Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Kitchen Edition

I am pleased and gratified at the number of people who are not-so-subtly chivvying me to get this up early so they can get a jump on their shopping.  Well, here it is:  the old favorites, the new loves.  As always, commenters are encouraged to contribute their own suggestions, or to review past nominations.  They are also invited to comment on the fact that I am a gadget freak . . . okay, well, not exactly invited, but you're going to do it anyway, so I might as well acknowledge the inevitable.  


This year, as last, I've organized it by price. Happy hunting!

Stocking Stuffers:  Under $25

Microplane lemon zester  Okay, so every year, I lead off with this.  Well, you know what?  Every year I find out that someone I know and love--and know to love food--does not own one.  Clearly, I am not shouting loud enough.  

This is the cheapest piece of kitchen equipment that will ever immeasurably improve your life.  No more grating your knuckles into the lemon zest with your old box grater!  It's faster and easier than the old style grater.  It's also great for producing beautiful little clouds of parmesan to top your pasta or salad, and chocolate shavings on top of cupcakes, a cake, or the whipped cream on your hot chocolate.  I haven't used a box grater in years, and every time I meditate upon that fact, I smile.

Figural chicken measuring spoon set  So let's be frank: you're not going to buy this gift for your boyfriend, the arc welder, unless your man is unusually comfortable with his feminine side.  It's a gift for a woman.  Probably one who is not entirely averse to the possibility that a "Country Kitchen" vibe will accidentally creep up on her cooking space.

How did this fine bit of kitsch earn its place on the gift guide?  Because I was sick of trying to find my damn measuring spoons when I needed them.  Yes, yes, I have the ones on the steel rings. They get jammed in a drawer, kicked under the counter, etc.  When I want a measuring spoon, I frequently want it RIGHT NOW, before the hollandaise congeals to an eggy disaster.

So when I saw this, I figured it was worth risking $15.  It's cute, to be sure.  But the main advantage is that the spoons are well separated, each with its own slot.  After I use one, I brush it off or wipe it out and return it to its slot immediately.  The result is that I can always put my hands on the measuring spoon I want without hunting under the cookbooks or flipping through a ring of spoons that are 50% covered in schmutz.

It's not for everyone.  But I speak from the heart when I say that the people who it is for, will really, really love it.

Tongs:  There are two kinds of cooks--those who love tongs, and those who hate them.  I'm no hater.  They're a great multitasker--for informal serving, they do salads, pasta, and tricky vegetables like asparagus.  They're also pretty good stirrers, and I find them invaluable for sauteing, though some people, including our food writer, Corby Kummer, do complain that this can rip the breading off your cutlet if you're not careful.  (I've never had this problem).  Love them for reaching into the toaster oven for hot pans, and holding onto my chicken while I'm carving.

They are, to be sure, not a sexy gift.  But they're ever-so-useful.

Kitchen Twine Dispenser:  Very attentive readers will notice a certain chicken theme emerging in this gift guide, and indeed, in my kitchen.  This has not been entirely intentional (and people who know me are begged not to conclude "she's collecting chickens!" so that they can inundate me with chicken-themed merchandise every holiday season).  The basic features you want in a twine dispenser are 1) that it is heavy enough to stay put when you are tugging on the twine and 2) that it has an integrated cutting edge so that you do not have to go hunting for your scissors or (horrors!) use one of your nice kitchen knives to cut your twine.  A nice heavy twine dispenser with its own cutting edge can be operated one handed, imperative when your other hand is occupied in wrestling with your chicken or untrimmed pot roast.

Obviously, if you are not the sort of person who trusses poultry . . . if you get all of your roasts already neatly tied up from the butcher, and never do get around to assembling a bouquet garni bag out of cheesecloth before they start the soup . . . then you do not need a kitchen twine dispenser, because you do not need kitchen twine.

However, if you, or a cook you love, can regularly be found balancing a ratty ball of old twine in one hand, and their cornish game hens in the other, while they try to operate the scissors with their teeth, then this makes a lovely addition to any kitchen.  For those who do not want wall-to-wall chickens--or perhaps, any chickens at all--in their kitchen, this is the wooden, and very slightly more expensive, version.

Salt Pig  Much to the exasperation of my husband, I like everything right out on the counter where I can get at it . . . but with salt, this is vital.  It goes in almost everything you cook, and who wants to waste time hunting for the canister, or fiddling with that little pour spout?  (Plus, I have never yet managed to pour salt out the spout without messing up my counter, or wasting salt).  

Your salt pig has a nice wide opening that lets you scoop and shake in one easy motion--but it is small enough to fit comfortably on your counter.  The shape is supposed to prevent moisture from getting to your salt, a claim that triggered much scorn from commenters last year when I advanced it.  I will content myself with noting that my salt has not so far clumped.

Fish Spatula  I am not sure how this came into my kitchen.  Mind you, I don't think I won it gambling one lost night in Macao, or anything; I'm sure that at some point, one of us decided to purchase it.  I just can't remember doing so.  One day, it was just there.  I didn't touch it for six months.

