The 2020 Annual Kitchen Gift Guide, Preamble

I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

In the autumn of 2003, when I was but a wee slip of a blogger, I decided to write up a little list of all my favorite kitchen gadgets. I would like to say that I was motivated purely by my desire to spread holiday joy—and my then-unusual passion for figuring out the best tool for every kitchen job. But while those things were not unimportant, I must confess, I also had a more mercenary motive: I was highly broke, and about to get broker, because having found a job after two years of post-business-school unemployment, I was moving out of the spare bedroom I’d borrowed from my parents.

I had also just learned, probably from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, that Amazon would give you a little commission on anything people bought through your site. I was dazzled. I could tell people about my gadget fetish, and make some money? Merry Christmas!

By the time I moved my blog to The Atlantic, the kitchen gift guide had become an annual affair—so much so that when I attempted to discontinue the feature (reasoning that I was now a professional, and ought to subsist on my salary), I was inundated with emails from readers who wanted me to know that they had Christmas shopping to square away, and needed the guide ASAP. And so, for ten more years, the Kitchen Gift Guide continued its annual appearance, through three employers, a wedding, a kitchen renovation, and a whole lot of meals.

Then I moved to the Washington Post, and for two years, it stopped. The Washington Post was a newspaper, with its own kitchen gift guide; they didn’t need dueling versions. I thought about doing it on a personal blog, but since I wasn’t writing it for the Post, I couldn’t use work time to do it, and as the list had grown over the years, the effort involved had stretched to cover a couple of workdays. I meant to get it done, I really did. But life intervened.

Well, life intervened again this year—unpleasantly. I’ve got a lot more free time than I used to. Probably so do many of you. And if you signed up for this newsletter, then you, or someone you love, is probably spending that time in the kitchen.

So the Kitchen Gift Guide has been resurrected, and hopefully you’ll find it’s better than ever. We’ve got a lot of old favorites (longtime readers will notice that we are starting off with the microplane lemon zester yet again), but also a lot of new things I’ve been dying to tell you about. And we’ve also got a slightly new format, because everyone’s got a Substack now, so why not me?

You can, of course, just read it on the website, same as always, but now, readers can sign up in advance to get it emailed to them (and thanks to the 650 people who had, as of Sunday morning: You really know how to make a girl feel wanted.) And because we’re shifting to email, the list will be broken up into parts, so that gmail doesn’t cut most of it off.

Break up the Kitchen Gift Guide? Admittedly, I was non-plussed at first. But after some thought, I kind of like the idea.

As of this writing, on Sunday morning, the list has been assembled, and links inserted, which is the tedious part. Now all I have to do is the fun part: explaining why I am obsessed with each particular piece of equipment. So the plan from this point forward is that I’m going to start writing, and as I near the word limit, I’ll send out each section, some of them today, and probably some of them Monday and Tuesday as well. A Scrooge might complain that I’m cluttering your inbox, but I suggest you try to think of each section as an individual gift from me to you. More sections means more presents to open, and who doesn’t like that?

This also lets me do something a little different from previous years, when I usually organized the gift guide either by price, or by use-case … gifts for bakers, gifts for cocktail enthusiasts, etc. This year, I’m going to send out the whole list organized by price, starting with the stocking stuffers and working my way forward. But then I’m going to follow up by offering you curated suggestions for people with those highly specialized interests.

The purpose of this lengthy explanation is two-fold. First, I wanted to prepare you for the fact that there is going to be more than one email—don’t think it cuts off after the stocking stuffers! I also wanted to make an offer: if you’re having trouble settling on a gift, email me the particulars—age, how well-stocked their kitchen is, special problems (small kitchen, no kitchen, first kitchen, disability)—and I’ll try to come up with a personalized recommendation. Heck, if enough of you do it, I’ll try to work them into a newsletter edition of its own. Don’t be shy; I actually love solving problems like this, and in 2020, it is especially nice to be confronted with problems that have solutions.

And now, with that housekeeping out of the way, and without further ado, let’s get started.

