Back in 2010 and 2011, I wrote a pair of posts offering gift ideas for the cooks in your circle, but never put together a single omnibus post that covered what I use in the kitchen on a daily basis. Here’s my attempt to do so, covering three core categories: Knives, pots and pans, and essential tools. If you think something’s missing, you’re probably right, so throw a note in the comments for me.
You need three, at least, but might not need more if your cooking needs are basic. Everyone needs a chef’s knife, and as long as the blade is good, the only variable that matters is the comfort of the handle, which is a personal choice. I own a Henckels model I got in the late 1990s, but the folks at Cooks Illustrated have long recommended the Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife, which is cheaper but just as strong, lacking Henckels’ brand-name and maybe losing a little comfort on the handle. The best value among Henckels knives is this 8-inch chef’s knife, only $12 more than the Victorinox model; I can’t compare them directly but have been very happy with the Henckels knives I own.
You also need a bread knife, which is a long knife with a serrated edge, for slicing bread but also cutting grapefruits and tomatoes and even for chopping chocolate. This Henckels 8-inch model is identical to the one I own except for the handle style.
The third knife you probably should own if you want to cook is a paring knife, great for … paring things. Actually, the main thing I use my paring knife for is hulling strawberries, which is quick and safe work (you rotate the berry, not the knife) once you get the motion down. It’s good for fine work, but I use mine less often than I use the other two knives. This Victorinox paring knife is under $8, a better value than the Henckels model.
If you want to expand your set, the next two I’d suggest would be a slicing knife and a santoku. The slicing knife has a narrower blade, so it’s not for chopping but rather for long, even cuts in something like a steak or cooked turkey or pork loin. You could also get an electric carving knife for the latter, which does make life easier although I admit blades with motors make me somewhat nervous. A santoku is a Japanese knife for chopping and dicing vegetables, with an extremely narrow cutting edge on a wider blade, great for plants but not so much for animal products. Amazon has a two santoku set from Henckels over half off, $22 total, which has to be a temporary sale. I own a Henckels santoku with a different handle and it’s very useful for thin, precise cuts of vegetables, and it’s frighteningly sharp.
The last knife I own is a boning knife, used for basic butchery (breaking down a chicken or a duck, but not, say, a whole cow) where you’re separating meat from bone. The key there is a flexible blade that bends without breaking and is extremely sharp. I bought a Henckels boning knife off eBay a decade ago for $20, under half what they go for now on Amazon. I don’t have a specific recommendation as the Victorinox models all look too thin for the way I use mine – which, by the way, I used to take apart a 13-pound turkey this morning so I can cook the legs (confit) and breasts (roasted) separately.
I’ve owned some All-Clad anodized aluminum pots for over a decade, but have gradually adjusted to add some stainless steel pieces, non-stick skillets, my trusty 12” cast-iron skillet from Lodge, and one Le Creuset Dutch oven that I got as a gift several years ago. The anodized aluminum pots are easy to clean and heavy-duty enough for everyday cooking, but you don’t need to spend for All-Clad (I actually didn’t pay for them either, getting through a credit card rewards program).
For non-stick, I’ve had good luck with fairly cheap pans from Wearever, who now offer a three-pan set for $23 via amazon that includes both of the ones I own. Treat them right – no metal utensils, don’t let them heat up all the way while empty, don’t put them in the dishwasher – and they should last for years. For eggs, which will stick to pretty much anything, these skillets are essential, but they’re also great for frying a potato rösti or fish fillets.
I tweeted about my Lodge 12-inch cast-iron skillet, which I’ve had for at least a decade and still use all the time. I originally bought it because Alton Brown told me it was the only way to cook proper Southern fried chicken, which was true, but it’s now my go-to vehicle for any kind of pan-frying where I’m using a half inch of oil or more, up to deep frying (which I do in my Dutch oven). I also cook pancakes in here, using bacon fat as the grease. The only issue I’ve had is that smaller stoves don’t play that nicely with its wide base, so if you have a 30” stovetop or just know your burners are small, go for the 10.5” model (found in the same link) instead.
The stainless steel items I use are both from Calphalon’s Simply Calphalon collection, a 2.5-quart saucier and a 3-quart lidded saute pan, although I don’t think either is available any more. Calphalon does offer a ten-piece Simply Calphalon starter set, with a saute pan and two skillets but no saucier, and while I’m sure the skillets are wonderful I’d still want to supplement them with non-stick ones like those I mentioned above.
