recipes scrawled on the backs of envelopes, or prop your laptop on the counter. There’s only one problem, which is that you will spend a great deal of time worrying about getting liquid close to your expensive electronics. Enter the wall mount, which not only lets you read the recipe without fear, but also lets you watch Netflix while you’re standing over the stove.
Victorinox is the go-to recommendation for cheap knives. These are not fancy, but fancy can come later; right now what they need is “serviceable.” This set has what I think are the most necessary sizes: serrated bread knife, 8-inch chef’s knife, 6-inch utility knife, and a paring knife. They may want more knives later, but until they get into making swans out of apples or home butchering, there’s very little they can’t do with these four.
Knife holders are not, strictly speaking, necessary; my grandmother used a drawer for her entire adult life, and she passed away with all of her digits intact. But they’re convenient, and they’ve come to be standard equipment in most kitchens where actual cooks live. This is probably not the knife block they’ll have in 20 years, but it’s a serviceable, modestly priced start on their serviceable, modestly priced kitchen.
It has come to my attention that there are people selling glass cutting boards, which are marvelously easy to keep clean and come in pretty patterns. They are also excellent for dulling the edge of your knives. If you would like to actually use your knives again, however, your cutting boards should be wood. (Plastic boards won’t dull your knives, but they will accumulate many little cuts, which make cozy little homes for bacteria. Wood cutting boards will also accumulate those cuts, but they can be sanded away.)
Bamboo is the go-to for wood cutting boards, not because it’s especially awesome, but because it’s cheap. This is a nice-looking set for not very much money; let them invest in butcher block when they’ve had a couple of promotions.
If you want them to get their security deposit back, they’re going to have to shield their cheap laminate counters from hot pans. Obviously, these are also useful for keeping the veneer from peeling off of their Ikea table, and after they spent 97 hours assembling it, they’re going to want to protect that investment.
OK, so these aren’t rubber. I am still engaged in a fruitless quest for real rubber spatulas like the ones I remember from my childhood, which had marvelous flexible edges to scrape the very last of the cake batter from the bowl. Such things seem to be no more, however, so what you will get them is silicone spatulas, which are not nearly as useful, but still very useful, and I guess won’t burn when they get confused about what sort of spatula they’re supposed to use to flip their steak Diane.
These are almost not necessary in these days of electronics in the kitchen. But I still find mine handy for quickly figuring out exactly how many tablespoons are in 1/3 cup. And they signal to guests that this is the home of someone who occasionally needs to know how many tablespoons go into 1/3 cup.
These lids are marvelous when making jellies, custards or anything else that is likely to boil over. The design of the lid breaks the air bubbles so that they cannot form a matrix that will tower over the top of the pan before crashing to the burner below and leaving a scorched mess on the stovetop. Think of it as a $25 investment in never having to explain how one removes burned scalded milk from a ceramic cooktop.
Everyone needs at least one flat pan for roasting nuts or baking cookies. If you’re only going to have one, make it a jelly roll. You can bake cookies in a jelly roll pan; you cannot bake things that are very wet, or take up the whole pan, on a cookie sheet. And this comes with a cooling rack, which is not only useful in and of itself but can go into the oven (letting air circulate under as well as over something like chicken quarters roasted at high heat).
This is actually two items: the pan and the insert. The pan is, as we all remember from our childhood, useful for brownies or cakes. But with the addition of a $12 piece of silicone, it can also be used as a roasting pan. I wouldn’t try to cook a really huge hunk of prime rib or a turkey on this setup, but for anything short of that, it’s a flexible and inexpensive solution that won’t take up much storage space.
The Hot Beverage Station
An electric kettle is not a necessary piece of equipment. No sort of kettle is a necessary equipment; you will find that if you fill a pot with water, put it on the stove, and turn the burner on, eventually you will have boiled water. (And sometime after that, a pan with a burnt-out bottom. But that’s another story.)
An electric kettle is a useful piece of equipment for anyone who likes tea or pour-over coffee. It’s especially good for folks who can’t use the stove: younger kids, obviously, but we also got one from my grandmother when her eyesight got too bad to use the stove. It really meant a lot to her to be able to make herself a cup of tea whenever she wanted one.
Alas, there is no electric kettle here as good as the ones in the U.K., which heat up water almost before you want it; our electricity voltage won’t support it. But it’s still pretty handy to be able to flip a switch and forget about it until the kettle signals you that it’s ready for business. For a very serious tea or coffee drinker, consider getting this very fancy KitchenAid version, which lets you very precisely control the temperature to get water that is just below boiling.