Then I realized how very, very useful this thing was.  Not for turning cooked fish, which I don't really eat.  But for all those large and unwieldy items you want to move.  Excellent for getting a hot chicken onto a plate, fishing your falling-apart pot roast out of the braising liquid, easing your personal pizza off the pizza stone, or moving that free-form tarte tatin onto a platter.

Butter Boat I actually have two of these, white for unsalted, green for salted.  Basically, they use evaporative cooling to keep your butter at room temperature without going rancid. You change the water in the bottom every 3-5 days, and as long as you do that, the butter stays fresh.  Much easier than ripping holes in your toast.

I've tried to use the "butter bells" where you pack the butter into the lid and then it hangs upside down above a pool of water.  What I usually end up with is a lump of wet butter that has fallen out of the lid.  These are much better.

Bamboo Lid Rack  Space is somewhat limited in our kitchen, and given my proclivities, we have a lot of lids.  This finally solved our problem (we bought two).  They sit on an open shelf where I can see all my lids and grab the one I want with minimal fuss.

Kyocera Ceramic Slicer  The downside of these is that they don't last all that long--I'd estimate we replace ours every couple of years.  The upside is that--unlike a mandoline--it's small and handy.  You can adjust the size of the slice from paper-thin garnish to canape-ready, and it has a nice hole in the handle so you can hang it on the wall.  Especially great for young cooks who are just starting out and don't have a food processor that slices.

Wok Skimmer  I've had a lot of slotted spoons and skimmers over the years, but this is by far my favorite.  It's somewhat misnamed, because it's not very good at skimming stock--but then, just strain the stuff.  What it is very good at is fishing things out of liquid, something that you are bound to find yourself doing quite a lot if you intend on cooking in any serious way

Kuhn Rikon Egg Separating Set Kuhn Rikon is rapidly creeping up on Oxo in the American market for well-thought-out kitchen utensils.  Not all of their thoughts work so well, but when they hit, they're really good.

Separating eggs by hand is not hard, but it's tedious, and there's a small risk you'll break the yolk.  Egg separators make the process faster, easier, and a bit cleaner.  In the past, I've bought ones like this that rest on a glass, but I spied the Kuhn Rikon set at Williams Sonoma and decided to give it a try.

It comes with two cups--one to crack the egg into, and the other one to hold whites of eggs you've already cracked.  (You should always crack eggs into a separate glass, because even the best of us occasionally break a yolk during the cracking--and if you contaminate the whites with even a teeny bit of yolk, they will never whip up, but remain liquid.)  Each cup has a flat side, onto which the separator clips.  It flips up, so you can separate your egg, flip the yolk out into a bowl, and pour the whites into a waiting receptacle.  This sounds much less convenient than it actually is. 

It's slightly pricier than a traditional egg separator, but still safely in "stocking stuffer" territory.

Chef's Sleeve for iPad  The Epicurious app for iPad is fantastic--they really have built a better cookbook.  Unfortunately, using it puts the iPad at serious risk.  Enter the Chef's sleeves, which not only protect your screen with a disposable plastic bag, but also come in a dispenser that doubles as an iPad stand.  Two (greasy) thumbs up.

Silicone Oven Mitts  Recommend 'em every year because you know what?  They're still awesome.  They are not good for everything, but they will let you plunge your hand into boiling water or safely lift out that oven rack that you forgot to remove.  Especially good for grilling.

Swivel Store Spice Rack  Like most people who like to cook, I am obsessed with finding a solution to The Spice Problem.  Like you, I have desperately dug through my inches-deep jumble of spices, looking for basil, only to be rewarded with . . . three bottles of thyme.  I've gone through a lot of spice racks over the years, and recommended them over the years.  But the complicated ones took up counter space and eventually broke, and I didn't have room for the simple ones.

After seeing this on television, I thought it looked pretty good, and when I happened to come upon one at Bed Bath and Beyond . . . well, you know the rest.  I've had it for six months, and so far I love it.  It's compact and super-easy to get at your spices (it would be easier if I ever got around to alphabetizing them).  It holds all standard-sized spice bottles, and no transferring them into special containers.  Now my spices live happily (and neatly) over the microwave, where they're paradoxically easy to get at, and safely out of the way.

Kitchen Shears  They're tougher than normal scissors, and more importantly, they come apart, so that you can clean out the food detritus before your bacteria colonies evolve their own complex civilization and attempt to liberate the kitchen in the name of the people.  A good solid brand like Wusthof should last for years, snipping your carrot tops and de-spining your chickens with glorious ease.

Wilton Trim and Turn Cake Stand  I've been dipping a toe into cake decorating--not insane, I-stayed-up-for-three-days-making-this-thing-look-exactly-like-Ashton-Kutchner cake decorating, but basic-pretty-things-with-buttercream cake decorating.  I bought the Trim and Turn so that I could do a pretty cake for my Dad's 70th birthday, and have been very happy with it.  It's a hell of a lot easier to get a nice, even layer of buttercream on this way than by slowly turning the plate.  It looks pretty good for a kid's party, and if you want to transfer the cake to something a little more sophisticated . . . well, check out that fish spatula . . . 

