When I posted my list of gift recommendations for cooks last year, it was supposed to be part one of two, with the second part including more expensive kitchen items. That somehow never happened, but I figured there’s at least some symmetry in producing the second half of the post almost exactly a year later. That first list includes items at $30 and under, including the Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife that America’s Test Kitchen always recommends. (I own a more expensive Henckels, but it’s not worth paying the premium just for a better handle.)
These items range from $13 to $299, and range from “I couldn’t cook without this” to “I just love waffles.” I’ve included basic recipes with most of the devices to give a sense of how I use them.
This is the big one – if you’re going to purchase one major kitchen appliance for yourself, or want to purchase something for a friend who’s just starting out that will get him/her ten or more years of heavy use, you want a food processor. It’s the only way to make a decent pesto genovese, as well as roasted red pepper pesto or any other pesto you desire. It’s great for any sauce requiring an emulsion, like mayonnaise or harissa, or for hummus or homemade nut butters. It can convert stale or dried bread into bread crumbs, almonds into almond crumbs. I made a slightly easier version of sauce aux champignons recently (with brown stock rather than demi-glace – sorry, purists), then pureed the rest in the food processor the next night and used it for bruschetta.
I use my food processor every year to make pumpkin pie – the filling (from Baking Illustrated) is a cooked custard, after all. And I use it to make the pie dough for that and any other kind of pie – I’m sure some folks swear by the manual method, but you get much more even distribution of fat throughout the flour with the machine; the same applies to biscuits and scones any other baked good where you need to work the fat into the flour. I’ve used it to grind regular sugar to make superfine sugar (rather than buying superfine sugar specifically) for meringues.
Any decent food processor will also come with disc attachments to replace the blade for slicing or julienning; I only resort to this when I’ve got a lot of vegetation to plow through, preferring my Kyocera hand-held mandoline when I need a finer slice. If you don’t cook because you hate the prep work, though, a food processor may eliminate that obstacle.
We got our food processor fifteen years ago and it still runs; it’s also a Cuisinart and is a 7-cup model like the one linked above, which is nearly half off at $100. The one application where I wish I had a larger model is the pumpkin pie, which always ends up leaking because the recipe produces more filling than one crust can hold anyway.
* Season a trout fillet with salt and pepper, press it into almond crumbs, then pan-fry for two minutes per side. Add a little more butter to the skillet and a chopped shallot, let it brown, season with salt and pepper, and there’s your sauce. Bonus: deglaze the pan with white wine or – with the flame OFF, please – Chartreuse liquor.
The model I own is slightly smaller than the one in that link, and the motor is substantially weaker (275 watts vs 450 in the 5-quart), and those “slightly” modifiers make all the difference; if I was in the market for one today, I’d spend the extra $100 and get the one I linked here. The 4.5-quart model tends to walk on the counter when working something strong like bread dough, and the bowl is a little too small for some applications – I made a genoise years ago that threatened to spill out of it and take over the counter like ice-nine.
Why do you need a stand mixer? Its primary benefit is in baking. If all ingredients are at room temperature, I can use my stand mixer to get cookies in the oven inside of ten minutes*. It’s great for meringues or anything built on egg foams, like buttercream – you really don’t want to stand there for ten minutes while you incorporate a pound of butter, one tablespoon at a time. (That’s 32 Tbsp.) I’ve made Alton Brown’s brownie recipe in here many times; it starts with beating four eggs until well-combined, after which you’re gradually adding various ingredients to build the batter. It’s a huge benefit to have both hands free while the machine is mixing.
The stand mixer is also invaluable for making breads with very wet doughs, like pain francese, or breads that require substantial gluten production that would be hard to achieve by hand, like pizza dough. You can also purchase attachments for the stand mixer to turn it into a pasta maker (I have this one; works well, bit tricky to clean) or a meat grinder (on the wishlist). The lone negative of owning a stand mixer is that there’s a good chance it will live on your counter, because it’s too tall to fit in most cabinets and heavy enough that you won’t want to store it in a difficult-to-reach place.
I’ve hesitated to recommend stand mixers before because of their cost – that model is a steal at $299, but three bills is a lot of money to most people. And that’s why I haven’t upgraded the model we’ve had for sixteen years (it was a wedding present).
EDIT: A reader explained in the comments that newer KitchenAid mixers don’t hold up as well as the model I own, and recommends the Cuisinart SM-55BC 5-1/2-Quart 12-Speed Stand Mixer, Brushed Chrome instead.
* Basic cookie formula: Cream two sticks (½ pound) of butter with ¾ cup each white and dark brown sugar for four minutes. Add two eggs, 1 tsp vanilla, with the mixer running. Turn the mixer off and add (in two installments) 300 g flour premixed with 1 tsp each baking soda and salt. Mix, stop, add the remainder, mix again. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Stir in mix-ins by hand – chocolate chips, dried fruit, toasted nuts, whatever; I think 1½ cups of mix-ins works for this batch size. Bake at 375 until the edges just start to brown.