If you like coffee as more than simply a caffeine-delivery mechanism, you should not be buying pre-ground coffee; you should be grinding the beans every day. You can use a blade grinder, which is cheap and entirely adequate, but which will produce grounds of an inconsistent size and will slightly heat the beans, which true coffee lovers swear changes the flavor. Enter the burr grinder. Ten years ago, these were very expensive specialty items, but now they’ve halved in price. I recommend this model because it’s what I got for our wedding seven years ago, but there are now burr grinders that come from good brands and can be found at prices that are competitive with that of blade grinders.
This is not a cheap coffee machine. It is not a complicated coffee machine. It does not grind the beans. It does not connect to your Wi-Fi network. It does not have a timer. It does not do anything except brew coffee at exactly the perfect temperature, then keep it warm in a thermal carafe so that you don’t have to deal with cold coffee, or coffee that tastes stewed.
I am going to try to convince you that you don’t want a machine that grinds your beans or has a timer. Complicated included accessories are just one more thing to break, something that, alas, coffeemakers seem to do with increasing frequency.
We’ve had our Moccamaster for going on eight years, and it’s still working splendidly, which is a lifetime record in the field of Coffeemakers I Have Owned. Everyone who owns this machine swears by it, and the people who drink coffee at their houses tend to become obsessed with getting their own.
Reading your future in tea leaves sounds fabulously romantic. Actually looking at a cup filled with little bits of sodden vegetable matter, less so. Enter teapots with built-in strainers. If you really like tea, you should drink loose-leaf, which tends to dry out less than tea bags do. And if you want to drink loose-leaf, you should get a pot that will make it easy. I like this Bodum because it’s lovely, but also because it has a metal strainer that’s easy to wash in the dishwasher.
I was asked for a French press recommendation on Twitter. For coffee and tea, my go-to is Bodum, and I particularly like this model because it’s a thermal carafe, so you can make multiple cups without having to chug the final third before it gets cold. If you travel around a lot, you can also think about investing in a travel French press, which will let you have high-quality coffee without having to find a coffee shop and pay them half your salary for the privilege.
The Chemex is a manual drip coffeemaker. If your giftee is trying to live a greener lifestyle, doesn’t have space on their counter for a coffeemaker, or just wants to be able to make an occasional cup of coffee without the stronger, rawer flavor of a French press, invest in one of these.
These don’t work quite as well as the steam injectors on espresso machines. But some people aren’t overly concerned with getting perfectly authentic espresso flavor and ideal foam; they’d just like a milky, foamy beverage with some coffee in it. You can make a very tasty coffee beverage with one of these and a pot of strong coffee, and unlike the little frothing wands, you don’t have to fuss with heating up the milk before you aerate it.
For the Baker
Every year, as I sit down to write this guide, I ask myself, “Should I still be recommending the KitchenAid? Aren’t there other mixers on the market that might be better?” And every year, I conclude that yes, the KitchenAid is still probably the best mixer to buy that special someone on your list.
Mind you, I came very close to striking them in favor of a competitor after it was acquired and some bright Johnny in finance decided the company should switch to plastic gears rather than metal in order to save money. The plastic gears broke, and breadmakers abandoned the brand.
Fortunately, KitchenAid realized the error of its ways and has returned to its old construction standards. Meanwhile, there are a lot of reasons to recommend its mixers. They are vastly better than the cheaper mixers on the market -- so much so that in my humble opinion, if you can’t afford something in the KitchenAid price range, you’d be better off buying a hand mixer and plopping pennies into your Someday Fund for a decent stand mixer. And in comparison to its competitors, it has one unshakeable advantage: network effects.
The KitchenAid is the iconic mixer for the American kitchen. A lot of people want that status symbol on their countertop. (I think appliances-as-status-symbols are silly, but they do want it, and they will be pleased if you give it to them.) Perhaps more important, because it’s so iconic, and because so many people buy them, there are loads of attachments available that can expand the machine’s uses far beyond baked goods. Grain mills and meat grinders, pasta makers and ice cream bowls — the flexibility of the machine is immense, and immensely valuable. So if you’re getting someone a mixer, unless they’ve specifically asked for something else, buy KitchenAid.
As always, I recommend the 6-quart model as the most versatile (the 5-quart model, which I have had for 25 years, is just a leetle too small for some of my bigger recipes, and the 7-quart is too big unless you’ve got a huge family). Stick with the bowl-lift models, which will take a little getting used to if you’re upgrading from the old Sunbeam but allows for a much more powerful motor.
