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.

Gift guide for cooks, 2016 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. I rewrite these posts in full every few years when there’s enough new material to merit it. 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’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

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. However, it’s $55, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

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 last year, 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. (Note: I think this may be why my kitchen shears didn’t work so well this year.)

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.

New for 2016: I got a Lodge 10″ carbon steel skillet (over 50% off right now, at $21) last Christmas, 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. The only thing I haven’t had luck with in this skillet is eggs, which stick to pretty much anything non-Teflon if I’m the chef.

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 for $86.

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.

New for 2016: It’s a unitasker, but the Twist’n Sprout – yes, whoever named that should be fired into the sun – does core Brussels sprouts faster and less perilously than a paring knife could. There are two sharp blades at opposite sides of the device, and once you’ve trimmed the very bottom of the sprout, you impale it on the central spike, then twist the sprout to remove as much or as little of the core as you’d like. I used it to get through two-plus pounds of Brussels sprouts at Thanksgiving this year and it absolutely saved me some time.

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 2016: I’ve gone full geek, getting an Anova sous-vide immersion circulator (pot not included) and using it frequently for cooking chicken legs, chicken breasts, steak, and pork. 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’m looking to upgrade, as I mentioned above, but I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $130, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* 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 probaby 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.

Gift guide for cooks, 2015 edition.

With only a few minor new recommendations from last year – a knife sharpener, a small digital scale – I’m reposting the 2014 guide with the additions marked as such. Enjoy, and as always, feedback and suggestions are welcome.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” go by already this fall, but most of them are like this one 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 (new bowl but original motor), 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. I’d rather be cheap when it doesn’t matter and spend the money when half price means a quarter of the value.

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’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, the “four-star” model (which just refers to the handle style). It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $100, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

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 $9. 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 for $7. 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 $21 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. I also own this exact Henckels boning knife, which 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 do not own a home sharpener.

New for 2015: I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener this year, 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.

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 7.8 quart Lodge model for $97.


Isn’t she lovely?

New for 2015: I also upgraded my stockpot this year with this ~$40 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.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for about $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I love this digital instant-read thermometer, which at $10 is cheap enough that I don’t feel bad when inevitably I drop it into something and ruin it. (I’ve only done that once.) 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. In that same 2003 order, I bought my first Silpat silicone baking mat; I now own two and won’t bake cookies without them.

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’ve also done horrible things to this digital oil and candy thermometer over the ten years or so that I’ve had it, including making forty or more batches of jam, dozens of batches of macarons, and engaging in numerous deep-frying experiments, and it still rocks. You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

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).

New for 2015: 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:
* I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $100, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* 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 this Thanksgiving to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is nearly $400, however, 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 $265 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. 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, 32-35 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.

My new cookbook recommendations.

I’m headed off on vacation this week, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, safe, and overindulgent Thanksgiving. And I’d like to thank you for your readership, both here and over at my day job.

I’m often asked to recommend a cookbook for readers – maybe for a novice, maybe as a wedding gift for someone, maybe for someone changing his/her diet – but I haven’t done an omnibus cookbook post in two years. With a few really strong new ones entering my collection this year, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject.

Just for background, I’m mostly a self-taught home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking class. When I was in grad school, I was free every day around 2 or 3 pm, while my wife, a preschool teacher at the time, would get home at 5:30 and be exhausted, assuming she hadn’t caught one virus or another from the kids, so I took over the cooking. At first, I was pretty awful at it, both in terms of the end product and in my capacity to injure myself through fire or blade. I must have really enjoyed the process, though, because as opposed to my usual habit of giving up on anything I wasn’t good at the first time, I decided to figure out how not to suck at cooking.

My two main sources of early cooking instruction were Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV series and the 1997 edition of the classic American cookbook Joy of Cooking. With Good Eats airing in repeats on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, you can just set up your DVR to record them rather than buying the overpriced DVD sets, but the companion books, starting with Good Eats: The Early Years, are worth owning for the revised (usually re-tested) recipes and the commentary on each episode. Brown’s techniques always revolve around sound science and increased efficiency, whether it’s a faster way of doing something or a way to reuse an existing kitchen tool for a new purpose. He’s goofy – belching yeast sock-puppets are just never not funny – but always educational. And of all of his recipes that I’ve tried (more than I can count), only one, the squash dumplings, didn’t work for me, and that was fixed in the companion book.

