Holiday Gift Guide: Kitchen Edition

It just wouldn't be Christmas around here without my annual instructions on what you should buy that special someone in your life.  Now going into its sixth year, it has some of the old favorites that longtime readers will recognize, mixed in with a few new things.  This year, I'm listing them the way I did last year:  least to most expensive. I'm also starting a list of things that seemed like good ideas, but weren't.

Stocking Stuffers:  Under $25

Microplane grater/zester  Yes, I know that I suggest this every year.  I will continue doing so until I die, or Jesus returns with a better method for removing delicious zest from your citrus fruits.  But of course, it isn't just good for zesting--although it's worth its price alone, just so that you never have to scrape your knuckles on a box grater again.  Try shaving good chocolate over ice cream, on top of a cake, or to sprinkle over fresh berries.  We're also very fond of shaving a little Parmesan over our salads using this, which makes a beautiful sort of cheese cloud.    You can also get a coarser grater, which is good when you want a more robust texture.

Cheese slicer  A lot of people are buying in bulk these days to save money, and that includes the McSuderman household, which just tucked into a 2 pound hunk of Swiss Cheese.  While this is a great size to shred for gratins, it is a trifle unwieldy for turning into sandwiches or putting on crackers.  A wire cheese slicer is an efficient way around the problem.

Kyocera ceramic slicer  These are brilliant for salads, potato chips, canapes, or (don't roll your eyes) cucumber sandwiches, which are delicious when made with herbed cream cheese.  It's not quite as powerful or flexible as a mandoline.  But it's a lot less expensive than a comparable quality mandoline, significantly less dangerous, and most of the people I know--including me--report that their mandolines don't get much use, because they're sitting out of sight under the counter.

Silvermark butter boat  These are nifty, and surprisingly overlooked.  You fill the bottom well with water, and put butter in the top; it uses evaporative cooling to keep your butter at the perfect temperature--soft, but not rancid.  I've never had any luck with butter bells--I always end up with a lump of wet butter.  But these work very well, as long as you change the water every few days.  I have two:  one for salted, and one for unsalted.

Oxo Chopper  If you don't have room for a food processor on your counter, these are a lifesaver.  They make dicing, mincing, and chopping nuts into the work of a moment.  They're slightly looked down on by snobbier foodies, who like to take "knife skills" classes.  Knife skills are valuable, and I think every meat eater should learn how to debone a fowl.  And if you're turning twenty pounds of vegetables into mirepoix, a good chef's knife is actually probably more efficient.  But if you're turning twenty pounds of vegetables into mirepoix, you're a professional chef who doesn't need my advice.

Oxo tongs  Tongs are one of the most useful and versatile pieces of kitchen equipment you can buy.   Key features to look for:  a pullout tab to lock the handle, and at least ten inches of length between you and the hot pans.  If your gift uses non-stick pans, I recommend getting nylon rather than stainless steel heads.

Egg separator  There are any number of ways to do this without a gadget.  But why bother, when the gadget costs $4?  Given the years you'll get out of it, this is a worthy investment for even a marginal improvement in your egg separating convenience.  If you bake, it's definitely worth it, no matter how good you are at pouring it back and forth between the shells.

Milk frother  I'm a big fan of fancy coffee-based beverages, but not of expending more than a thousand per annum at coffee shops.  Frothed milk plus strong home-brewed coffee makes a pretty decent substitute, with greater convenience and less cost.  I've tried many versions, and the Bodum wins for both efficiency and longevity.

Salt keeper  Exotic salts are the new Green Peppercorns and White Truffle Oil, and in my opinion, considerably more interesting.  If you use expensive salts for flavoring your cooking (or putting on top of your food), a wooden salt keeper can keep them from getting too humid and clumping together.  Right now I'm using Maldon sea salt for most things, and pink Himalayan salt for dishes that demand a lighter flavor.

Krups coffee grinder  Even if you don't care much about coffee, you'll find your life is much improved if you do three things:  buy fresh whole bean coffee, keep it stored in an airtight container at room temperature for no more than two weeks, and grind it fresh every morning.  The blade coffee grinders don't give quite as consistent a grind as burr grinders, and the flavor isn't quite as good.  But they are many times more expensive.  The difference between fresh ground coffee and horrible pre-ground stuff is much larger than the difference between burr-ground and blade-ground fresh coffee.  It sounds tedious, but it takes us much more time in the morning to fill the coffee maker with water than it does to grind the coffee.