Do you need a cake turntable to frost a cake? No. But if you frost a lot of cakes, you probably want one; it is much easier and faster to lay a smooth and even coat of frosting onto the sides if you can continuously spin the cake. This turntable is nice-looking enough to serve the cake on, and it comes with an icing spatula and cake comb, both of which you will need if you’re interested in turning out professional-looking cakes.
Silicone baking mats have changed my life. Which is to say, I actually ran out of parchment paper a year ago and didn’t bother to replace it until this Thanksgiving, when I needed it for a slightly weird slow-cooker potato recipe.
Baking mats let you bake without greasing your pan. They are life-changing if you want to make candy, since melted sugar’s stickiness sometimes defies even a thick layer of butter. Or very delicate baked goods that don’t like to have fat around them, like meringues.
Their usefulness has been widely recognized; once a specialty item, they are now ubiquitous, and frequently quite cheap. But if your baker doesn’t have any, invest in a couple. They’ll thank you.
This is a different kind of silicone mat, which you should not put in your oven; it’s just for rolling out pastry. Because things don’t stick to it, you don’t have to use so much flour to keep the pastry intact, which in turn means you don’t risk ending up with dry, overfloured pastry. These mats also have handy markings for the beginning pastry maker who may wonder just how big they should cut a crust to fit in their 10-inch pan. And like the baking mats, they store anywhere — flat under your pie pans, or rolled up in a drawer somewhere.
I love these bowls. They are not very good mixing bowls for, say, a cake, because their shape is not ideal for heavy beating. But they are fantastic prep bowls, because of the pour spout. The spout hooks onto your mixer bowl so that you can get every last drop out — and the bowls have a built-in pour shield so that you don’t splatter. Its cunning shape will also allow you to crack a mess of eggs and then dispense them one at a time. Or dispense pancakes onto the griddle without mess. And there are measuring lines inside the bowls for your wet ingredients.
I almost never bake without hauling these out, and they’re also, of course, excellent for sauces and salad dressings.
I mentioned these above, but for those who already have measuring sets — throw out your round-bowled spoons and get some measures that fit into your spice jars. They’re so cheap that they’ll pay for themselves, in terms of spices you didn’t spill on the counter, within a week or so.
For the Carnivore
Periodically, I’m asked “What one device, uncommon now, do you think everyone will have in their kitchen in 20 years?” This is always my nominee. Sous-vide, as the technique is called, involves sealing food in a plastic bag and immersing it in a water bath kept to a precise temperature. The result is food that literally cannot be overcooked. And it is the killer app for meat: Medium-rare steak, every time, with all the meat exactly the same temperature. Three-day short ribs. Melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork. The fact that the meat never gets above the desired temperature means that you can do long cooks impossible in a conventional oven without turning the meat into a dried husk or inedible goo.
The great news is that sous-vide is getting cheap; immersion circulators are now down to the $100 range, which means every carnivore should have one.
If you’re going to make beautifully medium-rare steaks, you’ll want some nice steaks to start with. That’s where home dry-aging comes in. Are you going to produce the same caliber of steak you can get at a really good steakhouse? No, because they start with better meat. But you can get 90 percent of the way there with very little effort; just seal the meat in the bags, pop in the refrigerator, and wait. Extraordinary results at a modest price.
There’s one problem with sous-vide: The meat will come out gray and soft on the outside. Luckily, there’s an easy solution: Sear on very high heat before serving.
You can buy a torch that will do this. But then, you also could just set your house on fire and push the meat up against the flaming walls, and then you wouldn’t be out $50 for the torch. I use a large, inexpensive cast-iron skillet, which will hold a lot of heat, meaning you only have to do a minute or so on each side, leaving the insides beautifully rare while the outside develops a nice char.
Cast iron is, it must be admitted, a little tricky to care for — forget the dishwasher, you can’t even use soap to clean it, and it must be painstakingly dried before putting it away unless you like rusty food. But the results are worth it.
You are going to be tempted to get them one of those fancy thermometers with a long probe that stays in the oven while you close the door and read it from the outside. And if you find one that doesn’t break after two uses, or tell you that your meat is still underdone while the smoke is pouring off of its charred remnants, then please do write me. Until then, I will suggest you get a digital pen thermometer, which gives accurate readings in seconds, at little loss of convenience or oven heat.
If you’re really serious about meat, you’ll probably want a really serious roasting pan for those succulent prime ribs and all-day pork roasts. This is the pan I have, and I love it: heavy construction, a solid roasting rack, and it goes beautifully from stovetop to oven and back again. This is on the pricey side, as roasting pans go, but with a minimum of care, it should last a lifetime.
