Yes, it's that time of year again. Back by popular demand, expanded with the accumulated bounty of one moderately large wedding, it's the kitchen gift guide. As usual, I am organizing by price, since everything on this list is something that I specially like having. (Books and girly things will follow this weekend.) Commenters are, as always, encouraged to offer their own suggestions in the comments.
Stocking stuffers: Under $25
Microplane grater This little item has made its appearance on the list every single year I've done it. That's not because it's my most frequently used item--there are many more that I whip out more often. But the microplane grater represents possibly the biggest improvement on what you were doing before--i.e., reducing your knuckles to a bloody, sodden pulp on a box grater, or telling yourself that you don't really need lemon zest in that recipe.
But don't think of the microplane as just a way to produce zest--although it does that so effortlessly that you'll find yourself throwing it into your string beans or decorating a chocolate cake with a magnificently casual insouciance. Zesters are also great for producing gorgeous floaty clouds of parmesan to top individual salads, tasty dustings of chocolate shavings to decorate your cookies or cakes, and even (in a pinch) a quick pile of bread crumbs to seal your Mac n' Cheese.
Tongs Corby Kummer, our intrepid food writer, disagrees with me on this, but I think a good set of tongs is invaluable. It is not, of course, useful for everything--but it does, for example, allow me to ensure that every single piece of stew meat is turned regularly to brown on all sides. Also excellent for a quick-and-dirty salad toss, for spreading butter evenly through noodles, and of course for retrieving bits of things out of boiling water.
I prefer the silicone or nylon head tongs to the stainless steel, because we do have a couple of nonstick pans, which stainless steel tends to scar. However, the synthetic fiber heads do have a tendency to catch fire. You'll have to assess which is the larger risk for your giftee.
Salt Pig As I noted last year, I've been experimenting quite a bit with varietal salts. They're an extravagence, but ultimately, they're an affordable extravagence--my modest containers of my two current favorites, Maldin Sea Salt and pink Himalayan rock salt, have now lasted for over two years. So far the flavor shows no signs of degrading.
A salt pig is good for holding these at the table (don't bother cooking with pricey salt--the cooking process alters the flavor. Just use it for finishing, or table salt). But where it really excels is on the stove, holding your salt for cooking. Many people I know swear by kosher salt, but while I find this useful for treating meat, otherwise I don't see what you gain from throwing larger crystals into a dish where they will just dissolve. I use ordinary Morton's iodized* salt.
The shape of the pig protects your salt from humidity, while giving your measuring spoon easy access. And it's large enough that you won't be constantly refilling it, while small enough that it can sit next to your stove--unlike the stainless steel canister into which I pour the industrial quantities of salt that I purchase at Costco. Plus, it's adorable.
Butter boat This uses evaporative cooling to keep butter at room temperature without spoiling. There's a well for water, and then a butter dish that rests on top of it, and slowly wicks water through the ceramic. The upshot is that as long as you change the water every few days, you can keep butter in the dish for weeks--longer than a stick of butter usually lasts in our house, anyway. I have two, a white one for unsalted, and a green one for salted. It's really a nice little present--who doesn't like nice, soft, fresh-tasting butter?
Kyocera Ceramic Slicer We experimented with one of those things that supposedly chops, dices, slices, and cores by pushing your produce through specially sized grates. It was so unwieldy that I rarely got it out, particularly since it required husbandly strength to move the really tough produce through the grid. Plus it broke after one particularly grueling session of onion soup. Similar concerns about the PITA factor have prevented me from investing in a mandoline.
But the slicer is useful--it produces beautiful, even slices, quicker than you can do them yourself, and it's small enough to hang on your utensil rack. They do break, eventually, but they'll give several years of excellent service in between times. And the ceramic blades don't seem to lose their edge the way steel blades do.
Cookbook stand We got one as a wedding gift, and I absolutely love it. It not only holds the book up where you can see it; it protects the book from the risk (certainty, in my kitchen) of having some sort of batter, sauce, or compote dribbled over it. I've lost more good recipes that way . . .
Egg separator Still recommending this despite the scoffing of people who say that only amateurs need help separating an egg. Me, I may not need help separating an egg, but I sure enjoy it. This is faster than using egg shells, less messy than most other methods, and costs about what a no-foam latte does at Starbucks. And it doesn't take up enough storage space for me to worry that it's a "unitasker".