Joy of Cooking is always my first recommendation for people who are either just learning to cook or who are looking for one cookbook to rule them all. There are many editions available and there are some wide variations from one to the next, but the ’97 version has served me extremely well for its tremendous breadth of recipes – that’s still my go-to book even for Italian classics like pesto Genovese or shrimp scampi – and for the clear, logical recipes. For this edition, the publisher hired food writers to rewrite most of the recipes in the book, losing the folksy prose that charmed readers of earlier editions, but ensuring that the recipes were easy to follow and worked properly. Each recipe in Joy lists the ingredients in bold face at the point in the recipe where they’re used, rather than listing them all at the top. If you don’t succumb to the temptation to skip your mise en place – prepping and measuring ingredients before you start any cooking – this makes it much easier to follow the recipes and reduces the odds that you’ll skip an ingredient.

If you’re interested in preserving fruits or vegetables, I have used Joy of Cooking: All About Canning & Preserving for nearly a decade. It’s out of print but amazon has used copies for $4 and up at that link.

The new essential cookbook that I recommend to readers of any experience level is Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto, a book I own myself and have given away as a gift. Its recipes require a slightly higher skill level than Joy, but Ruhlman’s twenty section essays – on basic techniques like poaching, braising, and frying, or core ingredients like onions, eggs, and salt – build up your knowledge on each subejct from the ground up. It’s the kind of book that might intimidate a rookie but, if you try some of the recipes, will leave you impressed with your own capabilities. I reviewed Ruhlman’s Twenty in full last November.

(I should say I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you can read, you can cook. Cooking is not an innate skill that some of us have and some of us lack. It takes attention, it takes patience, it helps if you understand some basic math and science, but at its heart, cooking is about following instructions. Follow those, and you’ll produce something worth eating.)

Ruhlman’s earlier book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is another must-have but is for intermediate home cooks and above because it makes assumptions about the reader’s experience and comfort level with certain techniques or foods. The book’s recipes are largely presented as ratios that can be scaled up to produce the desired quantity. If you want to make biscuits, you need 3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid. The specifics are largely up to you, and there are brief discussions of your options, but again, Ruhlman is largely assuming you know how a biscuit or a Hollandaise or pâte à choux and is describing each recipe in terms of its foundation.

For anyone looking to eat more vegetables, whether or not you’re a vegetarian, I now have two strong recommendations. One is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which I reviewed in September. Ottolenghi isn’t a vegetarian but every recipe in this book is, with vegetables always the star ingredients, often augmented by butter and/or cheese, but mostly prepared in ways that evoke the essential flavors of the central vegetable. Cutting and browning endives in butter and a little sugar before coating them with cheese and bread crumbs and baking them helps bring out some of this chicory relative’s sugars while taming its strong bitter flavors to a point where the cheese (gruyere or talleggio) can at least compete for your attention. I’ve also found his mixed sauteed mushroom recipe, with soft goat cheese used in lieu of sour cream, to be a great hearty sauce over fresh whole-wheat papparedelle for a warm winter main course.

The other vegetable-centric cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Tender, easily the most beautifully shot cookbook in my collection. Slater is a very famous food writer in England who has just a small cult following here, but Tender deserves a much wider audience for its focus on vegetables from seed to table. His gardening advice hasn’t helped me much because you can’t get a much wider gap between soil types than England and Arizona, but his dishes, many of which do contain meat but still accentuate the vegetables, are subtle showstoppers, turning some very ordinary veg – the more mundane and kid-unfriendly the plant, the more Slater seems to adore it – into warm, glowing, gorgeous dishes. Tender is the book that got me to buy and cook an actual pumpkin (not from a can), a process that, with about a tablespoon of added brown sugar led to this:

For the advanced home cook – or even the professional – in your life, go for The Flavor Bible, which isn’t a cookbook at all. The authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, interviewed dozens of professional chefs about what ingredients went well together, and tabulated the results in this book. Look up an ingredient in The Flavor Bible and you’ll find a long list of good partners, with ingredients that were mentioned more often earning bolded entries. For example, parsnips are in season right now in much of the country, and the parsnip entry first says they should always be cooked, and work well when baked, boiled, braised, fried, grilled, mashed, pureed, roasted, or steamed. When the authors asked chefs about parsnips, the most-mentioned ingredients were butter (including browned butter) and nutmeg, both appearing in bold, capital letters. Bolded entries, mentioned less often than those two ingredients, include apples, chives, cream, curry, garlic, ginger, maple syrup, olive oil, parsley (a relative of parsnip and carrots), pepper, potatoes, sage, salt (duh), brown sugar, thyme, and root vegetables. The entry also includes about fifty other ingredients that work well with parsnip and were mentioned at least once by the interviewed chefs, and then concludes with five “flavor affinities,” combinations like parsnips + honey + mustard or parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes. Some entries have “Holy Grail” pairings, marked with an asterisk and mentioned by a large portion of the chefs they interviewed, like plums and Armagnac or lamb and rosemary, and some entries have “avoid” sections, like parsley and dessert. There are even sections for national cuisines – if you want to know what flavors work well in Afghan or Eastern European cuisines, for example, they’ve got you covered. What The Flavor Bible doesn’t do, however, is tell you what to do with these pairings. There are assorted quotes from celebrity chefs describing specific dishes, but the book contains no recipes. They assume you have the recipes and techniques and are looking for inspiration.