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Stocking Stuffers (Under $25)

Microplane classic zester $15 This item has been the first recommendation on my guide since it began, and for good reason. Back in 2003, the microplane zester was a novelty that seemed to be largely unknown, and I wanted to spread the Good News that you don’t have to scrape your knuckles just to get a little lemon zest for your pie. Now, of course, it’s ubiquitous, and yet I keep recommending it, because unaccountably, many of you are still unaware of the zester, or resist it, thinking that it’s one more unitasker that will sit around in a drawer unused.

Now, when we’re cooking more than ever, is the time to take the plunge. And take heart: this little tool is surprisingly versatile. Yes, it does a great job of removing just the fragrant, flavorful zest of citrus fruit, leaving the bitter pith behind. But it’s also an excellent grater with which to make beautiful clouds of parmesan cheese to top your pasta, or chocolate to decorate your cakes, pies, and mousses. To my mind, dollar for dollar, nothing delivers more value, or represents such an extraordinary improvement over the technology it replaces.

Dough whisk, 2-pack $18.99 The dough whisk might be the microplane zester of 2020. My father discovered it somewhere, and I first found it in his drawers when I was up in Massachusetts stress baking and helping him convalesce from covid-19.

As the name suggests, this tool is the second-easiest way to incorporate dry ingredients with wet when you are making bread dough. (The easiest way is to wash your hands thoroughly and just dive in there, but this is very messy, and many people hate having their hands crusted with sticky, half-incorporated bread dough.) But it also turns out to be a very good way to stir soups and stews. Twelve months ago I didn’t know this thing existed; now I use it all the time.

Water Mister $16 While we’re talking about bread, I have to mention another favorite tool, the continuous mister. Before we go any further, I should mention that this device is technically made for cosmetic use, so you’ll have to decide whether you are willing to throw all caution to the wind and use it to spritz your loaves with water before baking. Me, I’m a libertarian, and also, the cheap plastic spray bottle I was previously using wasn’t specially designed for food service either.

If you do decide to go for the gusto, you’ll find this bottle delivers a much finer and more even mist than a traditional spray bottle, which covers the loaf absolutely evenly without any risk of deflating your rise. It’s also faster than using a pastry brush, and again reduces the risk of any accidental deflation.

Now, if you’re not already brushing or spraying your loaves with water, here’s why you should start: a little water helps with crust development, and also provides an adhesive if you want to sprinkle something on top. Right now, I’m toggling between sesame seeds, and a mixture of caraway and flaked sea salt, but you could use anything you like, or else just enjoy your delicious, extra-crusty bread with nothing but a sprinkling of flour.

Flour Dredge, $7 If you’re baking a lot, I find it’s also useful to have a flour dredge, which lets you quickly and evenly sprinkle flour over your dough or pastry, or the area where you plan to work with them. It’s obviously not necessary, but it is a little tidier, and unlike a bag of flour, it’s unobtrusive enough to leave in your baking area all the time.

Bread Lame, $11.99 A bread lame is basically a little stick with a handle, the tip of which holds an old-fashioned razor blade. And why would you want to do that, I hear you ask, no doubt with rising alarm?

Because when you are making free-form loaves, you want to cut the tops so that they can expand. Otherwise, they often take on somewhat ungainly shapes, because the crust hardens faster than the inside, so the bread “blows out” the softest part of the forming crust.

You can use a knife to make the cuts, but unless it’s very sharp, you risk deflating your loaf somewhat; a razor blade gets the job done with the least pressure (Second best is this box cutter, which I actually used for a time, and which I still use to open our boxes. But I found the lame did a slightly better job.) You can get all sorts of beautiful fancy ones—handcrafted, with black walnut handles, and for all I know, wifi. But they all do the same thing, which is hold a razor blade, and this one has been doing a beautiful job for me. Do be sure that it is stored in the leather sheath, as obviously the reason razor blades work so well is that they are very, very sharp.

Set of round and oval banneton baskets $25 Bannetons are baskets with a linen liner, helpful for raising freeform loaves. They leave a pretty lined pattern in the loaves, as well. For slightly more money, you can get these baguette bannetons, $31, which I myself have been eyeing. But inexpensive ones are fine; the important thing is that they have a good, washable liner.

Bench scraper, $10 The bench scraper is useful for dividing a big chunk of dough into loaves or pizzas, or for pulling apart anything else reasonably soft, but also, as the name suggests, for cleaning a messy surface that has bits of dough and other sticky substances stuck to it. I also use it for quickly picking up chopped veggies and dropping them in the pot, or even for scraping the crumbs from the table after dinner.