If you’re going to be roasting, then at some point, you’re probably going to be making gravy. And if you’re going to be making gravy, you should get a fat separator, which makes the process of separating the excess fat from your drippings fast and easy. Because fat rises, and the pour spout intake is set at the very bottom, all you have to do is pour the drippings into this cup, wait a few minutes for the fat to float to the top, and then pour into your saucepan, stopping just before you reach the fat layer. It also, of course, doubles as a 4-cup measure.
And once you’ve pulled your roast from the oven and set the delicious gravy next to it, you’re going to need to separate it from the bone. You can do this with a regular fork and any old knife from your kitchen. But a carving set looks nice on special occasions, and the large, two-tined fork really does help, while the knife will work marginally better than the chef’s knife that you pulled out of your knife block.
Once you’ve gotten into meat in a serious way, you’re apt to come across recipes that call for boning, spatchcocking or otherwise separating bone from raw flesh. That’s when you’re going to want a boning knife. I like Shun knives, though there are obviously many other fine manufacturers of high-end cutlery; the edge and the balance suit me, and they have proven durable over years of use.
I’m going to be honest: I do not own a cleaver. Sometimes I think about buying a cleaver, and then I think “But I like having 10 fingers.” However, many people are less chicken than me, and they swear by them. And I have to admit, if you really want to get through a tough job fast, they are handy. So I include it for completeness.
Do not buy a meat-tenderizing hammer. Need to flatten chicken for paillard, or veal for scaloppine? A large can will work just as well. On the other hand, sometimes you want to cook cheap cuts as if they were expensive cuts. That’s where the meat tenderizer comes in; it makes little cuts in long, tough muscle fibers so that they won’t be so chewy.
Another downside of sous-vide is that you lose that smoky charcoal flavor so many of us love. Enter the smoking gun, which can be used to impart a smoky tang to meat and even to cocktails.
The silicone basting brush is not a sexy piece of equipment. But it is an awfully useful piece of equipment — at least if you get the right one. Many, many silicone basting brushes are not the right one. They are easy to clean (unlike the old-fashioned textile variety), but unfortunately, their nonstick properties mean that the basting liquid slides right off, and you find you’re giving your pork shoulder a nice dry brushing.
Oxo, however, has solved that problem. Don’t ask me how; magic, I expect. But it works. And you don’t argue with magic when it works.
On Twitter, I was asked for “one nice … [knife/frying pan/blender] for someone who already has the basics, but is looking to upgrade.” The categories were somewhat broad, but here’s what I came up with as the most obvious upgrade candidates.
I used to recommend the Shun Ken Onion chef’s knife, but it seems that Shun and Ken Onion have parted ways, and I had to decide where my loyalties lie. I chose Shun. I have many of these knives, and they’ve all given me terrific service.
In choosing your chef’s knife, you have to decide on length. Six inches is, for me, too short, so it’s between 8-inch and 10-inch. A 10-inch will give you more power; an 8-inch, more control. On balance, I need control more often than I need power. But there are cooks who feel differently, and you might want to ask before buying them an investment knife.
My criteria for a good upgrade pan: stainless steel, for searing and easy cleanup. Induction-ready, just in case. Heavy construction. Bigger than 10 inches, because who knows when you’ll have eight people coming over for scampi?
Enter the All-Clad 11-inch skillet. I’m sure there’s some argument for a domed lid other than “it looks pretty,” but frankly: It’s a lid. If it is completely covering your pan, it is doing its job. Mostly you should be looking for good construction, with riveted handles and a solid amount of high-quality steel.
Once you have that first entry-level enameled Dutch oven, what’s the next obvious step? An oval, for bigger roasts. Staub makes lovely stuff that lasts and lasts, and I have come to prefer it to Le Creuset, not because the cooking is inferior (it isn’t) but because I now use my Dutch ovens to bake bread as well as braise meat, and Le Creuset’s handles won’t take the high temperatures required for bread baking. This is pretty and functional, and if my mother’s Staub is any guide, you should be able to pass it on to the grandkids.
This is a little, curved paring knife that I love, because it gives you terrific control. There’s not much else to say about it; it makes a lot of kitchen tasks easier, because you’re not slicing huge hunks out of your apples as you try to control a blade tip that’s four inches from your thumb.
Breville has achieved basically undisputed dominance in the toaster oven category; any time you see a “best of” list, you’re apt to see a Breville Smart Oven on it. I have the original Smart Oven, which now corresponds to the Smart Oven Pro. But if you really want to splurge, Breville now offers the Smart Oven Air, which adds functionalities like bread proofing, slow cooking and dehydrating. I use my oven to proof bread and my pressure cooker or Crock-Pot to slow cook, so I probably wouldn’t spend the extra money. But if you’d like to do those things, the ability to get all of them in one appliance is appealing.