One way to think about what makes a good kitchen gadget is that it reduces the cost of making something great. Having an egg separator won't change your life--but it will make you marginally more likely to make that meringue or souffle.
Silicone Oven Mitts I know, you are saying to yourself, "don't you say this every year"? Why yes, I do, and I also say Merry Christmas, because it's appropriate to the season. Silicone oven mitts are perhaps not quite as exciting as a bow-wrapped Lexus in the driveway. But they are exceptionally useful--will a Lexus allow you to plunge your hand into boiling water? Especially good for grilling.
Krups Coffee Grinder I now use a burr grinder (see below). But they are expensive, and the change from stale pre-ground coffee to fresh ground is a much bigger jump in quality than the switch from a blade grinder to a burr grinder. These take up little space and work very well; they're also pretty great as spice grinders.
Kitchen Shears A really heavy-duty set of kitchen shears is useful. For starters, they are stronger than ordinary scissors, and so as to make light work of ripping out a chicken's spine. (After it's dead, guys. Even if I were that sort of monster--have you ever tried to hold kitchen shears and a live chicken?) Perhaps even more importantly, they come apart. This allows you to clean out food detritus that would otherwise turn into your very own bacteria farm.
Silicone pastry mat So there I was for the very first time last weekend, rolling out gingerbread cookies to cut into shapes for Christmas. One hour later, there I was for the very first time, trying to scrape up all the gingerbread that had stuck to my work surface. This took forever, and the sludgy byproduct disgusted even me, who cheerfully handles the broken garbage disposal. Which is when I realized just how much I missed the silicone pastry mat we lost in our most recent move. Silicone's combination of flexibility, and a complete inability to stick to things, makes it invaluable for things like pastry and rolled cookies. It not only makes things easier on you, but also, the fact that things won't stick to it means you can use less flour, resulting in a more delicate and tender product.
Thoughtful Presents: $25 to $50
Silicone rolling pin Remember what I just said about the mat? Same goes for the rolling pin--you don't even have to flour it. This makes it just slightly trickier to roll up your top crust pastry on the pin and then unroll it over the pan, but this is a very minor inconvenience compared to not having half your dough stuck to the pin, and the rest an unusable, hole-filled mess. Really, once you try this, you will never go back to wood.
Froth au Lait: This is kind of a funny gift. It's basically a substitute for a powerful Cappucino machine; it produces hot, frothed milk. Of course, with hot, frothed milk, most people want espresso, so why not just buy an espresso maker?
Well, this is a lot cheaper--and for a lot of people, hot frothed milk with strong coffee is a pretty good substitute for the product of a $500 espresso machine. This also produces quite a lot of hot, frothed miilk at once--useful for making multiple drinks. Or, if you are my, for pairing with the Nespresso coffee maker in your office (reviewed below).
The manufacturer maintains that you can make all sorts of custards and fancy sauces in it. I can't speak to that--though in theory, something that constantly stirs your Hollandaise for you at a consistent temperature does seem like an improvement over the normal procedure of curdling the eggs and then frantically trying to get them to un-separate. I can attest that it does make very good hot, frothed milk.
Rabbit Corkscrew I'm a big fan of this--it makes opening a wine bottle basically foolproof. I feel it's especially good for people who are losing hand strength, although you might also want to consider an electric corkscrew, which gets decent reviews. We're also extremely pleased with the wine aerator that a friend got me for a bridal shower gift; it allows you to rapidly aerate red wine that you don't have time to decant, improving the flavor. It would be a lovely gift paired with a corkscrew.
Tea Press Essentially, it's a teapot that allows you to make loose tea without messing around with leaves in the bottom of the cup. We not only love ours, but frequently give them as gifts--when winter comes, or you have a cold, there is very little nicer than a hot pot of tea. I'm particularly fond of the Bodum models, because they're attractive, and the decorative plastic on the bottom also protects your furniture from the heat.
Waffle Iron This is a conventional waffle iron, like the ones I used to use as a child, rather than the tank-sized belgian wafflers that are all the rage. I prefer a conventional waffle, which is flatter than a Belgian waffle. Belgian waffles always seem like too much of a good thing--too much butter, too much syrup, too much waffle. Conventional waffles are thinner and a little crisper, and don't make you feel as if you need to get on the Stairmaster for ten hours to atone. If you want to eat more, of course, you can always make another waffle.