Rotato  My sister bought me this last Christmas as a sort-of-joke, sort-of-gift, and surprisingly, I'm actually fond of it.  It's a specialty appliance, and definitely not for everyone.  But it really does do a good job of peeling potatoes and apples, if you do a lot of that.  The only downside is that it does chew through blades pretty rapidly; spares cost $1-2 apiece.

Silicone oven mitts  Not sexy.  But sooooooo useful.  They protect your hands better than anything else, though you pay a price in fine motor manipulation.  You can stick your hands into boiling water wearing these, as long as the water doesn't come up over the opening of the glove.  The longer the better, for that reason.

Thoughtful Presents:  $25 to $50

Bodum teapot  I love loose leaf tea, which has a better flavor than tea bags (tea bags grind the tea finer, which means it goes stale faster).  But I hate fussing with tea balls, or the dregs at the bottom of my pot.  This teapot gets top marks for style, ease of use, dishwasher safe-ness, and my favorite feature--a plastic girdle that serves as a built-in trivet.  The interior compartment keeps leaves out of your teacup while allowing in the full flavor, and can be used with teabags. If it's for a single person, you might want to consider the smaller model.

Knife block  I am very seriously not a fan of those all-in-one knife sets that come with a knife block.  For one thing, no one is an all-in-one cook--I have friends who can't live without a cleaver, and are mystified by my attachment to good kitchen shears.  For another, the knives usually aren't very good, which means they don't have a good weight, the handles aren't affixed too solidly, and they will have trouble holding an edge. A nice big knife block gives your budding chef space to build a knife set that works for them.

Pepper mill  It has come to my attention that many of you are still using pre-ground pepper, and really, my friends, that has to stop.  You might as well take what's left over in the garden ashtrays after a party and sprinkle it over your eggs--at least it would save you some money, and wake you up a bit.  Almost all spices are best fresh ground, because the essential oils that give them their flavor dissipate very quickly--but pepper suffers particularly badly, turning bitter and lifeless.  In my opinion, Peugeot makes the best mills for consistency, longevity, and adjustibility.  The wood mills are the French classic, but they also have lovely modern ones, and electric ones, which seem like overkill unless you're dealing with some pretty serious arthritis.

Rabbit corkscrew  By far the easiest corkscrew you've ever used.  I have friends who futz around with the folding jobs that sommeliers use, which misses the point--sommeliers have to carry corkscrews in their pockets.  If you're carrying a corkscrew in your pocket, and it's not attached to a Swiss Army Knife, it's probably time to stop drinking.  This is particularly great for older wine drinkers, or anyone who has trouble with their hands, because it requires so little strength.  I've been using them for years, and I've never yet broken a cork.  It's worth noting that you can often find these (or perfectly substitutable knock-offs) on sale at Costco for very little money.

Immersion blender  I linked the Cuisinart, but not because I particularly recommend them.  Frankly, as long as you stick with the Big Three--Cuisinart, KitchenAid, or Braun--they're pretty much interchangeable; I shop on style and price.  Or I would, if I hadn't had the same Cuisinart for years.  They're practically indestructible, and irreplaceable for pureeing soups and squash, smoothing sauces and gravies, mixing shakes (protein- or ice-cream), or making small batches of whipped cream.  You can also froth milk for coffee, if you declined to purchase a special appliance for same.  Note:  do not attempt to mash potatoes with this, or a hand mixer.  Something about the speed and the action makes them gluey.

Good paring knives  You can't be any kind of a chef without decent knives.  No, not super-expensive knives hand forged by samurai masters in a secret location outside of Kyoto.  Just knives that hold an edge, won't break, and come in a variety of weights and shapes for the job.  This Wusthof set is good quality, affordable, and has three of the best shapes for small work.  Henckels or Shen would be just as good if you can find a similar set at a good price.

Oxo Kitchen Scale  My futile quest to get you to measure your baking ingredients by weight, rather than volume, continues.  Ingredients like flour can vary massively by volume, depending on things like temperature and humidity, which explains why your cakes and pastries may be a trifle inconsistent.  Also useful for dealing with a five pound bag of potatoes, and a recipe which cheerfully asks you deploy 3.25 pounds of spuds.  Due to an unfortunate incident in which my last kitchen scale was accidentally melted (long story), I had to improvise this thanksgiving by weighing myself with and without a bowl of potatoes in my hand.

Kammenstein magnetic spice rack  I have two of these, and my ambition is to acquire more--as well as the wall space to hang them on.  The container lids twist to give you both pour and sprinkle spouts, and when removed, the wide containers make measuring easy.  They come with pre-printed labels, but I made my own with a p-touch, since my tastes do not precisely coincide with the rest of America.