If you’re planning to upgrade your blender to something really special, you’re probably planning to get a Vitamix. It really is just as good as the ads promise. (I don’t have one, but I make regular use of my mother’s when visiting her kitchen.) It will puree practically anything into a smooth liquid, and you really can whip cream, make hot soup (from blade friction) or make nut butter with it. The quality and reliability are both very high, which is why it has such a devoted – nay, obsessive -- fan base.
If you want to make serious stock — the kind you roast bones for and then freeze against the winter months — it helps to have a really serious stockpot. My mother, upon whom I lazily depend for homemade stock, has a wonderful old copper stockpot she bought in the 1960s. I priced wonderful copper stockpots, and the new ones seem to cost about $700. Copper is wonderful, but for most of us, not that wonderful. The most important thing is reasonably good construction that can let simmer the day away with minimal intervention.
Let’s be honest: This is not going to make you a better cook. It’s just going to make your kitchen prettier. But what’s wrong with a beautiful kitchen? If you want to get someone something really special for their counter, this would be my choice. They also make cheese boards for serving, which make a lovely, smaller gift.
For the Reader
I read cookbooks the way many people read detective novels. Many of them are things I have no intention of ever cooking out of, like Pierre Herme’s beautiful book on macarons, which would be a lovely gift for anyone who wants to spend three days making macarons. Others I open once in a blue moon. We have so many cookbooks that they have completely overflowed a three-tiered shelf, forcing us to find additional space along the only open wall left in the house: the powder room. (Rest assured, future guests: Those are not the books I cook with.)
So cookbooks could be their own post – indeed, their own book. But these are the books I find myself cooking from week in and week out.
Yotam Ottolenghi, “Jerusalem”
Ottolenghi has a lot of books, and they’re all pretty good, particularly for vegetarians, who will find a lot of delicious options in their pages. But “Jerusalem” is my favorite. The subject is the cuisine of that city, both Jewish and Palestinian, with a soupcon of influence from other cuisines. The flavors are just fantastic, and so is the variety of different kinds of foods in a relatively slim volume.
“Thomas Keller, “Ad Hoc at Home”
There’s no getting around it: Thomas Keller is fussy. His recipe for Swiss chard requires you to slice the leaves off the stems, parboil the stems, cook the leaves in two different pans, and did I mention that you were supposed to spend hours steeping golden raisins in wine before you even started on the vegetation? His recipe for fried chicken takes days.
But they are days well spent. These recipes are fantastic; Keller has even converted my chard-suspicious husband to an active fan. And the food itself is not overfussy; it’s often very basic things that are simply prepared perfectly.
This is not a “five-ingredient slow cooker” sort of book. It’s Cook’s Illustrated’s first stab at the slow-cooker market, and its methods reflect their vision: Often there are a lot of steps, and a lot of ingredients, aimed at foolproofing and perfecting basic American cuisine.
But as with all of their books, those steps are easy to follow; you do not need a degree from culinary school to make their dishes work, just a willingness to read carefully and do exactly what they say. And the results are much better than the bland mush or MSG-addled glop that so often comes out of slow cookers. Many recipes from this book are in our regular rotation (particularly the turkey chili, which my husband can’t get enough of). And all of them are really good.
I am not kidding when I say this: This book is worth it for the banana bread recipe alone. There are a lot of other great recipes, but their methodical, somewhat demanding banana bread is the platonic ideal of what a banana bread should be. And that describes a lot of recipes in this book: It’s not fancy, just perfect, and almost impossible to screw up if you follow the exhaustive directions. This is a great omnibus for someone who’s just starting their cookbook library.
Kenji Lopez-Alt, “The Food Lab”
Lopez-Alt is an alum of America’s Test Kitchen (the folks behind Cook’s Illustrated), and his methods resemble theirs in a lot of ways: extremely, obsessively methodical. But his focus is different, a little more urban sophisticate, a little less obstreperously middlebrow. But if what you like is fried chicken and pizza and a really good steak, this book is still for you. He’s excellent at explaining theory and method for those beloved classics, not to mention the secret to a perfect French fry, while also offering some edgier creations.
This is the opposite of a fancy cookbook. It’s basic American cuisine from the exact middle of the century, and some of its ideas about, say, Italian food are apt to raise eyebrows. And yet, I use this book all the time. For home comforts like macaroni and cheese, it’s excellent, and for basic, classic American baking, it can’t be beat. All of my favorite layer cakes come out of this book, and they’re still splendid after 70 years; its recipe for delicate fluffy pancakes has turned me into something of a legend on the local brunch circuit. Plus you can chuckle at the anachronistic “tips for homemakers” and horrible-looking canapes.