The best book I’ve found for desserts, and one of only two America’s Test Kitchen books I own, is Baking Illustrated, which has most of the basic desserts you’d want to make, including a pie crust (for lattice tops, like the one in my Twitter avatar, but functional in any pie) that works as reliably as any I’ve ever tried. The writing can be cloying, especially when they go into more detail on failed kitchen experiments than I ever needed (if you’re going to describe something that didn’t work, at least make it funny), but the recipes work and their pumpkin pie is bar none the best I have ever tasted, one I make at least once every year.

For bread baking, I am an unabashed acolyte of Peter Reinhart and own several of his books, including The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads (most of the same breads as the first book, but in whole-wheat, multi-grain, and 50/50 variations), and the more accessible Artisan Breads Every Day. His pizza doughs are pretty foolproof; I add a tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to his 100% whole wheat pizza dough and it’s strong enough to stretch it to translucency without tearing. (Sometimes I tear it anyway because I’m clumsy like that.) His pain a l’ancienne white-flour baguettes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice are absurdly easy if you have a stand mixer or food processor (this Cuisinart model is the current version of the one I’ve used for fifteen years) and never fail to get raves when I bring them to friends. I’ve made his focaccia, his cinnamon rolls, his struan, his challah, his pitas, and his wild yeast starter, which I kept going for about a year and a half until we packed up the house in Massachusetts. His books even have recipes for international breads like pumpernickel, panettone, hutzelbrot, and stollen, as well as Ethiopian injera and crackers like lavash and graham. Go with Artisan if you’re a bread-baking rookie, or the others if you have more experience or want books that will focus on baker’s ratios and allow for more ingredient substitutions. I reviewed the first two books at length back in 2009.

Three more quick recommendations:

* If you have a slow cooker, go with ATK’s Slow Cooker Revolution. I don’t own the full book, but have a magazine version they sold when the book first came out, including about a third of the main book’s recipes, and they’ve all worked on the first try, including a surprisingly flavorful bolognese sauce that makes enough to freeze for one or two future meals (you lose a little texture, but the flavors remain strong), a beef burgundy stew that gave us about three dinners’ worth, and a white chicken chili that is surprisingly low in fat.

* If you want a celebrity cookbook, just because, the best I own – and I’m thinking household-name celebrities – is actually Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook. I’ve eaten at Mesa Grill three times, once in Manhattan and twice in Vegas, and every dish I have eaten at those restaurants is in here and easy to reproduce at home. The blue- and yellow-corn muffins are decadent.

* Finally, one that doesn’t fit anywhere else: Julia Child’s slim $11 book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which does, indeed, include wisdom from the woman who introduced America to French cooking – but whose most famous cookbooks haven’t aged well, at least not to my eyes. This book focuses on the bare essentials in the kitchen, including the basic vinaigrette formula I’ve been using for years, mother sauce formulas, simple instructions for roasting or braising major cuts of meat, souffles, breads, custard, and even baking-powder biscuits so you can make strawberry shortcakes.

Cookbook recommendations (plus Top Chef thoughts).

Before I get to the books (and magazine), a thought or two on last week’s Top Chef: All-Stars.

First, I found it interesting that no chef stood up for Jamie and even indicated that they understood, let alone approved of, her decision to leave for stitches on her thumb. If that’s the ethic of the kitchen, I feel like I should defer to that. And Tony Bourdain had no sympathy either. (Hat tip to Dave Cameron for pointing me to Bourdain’s blog.) Plus the stakes are even higher in this competition than they are in a restaurant kitchen.

But more importantly, how did no one ding her on bad cutting technique? Where the hell was her thumb that she ran her knife directly into it? I hate the parallel-to-the-board cut anyway because it’s dangerous, but when I must do it, my main priority is ensuring that if the knife moves forward faster than I expect, it will do nothing but slice the food I’m cutting. Fingers up. Thumbs up. Wrist angled up and sharply away from the food. If you don’t want to send Jamie home for malingering, send her home for poor knife skills.