This one has a lot of nice features, that were complimented when we rolled it out for brunch this Sunday. It heats up beautifully to six different temperatures, with a green light and a beep to tell you that it's ready. It opens and stays at the right height to put in batter--then when it is closed, senses that it's time to cook the waffle. There's another green light and a beep when the waffle's done--which they all were, perfectly. We brought the waffle iron right to the table and cooked eight waffles in a row in fifteen to twenty minutes, with a hot crispy waffle coming off just as people were ready for more. The last was as good as the first.
Warming Gravy Boat There was a lot of chaffing about the warming gravy boat on Thanksgiving, but people weren't laughing so hard when they still had warm gravy 45 minutes into our massive feast. It also does a brilliant job with chocolate sauce for desserts, and for warm maple syrup on pancakes and, er, waffles--just put the syrup in cold and turn it on. It hasn't changed my life, or anything, but it doesn't take up much more space than a regular gravy boat, it isn't notably uglier or more expensive, and having warm sauces is really nice.
Oxo Kitchen Scale A scale is really necessary if you're going to do serious cooking. Obviously, it is good for figuring out exactly what constitutes 2.5 pounds of potatoes. But it's also important for baking, because wherever possible, you should measure your ingredients by weight, not by volume. A given mass of flour can vary a lot in volume, depending on things like humidity, temperature, and how long it's been sitting. This is also true of other ingredients, like nuts, which take up very different amounts of space depending on how finely they're chopped. Bonus: if you weigh your flour, you can aerate in the food processor instead of sifting.
Immersion blender Don't buy a cheap one--stick with Braun, Cuisinart, or KitchenAid. But between those three, I can't really tell much difference. I've never had a friend whose cooking I respect gush to me about the awesome, life-changing excellence of their immersion blender. Nor have I come home from another person's kitchen with immersion blender gadget-lust in my heart. They're stick blenders. You stick them into your sauces, and they puree. There's no secret magic out there.
Which is not to denigrate the immersion blender, because it really is a phenomenally useful gadget, especially if you happen to be possessed of a spouse or child who refuses to eat anything with lumps of vegetables in it. It is a vast, colossal, gargantuan improvement over messing around with pouring batches of hot liquid into a blender. But the basic technology seems to be pretty settled by now, and I haven't heard of radical new advances in the last year.
Generous gifts: $50 to $150
All-Clad One Quart Saucier We tend to underestimate little pans--both as gifts, and in purchasing for ourself. But this pan is probably off my rack more than any other. There is always some sort of small job in the kitchen, and while I do a lot of them in the microwave, many of them, like scalding milk, require more careful monitoring. It's the sort of thing a beginning cook would never think of buying for themselves, but will soon discover they can't live without.
Electric Kettle I first used one in England, where everyone has one. Alas, the American versions, which run on 110 volt electricity, do not heat as fast as the British versions running on 220 volts. But they are still marvelously convenient, especially in the summer, when I, for one, will do anything to avoid turning on the stove. This made an especially good gift for my grandmother when she was losing her sight to macular degeneration, and it was dangerous for her to use the stove; they're also very good for people in dorm rooms, for whom microwave burritos and Cup o' Noodles represent the height of cookery.
Burr grinder We got this as a wedding gift from my editor, to whom my husband now offers a silent word of thanks every morning. Burr grinders do make a superior cup of coffee. Coffee fanatics say it's because they don't heat the grinds, and perhaps that's part of it, but in my opinion the most important thing is simply that a burr grinder gives you a perfectly precise grind--all the coffee grinds are exactly the right size.
Many people are tempted by coffee makers that have the grinder right in them. This is a tragic mistake--either the grinder or the coffee maker is liable to break, and then you have to replace the whole thing.
Electric Pepper Mill My mother has one of these, and couldn't stop talking how great it was. When our housing woes forced us to move into her house over the summer, I finally understood why. It actually is quite nice to be able to grind pepper into your sauce one-handed, while stirring with the other hand. It's especially nice for people who are having trouble with their hands, as my mother was for several years until she had surgery on her thumb.