Marcella Hazan, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”
Hazan led the introduction of authentic Italian food to non-Italian-American tables, and for my money, she’s still the queen of the genre. Her recipes are simply wonderful, as is her writing about those recipes. I have had other Italian cookbooks, but they are in the powder room, and Marcella is still on my table.
Jacques Pepin, “Fast Food My Way”
This is a great recipe for a beginning cook, or one with more taste than time to cook. These are fast, flavorful things that can be thrown on your table with minimal time and effort — but unlike the image that conjures, these recipes are actually delicious. This book can’t be beat for quick weeknight dinners or lazy weekend meals when the sun is shining and you can’t bear to shut yourself in the kitchen for too long.
Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”
This is not so much a cookbook as a book about cooking: how food works, and why. If you’re really interested in cooking, this book should be in your library; there is no other “science of food” book that is so exhaustive at such a reasonable price, and it is a pleasure to read.
Julia Child, “The Way to Cook”
A lot of people have “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” on their shelves — unopened, still in the original plastic wrapper. This book, now out of print but available used, is a more accessible Julia. But still excellent Julia, with plenty of “why should I do this?” and loads of charm.
Mark Bittman, “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”
Having spent some time as a vegan, I have a lot of vegetarian cookbooks. But this is my favorite for sheer breadth. I don’t know that it is possible to find every single thing a vegetarian might ever want to eat in this book, but it doesn’t miss much. And while some of Bittman’s food is a bit plain for me, everything I’ve cooked from this book has ranged from tasty to excellent.
The problem with cookbooks is that after a while you can’t use them because the pages are gummed together with last year’s pot-au-feu and the fruitcake of Christmases past. Enter the cookbook stand with an acrylic cover that both holds the page open and protects the cookbooks from splatters. This one is adjustable, which means it will hold even a really big book (or two or three regular books nested). And since I’ve had it for years, and use it all the time, I can vouch for its durability.
For The Busy Chef
You know who they are. They love cooking. They want to do more of it. But work is busy and the kids have soccer and they’ve got 12 people coming over for dinner on Sunday …
These are my biggest time-savers, the things that allow me to cook out of my weight class, so to speak — to cram more good dishes into a tight schedule with no hired help.
Every month or so these days, someone writes me to ask “Should I get an Instant Pot?” And I answer “Have I taught you nothing, lo these many years I have been writing about the Instant Pot?”
Yes, you should get an Instant Pot if you like stew and soup. There are other things you can do with it, like cooking vegetables (they’ll come out on the soft side, but not mushy) or making cheesecakes. But mostly, I use it for soup. It is my opinion that the Instant Pot (or its pricier cousin, the Breville Fast Slow Pro) delivers a superior broth to ordinary braises, and a much superior product to slow cooking.
I should be clear: I don’t use this to make things with canned soup, or those “five-ingredient meals” people rave about in Facebook groups. If you want good food, you’re still going to have to take good, fresh ingredients and brown them before you braise, which means that no, you generally cannot have a delicious supper on the table in 20 minutes. A pressure cooker will shave 40 to 60 percent off your braising time; it will allow you to do everything in one pot so that you don’t have to scrub multiple pots; it will substitute for a slow cooker in the few applications (some poultry, delicate custards like crème brulee) where a slow cooker is superior. And it will pack a lot of flavor into your food, because subtle flavors often get lost in long cooking times. But it is not going to make it possible to have an excellent meal in minutes.
How to choose between the Instant Pot and the Breville? They’re both very good machines. The Breville has more flexibility and more automated cooking settings, and it’s a little nicer-looking. The Instant Pot is cheaper. Either will do what it is supposed to, which is make good food fast(er).
Once you’ve got a pressure cooker, you’re sure to want to steam things. You can buy all sorts of accessories for steaming, but I think a simple, flexible silicone steamer is the most useful. It’s cheap, easy to store, and easy to pull out of the pot with the vegetables still intact.
I am including this only for completeness; I do not like cheesecake, and I have never made one in my pressure cooker. Judging from the Facebook group to which I belong, however, many of you love cheesecake and the first thing you want to do with your new Instant Pot is to make about 18 different varieties. To do that, you’re going to need a springform pan that will fit inside your pressure cooker. As for the recipes — join an Instant Pot Facebook group. You’ll have recipes. Trust me.
You may also want to cook other things in your pressure cooker, making it into a sort of oven. To do that, you need pans, and Fat Daddio, which makes very good pans, has put together a set of them, all designed to fit inside an Instant Pot. (Which means it will also fit into a Breville.) A nice gift for someone who already has an Instant Pot but wants to expand their repertoire.