The Le Creuset Dutch oven is a luxury item, although you can get one a lot cheaper if you have an outlet near you and don’t mind buying a discontinued color. Le Creuset products are made of cast iron but the surface is enameled, so it’s nonstick and doesn’t require seasoning. If you can afford one, you won’t regret the purchase, as they’re so heavy-duty they’re perfect for any kind of braise or stew, or even stovetop dishes like risotto, where you want even eating and a wide opening for steam to escape. It is also by far the best way to deep fry anything, as long as you have a candy or frying thermometer; it holds its heat and the deep sides limit spatter. (Don’t buy an electric deep-fryer; the reviews on those are consistently terrible.) I’ve linked to the size and model I have, a seven-quart version, as the nine-quart is too big for consumer stove burners and is also too heavy for easy transport when it’s hot. The seven-quart is fine for cooking a five-pound pork shoulder or enough short ribs to feed 3-4 people.
The one essential addition to your pots and pans, based on my own usage, is a slow cooker, sometimes called a crockpot. If you don’t like the idea of leaving the oven on all day while you’re at work, or want more precise temperature control over a praise, a slow cooker allows you to program time and temperature and just forget about it until it’s done. I’ve used mine for short ribs, stews, carnitas (braised pork shoulder with onions and some herbs, in which the pork ends up braising in its own fat and juices), even sauces. I own this Hamilton Beach six-quart model and have been very satisfied with it, as it’s big enough for my needs and the ceramic liner is heavy enough to retain its heat for a long time after the cooking has stopped.
One new recommendation for this year is Freshpaper, which you can buy direct from Fenugreen, the manufacturer, and can also buy in any Whole Foods as well as many other health-food stores. The product is amazing: small squares of paper soaked in various herbs that have antimicrobial properties, so fruits and vegetables placed on the paper or in a bin with the paper won’t spoil as quickly. I’ve been using Freshpaper for a year or so, and it absolutely works, even on quick-to-mold foods like berries. I keep one in each crisper drawer in the fridge, one in the fruit bowl on the counter, and one in any clamshell package of berries we buy. The manufacturer also donates a package to a food pantry or charity for every package they sell. The paper is even compostable, if you roll that way, so it’s more environmentally friendly than the ethylene absorbers you’re supposed to throw in your crisper drawers.
I don’t think any kitchen tool has had the impact of the Microplane grater, which is now ubiquitous in professional kitchens and on cooking shows, replacing the rougher cheese-grater style in many applications, including grating nutmeg and zesting citrus fruits. Amazon reminds me that I bought my Microplane classic grated ten years ago this past weekend, which is a little eerie, but it’s as good as new and I just busted it out the other day. I also have their coarse grater, which I use more for grating hard cheeses to finish a dish, since it produces light snow-like flakes and doesn’t tear apart whatever you’re grating.
I’ve previously recommended this Kyocera hand-held mandolin and am actually due for a replacement, as I managed to crack the frame of mine through overuse. The blade never lost any sharpness, though, which is what they promised. It’s great for making very thin slices (with four thickness settings) of vegetables for salads, for quick pickles, or for potato or other root vegetable chips. (Sweet potato chips are my favorite, fried till just slightly colored, dusted with sea salt and smoked Spanish paprika. Way, way better than sweet potato fries.)
The rest of my kitchen tools are prosaic – tongs, rubber spatulas, and wooden utensils, the latter mostly flat-edged spatulas. I mostly use metal tongs, but for working with nonstick cookware or the cast-iron skillet, my OXO nylon tongs is indispensable. Others you can pick up just about anywhere that might make good gifts, especially as stocking stuffers: small digital thermometers, a metal steamer basket, good vegetable peelers (I like Oxo’s Y-shaped and straight peelers, and a OXO Good Grips Serrated Peeler, Black for fruits like peaches), whisks from 10” long to miniature ones (great for whisking salad dressings or hot cocoa), Silpat non-stick baking mats, dishers/cookie scoops (a #20 size is great for dishing muffin batter into tins), these silicone ingredient cups (which I own and love), a Rabbit Corkscrew (I got one years ago on sale for $10 and it’s fantastic), Vacu-Vin wine stoppers to keep wine fresh (I believe they work, but I’m not a wine expert by any means) … I could go on and on. These are just things I find useful on a regular basis around the kitchen, so you’ll have some confidence that the gift you’re giving won’t end up at the bottom of a drawer until the recipients sell their house. At this point, in an era when none of us actually needs anything for Christmas, that seems to me like the ideal kind of gift.
If you liked this post, please check out my updated list of cookbook recommendations too.