Does anyone run out of ways to spend their hard-earned money? I suspect they do not and it is for this reason that I generally shrug at gift guides. I mean, really? That a $3,400 razor set has been marked down to $1,700? Oh thank heavens! I was wondering what to do with this money tree in my backyard that never stops growing.
all most sarcasm aside, I do, you know, spend some time in the kitchen. And my kitchen is tiny, even tinier than the one I had when I wrote this, which means that paring down my kitchen purchases to the most utilitarian items is more essential than ever. These are the things I couldn’t get by without. My interest is in items that are practical, well-constructed, clever enough to multitask, pretty enough to move from kitchen to table, and — look, this is just my personal schtick as I fear things that melt close to temperatures I routinely use when cooking — involve as little plastic and silicone as possible.
So why do these fairly basic things make great gifts? Because I think the best presents are the things that you either might not think of or might not want to shell out for but end up making your life easier, everyday. More than one-off, silly or amusing kitchen tchotchkes, odds are people will be using these same ten items in ten years, fondly remembering that kick-ass person who bought it for them in 2009.
1. A Dutch Oven [Which Doubles as Both a Doorstop and Exercise Weights, which comes in handy when you need to work off all of the lush things you cooked in it] Heavyweight pots that go from stove to oven are essential for any and every type of cooking, especially the stewy soups and braises this weather demands. Staubs are my personal favorite; I not only like their cool industrial design but two features that others do not have — little divots, called “self-basting spikes” under the lids and handles that are steel, not plastic, meaning that you do not have to worry about them melting should your oven exceed 450°F. You only *need* one but I’ve been unable to resist two over the years. My 7-quart oval [more colors here] is great for big meals, dinner parties and is large enough to hold a whole roast or bird, i.e. 6 to 12 servings. My 5-quart round [more colors here is the perfect size for everyday cooking, i.e. 4 to 6 servings.
Can’t get enough? I’m hopelessly in love with Staub teapots [sadly,the square are no longer available unless your stalk stores with dwindling supplies], but the obsession is form, more than function. I mean, they work just fine but mostly I just find them real purty. Slightly more functional, you probably see this 2-quart roasting dish about three times a month on this site. I bought it over two years ago and haven’t put it away since.
2. A Great Big Knife [Because Nothing Says Love Like a Very Sharp Knife] I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t understand what half the knives in those giant blocks do. Partly due to laziness, partly due to an inherent desire to do more with less, I get everything I need done with one big chef’s knife, and I’ve used it long enough that it feels like a faster, more fierce extension of my hand. Globals are my first choice, but I warmed to Wushtofs after receiving one as a gift. I keep both sharp on a Furi, but try to take it for professional sharpenings
every month, er, when it happens.
If you want to buy two knives, get a good bread knife. Until recently, I never used to understand why people spent good money on bread knives. Seeing as you cannot sharpen a serrated knife, I didn’t understand why the quality of the blade mattered. So I had a $5 one and tried to pretend everything I cut with it didn’t look like I’d chewed the loaf into slices. Then someone lent me this one and my life was changed forever. It glides through bread, it sweeps across the tops of cakes, and it slides effortlessly through marshmallows, bar cookies and chocolate, giving you a clean-cut edge you though previously only existed in the pages of Martha Stewart Living. So yes, occasionally a second knife has its merits, too.
[Links: Global 8-inch Cook’s Knife, Wusthof 8-inch Chef’s Knife, Furi Knife Sharpener and a F. Dick 8-inch Bread Knife that not only makes me weepy with joy, but will land an entertaining flux of Google searchers on this site]
3. Salt and Pepper Grinders [That Promise to Last Forever] You probably don’t realize how much you care about having a set that can last forever until you’ve had three in a row that so ineffectively chewed peppercorns that you were constantly met with the unwelcome surprise of a sharp crunch in a delicate pile of salad greens. And then they broke on you. Sometimes I want a fine grind, sometimes I want a coarse grind and I decided it was time I had mills that did both equally well, when I told them to. I adore my Peugeot set I keep in the kitchen and a Vic Firth set [sadly, can no longer find a link for these online] we keep on the table but I couldn’t say I’ve extensively vetted other brands of grinders. Regardless, these are still working great, the Peugot set for over 5 years now and the Vic Firth for close to 3.
4. Favorite Mixing Bowls [That Double As Serving Bowls] Could I go on about my four-bowl set anymore? Probably not, but I will anyway: I just love them. They hold their volume more vertically than horizontally, which means that they take up less real estate on my single, sorry 24″x36″ counter, they nest so they save space in my nonexistent kitchen cabinets, they’re minimal enough that only the food commands your attention, oh and they’re dirt cheap which comes in handy when you’re as clumsy as I am.
What could go wrong? They’ve been unavailable on Amazon for a while. I have dug and dug, and only found a 3-piece version of the set on Overstock for, uh, twice what I paid for the four-piece but if you can get past that, we’re still talking about only a tiny investment into something I’ve kept in constant rotation since the day I brought them home.
[Update: As astute readers let me know where they’ve found these bowls, I try to keep an updated list of sources linked below. Thanks, astute people!]
[Links: Anchor Hocking 3-Piece Bowls on Amazon, Full 4-Piece Set at The Brooklyn Kitchen (new!), Anchor Hocking 3-Piece Bowl Set on Overstock, Anchor Hocking, 1-, 2- and 3-Quart Bowls, sold separately on Web Restaurant Source and the whole 4-piece set is available at Kohls.]