If you're buying it for someone who doesn't currently do much cake decorating but would like to start (like, maybe, you) I recommend pairing it with a good icing spatula, an icing comb, and a basic bag-and-tip set (Pro tip: when you run out of the disposable bags that come with it, ziploc bags with a corner cut out make perfectly acceptable substitutes, though mind you don't make the holes too big.)

Krups Coffee Grinder  I actually use a burr grinder for grinding coffee now.  But as I pointed out last year, the difference between fresh ground coffee and pre-ground is much larger than the difference between blade-ground and burr-ground; if you don't want to invest in a burr grinder, these do a very fine job.

These also make excellent spice grinders.  Americans are slowly moving towards grinding more of their spices fresh--we can now envision a world where no family confronts the tragedy of pre-ground black pepper.  Grinding releases much fresher, more complicated flavors, and there are lots more spices that could be ground fresh but usually aren't, such as nutmeg, cloves, even whole rosemary.  If you're retiring your old coffee grinder, clean it really thoroughly and repurpose it; if you never had a coffee grinder, consider buying one for spices.

Pocket Apron  I am not a neat cook.  I come by it honorably--I once baked a cake with my mother and grandmother, and noticed that by the end, it looked as if someone had been fingerpainting on their bodies with batter, and throwing up random handfuls of flour into the air to settle onto their hair in a fine mist.  After years of washing my grimy clothes after every outing into the kitchen, I remembered that domestic engineers had actually produced a product which could solve the problem of floury handprints and grease spatters on your pants.

I used to own the perfect apron--a Crate and Barrel "utility apron", sadly now discontinued, which had any number of pockets and even a bottle opener attached right to it.  Alas, it went astray in our many moves last summer.  This is the closest I've been able to come: a solid twill apron with nice roomy pockets to hold my phone and whatever else I need when I have more objects to transport than hands to carry.

Silicone Pastry Mat:  Always loved it, but now that I'm slowly taking over pie-making duties from my mother, well, now more than ever.  The mat has a few benefits: it keeps your counter clean; it has circles pre-marked with your crust size so you don't need to keep checking it against the pan; and because it keeps your pastry from sticking, you don't need to use as much flour.  The result is a more tender crust.

Betty Crocker 1950 Picture Cookbook  Still my go-to for basic baking and comfort food like macaroni and cheese.  Written in the days before salad oil became an all purpose substitute for butter, its recipes are simple and extremely tasty.  I've never quite dared to make anything in the hors d'oeuvres section, or to confront my husband with a delicious glass of hot tomato-and-clam juice when he comes home from a hard day's work.  But I still cook from it more weeks than not, and it's one of the few books that lives on my kitchen windowsill.

Warming Gravy Boat  Everyone made fun of me when I registered for this, but it's super useful.  You're going to have a gravy boat anyway, so why not one that keeps things warm?  Not just for gravy--though this has now noticeably improved two Thanksgiving dinners Chez McSuderman--but also for things like hollandaise and hot fudge sauce.

Gravy Separator  An enormous improvement over trying to skim the fat off of your gravy or stew--and much faster than letting it sit in the fridge overnight.  It has a little lid with holes that strains your gravy for you, and a stopper to create a vacuum in the spout.  You just pour your liquid in, and wait a few minutes for the fat to rise to the top.  Then you pour--because the spout is at the bottom, the fat is the last thing to come out.

Cooks Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution Cookbook  I got this at Costco last spring, and I've been cooking with it all year.   Beef Bourguignon, lamb vindaloo, even mashed potatoes.  The recipes are considerably fussier than the "dump two cans of mushroom soup on top of three pounds of stew meat", but the results are delicious, and it's so nice to come home to really good food that's already made.  Also recommended for those who are cooking for a small family: their Best Simple Recipes.  My stir-fried tofu game has been stepped up considerably.  And, of course, their omnibus, which has the best banana bread recipe I've ever eaten.

Thoughtful Trinkets:  $25 to $50

Cookbook Stand  I don't know about you, but all too many of my cookbook pages are stuck together with the remains of some long-forgotten meal.  A cookbook stand makes wayward drips less likely--and has the added advantage of making your cookbook easier to read.  

Silicone Rolling Pin  All the advantages of the pastry mat: cleans up easily and you don't need to use so much flour.  Also comes in fun colors.  Lovely gift for a baker paired with the pastry mat.

POURfect Mixing and Prep Bowls  I have been looking forward to the gift guide all year just so that I could tell you about these, which my sister got me for Christmas.  They are absolutely fantastic.  They're probably not perfect if you want to, say, beat up your cake batter or whipping egg whites--for that, I'd use a traditional round bowl.  But I whip up my cake batter in a stand mixer.  What these are perfect for is mixing up your ingredients.