Mandolines are, let us be frank, a little scary. You can easily slice bits off of yourself if you’re not religious about using the included hand guard. However. These things really do speed up the process of producing large amounts of sliced vegetables — zucchini and potatoes especially. For someone who cooks with vegetables a lot, this can be a huge time-saver. And as a bonus, it makes all the slices exactly the same size, which aids in even cooking.
The Griddler is a combination contact grill and electric griddle, which can open flat or be used as a panini press. I’ve had mine for 10 or 15 years, and it’s still going strong with regular use.
The contact grill has gone out of style, and frankly, good riddance to half-steamed steaks. But it still has uses for things like grilled cheese sandwiches. And electric griddles, with their precise temperature control, should never go out of style; I won’t cook pancakes on anything else.
Best of all, this can be brought to the table so you can cook right there. Why is this great, you ask? Well, say you have six people for brunch. You can make all the pancakes ahead, and keep them warm in the oven, and then sit down, at which point you have been waiting for 30 hungry minutes and the pancakes are only kinda OK. Or you can get the grill warm, bring the batter to the table, and deliver the pancakes to plates as soon as they’re finished. It enables you to get food in mouths faster, while warmly chatting rather than standing around in the kitchen and shouting “Just a few more minutes.”
I got one of these about five years ago, and even I myself was sort of aghast at the price. But I have never regretted it. It’s a very good blender … combined with a scale … combined with a heating element. You can measure directly into the bowl, chop your vegetables, then cook it, still all in one bowl. It minimizes mess, it enables precise cooking … but most important, it stirs and cooks at the same time while you do something else.
Why does this matter? Mostly for custards. Because the Thermomix is stirring as things cook, you get perfect custards every single time: Just toss the ingredients in the bowl, walk away, and come back in 10 minutes to flawless lemon curd, excellent hollandaise or creamy béchamel. It’s also brilliant for pureed soups, risottos and similar fare. It makes choux pastry a snap, and there’s nothing better for making deep-caramelized onions, which will take you about a minute and a half of prep rather than an hour at the stove.
Do you need this device? No. If you’re enough of a food maven to want to make hollandaise, you’re enough of a food maven to learn how to make it in a double boiler. But this lowers the active time of these tasks dramatically, which means you can do them more often. For someone who’s serious about food, and seriously time-challenged, this is the ultimate gift.
For the Person Who Has Everything
And what about the chef whose kitchen is filled with magnificent equipment and wonderful smells? What do you get them? Here are a few suggestions for the person who seems to have everything.
Even the best commercial ice cream doesn’t, in my opinion, compare with the flavor of a homemade custard pulled fresh out of a good home freezer. Sadly, commercial ice cream preserves better (they use really cold freezers that chill the ice cream solid too fast for large ice crystals to form, which is why it’s impossible to replicate the texture of a pint of Haagen-Dazs at home). If you, too, love homemade ice cream, then you may want to invest in a good compressor machine.
The compression means it is both bulkier and much more expensive than the kind where you freeze the bowl and then stick it in the machine. But it also works better; the freezer-bowl models tend to lose their coldness toward the end of the process. And if you are, say, making ice cream for a dinner party, you can start the ice cream freezing just before you sit down, confident that the machine will keep it cold if your husband goes back for a third serving of beef bourguignon before he’ll let you clear the plates.
I was specifically asked about electric pasta makers, so here goes. I have a Lello pasta maker, which is an extruder: The dough is mixed in the machine, then squeezed out through a die. It produces very good results. But it is expensive. And I have to admit, you will get somewhat better texture with somewhat more work if you buy an old-fashioned roller machine with a motor attached. You will have to mix your dough by hand and then repeatedly feed it through the rollers, however.
Breville PolyScience Control Freak induction burner
This is the best induction burner on the market. It is insanely expensive. But it’s also insanely great. It’s extremely powerful, and it has a temperature probe that lets you control temperatures exactly. Its best application is deep frying, in my opinion, at which it is superb. But a close second is candy making. And it can also be used for slow-cooking or sous-vide. This is probably out of the reach of most households, but if you have a lot of cash to burn and want to step your cooking up to professional level, this is a terrific machine.
This is the opposite of the Control Freak: humble, inexpensive, utilitarian. But I know I’m not the only cook with a Lid Problem, which is to say, where do you put them after you hang your pots on a rack? I had a lid rack for a while, but it was not very good; the lids didn’t always fit into it right, and eventually I had too many lids and had to get another rack. Then I had an epiphany: I am almost never using a lid on more than one pan. I didn’t need a way to store all my lids; I needed one lid that would fit all my pots. On that day, I bought a universal lid, and I had many joyful years of cooking with it.
