This time of year, gift guides with all the latest gizmos and gadgets are rampant, and algorithms seem to follow us around the internet, demanding we buy the latest Instant Pot or Air Fryer.
I’m here to help you cut through the noise and figure out what will actually help your foodie friends take their kitchen game up a notch.
I’m focusing on good versions of core tools that won’t be banished to the junk drawer or Goodwill pile when spring cleaning roles around.
Here are 12 core kitchen tools, and my recommendations for finding the best version of each. Many of these can be found at thrift stores with a bit of hunting — the old stuff is often better made than the new.
Having a sharp knife can be a game changer for any cook. It requires less effort to use, with the added bonus of not damaging food. Fragile foods like lettuce or basil will not get bruised and spoil when cut with a sharp knife. A sharp knife cuts food; a dull knife cuts you. A dull knife will “jump” when you are trying to force it through the food. Possibly jumping into your finger.
Things to look for in a knife: Is it a thick or thin blade? Is it balanced and comfortable in the hand? Can it take a sharp edge? Is it easily resharpened?
I recommend MAC knives like the HB-85 Series (macknife.com, $82.50). They take an edge and can keep it for a long time. They are stainless and easy to maintain, with a comfortable handle and good balance. Most importantly, there is not a heel on the blade, meaning you can continue sharpening it for years to come. Sharpening stone/steel
Even the best knives lose their edge, so having a sharpening stone is an often overlooked must-have in a kitchen. Knife sharpening is definitely a skill worth developing; luckily it’s not that difficult to learn. Water stones are easier and cheaper to maintain than oil stones. The #1000/#4000 combination water stone is a great buy. (Korin.com, $49.90. Korin has excellent sharpening training videos.)
Any digital thermometer will be a great gift, especially if you like grilling meat and want to hit a perfect temperature. I like the Javelin or Javelin Pro (lavatools.co, $26.99 or $53.99) for their accuracy, precise tip and fast reaction time. Non-contact infrared thermometers are also nice to figure out how hot a grill or soup is and are available for under $15 at most hardware stores.
Buying a digital scale will unlock a whole new level of easy accuracy, especially if it weighs in metric grams. Most professional bakers work exclusively in grams; if you want to take the mystery out of baking, a digital scale is a big step forward. There are other fun things you can’t do without a scale in grams, like dial in a specific percentage of acidity or salinity.
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The one I’ve seen in professional kitchens far and wide is the KD-8000 (OldWillKnottScales.com, $48.70). It weighs down to a gram, and up to 8 kilos (17 pounds.) But the crazy thing about the KD is that it has a [ % ] button. A lot of bakers use ratio recipes by percentage. This feature calculates the percent for you. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around this concept at first, but after a few instructional videos, you will have changed your baker’s life with this gift.
The Kuhn-Rikon vegetable peeler is the Cadillac of all peelers (kuhnrikonshop.com, $5). They are very sharp, and have a uniquely shaped ergonomic handle. At $5 or less each, you seriously can’t go wrong.
Coffee grinder for spices
A lot of folks have an electric coffee grinder in the house, but what those grinders are truly spectacular at is grinding black pepper and other spices. Fresh ground spices are a surprisingly simple way to radically improve your game. Getting a second grinder is a great way to spare them curry-flavored coffee. Smaller, simpler grinders like the ones from Braun or Krupps (krupsusa.com, $19.99) tend to last longer; they really don’t need any bells or whistles. Find these in any supermarket, or sometimes thrift stores.
The bowl scraper seems like a gadget at first; it scrapes crusty bits off plates and bowls. The Matfer bowl scraper (jbprince.com, $6.90) takes the idea a few steps farther than most. Made of hardened polycarbonate plastic, it actually has an edge which makes it sharp enough to cut dough or pasta, or easily scrape every last leaf of chopped herbs off the cutting board.
Fish spatula/slotted turner
This is a must for any serious cook, the essential tool for cooking on the stovetop. A slotted spatula shaped like a fish’s pectoral fin, it also functions as a whisk and has two specially curved edges. One is a soft, rounded curve to get into the corners of a saute pan, the other has a sharper angle to scrape to straight walls of a saucepan. As an added bonus, the front edge is sharpened, so you can cut food in a pan as you are cooking it. The Peltex Fish Spatula (jbprince.com, $17.90) had the added bonus of being made of flexible spring steel, which can get under food near the edge of a pan.
Watch your fingers! A mandoline has a sharp blade in a frame for slicing thin sheets, julienne or matchsticks out of vegetables. The Benriner Mandoline (jbprince.com, $33.60) has precise thickness and an incredibly sharp edge. It comes with a pusher plate that grips the vegetables, protecting your fingers from that blade.
People tend to cut themselves on mandolines, especially when cleaning them. Just like any sharp knife, you never want to leave this unattended on the counter or in the sink. Clean it carefully immediately after use, and keep it safely tucked in a drawer, away from the prying claws of children and cats.
A rice cooker is a surprisingly versatile tool. I use mine to cook rice, lentils, buckwheat and whole grains like uncut oats. I prefer ones with a simple one touch button. Measure your grains and water, close the lid, hit the button and walk away. It shuts itself off when it’s done cooking and switches to a “keep warm” mode. You can find a variety of styles and sizes at local Asian grocery stores. I’ve always been fond of the Tiger (target.com, $69.99) and Zojirushi brands, which are very accurate and long lasting. Avoid cookers with a digital display; they tend to break down more quickly.
Cast iron and carbon steel pans
Color is flavor, and there’s really nothing better than iron when you’re trying to get some brown on your food. These pans last an extremely long time, and you can see some beauties from years gone by in almost any antique store. When choosing a cast iron pan, look at the texture of the metal on the cooking surface. A good pan looks like black glass or Teflon. Newer pans from the 1950s and after tend to look rough or dimpled, because they weren’t finished all the way at the foundry. After casting, the pan needed to be ground down, sanded and polished to get that smooth non-stick surface. Field Company, a modern foundry, finishes their pans, and the difference is notable. But at the price tag, it’s better to stick with the antiques (fieldcompany.com, $75).
Carbon steel pans are a lighter weight variant on cast iron. They are cured and maintained the same way as cast iron, but are more lightweight and respond more quickly to changes in temperature. Restaurants tend to use carbon steel in place of cast iron, because it heats up faster. Which also makes them great for camping or throwing on a grill outdoors. (debuyer-usa.com, from $22.95)
If you are blending a small amount of anything, immersion is the way to go. You can blend a soup right in the saucepan, blend a smoothie right in a Mason jar, whip eggs in a measuring cup and puree sauce right in the pan. Cleanup is a lot simpler than a blender, and it barely takes up any space. I see these at thrift stores sometimes, and even the cheap versions are great to have around.
The king of immersion blenders is the Bamix, made in Italy with a German Bosch motor. You can find classic Bamix models from the 1970s and ‘80s on eBay that outperform a lot of today’s top-of-the-line models (ebay.com, prices vary).