The bowls have four features that make them so perfect for prep: they have a rounded shield at the edge, so that your ingredients don't spill out when you're pouring them into a larger bowl; the handle is shaped so that you can actually slide your hand under it and cup the bowl for perfect pouring; they have a little notch under the pouring spout, which allows you to almost clip the bowl onto the edge of a larger bowl so that you can lift it vertical to pour; and of course, they have a pour spout.  (You can see a demonstration here).

I was very skeptical of some of the claims, but that pour spout is damn near perfectly shaped.  You can crack a dozen eggs into a bowl and pour them out, one at a time, into a pound cake or even a frying pan for fried eggs.  Your dry ingredients shake out into your cakes in a perfect, even, mess-free stream.  It's super-easy to control the flow of wet ingredients you want to add slowly--and because of that notch under the spout, you can always get the last drops out without getting liquid on your counter.  Or measure out perfectly sized pancakes.

They're also great for measuring liquid ingredients, because the bowls have lines on the inside, so you don't need to break out a separate measure as long as you're measuring out a common amount.

Much to the pleasure of my husband, my cooking has gotten a whole lot neater since I bought them, and every time anyone enters my kitchen, I rave about these bowls.  I also have the measuring cup set, which is particularly nice because they have odd sizes like 3/4 of a cup.  All the bowls and the measuring cups stack neatly for storage.

Note: there are lots of colors, but for some reason, Amazon has each color listed separately. I linked to the first colors I found, but if you don't like them, search around for "POURfect" and you'll see lots of others.

Chinois  If you really want super-velvety jellies or absolutely consistent purees, you'll need a chinois or a food mill.  The Chinois produces finer results; the food mill is faster and less tedious.  But either one lets you do things like cook applesauce with the seeds and skins left in (more flavorful).  I prefer the chinois, but my sense is that this is a minority opinion.

Rabbit Corkscrew Last year, we bought my dad this sort of cool looking vacuum pump corkscrew.  Luckily, he hadn't used it when we got a frantic email from the manufacturer to tell us it had been recalled due to its unfortunate habit of causing weak-necked wine bottles to explode.  So, back to the old faithful Rabbit, which makes it easy for even the lazy and spindly among us to remove even those new plastic corks that seem to have been fixed in place with some sort of industrial-strength adhesive.

Oxo Kitchen Scale More and more cookbooks are using measurements by weight instead of volume, and with good reason.  Differences in air temperature, humidity, or just the shape of your produce or the size of your dice, can make big differences in the amount of actual active ingredient that goes into your food.  I now have a food processor that weighs my ingredients, but before that, I spent many happy years with Oxo.

Tea Press  I do not like french-pressed coffee (which, I know, makes me a Communist who does Not Appreciate Real Coffee).  However, I love our tea press so much that I've promiscuously gifted them.  It makes the process of using loose tea almost as easy as tea bags--just measure your tea into the perforated cup, pour in boiling water, and wait.  The cup keeps leaves out of your cup, while delivering a perfect cup of tea.  The downside is that you end up spending money on fancy loose-leafed tea.  The upside is that you get a much nicer cup of tea--and anyway, a little tea goes a long way.

Chemex  To my mind, the Chemex is far superior to the french press.  Yes, you have to use filters.  But I like filtered coffee, as do most people.  If you don't have the space, the outlets, or the inclination to fuss with an electric drip machine, this little glass beaker makes a great cup of coffee.  It's also a chic throwback to the days when designers thought cutting edge kitchen equipment should look as if it really belonged in a lab.  My mother, who has owned just about every variety of pricey coffee equipment, has gone back to this in retirement.


Generous Gifts:  $50 to $150

Cuisinart Waffle Iron  I don't care for Belgian waffles; they're too big, too deep, too . . . much. We got the round version of this "classic" waffler (i.e., thinner, American-style waffles) for our wedding, and loved it so much that we bought one for my Dad last year so that we could have waffles at his place on Christmas eve.  It really does a spectacular job--warms up quickly, and delivers perfectly consistent, crispy, delicious waffles every 90 seconds or so.  And it's much sturdier than the cheaper versions you find at Target, which always look like they're just about to break.  Cuisinart seems to be on the edge of discontinuing this, so if you or a loved one are in the market for a good classic waffler, I'd jump on this.

Peugot Eletric Pepper Mill  We got these as a gift after I used and liked my mother's.  They're very handy because they can be operated one-handed while you're stirring; ours live by the stove, and we have a different hand grinding set for the table.  These are especially nice because it's very easy to set how fine you want your grind--just twist the indicator at the bottom.  There's a nice range of capabilities, from super-fine to "cracked".

They're in the nice-but-not-necessary category unless you're older and have trouble with your hands, in which case, they fall into the "godsend" group.  