Silicone rolling pin  For a baker, one of the most useful tools you can own.  Nothing sticks to silicone, which means you don't need to use as much flour.  Which means your baked goods are lighter and and more delicate, because you haven't overworked them.  Great when paired with a silicone pastry mat.

Generous Gifts:  $50 to $150

Kyocera Ceramic Chef's and serrated utility knives  I'm a big fan of these knives.  They are not for heavy duty chopping, because that requires weight, and the ceramic is very light.   They are excellent for slicing, because unlike steel, the ceramic keeps its edge without sharpening.  So anything with meat (except cleaving), soft fruits and vegetables, or delicate baked goods.  Everyone should have a serrated utility knife (which can also double as a bread knife), and ceramic is particularly good for this, as serrated blades are particularly hard to sharpen.  The only caveat is that these are not for people who tend to drop things, since they will shatter if dropped.

Shun bamboo cutting board  You really should never cut on anything but wood, especially if you're a meat eater.  Glass destroys your knives, and those lovely white cutting boards collect bacteria as if they were trying to assemble a complete set.  To my mind, a good wooden cutting board is heavy enough not to move, light enough to reverse so that I can save one side just for cutting meat, and attractive enough to decorate my kitchen.  Avoid anything coated, since the way you clean them is to, er, sand them down a bit every month or so.  And I strenuously advise staying away from futzy "two in one" boards containing knife-sets, prep bowls, or, gawd help us, a mezzaluna inset.  They take away from the cutting surface, and add nothing that cannot be achieved much more cheaply and conveniently by buying prep bowls or a mezzaluna.  Though I tell you now, the mezzaluna is a mistake.

Bodum burr grinder  If you're really into your coffee, you want a good burr grinder, which gives you a more even grind, and doesn't heat the beans during grinding the way blades do.  Bodum does a great job with coffee, and they're at a relatively good price point.  Things like this certainly look impressive, but after a certain point, it's all style.  There's only so far you can go in a home kitchen towards getting a perfectly even grind.  On the other hand, you don't want to go too far downmarket, because everything I hear indicates that the cheaper ones have a tendency to break instantly.

Capresso electric teakettle  Any electric teakettle from a decent manufacturer makes a nice gift, but this is by far the nicest looking one.  The glass lets you watch your water get hot, which if you are as impatient as I am, is very useful.  All electric teakettles get water hot faster than anything but a Viking range, shut off automatically so that you can't burn out the bottom of the pot, and are more energy efficient than the stove.  They're also great for offices (the hot water tap is NOT hot enough to make tea or french press) or dorm rooms, as well as buffets at parties.

Kitchenaid Hand Mixer  I don't use mine much any more--I tend to outsource its labors to either my stand mixer, or my immersion blender.  But I travel with it, and for someone who doesn't have a really high-quality stand mixer, this is invaluable.

Cuisinart Griddler  Yup, it's back again, for what I believe is the fourth year running.  We still use ours all the time.  It has both grill and griddle plates, and can open flat for making pancakes, which is one of the heaviest uses it gets in our house.  The griddle has a temperature control (350 F is the right temp for pancakes), and the grill has a more typical low-medium-high.  I recommend this model rather than the various junior versions because of the dual controls and larger surface.  George Foreman makes a sort of version of this that also does waffles, but I can't recommend it personally, and I think it lacks the open-flat features and the finer temperature controls.

Calphalon One infused anodized 10-inch frying pan  If you are only going to have one frying pan, this should be that pan.  These pans have non-stick coating somehow infused into the aluminum, which makes them more non-stick than regular aluminum pans.  They are less non-stick than non-stick pans, but to me, that's a feature rather than a bug.  Non-stick pans mean your food doesn't develop the fond--that delicious caramelized stuff that gives your food so much of its flavor.  And non-stick pans eventually get destroyed, because once the non-stick coating is scratched, the pan is pretty much ruined--the food will get stuck in the scratches, and can't be cleaned.  (I know that many people keep cooking in them.  Hello, food poisoning.)  I use a Teflon pan for exactly two things:  cooking eggs, and making Parmesan cheese bowls.

The Calphalon One pans are very pricey.  But they're pretty much indestructible, and they cook really well, with a fast, even heat.  You can often pick up slightly damaged ones at Calphalon outlets--I have one, and it works great, despite the tiny dent in the edge that gave me 80% off.  The ten-piece cookware set is my aspiration, but of course, that's a hell of a Christmas gift.