Cuisinart Griddler You know, you young people don't know how good you have it. When I was your age, the Cuisinart Griddler didn't have reversible plates that allowed you to turn your contact grill and panini press into a griddle. We had to change the plates.
The new improved version still does all the things I love in mine. It's basically a George Foreman grill that also opens flat to grill meats, or with the plates on the griddle side, to serve as an electric griddle. There are separate controls for grilling/griddling: low/medium/high for the grill, and a temperature control for the griddle which allows you to get the plates to the exact perfect temperature for cooking pancakes (350 F). This is valuable enough to be one of the few appliances allowed to remain on my counter.
Shun Knife Block So, we got a lot of knives for our wedding (so many that I've got a separate section below just for knives). I know, you're not supposed to give knives for a wedding, but that's what we really needed, and boy, are they awesome. However, since I already had quite a few knives, we overflowed the block, necessitating the purchase of this, the biggest block we could find.
There's not that much you can say about a knife block--I mean, providing it holds the knives, well, there you are. But this one has lots of nice wide, deep slots, and while it takes up a lot of space on the counter, that's the price of having lots and lots of knives. It's pretty attractive, and also nice and sturdy. I think it's safe to say that, barring house fire, we've bought our last knife block.
Kitchenaid hand mixer It don't use mine that often any more, because I have a nice big stand mixer on my counter. On the other hand, it's still where I can get at it. It's excellent for traveling, for jobs that require multiple beating jobs (say, a cake recipe that wants butter and sugar creamed together, and stiffly beaten egg whites). And for someone who doesn't have a stand mixer (or room to leave said mixer where they can easily get at it), it's a lifesaver. The 9-speed Kitchenaids are about the best model on the market, as far as I can tell.
Calphalon One Infused Anodized 10-Inch Frying Pan For my money, the Calphalon One Infused Anodized pans are the best all-around utility pans out there. The look is perhaps not quite as sexy as all that gleaming stainless steel--but then, you're not the kind of person who would buy pans to be looked at, would you?
The infused anodized pans (not to be confused with the nonstick pans, which I basically only use to make eggs and parmesan cheese bowls) are a sort of hybrid between non-stick and traditional pans. They have the teflon infused into the aluminum, which results in a pan that is not really nonstick--you still get the delicious caramelized bits stuck to the pan, which chefs call the fond--but is easier to clean than a regular pan. Aside from that, they're also very good pans: responsive, with nice, even heat and no hot spots. This pan has even converted my husband, who professed to see no reason to have expensive pans until he experienced the difference between pan searing in this, and pan searing in a $12 piece of junk from Target.
I still have one heavy-duty nonstick everyday pan for eggs and baking, and a cast iron pan along with big stainless job for browning meat and similar. But this pan is my go-to for everyday. I've cast longing eyes at the insanely expensive set, but can't justify it while I still have plenty of working pans.
These pans, by the way, can often be purchased for considerable discounts at Calphalon outlets--I got my frying pan for $25 in Waterloo, NY. It's got a very small dent on the lip, but so far, none of my food has complained. Only you know whether your giftee would be pickier.
Cuisinart Countertop Oven Sadly, I no longer own this, due to some confusion on my part about the uses of oven cleaner (Hints from Heloise: they don't mean pricey toaster ovens). Since we are without it, I suddenly realize how much we used it. It actually makes pretty decent toast, which is not generally true of toaster ovens, but our main use was as a substitute for the oven, particularly in the summer (and a supplement to the oven at parties). It did a terrific job for us until I killed it. Most toaster ovens do a mediocre job at higher temperatures, but this one was fast and consistent, even when we really piled in the frozen food.
Extravagent Gestures: $150 and Up
Kitchenaid Stand Mixer Old-timers know this always leads off the list of really expensive gadgets. And well it should. This is simply a phenomenally useful piece of equipment if you are a baker. (Do not believe their lies about making mashed potatoes in a mixer. Using a mixer or immersion blender does something to the structure of the potato, turning it into glue. And really, if you're under 95, you ought to be able to wield a damn potato masher--or, if you really need a super-fine texture, a potato ricer).