Electric Kettle  The supreme testimony to this thing is that I accidentally put it down on a still-hot burner, melted the bottom--and it's still working.  I first used one of these in England, and though American kettles will never be as good as the ones in England (our power voltage is different, so they don't heat up so fast), they're still very useful.  They boil water fast, and shut off automatically, so you can't burn out the bottom of three teapots the way that an unnamed economics blogger may or may not have done before she acquired an electric kettle.  I think this is a particularly great gift for older people--even when her macular degeneration meant that my grandmother had to stop using the stove, she could at least make herself a cup of tea any time she wanted.

This one is especially nice because it's cordless--it lifts off the base so that you can carry it to the stove or into the living room without unplugging.

Froth Au Lait  We keep talking about getting an espresso machine.  But we never really get around to it.  However, very strong coffee and a milk frother make a pretty passable poor-man's latte or cappucino.

This one is nice because it heats the milk as well as whipping it up.  In theory, you can also use it to make custards and hollandaise sauce, but I can't speak to those capabilities.  I can speak to its heating/frothing capabilities, which are excellent.

Burr Grinder  I mentioned above that we now use one.  And for a real coffee freak, like my husband, they're a lovely gift.  The burr gives yo a more even grind, it doesn't heat the coffee the way blades do, and as a nice little bonus, the coffee grinds into a neat little receptacle.

Crock Pot Slow cooker  There's a reason that these are coming back.  Do your prep the night (or weekend!) before, throw the ingredients in, and come back home nine hours later to warm, comforting deliciousness.  

I own Crock-Pot's now unfortunately discontinued Versaware Pro.  The newer model gets excellent reviews and apparently has some new features, but the Versaware had one great advantage: you could brown on the stovetop and then pop the insert straight into the slow-cooker.  As far as I can tell, every manufacturer who has produced such an insert (All Clad and Breville also had them) has discontinued it.  But I use my giant All-Clad saute pan half the time anyway.  If you're worried about getting every bit of fond, do what I do, and deglaze with a little white wine.

Giant All-Clad Stainless Steel Saute Pan  If you brown meat (or deep fry it), this is just indispensable.  The high sides keep the splatters in and of course make it easy to simmer or fry in several inches of liquid.  It's also oven-safe if you want to make a whole mess of . . . well, practically anything.  And of course, All-Clad Stainless Steel:  beautiful sear, beautiful look, and it lasts forever.  There's also a six quart model, for really giant jobs, but it's considerably pricier.

Kitchenaid Ice Cream Attachment  Obviously, only works for someone with a Kitchenaid stand mixer.  Not just useful for summer--I made avocado-wasabi ice cream to go with salmon for a recent dinner party, and it was a huge (and super easy) hit.  You just freeze the bowl for 24 hours, and pop it on the mixer.  The motor on a Kitchenaid mixer is powerful enough to produce really delicious, smooth ice cream. The only risk is that you will start making ice cream all the time, but luckily, there are many fine sorbet recipes out there.

Immersion Blender  Imagine a person coming home and saying "Hey, Mom, what's new in immersion blenders?"  

You can't imagine it, can you, because there's nothing new in immersion blenders.  The basic design was pretty well refined by the time they hit the US market in the 1980s, and there haven't been any incredible improvements.  I've used fancy Viking models and cheap $15 no-name models from Target.  While I wouldn't recommend the super cheap ones, which have, shall we say, somewhat erratic performance, other than that, they're all very much of a muchness.  You stick them in your soup and puree it to hell in order to satisfy your vegetable-hating relations.  You whip a little cream.  You blend up your protein shakes. 

That said, they are very useful, and I wouldn't be without mine (a Braun model that's lasted a decade).  I recommended that Cuisinart for a few reasons.  It's cordless, which is nice if not necessary.  And it mounts to the wall, which is very nice indeed. I view kitchen walls and ceilings as tragically wasted space which can only be redeemed if you can find some way to attach kitchen gear to them--right out in the open, where you can get at it easily.  If your appliances are not out in the open, you will use them less, in which case, why did you buy them?  I mean, fine, put away the waffle iron and the deep fryer, but your basics--stand mixer, food processor, immersion blender, toaster oven--should be where you can get at them.

All that said, many other brands--Viking, Kitchenaid, Breville, Braun--will do just fine; if you find a deal on one of them somewhere, snap it up.  Don't spend more than $100 or less than about $30, unless you're strapped for cash, or super-captivated by some stunning design that you or your loved one simply can't live without.

Zojirushi fuzzy logic rice maker  I was sort of hesitant about registering for this when we got married.  After all, I already make perfectly good rice.  But an Asian friend talked me into it, and now I'm a convert.  It's lovely to be able to walk away and come back an hour later to perfectly cooked rice--which then stays warm for hours, so you can make it ahead and serve dinner whenever you're ready.  And it's particularly good for brown rice.  It plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to let you know that the rice is done, which I thought would be annoying, but now just makes me salivate.

I'll frequently make a pot of rice at night and melt some cheese on top, eat some for dinner, and the rest for breakfast.  12 hours later--even 24 hours later--the machine has kept the rice warm, moist and delicious.  And it's super-easy to clean--just pull out the nonstick bowl, wipe it out, and put it back in.