Extravagant Gestures:  $150 and up

KitchenAid Mixer  Yup, every year, I start with the same thing.  If you want to be a serious baker, you need a serious mixer.  The Kitchenaid makes everything from heavy cookie dough, to bread, to delicate meringues, absolutely effortless.  And it has a broader variety of attachments than any other heavy-duty mixer. The planetary action that rotates the blade in one direction, while revolving it around the bowl in the other, minimizes the need to scrape down the bowl, unless your ingredients are particularly sticky.  I lust after the six quart, but I own a five quart, and unless you're baking on an industrial scale, it's adequate to all your needs.  Many people are attracted to the Artisanal models because the head tilts back, but I don't recommend it.  Tilt-head models have less powerful motors, because heavier motors make it harder to tilt the head.  The professionals have a bowl-lift mechanism that is easy to use, and secures the bowl more firmly.  Attachments are also great gifts.   I particularly recommend the ice-cream maker, which is better than anything except pricey high-end machines, because the power of the KitchenAid motor makes for a smoother, creamier end product.

One note:  I advise against buying the trendier colors.  KitchenAid mixers last forever--mine is over 15 years old, while my mother's has been going for nearly forty--and no matter how spectacular you think that Pear, Buttercup, or Mint mixer is going to look on the countertop, ten years from now the color will have gone out of style, and you will be heartily sick of it.

KitchenAid Ultra-Wide-Mouthed Food Processor  As of this writing, KitchenAid has won the food processor wars.  Cuisinart has had production problems, and they simply don't have a model this good on the market.  I won't mince words: it is correspondingly expensive.  There are several reasons that I recommend, and own it.  First, the power of the motor; that's sort of self-explanatory.  Second, the three work bowls (small, medium, large), which make it possible to do different sized jobs, from mincing onions, to grating three pounds of cheese.  Third, the attachments:  they're great.  I use the shredder any time I need a lot of cheese, the slicer for big salads, and the juicer every time Costco puts big bags of grapefruit on sale.  It can also mix batters to a very uniform consistency.  And fourth, the ultra wide mouth is amazing.  You don't know you want it, until you have one, at which point you can't live without it--no more trimming things to fit.  (Well, almost--the three pound block of cheese took some work).  It has a smaller tube in the center for liquids and smaller jobs.  Warning:  it is heavy, so it's best left on the counter.  Which I do anyway, because I use it all the time.

Cuisinart Countertop Oven  There are a couple of reasons to buy a separate convection oven--and believe me, I weighed them for a long, long time before I sank this kind of money into what looks like a toaster oven that got into Arnold Schwarzenegger's leftover steroids.  My old kitchen/living area was cooled by one tiny window unit, which made it unbearable in the summer; this cooked without warming up the kitchen.  A smaller oven also heats faster, cooks faster, and uses less energy than a big stove, particularly if you're using an electric.  Peter, whose affection for crunchy frozen things far outstrips mine, uses it practically every night.  It also makes good toast, which is not, in my experience, generally true of toaster ovens.  And the brick lining makes beautiful bread, since it evens out the heat.  This won't do a turkey or a two layer cake, but it can (and does) do a loaf of bread, a single pan cake, or any number of frozen cocktail things.  If you like to cook on a lavish scale, it's also valuable extra oven space.  Definitely not for everyone--but the people who it is for, will love it.

Shun Chef's knives  The Shun Ken Onion chef's knife is pricey, and in the opinion of many, kind of funny looking.  It is also, hand's down, the best knife I've ever owned.  I've had it for years, and it's still sharp as hell, and just so beautifully balanced.  I even cut tomatoes with it, which is not normally a use one has for chef's knives.  It comes with its own stand, so that you can pretentiously display it on your counter.  Shun has now come out with an absolutely beautiful looking three-piece set in the same line, but that's an even more splendiferous gesture. Like the other things on this end of the shopping list, this is not the kind of thing you should buy someone who only kind of likes to cook--or to have sitting around decorating your countertop.

Le Creuset French Oven  I resent the expense, but unfortunately, there really is nothing better for stews or the (highly recommended) New York Times slow bread recipe.  They last forever, and of course, they're absolutely beautiful.

Copper stock pot  They're ruinously expensive, and many of the high end ones periodically need to be re-tinned, which is hard to find someone to do.  They also make exquisite stock; no other material does it as well, and I've tried all the major combinations.  Copper is both the most responsive and the most even of pot materials, which makes it perfect for keeping things at a slow simmer for the eight to sixteen hours it takes to make really good stock.