I just got a slow cooker last month and have used it four times – once for short ribs, twice for carnitas (pork shoulder that ends up poaching in rendered fat), and once for dried canellini beans (which overcooked, so the magic time is under six hours, clearly). Based on that limited sample, I am kicking myself for not getting one sooner; not only is using it easy, but it frees up a burner or the oven to make something else, which, unless you’re rocking a six-burner professional stove, is a key consideration. I can fit a 3-pound pork shoulder in this one comfortably, and could probably have cooked 2 cups of dried beans. One suggestion I’ve read in several places is to line the bottom of the ceramic insert with aromatics, like sliced onions, when cooking meat, so that the meat doesn’t burn or stick to the bottom. I’m toying with the idea of braising duck legs in there for Thanksgiving, freeing the oven up for the duck breasts. (No point in making turkey when no one here really likes it.) The one thing I particularly wanted in a slow cooker was an electronic timer; lots of purists, including Alton Brown, recommend older models that have analog dials, but I like computers and wanted one that would shut itself off and free me to leave the house if I needed to, say, pick up my daughter from school just as the short ribs were done.
* Short ribs: Trim excess fat. Season ribs with salt, pepper, and dried thyme and sear on all sides in Dutch oven; remove to slow cooker. Add one onion, diced; two carrots, diced; two celery stalks, diced; pinch of salt. Saute to deglaze pan. Add one bottle/can of good quality beer, scrape bottom to finish deglazing, then pour the entire mixture into the slow cooker. Cook six hours on low until ribs are falling off the bone. Remove ribs, tear into large chunks (removing bones), season again with salt, pepper, and thyme, and bake ten minutes at 450 degrees. Use a fat separator to strain cooking liquid; reduce liquid (after removing the fat) by half to form a sauce.
Again, not the exact model that I have, but it’s the same manufacturer; my model is discontinued, but I’ve been very happy with it and with Salter, who honored the ten-year warranty with a brand-new model when mine malfunctioned about four or five years ago. If you want to cook, you need a kitchen scale – it can be a cheap one if you’re not baking, but baking is chemistry and chemistry requires precise measurements, at which point you’ll want a good digital scale like this one. If you want a different model, look for one that does metric as well as
archaic English measurements. The glass top isn’t necessary – and of course it makes the scale more fragile – but it looks awesome.
How much do I love this thing? I bought my first one in 1998. It died this spring and I went online and ordered the same model. The grids are reversible – one side flat for pancakes (or, I suppose, pressed sandwiches), one side for waffles, not Belgian-style, but thinner and better suited to conventional batters that get lift from chemical leaveners but not yeast or an egg white foam. And once you buy one of these (currently half off at $29 through that link), you might want to check out the Waffleizer blog and get creative. (I tried to waffle some polenta once. Took me two days to clean the grids.)
Basic waffles: Preheat waffle iron. Beat 3 eggs and combine in a bowl with 1½ cups milk, ½ tsp vanilla, 1 stick (8 Tbsp) melted unsalted butter, and 4 Tbsp vegetable oil. In another bowl whisk together 220 grams AP flour (roughly 1¾ cups), 1 Tbsp baking powder, ½ tsp salt, and ½ to 1 Tbsp white or brown sugar. (You can also mix the sugar with the wet ingredients, which is slightly easier for brown.) Dump the wet stuff into the dry stuff, whisk just to combine – no dry stuff visible, but not smooth. Pour by ½ to ¾ cupfuls on to the waffle iron and cook until the steaming slows, about four minutes on this iron. Serve immediately, keep warm in a 200 degree oven directly on the oven racks, or cool on cooling racks and freeze. Adapted from Joy of Cooking.
Lives in my oven. Used four nights a week, at a minimum. I buy Dobie non-abrasive pads to clean them and generally just use hot water. I own several nonstick skillets – including this one – but the cast iron skillet is the workhorse. Nothing holds or distributes heat as well, and if you season and clean it properly it will gradually acquire a non-stick or at least less-stick surface.
I do own a Krups La Glaciere ice cream maker, but Krups is out of the ice cream maker business, unfortunately. For a home model, it is excellent, as long as you accept you won’t get anything as smooth as you get from a commercial machine. I also have a Le Creuset Dutch oven that I received as a birthday gift a few years ago and love; you can buy the exact model on amazon but if you live near a Le Creuset outlet you can get it for $100 less, and even cheaper than that if you choose a color they’re discontinuing. It’s a splurge, far from necessary, but it’s great for stews and slow braises and easier to clean than traditional cast iron. No-knead bread recipes often rely on Dutch ovens to allow the bread to steam itself and produce a crispier crust.
One thing I don’t own: A double boiler. I had one for years, but it just took up space, wasn’t good for anything else, and took more effort to clean because of the groove in the top pot. I just sit a bowl above a pot of simmering water, or a smaller skillet inside a larger one.
I don’t think I have anything else in the kitchen, other than the espresso maker, that costs over $100. If you don’t bake, you may not need anything (other than major appliances) in your kitchen that will run you more than $60-70 to prepare pretty sophisticated meals. A good knife, three good pots/pans, some knowhow, and the right ingredients will go further for you than all of these toys. The toys just make everything easier.