Everyone I've ever talked to agrees that Zojirushi is the hands-down winner for rice cookers--and that, in fact, there's really little competition.  I've linked their middle-of-the-road model, which is what I have.  I don't recommend cheap rice cookers (even theirs) which are just a heating element and a bowl; the rice will not cook nearly so evenly, and eventually, it will burn.  They go up to a $400 pressure and induction model, which is supposed to produce the best brown rice you've ever had, and if you have the inclination and the scratch, go for it.  For me, however,  the moderately priced model represents the best return of value for money.

Knives:  Most of my knives are Japanese--a few Kyocera ceramic blades, and a whole lot of Shun steel.  I love Shun knives.  They look beautiful, they're balanced well, and they hold an edge.  Alas, Shun no longer sharpens your knives by mail for free the way they used to, but they do now make a sharpener that I've been eyeing.

A few rules for buying knives, especially as gifts:

  • There is no such thing as a permanently sharp knife.  Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you the culinary equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge.  All knives need sharpening; expensive knives hold an edge better (and can be sharpened over and over, unlike flimsy knives), but they must all go to the grindstone fairly regularly.  If you haven't sharpened your knives for years, then you've got a blunt saw, not a kitchen utensil.
  • Ceramic knives hold an edge--but they shatter if dropped.  If you're fumble fingered, skip 'em.
  • Never buy a set.  What are the odds that the manufacturer just happened to put together all the knives you will ever want in one convenient place?  The knives are often low-quality, and the blocks usually don't have much room for expansion.
  • "I only need three knives" is great--if you're the only person who ever cooks in your kitchen.  My parties frequently feature half the guests chopping, dicing, or slicing. Your mileage may vary.
The most basic kit, to my mind, is a paring knife, a chef's knife, a serrated knife, and a utility/boning knife.  I have a Shun Ken Onion Chef's knife, which I absolutely adore:  beautiful weight, beautiful balance, beautiful edge.  (They make a three piece set if you want a lovely and very pricey gift for someone who doesn't have any good knives.)  Thanks to our wedding, I also have the Ken Onion Santoku, which is slightly shorter and has a different shape which is especially great for slicing; some chefs prefer the smaller knife, particularly people with little hands.  I use both all the time.

For a basic paring knife, the 3.5-inch is your most versatile; if you're only going to have one paring knife, this is the one.  I also have a bird's beak knife, which is good for doing small and fiddly things with vegetables and shrimp, and a four-inch paring knife.

Your utility/boning knife should be long and thin, and not so heavy as your chef's knife.  I have a Shun Ken Onion 5-inch, but also like the Kyocera ceramic. (Note: I don't actually bone with it; if that's what you want it for, I'd stick with steel)

I'm sort of a serrated knife luddite; as long as they're basically solid and serrated (don't buy something flimsy for $5) I think that they're interchangeable.  I like my Ken Onion 5-inch ultimate utility, and on the matter of bread knives, I'd just grab anything basic and thick enough not to bend when you slice.  I'd think this Henckels would be fine.

Possibly my favorite knife, however, is my 4.5-inch Shun chef's knife.  It's a great size for chopping herbs, finely dicing veggies, or slicing up tofu and chicken breasts.  It has the shape of a chef's knife, and the fine motor control of a paring knife.  I use mine more frequently than probably any other knife in our kitchen.

Of course, knives are very personal.  Find out what brand your person swears by--or give them a starter knife like the little chef's knife if you think they'd like to try something new.  There are all sorts of things I haven't mentioned--cleavers, for example, which many chefs view as essential, and I find too ponderous.   The point being: know your giftee.

Cuisinart Blender  I only owned this for a few months--the Thermomix (see below) pre-empted it.  But they were a great few months!  It's no Vitamix, of course, but it doesn't come with the Vitamix price tag, either.  This one had a nice array of speeds, a special smoothie setting which worked suprisingly well, And it cleaned really nicely.

ISI Gourmet Whip Plus  It's a whipped cream dispenser, the kind you find in ice cream shops--but that's not why I sought one out.  I can whip cream just fine by hand.  But this also foams hot soups, which is not only impressive, but gives them a lovely texture; the contrast of hot/spicy and light/foamy is really nice.  You can fill it up, carbonate, and drop it in hot water to keep warm.  (Whether or not you use the water bath, I recommend wrapping it in a towel to dispense--the metal container does get hot).

It's a fun "fancy" dinner party accessory, and of course, a nice substitute for Reddi-whip.  It can be slightly fussy--you need to strain liquids well before you add them.  But so far, I'm very happy with it.

Extravagent Gestures: $150 and Up

Breville toaster oven  As I believe I mentioned last year, I killed our beloved Cuisinart convection oven through a misunderstanding about the limits of the word "Oven" in oven cleaner.  Sadly, they'd discontinued it.  The Breville was the closest I could find to a substitute.