The link is just to show you the kind of thing you're looking for, not to actually suggest that you should immediately drop $600-700 for a stockpot.  I mean, unless you are absolutely desperate to put one under the tree for that very special . . . er . . . stock maker in your life, and also, are very, very rich.  Copper stock pots can be found in antique stores not infrequently; buying one and getting it re-tinned is much cheaper than shelling out for a Mauviel just to get a stainless steel interior.  You can also find them on sale in various outlets; my stockpot was available at a deep discount from Williams Sonoma because they'd lost the ornamental lid, and had to give me a plain one.

Obviously, this is a very specialty item.  If you're not starting from scratch by slow-roasting vegetables and bones, this is not an item you want or need.  But if you're willing to do a little hunting, you can find one for much less than a new Mauviel.  Make sure, however, that the copper is doing the heavy lifting; some of the lower-end copper pots that are coming out now seem to use copper mostly for decoration.  (i.e. if it is somehow attached to a celebrity chef, give it a pass--a good rule for cookware in general.)  Copper layers on the bottom are, as far as I can tell, entirely useless for anything except getting people to overpay for a mediocre stainless steel pan.  You know what you're getting if the secondary material is tin . . . but unfortunately, what you're getting is the pain in the ass of finding someone to retin your copper.

Bad Ideas

Williams Sonoma Multi-Chopper  I was avid for this when I saw it, and Peter kindly purchased it for my birthday.  Unfortunately, changing the top plate, which pushes the food through the slicing blade, requires so much hand strength that I have to call Peter to do it for me.  Needless to say, I do not often pop this baby out of the cupboard.

Stir Crazy Popcorn Popper  Excellent idea.  Unfortunately, the kernels occasionally get under the stirring blade, scraping the coating off the pan.  I don't know what's in Teflon, exactly, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to eat it.

Silicone bakeware  I was initially very excited by this stuff when it came out.  Then I tried to remove an underdone fallen chocolate souffle cake from the oven with one hand.  Silicone bakeware is very floppy.  This has somewhat predictable results with things that don't firm up as expected.  Silicone ice cube trays sort of have the same problem, but it's so easy to get the ice out that I'm willing to forgive this small issue

Silicone spatulas  I thought I would love these, but while silicone is, as discussed, very floppy, it turns out that it is not actually floppy enough to do a good job scraping the bowl.  Stick with the cheap rubber ones you get in the supermarket.

Cheap espresso machines  If you're not willing to pay upwards of $500 for something that can consistently deliver 15 bars of pressure, don't do it.  You're essentially making very strong coffee, which is more cheaply and conveniently done by doubling the amount of coffee in your normal coffee machine.  If you must have a machine, you're better off with something from the Nespresso line and the Bodum frother mentioned above.

Coffee makers with built in grinders  They break.  Then you have to buy a whole new coffee machine in order to get a coffee grinder.

Electric steamers  The exact same results are available to you from a steamer basket and a cup full of water--or by putting a quarter cup of water in a dish with your foodstuffs, covering it with plastic wrap (vented, of course), and microwaving it on high for 3-5 minutes.  It just takes up space.

Bread machines  I concede that there is someone in my audience who uses their Breadman SuperDeluxeUltimate every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.  In the other 99% of American homes, they are expensive dust collectors.  Fresh bread doesn't keep, and eaten in the quantities implied by a 2 pound breadmaker, it doesn't do wonderful things for your blood sugar or your waistline.

Knife sharpeners  They are ruinous on good blades, and useless on poor ones.  Take the knives to the kitchen store, and pay someone to sharpen them.  It is better to have four or five good knives that you sharpen once a year (okay, well . . . once every few years, at least), than to waste your time trying to get a good edge with a cheap knife set and an electric sharpener.  I am willing to concede that maybe the Henckels manual sharpener is okay for Henckels knives, but only because I cannot bring myself to believe that they would deliberately do something bad to the knives they sold you.  It's fine to use a sharpening steel, but frankly, unless you know what you're doing, it's just a pleasant ritual, not an actual means of improving your knives.

Creme brulee blow torches  Talk about a specialty appliance--how often do you make creme brulee?  The torches have an unfortunate tendency to either a) not work at all or b) set something other than the sugar on fire.  Put your brulees in a brownie pan, and put the brownie pan under the broiler with the door open.

In a similar vein, I was going to speak out against the Dehydrator Menace.  Oven + Lowest setting + Door open = Food dehydrator.  But this will only attract the ire of people who spend every August putting up eighty quarts of dried fruit for winter, or making venison jerky in bulk.

Specialty microwave dishes.  In some cases, the concept is good.  The problem is, it's always executed in plastic.  Microwaving in plastic may not be such a good idea-phthalates really don't seem to be all that good for you, and I'm not exactly an environmental alarmist.  We only microwave in glass these days.