Also, I tweeted a link earlier to the Chicago Tribune‘s interview with week 1’s unconditionally-released chef, Elia, in which she completely loses her mind and goes after Tom Colicchio. Tom’s response, while clearly dripping with disrespect, stays on point in an impressive manner – he answers the charges while keeping the deprecation subtle. It’s a model of angry writing. And as he and Bourdain and others have said, raw fish is raw fish. If it’s not meant to be raw, and it’s raw, you can’t pin that on the judges.

I was asked on Twitter today to suggest some cookbooks or magazines, and I haven’t updated my old list of recommendations in a while so I figured I’d throw a new post together. I tend toward more specialized cookbooks now because I’m more interested in ideas than in techniques, but I’ll start with the staples to which I keep returning even though I’ve owned some of them for years.

Joy of Cooking. The gray lady of the kitchen – still reliable if somewhat staid, with a level of completeness that few rivals can approach. If you need a recipe for a basic or common dish, it’s probably here, with clear instructions and lots of information on ingredients. I learned to cook from two sources above all others: Alton Brown and Joy. I’m partial to the 1997 edition myself, as I understand the last revision (for the book’s 75th anniversary) introduced some best-forgotten sections on semi-homemade meals while removing some of the professionally-written material that makes the ’97 version so indispensable. The new revision does include cocktail recipes, but I have The Official Harvard Student Agencies Bartending Course for that.

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. You cook, and you don’t own Ratio? I don’t think I’ve added any cookbook to my collection that changed my thinking on food as much as Michael Ruhlman did in his concise, almost engineering-like book that reduces recipes to their master formulas. From biscuits to pâte à choux to stocks to custards, Ruhlman gives you the framework and lets you build up from there. If you’re like me and cook better when you understand what’s happening in the bowl or pot, you must own Ratio. And it’s just $10 on amazon.

Baking Illustrated. The one book that I can say has truly supplanted Joy, at least in its niche; if you can get past the cloying prose and descriptions of the strange substitutions they tried (“then we replaced the sour cream with motor oil … but that killed four of the testers”), the recipes are extremely reliable, and the lengthy prose does give you the insight you’ll need to know where you can tweak. Their pumpkin pie recipe remains the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever tried, and it worked perfectly the first time I made it.

Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads, and Artisan Breads Every Day. I love bread, real bread, just baked, best eaten in a day or two after which you bake some more. Reinhart helped me crack the code of good bread, and his books are tremendous references that cover many of the directions in which you might go as a baker. Artisan Breads Everyday is the beginner’s book of the collection, if you’re just getting started with the joys of autolysis and the overnight soak, while the other two books are still accessible but presume a little more skill – and they include the best pizza dough recipe I’ve ever used.

How To Cook Everything. I do not own this book, but the reviews from those of you who do have been uniformly positive, and it seems like a good companion to or – perish the thought – substitute for Joy. The author, Mark Bittman, is a longtime food writer for the New York Times who is often credited with bringing no-knead bread to the attention of the masses. (I still knead my bread, though. Even a minute of kneading makes a huge difference.)

Good Eats: The Early Years. The first of three books – I do not own the second one yet – has Alton going back through every episode of his seminal TV series and reworking recipes to address problems or user concerns, all while providing a lot of background information on each episode or the food it covers.

Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. I do own a copy of the first part of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking … but it feels dated to me, and I’m never likely to do much classical French cooking at home. That’s just not how we eat on a day to day basis. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom distills the core techniques and ideas from her experience in the kitchen into a slim, bright volume that I have always found far more relevant to what I might cook on a Wednesday evening. The book contains many recipes, but as with Brown, Reinhart, and Ruhlman, Child is pushing comprehension, not repetition. This was the book that pushed me to make more vinaigrettes.

For magazines, I’m partial to Fine Cooking, which takes that scientific approach of Good Eats and packs every issue full of recipes, with reference information on ingredients and tools, a card with nutrition data for every dish in that issue, and an emphasis on extensibility (such as the “nine cookies from three doughs” article from several years ago that was a staple of my Christmas cookie regimen). Of course, my subscription keeps lapsing because I’m disorganized, but this is the only cooking magazine to which I’ve subscribed since my daughter was born; I gave up on Bon Appetit because they repeated recipes and ideas, and I can’t deal with the writing in Cook’s Illustrated, which is even sillier than the writing in Baking Illustrated.

Chicken stock.

A couple of weeks ago, Whole Foods ran a two-week special, selling entire broiler-fryer chickens for 99 cents a pound, which amounted to roughly $4 for an entire bird. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts typically cost at least $4.49 a pound, and since the entire breast of one bird usually runs 1 to 1.5 pounds, it was cheaper to buy the entire bird and butcher it myself than to just buy those boneless, skinless, tasteless breasts anyway.