I confess, I don't love it quite as much as the old Cuisinart.  On the other hand, it's still very good.  It makes excellent toast, which most toaster ovens don't; it tells you when it's reached temperature; and it's spacious enough to do a bundt cake.  The convection works very well, and the timer both turns itself off promptly when the time has elapsed, and alerts you to this fact.  Especially useful in the summer when I don't want to heat up the whole kitchen, and for parties when we need the extra oven space.

Kitchenaid ultra wide-mouthed food processor.  If you are not going to buy a Thermomix--and most of you aren't--this food processor gets top marks from me and from actual experts like Cooks Illustrated.  It's got multiple work bowls so you can prep multiple things without stopping to clean the bowl, and a load of slicing and shredding discs that are really nice when you're prepping a lot of food for a holiday meal or a party.  It's got a very powerful motor.  And it's got the ultra-wide mouthed opening, which I highly, highly, recommend:  you can put a large block of cheese through it with little problem, whereas with the smaller mouths, you have to chop your product before you feed it in, which kind of obviates the point.

Do you need a food processor?  My feeling is damned straight--but only if it lives on your counter.  If it's under the counter you won't use it enough to justify the purchase.  There are things that a food processor just does better than hand--pie crust and pesto spring instantly to mind, and please stop waving your mortar and pestle at me!

Kitchenaid Stand Mixer  Making its appearance for . . . well, however many times I've done this list.  You can certainly be a serious baker without a serious stand mixer--but my feeling is that you're bound to be a seriously tired and annoyed baker.

Kitchenaids feature powerful motors and a dual rotation system that means you almost never need to scrape down the sides.  I'm a partisan of the bowl-lift models, because they have heavier, more powerful motors than the "artisan series".

There have been complaints about plastic gears in recent years.  I've cooked some pretty extensive holiday meals using my Dad's 6-quart pro and had no problems, though to be fair, we weren't trying to make 8 loaves of bread at once or anything.

Pans  Calphalon has regrettably discontinued their infused anodized line, which I used to swear by; this seems to be the successor, but I can't vouch for it.

So onto the things I can vouch for.  In addition to the saute pan mentioned above, I love my All-Clad 13-inch skillet, which is gigantic and super-useful for searing meat and vegetables, as well as doing stir-fries.  I'd rather have a 12-inch and an 8-inch than a 10-inch or two; when you need a bigger pan, you really need it.

As far as I'm concerned, people should only have one non-stick skillet, for eggs.  And since the eggs don't care, you can buy the cheapest one you can find.  (Ours cost $11 for the entire nonstick set I bought Peter when we started dating).  I will make an exception for this everyday pan, in which you can cook scrambled eggs or frittatas and bring it straight to the table.

Nonstick saucepans are fine, though it shouldn't matter either way unless you're leaving your sauces unattended for a worryingly long time.  I think the absolutely essential sizes are 1 quart, 2 quart, and 4-quart.  The important thing with a saucepan is that it be nice and heavy. You want a lot of metal to retain and disperse your heat evenly, without hot spots.  And do not give short shrift to the little one-quart.  Little pans are super-useful, but surprisingly few people buy them, instead sloshing around a little butter in a huge pan, and taking twice the time and wasting half the run-off coating a big pan.

Solid construction is especially important with a pasta pot, because it gets your water up to the boil faster.  It's important that your pasta pot be at least 7 or 8 quarts--otherwise, the water will gum up with starch, and your pasta will taste pasty.  That said, I wouldn't go overboard and spend $300 on something to cook your pasta in.

Le Creuset dutch ovens are great for braising, especially if you don't have a slow cooker.  The cast iron holds heat for hours; the enameling protects your food from too much iron leaching, which is good for anemia but can affect the taste of acidic (read tomato-ey) dishes.  More importantly, it doesn't rust or need seasoning.  And, of course, the color is pretty.  The 5-quart is the most versatile, but you'll want 7 or 8 quarts if you regularly do sizeable dinner parties.

Copper stockpot  Copper is, of course, beautiful.  It is also very responsive to heat, which makes it great for a slow simmer.  It's also outrageously expensive.  Luckily for me, my mother likes to scavenge flea markets for old copper, which can be retinned and put back into circulation.  If you are going to do this, be careful to look for nice, heavy pans--there was a vogue for decorative copper pans in mid-century, and these aren't good for anything but hanging on walls.

Technivorm Moccamaster  This is basically the best coffeemaker out there, and it's priced accordingly.  It doesn't have a timer, it doesn't grind the beans, it doesn't dispense hot water or let you use single-serve pods.  All it does is make a perfect pot of coffee every time, with the water at the exact right temperature for optimal flavor.

To preserve that flavor, it doesn't have a warming element.  Instead, it has a really, really well insulated thermal carafe--Peter regularly takes it up to his office and hours later, is still drinking piping hot coffee.  One of the best gifts from our wedding.

Sodastream Penguin:  We got this for our wedding (thanks Matt!) and love it.  Basically, it carbonates water, to which you can then add various flavored syrups.  It's cheaper than soda, and takes up a lot less space than all those bottles.  And this model uses glass carafes, which looks nice, but more importantly, helps allay my periodic worries about plastic leachates.