Fat separator, $14 The easiest and best way to separate fat from your drippings, stews, or soups is to put it in the refrigerator, and then scrape the hardened fat off the top once it’s thoroughly chilled. Unfortunately, it is sometimes not convenient to wait a day to eat your cooking—for example, when you are making holiday gravy. Enter the fat separator, which takes advantage of the fact that fat is less dense than soup stock or meat juices, and will therefore rise to the top if you let it stand for a few minutes. Since the fat separator’s spout is at the bottom, you can then pour off the delicious juices, stopping before you get to the fat layer. This one is also more broadly useful as a four cup measure.

Oxo Egg Poaching Cups $9 for two. Too many people love poached eggs, yet never enjoy them because they have the idea that poached eggs are very, very difficult. Actually, poached eggs are very simple; the trick is just not to care what they look like. (I promise, be-tendriled poached eggs may look like something you’d see under the microscope, but they still taste exactly like poached eggs.) These poached egg cups will not help you make poached eggs that look exactly like the ones you get in a restaurant, but they will help you get the eggs into the water without breaking the yolk. If you then swirl them in little circles for a few seconds after breaking, you should achieve an egg that looks pretty appetizing. At the very least, you’ll have gotten over your hesitancy about making delicious, nutritious poached eggs. Note: the side with the holes is the one that goes in the water; you crack the egg into the other half.

Egg separator $9 While we’re talking about eggs, let’s talk egg separation. The easiest way to do this is to wash your hands very thoroughly, and then crack the egg into your palm, allowing the white to run out between your fingers. Most people find this icky. Alternatively, you can pass the egg back and forth between the halves of the broken shell, letting the white run out, but the edge of the shell can break the yolk, particularly if you are inexperienced. Enter the egg separator: small enough to fit in a drawer, large enough to fill your life with egg white omelettes, white cakes, and meringues.

Washable labels Fancy $25 and plain $12 Do you, perhaps, have a freezer full of containers of indistinguishable leftovers that can only be broadly classified into brown or red? Have you ever defrosted what you thought was pizza sauce and turned out to be tomato soup?

Then you are the person I have been dying to tell about these labels since I discovered them last year. Honestly, it’s worth all the work of the Kitchen Gift Guide if I can just convince you how much these will improve your life. Made of cornstarch, they dissolve in the dishwasher, so you can label with abandon, and actually keep track of what—and when—you froze. I used to use painter’s tape, but these actually look neat, you can see writing that isn’t done with a fat-tip sharpie, and you don’t even need to bother to remove them before you wash. Absolute must-have for people with a dedicated freezer.

Giant BBQ Spatula, $13.99 I bought this as a joke for my husband after we got our first grill, but it turns out to be useful for getting something large off the grill, such as a roast or a pizza. And now that I’m baking bread every week, I also use it for fishing loaves out of the oven.

Silicone Pie Crust Shield $12.99 The too-brown pie crust is the perpetual bane of pie chefs, because it so often takes longer to cook the filling and the center crust than the outer crust. You can tent the edge with foil if your pie starts to brown too much, but it’s much more convenient to just drape this over the crust. Because it’s silicone, it’s very flexible, and can be adjusted to the size of the pie. This also makes it easy to store because it can be crammed into the corner of any drawer.

9” Pie Pan with Dome$18.99 It turns out that the best pie plates are not those fancy, beautiful ceramic ones you see in gourmet shops, but cheap metal ones that conduct heat quickly, giving you the crispiest, flakiest crust. In fact, the disposable foil ones work remarkably well, but I don’t like them, because I’ve been known to accidentally cut through my pan. This is solid enough to reuse, but cheap enough to do a good job, and the lid for storage is a nice bonus.

Silicone pastry mat, $17 You can, of course, just roll your pastry out on the counter, but then you have to clean the counter; this mat wipes clean and rolls up for storage. It’s also marked to help you measure the side of your pastry. But are other reasons to use a mat. It’s less sticky than the counter, which means you can use less flour, so your crust won’t get quite so dry. And if it’s a hot day, and your pastry is wilting, you can roll the whole thing up and just stick it in the fridge for a few minutes to let it firm up. Note: this is not the kind of silicone mat you put in the oven.