I do not recommend getting a mixer below the "professional" grade. In past years, this has triggered wails of anguish from people who really want a tilt-head model, and hey, don't let me stop you if you absolutely cannot live with a bowl-lift on your mixer. But the tilt-head limits the power of the motor (more powerful motors are heavier and harder to lift). And really, after a week, you will not even notice that you have to lift the bowl up and down. I've recommended the six quarter, but people with smaller families, or ambitions, will probably be just as happy with the five.
They've toned down the colors this year, at least on the six-quart, so I don't have to issue my standard warning about buying a mixer that will last for decades in an adorable color like Buttercup or Mint.
One of the nicest things about the Kitchenaid is that all its attachments (with the exceptions of some bowls and similar) fit all of its mixers. I highly recommend the ice-cream bowl--properly chilled, it produces ice cream with a really lovely texture, thanks to the power of the Kitchenaid motor. (It isn't quite as nice as the really fancy machines with compressors, but it also takes up much less space, and doesn't cost hundreds of dollars). I don't recommend the meat grinder. We bought one this year and
made tried to make our own cruelty-free hamburger, a revolting, agonizingly slow process which almost turned everyone involved (back) into vegetarians. The fat not only got caught in the blades, which is normal, but also turned black from the lubricant in the grinding mechanism, which isn't. You can make really quite delicious hamburger in a food processor.
Technovorm Coffee Maker Before you click the link, let me warn you: it's a $300 coffeemaker. Moreover, it's a $300 coffeemaker that doesn't have a timer, or a built-in grinder, or an alarm. It's not very good at interrupting the brew in the middle so that you can grab a cup while it's still dripping. This has shocked and horrified many of the people who have bought it.
All the Technovorm does is make a phenomenal cup of coffee. It does one thing superbly well: get the water to just the right temperature to extract maximum coffee flavor without bitterness. It is the best cup of coffee I have ever had in a private home. It's also fast, meaning that the wait for the first cup of coffee isn't too agonizing, even without a timer or flow-interrupt.
There's no heating element for the already-made coffee; instead, it uses a thermal carafe so good at holding in heat that when we empty out the old coffee, hours later, rinsing it out with cold water frequently produces steam. This means that the last cup of coffee isn't overcooked and disgusting, but pretty much as good (and almost as hot) as the first cup that came out.
This is not for everyone, clearly. But if you really like good coffee, or know someone who does, and you have the money, you should really think about investing in this machine.
Nespresso Espresso Maker Coffee snobs may well be indignant that I am reviewing this next to the Technivorm, but what's a girl to do? The Nespresso machines, which use vacuum packed single-serve capsules, are not good substitutes for a delicious, perfectly pulled cup of espresso. However, they are very good substitutes for office coffee which is where I use mine. And in combination with the Froth-au-lait, linked above, they are pretty good substitutes for terrible, expensive, coffee shop drinks, in which category I place the Starbucks "Extra Burned" line of cappuccinos and lattes. It can be set to make either espresso, or coffee, both of which are strong and pretty delicious, unlike the watery brew that the Keurig produces.
Kitchenaid Model 770 Food Processor I've had mine for about 5 years now, and it remains the best food processor out there for the money. Why this one? First, the power of the motor, which is pretty amazing (fair warning: as a result, the base is very heavy). It makes short work of huge blocks of cheese, mounds of vegetables, or, as I believe I mentioned, big hunks of beef.
Second, the attachments: it's got a really huge assortment, from slicing and shredding dishes, to the standard blade, to a juicer and an attachment for egg whites. I use every one of them at least a few times a year. It also comes with three work bowls (small, medium, large) which means that you can often use it for multiple tasks without washing up in between.
And third, the ultra-wide mouth. It really ups the usefulness of your food processor, because if I have to chop everything into teeny-weeny chunks before I put it through the food processor, what do I have the food processor for again?
You do pay extra for the extra-wide mouth on the Model 770, but to my mind, it's well worth it. This remains one of the most expensive food processors on the market, but they're commanding that price because they are delivering a far superior product--my mother has one of the recent high-end Cuisinarts, and it's extraordinarily disappointing to use when you're used to the KitchenAid.
Sodastream Penguin Sodastream is a growing company which basically sells machines and accessories to make seltzer, and then turn that seltzer into various flavors of soda. This is their top of the line model, which doesn't make seltzer any better than the other models, but has two advantages: it looks like a penguin, which is pretty stylish on the counter; and it uses glass bottles instead of plastic. I'm not particularly paranoid, but I'm trying to at least slightly lessen the amount of chemicals in my diet that have leached out of plastic containers.