Of course, when you buy the whole bird, you get the thighs, legs, and wings, all of which have more flavor than the breasts do. You get the giblets, most of which I just put down the disposal, but I suppose you could use them for gravy if you’re so inclined. But the best part of buying and butchering your own chicken is what you get after all of that other stuff is gone: The bones, and bones mean stock.

For each bird, I’d keep the carcass (the bones and bits of meat after all of the “parts” are removed), the wings (not enough meat to worry about and very good for stock-making), and the neck (the one part of the giblets packet that I don’t toss) and stick them in the freezer for the next stock-making day. I also keep parts of various vegetables in a bag in the freezer – the top rings (not stems) and bottom bits of peppers, the white parts of celery stalks, etc. – that are all also stock-worthy. This avoids the expense of buying lots of vegetables just to put them into stock.

(If you’re wondering about that whole butchering-the-chicken part, I’d eventually like to shoot a video I can use here to demonstrate how easy it is. I’ve done it with a timer and I can butcher a chicken into its eight pieces – two each of breasts, thighs, legs, and wings – in about four and a half minutes. That’s under five minutes to get parts that would easily cost you $10 more if you bought them already butchered, plus you get the bones.)

Making stock requires no cooking skill at all other than patience and the ability to not turn your damn stove knobs up to 11. Dump everything in a pot, throw an upside-down steamer basket (preferably a crappy old one – I have one that’s just for making stock now) on top, skim a few times, wait 5-6 hours, cool and store. Nothing in there you can’t do if you have the time.

Anything frozen can go right in the pot without defrosting.

Chicken stock

6 quarts water (the better the water, the better the stock – I buy spring water for this)
1 chicken carcass, including wings and neck
2 ribs celery, cleaned and snapped in half
1-2 carrots, washed well (or just peeled) and cut in half
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and stemmed, or just various pepper parts
(You can use pieces of hot peppers too. I’ve used jalapeño and poblano pieces before.)
1 medium onion, halved, or half a large onion
2 peeled garlic cloves
A few sprigs of parsley and thyme
2-3 sage leaves
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 pinch celery seeds
1. Put everything in a stockpot or other large pot capable of holding at least 10-12 quarts. Place a steamer basket upside-down on top of the contents to hold everything under the surface of the water. Bring to a simmer – not a boil, but a gentle simmer – and cook for at least four hours, skimming any scum off the top (every half hour should work). Overcooking it will prevent the liquid from dissolving the collagen in the bones, so take it easy on the heat.
2. When you start to see a thin, clear film on the surface, congratulations – you’ve made stock. That’s gelatin, the thing that distinguishes stock from broth and makes soups taste like soup instead of flavored water. The film will usually appear sometime between the fourth and fifth hours of cooking. I usually let my stock go for another hour or so to make sure I’ve leached all of the collagen out of the bones. Six hours is about the max time you need to do this; if you’re nearing that point and don’t see any gelatin, you probably have your heat on too low.
3. You need to cool your stock quickly. Empty and clean your sink, close up the drain, fill it with ice (two bags should do the trick) and add cold water to fill the sink about halfway. Place a pot or bowl capable of holding at least six quarts in the sink and strain the contents of your stockpot through a fine-meshed strainer into the empty pot. Chill in the ice-water bath until the temperature of the stock drops enough for it to go into the fridge – at least to 60 degrees, and preferably all the way to 40.
4. Chill several hours of overnight. Remove any fat that has congealed at the surface (but don’t discard it – you can cook with it!), portion the remaining stock into containers and refrigerate or freeze. It’ll last in the fridge a few days, but you can keep it for months in the freezer.

You may want to use a bit of damp cheesecloth to strain the last of the stock and remove any dirt or off bits that have settled at the bottom of the pot while it chilled.

You may also notice the absence of one ingredient: Salt. Don’t salt your stock – add salt when you cook with it. If it’s salted, and you reduce it as part of any recipe, you’ll end up with an overly salty finished product. You can add many different herbs, spices, and vegetables, but avoid any members of the cabbage family (including broccoli), which will give the stock a strong and not-desirable flavor. I’ve used mustard seed, cloves, tarragon, and leeks, among other items. Think “aromatics” and you’ve got the idea.

I’ll post some recipes using chicken stock over the next few weeks, but it’s great for basic soups, for moistening stuffing at Thanksgiving, and for reducing and using to thicken some sauces. Any decent cookbook should have soup recipes that start with chicken or some other stock as their bases.