Gift guide for cooks, 2017 edition.

As usual, this is a repost of the previous year’s list, with new items I’ve added clearly marked, and some minor edits to the rest. There’s very little new for 2017; I just didn’t buy or get as much stuff this year, because I really don’t need anything, and I gave a lot more money to charity this year in the wake of this fall’s hurricanes. Enjoy and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” over the last couple of years, but most of them are like this 2014 gem from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (my next upgrade – looking at this Cuisinart model), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved in 2013. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I will post an updated list of cookbooks I recommend in the next few days; in the meantime, here’s last year’s list.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, although I have a discontinued model with a different handle. It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. It’s also nearly 60% off right now, a steal at $38.50, so while in past years I’ve steered readers towards the $36 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended, at these price points I’d say go for the Henckels.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $13. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife at $15. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $27.50 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. The boning knife I own, from Henckels, appears to be discontinued, but there’s another Henckels 5.5″ boning knife for $26 that looks like it has the same blade. A boning knife is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion.

I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener in 2015, buying this Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 3 Stage Sharpener, a manual sharpener that turned out to be both easy to use and very effective; I sharpened every knife I own and even a few pairs of scissors, including the kitchen shears some of you saw me using to spatchcock this year’s Thanksgiving turkey.

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

I got a Lodge 10″ carbon steel skillet for Christmas in 2015, and I love it. It’s not as nonstick as the cast-iron one, which I’ve had for years and thus has built up more of a coating, but for getting a pan rocket-hot quickly and working fast on something small, it’s great. I’ve found that the more I use it, the more resistant the surface becomes to sticking – even eggs – and it is the ideal skillet for making the dramatic, puffy pancake known as a Dutch baby.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.5 quart Lodge model, a pretty good value at $60 considering how heavy and durable they are.

I upgraded my stockpot last year with this $30 Excelsteel 16 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. I make stock constantly throughout the year; I buy whole chickens, break them down myself, and freeze the carcasses and necks for future stocks. I also made a turkey stock after Thanksgiving with the backbone, neck, and the picked-clean roasted carcass, and the result was so full of gelatin that it was solid at room temperature. (It made an unbelievably rich turkey and soba noodle soup.) I needed a good stockpot since my previous one’s pseudo-nonstick finish had started to fade; this pot is also taller and heavier so it holds the heat in more effectively and I can do a double batch with two chicken carcasses and plenty of aromatics. I usually have to get at the interior bottom with a little Bon Ami, though. It’s also been my go-to pot for sous-vide cooking, since it’s deep enough to hold my circulator.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for under $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I use my digital instant-read thermometer almost every night, and I’ve run through at least three of them over the last ten years. Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. I now own four silicone baking mats, two of which are amazon brand, now listed at two for $14 but which I got cheaper on Prime Day this summer.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this AWS Digital Pocket Scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I finally killed my digital candy/frying thermometer this year, replacing it with an old-fashioned, $7.50 analog frying thermometer. I use it for jam, macarons, and my various deep-frying experiments (see the sous-vide discussion below). You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

I haven’t included this on past lists, but I do use my OXO potato ricer for mashed potatoes – it’s much better than a so-called “masher,” which is otherwise useful for guacamole or for crushing fruits while making jam but makes lumpy mashed potatoes.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

I don’t have this exact brand/model, but I love having a few silicone ingredient cups in the kitchen. I use one for measuring and pouring out coffee grounds, and I often have another one next to the stove with salt or freshly ground pepper or toasted sesame seeds to add to something right before serving.

Now, for the expensive stuff:

* New for 2017: I finally caved and upgraded my food processor to this 14-cup Cuisinart model, although mine is black and has a slightly different model number (which I can’t find on amazon). You can get a 7-cup model for $100, and it will probably be fine for most home cooks. I have a few recipes I make regularly that require the larger capacity. I have also noticed that the blade on the new model is the sharpest thing I own. I’m actually a little scared of it. But you kind of need a food processor for things like pesto, hummus, mayonnaise, pie or biscuit doughs (if you don’t want to or can’t do them by hand), and my favorite pumpkin pie recipe.

* I’ve gone full geek, getting an Anova sous-vide immersion circulator for $99 (pot not included) and using it frequently for cooking chicken legs, chicken breasts, steak, pork, duck, even salmon. Serious Eats has many recipes for it, and I’ve used their chicken thighs recipe many times, often cooking entire chicken legs that way. (I’ve discovered that, if you can handle some spattering, you can take the drumsticks, pat them dry, then bread and deep-fry them for some of the juiciest fried chicken you’ll ever taste.) I’ve cooked skirt steak, which can be tough even when cooked medium-rare, sous-vide and it melted in our mouths. Sous-vide cooking takes time, and some up-front investment – I caved and bought a FoodSaver vacuum-sealer, although you can do it with zip-top bags too – but once you use it you’ll find it indispensable.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. I used it at Thanksgiving 2015 to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is down to $328 (from four bills), but that’s too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is about $270 right now. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this Hario V60 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. (You can probably beat that price by $30-40 if you shop around.) If you get your ratios right – for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast – you’ll get great crema, 30-32 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel. I weigh the beans, grounds, and output on the AWS digital scale I mentioned above, which came recommended by a barista at Lord Windsor Roasters in Long Beach, California.

Comments

  1. Keith is spot on with the Anova. I picked one up when it was on sale this past black Friday (spurred by your tweet about sale) and have used it no less than 10 times since. Chicken breasts, thighs, 3 types of steak (Rib-Eye, Sirloin and Hangar) and salmon. All have come out excellent.

    • Same for me, except I bought mine the last time he tweeted about a sale. Works great for certain veg, as well. And for turkey breasts.

    • Love the Anova also; there’s a hack where you drill a hole in the lid of a Coleman Party Stacker and use it to hold your Anova in place; the insulated walls help keep the temperature constant and the lid prevents water loss; great for 24+ hr cooks.

  2. I need a good knife for slicing/cubing raw meat. Is the Henckels a good choice for that?

  3. I know that Le Creuset is the gold standard for enameled cast iron, but are their products SO good that one can justify paying the price when similar products from Lodge are so much more economical? Is Le Creuset really that much better?

  4. “…never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids…”

    How come?

  5. Agree about the Anova, got that for Christmas last year and use it multiple times per week. Haven’t met a protein yet (fish included) that doesn’t come out perfect if you do a bit of research and hit the temperature right. My question is, what do you use for making fresh pasta, is it the attachment to the KitchenAid mixer, or do you have a recommendation on a stand-alone pasta maker?

  6. What do you use a wooden spatula for? I have one, but almost never use it.

Speak Your Mind

*