With the holidays approaching, I’m starting to get more of this question from readers and friends: “What should I buy for my [friend/relative/s.o.] who loves to cook?” With that in mind, here’s part one of what I hope will be a series on kitchen gadgets I can recommend based on personal experience. Nothing on here is over $30 – I can do a more expensive list if anyone wants it – and I use all of these items regularly in my kitchen. Where possible, I’m recommending the exact make and model I own. If not, I’ll make that clear right away.
This knife is Cooks Illustrated‘s recommendation, and those of you who have bought it on my past recommendations, but you should know that I do not own this particular knife – I own a Henckels chef’s knife that I received as a gift but that runs about $100, and while I love it, there’s no reason for me to recommend it over a $28 knife that does the job just as well. You must own a good chef’s knife if you intend to cook; I tried to cook with a cheap one that we received in a knife set at our wedding and cut myself at least a half-dozen times inside of two years, while I don’t think I’ve cut myself five times in ten years since I received this knife as a gift.
I do own a BladeSafe for my chef’s knife, a simple, safe plastic holder that not only keeps the knife safe in a drawer but makes shipping or transporting it much easier. We’ve often gone to friends’ houses for holidays or other big dinners where I’ll offer to cook something, and there’s no good way to wrap or protect a knife en route other than a BladeSafe or the competing KnifeSafe option.
Your friend/relative already has a chef’s knife? If he or she is a meatatarian, consider this Henckels boning knife, which I do own and use often. It’s the best tool for breaking down a whole chicken, and is good for deboning tough cuts of meat, such as separating a short rib from its bone, two things I’ve done with this knife in the last five days.
I have that model, made by Kyocera and sold in several colors with red, for some reason, about a buck cheaper than the other options. I’d actually lost track of it in our house in Massachusetts as it ended up buried in the back of a cabinet, but rediscovered it when we moved – that has easily been the best part of this process, realizing that I owned things I should have been using for the last, oh, five to nine years – and have found myself reaching for it more and more often. It’s lightweight and the ceramic blade will never require sharpening. Best application so far has been for shallots: Mincing a shallot for a vinaigrette or a beurre blanc is a pain in the neck, and it cracks me up when I see TV chefs (America’s Test Kitchen is the biggest violator) try to mince a shallot like it’s just a miniature onion. I use this slicer to create very thin sheets of the shallot, then stack them roughly on the cutting board and go over them twice with a chef’s knife. No, Tom Colicchio might not approve of the uneven pieces, but this ain’t craftsteak and I’m not cooking anything for 24 hours. For my purposes it creates a perfect mince, saves time, and is safer than trying to execute the classic three-cut technique for an onion on a shallot.
And while you’re at it, you could add a pair of cut-resistant Kevlar gloves, since, as Alton Brown pointed out in the last episode of Good Eats, the hand guards that come with these home slicers are about as useful as a utility infielder who can’t play shortstop.
The model I own is no longer available, and it didn’t come with that handy little tub at the bottom to catch whatever you’re grating, although I’ve found either a flexible cutting board or a large piece of waxed paper does the trick. I use mine at least five times a week, usually for grating hard or semi-soft cheeses. I’ve found nothing faster except maybe the food processor, and that can’t get Parmiggiano-Reggiano as fine as a box grater can. If you don’t want this exact model, make sure you get one with a strong, sturdy handle, and at least three different sizes of holes on the various sides of the grater. (I also own a three-sided grater as a backup in case the first one is in the dishwasher.)
I own lots of thermometers – a fridge thermometer (check your nearest hardware store; Fry’s sells them too), an oven thermometer ($3!), a candy/frying thermometer, a digital probe thermometer for roasting – but this $9 gadget is so simple and handy that I use it every day. It’s ideal for measuring the temperature of the milk I steam for espresso drinks, and small and unobtrusive enough to use when measuring an egg foam in the top of a double boiler for buttercream, genoise, or zabaglione. I bought a second one just to have a spare on hand for when my first one dies, but even though I see a few amazon reviews say the device stopped working right away and even though I’ve dropped it in water and in milk (and probably worse), it still works.
I own two of these and keep them in the half-sheet pans I bought from a now-defunct restaurant supply store in Belmont, Massachusetts. Silpat sheets are made of silicone and make any sheet pan a nonstick pan, meaning you can bake on the sheets without greasing the pan or using parchment paper. (I do love parchment paper, but why use more than you have to when you can buy a Silpat, never have to cut the paper to fit, and maybe save a tree?) It’s great for cookies, biscuits, and meringues, and Alton – I’d like to think we’re on a first name basis, even though he never returns my calls – uses his for candy-making. They sell other sizes but I only have this one.
Bit of a unitasker, but you can’t make great mashed potatoes without it. I’ve tried. A wire potato masher is great for making guacamole, where uneven texture is desirable, but leaves potatoes too chunky. Grid mashers are even less effective. Anything electric, like a stick blender, will make the potatoes gummy. My only complaint about using a ricer is that you have to work fast with the hot material, but I haven’t found a better way.
(I do own a stick blender and use it often, but I don’t love my model, and it’s no longer available. I’m not sure which one to recommend.)
If amazon is to be believed, I’ve had mine for at least seven years, and it’s still as sharp as it was the day I got it. It’s ideal for zesting a lemon (those tiny “zester” tools are horrid), grating fresh nutmeg (because you would never buy it ground, right?), or grating small amounts of hard cheeses like Parmiggiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. Of all the items on this list, this is the one I’ve given most often as a gift.