Sodastream doesn't, as far as I can tell, really save you money. It does, however, save you storage space, and we actually prefer many of the soda mixes, like the ginger ale and the tonic water, to what we get at the supermarket: we can control the level of carbonation and the amount of syrup. Plus it's hugely convenient to be able to make soda any time you want. The company delivers straight to your doorstep (and picks up old cylinders to replace for new), so you never need to run out because you forgot to go to the store. We use this so often that it has won its place on our countertop, beside the food processor, the stand mixer, and the griddler. That's really the highest praise I can give.
"Male" and "Female" Whiskey Decanters This is not, technically, a kitchen item. But I love these so much that I cannot resist showing them off. We got them as a wedding gift, and we keep scotch in one, bourbon in the other. This does not actually improve your Scotch or anything. But it looks rather lovely, and makes a considerably prettier after-dinner presentation than plopping the bottles down on the table.
Like I said, I can't really justify including these except that they stopped making the slow-cooker I wanted to write about, and I am besotted with them.
Copper Stockpot Like I said last year, this is a very, very specialty item. Copper stockpots are good for exactly one sort of person: the kind who sets aside an entire weekend day or so for making stock, starting with slow-roasting a big pile of bones. Or, perhaps, the sort of person who has announced their intention to start doing so this Saturday.
For that sort of person, a gigantic copper stockpot is a great gift. Unfortunately, the kind you ought to buy costs an absolutely insane fortune on Amazon. The sort you oghtn't to buy costs less, but you oughtn't to buy them. You can identify these pots because they oftne have the name of a celebrity chef on them, or on closer examination turn out to use a very thin layer of copper around an ordinary pan to make it look pretty.
Luckily, Amazon is not the only place you can go. Kitchen outlets often have sales (I got mine at a Williams Sonoma Outlet, where they were practically giving it away because the picturesque rooster handle had come off and been replaced by a plain one). Antique stores often have them--though you should make sure it is a good, heavy duty pot, as there was a vogue for producing flimsy decorative copper pots in the middle of the twentieth century, and many of them are floating around. If you buy a used pot--which can be beautiful!--you will need to find a place to get it re-tinned. If you don't overpay in the antique shop, this is still much cheaper than buying a new pot.
Ummm, Merry Christmas, I Guess: Knives
So, obviously, you should know who you're getting knives for. Not everyone will appreciate the gesture as a symbol of your, er, abiding love and overflowing holiday spirit.
That said, good knives are so important to anyone who cooks a lot. Nothing else--except maybe a really terrible frying pan--can make you so miserable in the kitchen when it's wrong, and so happy when it's right. Ultimately, if you want to do any cooking at all, there's no way to get around needing a few decent knives.
Thanks to a wedding I threw last June, we now have as many knives as we could possibly want. Well, almost, anyway. We certainly have enough knives. And since a reader specifically asked about knives, I will try to pass on my accumulated knowledge in this special bonus section.
My knife preference is Shun. I grew up on Wusthof and Henckels, and really, anything with a decent edge and a handle will do the job. But I love the way the Shuns handle, and the way they hold an edge. I still have some of my old knives, but I barely use them any more.
So what does Megan McArdle consider essential to a good kitchen?
Paring knives: Shun has a bunch, and I think I now own most of them. (Thanks, everyone!) I've been surprisingly pleased with their tiny 2.5 inch bird's beak knife, which really lets you do jobs that require fine motor skills. (Bonus: you can be almost positive your giftee doesn't have one) However, this must be considered as a supplument, not a replacement, to a larger paring knife. I have the Ken Onion 3-inch paring knife, which is really a fantastic knife--it's an odd shape, but it has terrific balance, and its shape turns out to help, rather than hinder you getting the job done. Unfortunately, its correspondingly expensive. I also have the Classic Four-inch paring knife, which is right on the edge of the size that can properly be considered a paring knife, but also useful for slicing. If you're only going to have one knife, I'd recommend the 3.5 inch classic, which is probably the most versatile size, and is slightly less pricey.