It has not reduced my diet coke habit, which is prodigious, but I'm very fond of the ginger ale, tonic, orange soda, Dr. Pepper substitute, and of course, the carbonated water.  If you go through a lot of soda or seltzer, highly recommend.  The replacement canisters can be purchased at Bed Bath and Beyond, or ordered through the mail.

The Thermomix Last, but oh, not least.  

To get the obvious out of the way:  it is very, very expensive.  It is not a purchase to be undertaken lightly.  Not everyone should own one.

So: what are the benefits?

1.  Chopping  It makes confectioner's sugar out of regular sugar.  It also chops onions to a good sized dice without liquifying them.  How is this possible?  Um, I guess fine German engineering, solingen steel blades, and a timer.

2.  Sauces and custards  The bechamel is not better than what I make at the stove.  It's just perfectly consistent and no work.  You don't even melt the butter first--just throw all the ingredients in, walk away, and come back ten minutes later to a perfect sauce.  I am now practically addicted to producing a perfectly shiny chocolate glaze that never requires me to resort to cheats like corn syrup.

3.  Weighing  In grams, unfortunately, but that's been a pretty minor adjustment.  No separate bowl--just press the scale button and weigh things as you throw them in.

4.  Emulsifying  The lid is specially set up so that you can pour a liquid into the top well, and it will slowly drizzle down into the bowl while the blades work.  Think practically effortless and perfect mayonnaise (if your mayonnaise fails, it's because you're adding the fat too fast), and Italian meringues that never collapse.

5.  Peeling garlic  I have not myself tried to do 50 cloves at a time, but I've done a dozen, and it's near-miraculous--just soak the cloves in water and then run the blades in reverse for a bit.  Knocks the peels right off.

6.  Kneading  Does an excellent job on bread dough--and I come from a family of picky bread makers.

7.  Steaming  It makes some of the best steamed vegetables I've ever eaten. Fill the bowl with water (or a flavored liquid--I like to do carrots over water mixed with white wine and ginger), and the special top piece with vegetables (known as the "Varoma" and yes, that is a very funny name).  Set the time, hit the "varoma" button, and come back 20 minutes later.  Consistent, delicious results every time.

8.  Multi-cooking You can cook a sauce in the bowl, and put the Varoma on top to steam some fish or vegetables.

9.  Pureeing  This is the best blender I've ever owned--I'd put it up against a Vitamix any time.  It will puree anything--the recommendation for sharpening the blades is "chop some ice"

10.  Cleaning  One bowl prep, and everything except the motorized base is dishwasher safe.

11.  Timing  You can't overcook things, because it turns itself off and hits and alarm when the time is up.

12.  Heat:  in the summer, it doesn't heat up the kitchen the way the stove does.

13.  Space saving:  It's taken the place of my blender, my kitchen scale, and my food processor.  I now only have two appliances on my counter: this and the Kitchenaid.  (Plus the slow cooker in the winter)

14.  Speed  It whips cream in seconds, takes egg whites to a stiff gloss in three minutes.

15.  Neatness  It's all enclosed, so no flinging bits of cream on my walls or spilling soup on my stovetop.

16.  The convenience  On those busy, tiring days when I previously would have taken something out of the freezer or a box, I'm now much more likely to cook something from scratch.  It's healthier, cheaper, and tastier.  I'm not claiming that we're earning back the price of the appliance, but it is an offset.

17.  One less thing to worry about at parties.  I hate sauces for parties.  Or rather I love them, because parties are when you are supposed to eat things that are fattening and delicious.  But you usually end up doing them at the last minute, while your guests are waiting hungry at the table.  Taking a last-minute task out of my hands considerably improves my enjoyment of parties.

Concerns:  

1.  It's not see through.  I've been hesitant to make pastry in it for that reason, though everyone I know who has one swears by the results.

2.  It's not available in the United States.  You have to special order it from Canada.  Presumably it has to be serviced the same way--though they're quite reliable.

3.  There's a learning curve.  Not a steep learning curve--I got myself tolerably well up to speed in one weekend of cooking.  But you do need to learn temperatures and techniques--which speed chope onions, which whips eggs.

4.  You have to rework any recipes you want to cook in the Thermomix.  I've started to do this, and started to make up some new recipes.  But I don't do as much as I could in it, because my old tried-and-true recipes need to be reworked to figure out the time/temperature/stirring speed.

On the other hand, I've discovered lots of new recipes--a delicious new tomato soup that takes ten minutes, several custards and foams.

The verdict: unless you're so rich that it just doesn't matter, I'd think hard about buying one.  But if a preponderance of the positives above appeal to you . . . and the negatives don't faze you . . . and you have the money . . . then, well, all I can say is, I don't regret buying it.  The above link will take you to the site where you can order it.  Tell them I sent you.  This will do neither of us any good, but it has a sort of noirish, underground flavor.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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