This year, however, I discovered something new: silicone suction lids. They take up almost no space, unlike my metal lids, so you can throw them anywhere. They also go into the fridge. Humble they may be, but they stand proud in the annals of kitchen innovations.
Every year I suggest a Microplane zester. I use zest in everything; I have come up with new recipes just to use up lemon juice so that I could zest with a clean conscience. This removes just the tasty zest and leaves the bitter white skin underneath, and once you have one, you will wonder how you lived without it. It also makes chocolate shavings to top mousse, or fluffy clouds of Parmesan for salads. Hands down one of the most useful tools that too few people know about.
I was somewhat bemused when my husband bought these to replace a pair of defunct tongs (farewell, McSuderman Kitchen Tongs, 2007-2016. RIP). Then I realized that it was actually kind of handy to have a pair of tongs that could be rested on the counter without smearing cooking goo all over my butcher block.
And what do you need tongs for? Everything. Turning hunks of meat. Pulling a piece of pasta out of the water to test whether it’s done. Tossing salad. Plucking hot popovers out of their pan. Pretending you are a crab and chasing young guests around the kitchen. Like I said, everything.
Don’t think of this as just a pasta strainer, though that is how these things are usually pictured. Think of it as a way to solve that age-old problem: How do I get the liquid out of the pan without losing all the other stuff to my garbage disposal? Excess grease from ground meat … the boiling water for your mashed potatoes … wherever there are solids that need to be separated from the liquids they have been cooking in, this thing comes in handy. And since they’re relatively new, I almost guarantee your recipient don’t have one.
I like salt. It is not true, as a friend once averred, that I had installed a salt lick in my bedroom. But I can understand why some people believed it.
Which used to mean constantly going to the cupboard, pulling out the pour spout, adding a half teaspoon of salt to something, cooking for a while, realizing that it still didn’t have enough salt, and then going back to the cupboard …
This won’t do. We salt most things we eat. Which means you want an open container of salt right next to the stove. Which means grease gets into the salt … so you get an angled container that somewhat protects the salt, while still giving you easy access.
These are attractive, don’t take up much space, and hold a lot of salt. What else could anyone want?
The double boiler is rather out of fashion these days, many of its old jobs taken over by the microwave or the takeout menu. And yet it is still a useful and pretty piece of equipment. You can, for example, make absolutely divine scrambled eggs cooked slowly over the course of half an hour or so. Or, of course, you can melt chocolate or make delicate sauces, the tasks for which the double boiler is most usually applied. Since the heat against the pan with the food in it comes from the boiling water beneath, the pan never gets above the 212 degrees at which water boils, allowing you to ensure that you don’t destroy a preparation that can’t stand high heat.
There are much less expensive double boilers on the market, but this one has a ceramic insert, so you don’t get hot spots around the edges where the double-boiler part comes into contact with the metal pan beneath it. It also gives a nice, old-fashioned look to your kitchen when you’re using it.
For the Bartender
A good cocktail is a precisely measured cocktail. Oxo's two-sided jigger offers a no-slip grip plus 1- and 1.5-ounce portions, with increments -- including a rare 1/3-ounce measurement -- clearly labeled on the inside. It is as close to a universal jigger as you are likely to find.
For shaken cocktails -- which, generally speaking, are cocktails involving some sort of juice -- you want a device that will seal easily and keep a drink as cold as possible but not freeze shut after vigorous shaking with ice. A three-piece cobbler shaker looks pretty, provides a good seal and chills well, but it can be difficult to open after a 15- or 20-second shake. A classic Boston shaker with a pint glass is easy to use, but it doesn't always seal perfectly, and it won't keep a drink chilled quite as well as an all-metal shaker. That's why pros tend to use weighted metal shakers with 18- and 28-ounce tins. They seal easily (with a firm pound), chill well, and are easy to separate with a palm tap to the side.
“Shaken, not stirred” sounds very sophisticated. But in fact what James Bond is ordering is a weak martini -- or, as a friend once put it, “a glass of cold water with a spritz of spirits.” Cocktails that are mostly spirits should generally be stirred, not shaken, to minimize the melting of the ice. So every home bartender needs a good mixing glass and a good bar spoon to use in it.
As you may have gathered from the above, getting drinks cold without diluting them is the bane of the cocktail enthusiast. Larger ice cubes help with this task, because they take longer to melt. A single large ice cube is generally preferable to a half-dozen smaller ones, which will shortly make your cocktail taste more of tap water than anything else.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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.”
For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.
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