Utility knives: I have two Shun Ken Onion utility knives (I know, this is getting ridiculous, but my family is aware of my fetish, and likes to haunt kitchen outlets . . . I didn't even register for these). The four inch chef's knife is probably the most-used knife in my kitchen. It's an incredibly versatile size and shape, and it always seems to be the one I pull out when I have a little chopping or slicing to do. The five inch utility knife is my go-to for jobs that require something larger and thinner, like trimming a whole tenderloin.
Serrated knives: I have a simple rule on this--"don't pay much for serration". With these knives, the serration is doing most of the work, not the quality of the knife, so there's no point in paying extra--serration technology hasn't improved noticeably since the invention of the saw. All you really need in a serrated knife is something firm enough to push through the material you're cutting without bending.
For utility knives, I like the Kyocera ceramic, since it holds an edge (serrated knives are particularly hard to sharpen correctly), though you should not leave this around fumble-fingered relatives or children, since it will shatter if dropped. Frankly, I don't even use a bread knife any more--I just hack at it with the five inch--but if you want one, I'm sure a cheap Henckels would be fine.
Chef's Knife: Also the Shun Ken Onion, an eight-inch blade that is an absolute joy to use. It certainly makes an impressive presentation--it comes in its own stand--but the really impressive thing is using it. The blade keeps an edge beautifully, and the balance is just perfect. Obviously, it also has the most important characteristic of a chef's knife--it is solid steel heavy enough to drive the knife through whatever you are chopping. As well, I have the seven-inch Santoku, which has a slightly different balance and heft, and is a little more wieldy for smaller jobs. For those who don't want to pay quite that much for a knife, Shun's less pricey classic line is also excellent.
This sounds like a lot of knives. It is. You certainly don't need that many, though it is helpful if you're going to have multiple people cooking in your kitchen--and I'm the sort of person whose dinner party guests often end up in the kitchen with me.
The bare minimum is a decent paring knife, a decent utility knife, a serrated utility knife, and a good chef's knife. And if you're buying for someone who doesn't have much of a kitchen, that's what I would think about.
On the other hand, if you're buying for someone who already cooks quite a lot, think about slightly offbeat knives--the bird's beak, the 4-inch chef. They won't have them, and they will use them.
Then there are the knives I haven't even mentioned: cleavers (which I am irrationally afraid of); boning knives (which I own, but which aren't particularly excellent for anything except boning, which not everyone does); carving knives, which I only end up using a few times a year on really gargantuan roasts; steak knives, which really seem to belong in the category of cutlery. A knife collection always ends up being an individual thing, so know your chef before you gift.
Which reminds me: don't buy a set unless you're trying to outfit a recent college grad who will never darken their oven door. They're often cheaper knives, and the knife blocks don't allow for expansion, which is a problem because they're rarely just right for the person you're gifting. I think it's always better to get one really good knife that will be treasured for years, than a bunch of mediocre knives that will be discarded when they break or dull.
Also worth noting: there is no such thing as a metal knife that miraculously stays sharp. New knives are all sharp; cheap blades lose their edge quickly and are hard to resharpen, but all knives have to have their edge put back on after you've used them for a while. I am suspicious of sharpening machines, so I take it to the kitchen store (or mail them to Shun, who will sharpen your knives for free), but some people are now reporting good results with the manufacturer-branded electric sharpeners. I'd be too chicken to risk my expensive knives with one that wasn't manufacturer-specific. Whatever you do, don't believe that you can get someone knives that don't need to be sharpened.
I'm sure that this list will draw out the Knife Snobs, who only get their cleavers at a secret location in Outer Mongolia, or, alternatively, proudly declare that they wouldn't dream of paying more than $3 for a knife at the local hardware store . . . there is as much snobbery in what food people won't pay for as in what they will.
But this is a good, broad guide. Which is mostly what I try to do with the annual gift list. I don't recommend anything unless I use it, and love it, and consider it a real improvement in my kitchen. And the highlight of my year is hearing from the people who have used things, and loved them too.
But that certainly doesn't mean that every good thing is on it. Readers are, as always, invited to offer corrections and amplifications in the comments.
* I have thyroid disease, and so am very concerned with getting enough iodine; unless you too have a thyroid problem, non-iodized salt is fine, and as a reader points out, may dissolve faster and prevent you from oversalting your food.