5. Favorite Ramekins [That Double As Ingredient Prep Dishes] Look, I just really really like my ramekins. Buy a dozen and you can use them for everything, from individual portions of bubbly baked dishes to big muffin cups, in a pinch. Heck, buy two dozen! They barely cost a thing.
[Link: Stockholm Ramekins]
6. A Digital Scale [That Doubles As A Sanity-Saver] You know what’s a pain? Measuring out 2 3/4 cups of flour over two one-cup measures, one half-cup measure and one quarter-cup measure. You know what’s easy? Weighing out 12 ounces on a digital scale. Unfortunately, most American recipes and yes, regrettably, this site (as of now; I have hopes…) are geared towards measuring cups, not weights but if you have a digital scale, a world of recipes is open to you, not to mention huge time-saving shortcuts where equivalent weights are offered. My Salter scale works great, is inexpensive (and you can often find them on sale at the big box stores for less), easy to use and — this is key — easily switches between ounces and grams.
[Link: My Salter Scale]
7. Various Space Savers [Because An Uncluttered Kitchen is the Best] Strainers that double as sifters. Round cutters that I use for everything from cookies to hand pies, dumplings, biscuits and you name it. A solid timer than hangs out on my fridge, not counter which both ticks quietly and rings clearly. A simple, space-efficient pot rack that gets them out of the way, but leaves them easy to grab.
Finally, my newest, funny little space saver tiny pot that has all but replaced our microwave. You see, when I moved into an even tinier kitchen, I realized that there was no reason to give up precious real estate to a microwave, when I barely used it. Yet still, I missed it every time I needed to melt a single stick of butter or simmer half a cup of cream, and I’m too incompetent to be able to pour from a small saucepan into a bowl without half of the liquid dribbling down the sides. I brought this tiny, pour-spouted pot home two weeks ago and have used it almost every day since. It will so be used to reheat baby food down the road.
8. Favorite Gadgets and Gizmos We all have giant messy drawers of gadgetry, right? These are the standouts in mine: Pastry cutter (for the flakiest pies), pastry scraper (no easier way to clean a counter), tongs (I don’t remember how I did anything before these), whisks aplenty and at least one flat one (for the corners), an inexpensive mandoline, an offset spatula (that I use for everything from icing cakes to lifting cookies) and an array of microplanes which I find easier to store and less cumbersome than a box grater; my favorites are the classic zester, the extra-coarse grater and something new I’m playing with, the large shaver.
Borderline-ridiculous gadgets I generally don’t admit to owning, but make me happy all the time: A garlic press that actually works (no garlic left behind!), apple slicer and corer and a fancy grapefruit knife that piths (piths!). Gosh, I feel better getting that off my chest.
9. Cookware and Bakeware If there is one place it is nearly impossible to rein in kitchen clutter, it’s cookware and bakeware. You can try to tweak and redistribute recipes whenever possible, but fact is that a loaf pan is a loaf pan and it looks nothing like a pie dish, and simmering two cups of stock in a 7-quart Dutch oven feels absurd. So, after you get your Dutch oven, how do you get started? I vote for figuring out which things drive you the most crazy that you don’t have. I started there and built my way up to the, well, way-too-much that I own these days. [Hey, I baked a wedding cake. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.] What I decide I need may be different for you, but in the interest of hey-you-never-know, these are the pieces of cookware and bakeware I get the most mileage from. My preferences? Heavy pans, squared-off sides for clean edges, and I only put up with nonstick on cake pans. For pots and pans, I link to All-Clads below because that’s what I have (my first set were from the MC2 line, but I was unhappy with them because they’re not dishwasher-safe and had a permanently wrecked finish if you ran them even once by accident; I’ve since switched to their Stainless line which are a little pricier but at least last forever). While I like them, I am not overly devoted to any brand of everyday cookware. For bakeware, I tend to go high or low — either something cheap and not meant to last forever from a baking supply shop, or, when I know I’ll want to use this pan size for a long time, I’ve been very happy with the Williams-Sonoma Gold Touch pieces I’ve invested in; some look perfect even a decade old.
[Links: A 12-inch Cast Iron Frying Pan (my go-to, as good for stovetop as it is for roasting vegetables and even a whole chicken), 3 or 4-Quart Sauté Pan with Lid (a bit more of an investment, but mine has lasted forever and is indispensable), One Small/Medium-ish Saucepan. At Least 3 Baking Sheets (which double as roasting pans; I use quart-sheet pans because my oven is small but buy the size that works for you; I’ve been happy with the weight/heft of Chicago Metallic brand), a 9×13 Ceramic (this is my favorite, by miles; inexpensive, washes up perfectly, so I own two) or Metal Pan, Loaf Pan, Pretty Little Pie Dish or Tart/Quiche Pan, and a 9- or 10-Inch Springform]
10. Something Pretty On Which To Display Your Hard Work: Essential? Probably not. Does your cooking deserve a great big “ta-da!” when you set it out? I think it does. The set that you see in almost every picture on this site is from Martha Stewart. They’re not only inexpensive, you can (slightly precariously) stack three of them to make a cookie or cupcake stand. Beyond that, you can get really far with one sturdy porcelain platter and the kind of wide bowl that holds pastas, salads or, heck, even a pretty centerpiece display.
An apology: To my people! Hanukah is just minutes away and wow, I did not see that coming this year so I got this out a little late. Would a great latke recipe make it up for this oversight?