Oxo pastry brush, $9 If you’re going to make pastry, you need a brush—for egg, butter or milk washes, if nothing else. But they’re also useful for basting your barbecue, for brushing oil or melted butter on vegetables before roasting, and for quickly buttering your popover cups. Unfortunately, the traditional brushes now available are so cheap they molt into your food—and most of the silicone brushes available don’t work very well. Luckily, Oxo’s silicone brush does work; I have them in three sizes, including a monster designed for grilling.

Clip on pot strainer, $16.99 and Fine mesh strainers, $12.99. The clip-on strainer is brilliant for anything you used to use a colander for, like pasta or potatoes, while the finer strainers filter smaller solids. They can even be used as sifters—the smallest size is what I deploy to sprinkle powdered sugar or cocoa over baked goods.

Progressive sifter, $13 After my traditional tin sifter rusted out, I bought this one, which I like because of the measuring cup. It’s not a substitute for traditional dip-level-pour measuring, but if you need 2 cups of pre-sifted flour, you can at least be sure you have enough in the cup to make your measure.

Onion goggles $20 My husband bought me these as a joke, and they are admittedly kind of ridiculous. But they also actually work, by sealing your eyes off from the stinging vapors, and if you find yourself routinely chopping a lot of onions, they might be worth it, especially if you are one of those folks whose eyes flood every time you get within ten feet of onion chopping.

Russian Piping Tips, $21 If you, like me, do not have the patience or artistic eye for pro-level cake decorating, Russian tips are an easy shortcut. They make really credible-looking flowers out of buttercream, which can be piped onto your cake in a matter of minutes. I also think every cake baker should have a very basic set of regular piping tips ($13) for easy things like rosettes (or to put leaves on your Russian-tip flowers) as well as a decent cake comb and icing spatula ($9 for the set). With those tools, you can produce something that looks surprisingly good with only a little practice.

Chain mail cast iron cleaner, $21 There’s nothing like this for attacking really burnt-on messes. You still may need to do a follow-up scrub with steel wool, but that’s a good deal easier after the shock troops have softened up the enemy. Especially good for anyone who has cast iron pans.

Ramekins Large $22, Small $17, Square $16 Every home needs ramekins—useful for soup, nut cups, ice cream dishes, miniature souffles, molten lava cakes, and a hundred other things I haven’t even named. The problem is that ramekins break, and then they don’t match, unless you stick with boring white; my solution is ramekins that come in multiple colors, so they aren’t supposed to match in the first place (though they also come in plain white.)

Tongs, $13 At this late date, is there anyone who doesn’t have kitchen tongs? I use mine for everything from turning meat over in the frying pan, to pulling out the rack of my air fryer. These are not the sexiest Christmas gift, but if you know someone who is inexplicably tongless, be the nice person who gently corrects the error of their ways.

Spice jar measuring spoons, $15 As someone who is old enough to remember when all measuring spoons were round, I still get excited about the fact that we now have measuring spoons which fit into spice jars, rather than having to measure out spices over a sheet of paper so you can fold it up and pour them back in the end. This is a nice set, with lots of different sizes (you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll reach for a 1/8 teaspoon once you have one), and sturdy construction.

Weighted Pour spouts, $15 We buy staples like oil and vinegar in bulk, and portion them into bottles with pour spouts. I liked them, but so did fruit flies, who regarded this as a highway to the good stuff. These spouts have a weighted lid that flips open when you invert the bottle, and shut when you bring it upright, which keeps bugs and other contamination away from your condiments.

Springform pan, $17 Essential for cheesecakes, mousse cakes, fallen souffle cakes, and my new favorite, the Japanese cheesecake. Unfortunately, many of those treats are cooked in water baths, to keep them from splitting—and then they leak. This springform pan won’t entirely stop that problem—I still wrap mine in a slow cooker liner, sealed tight with twine, and several layers of foil. But whereas I previously used to sometimes get leakage even with those precautions, now my cakes stay watertight.

Silicone bands, $10 The ideal method to secure your slow cooker liner to your springform pan, or keep your turkey legs fast together, or any number of other small kitchen tasks, is to use a rubber band. Unfortunately, they don’t do so well in the oven. Enter the silicone band, which is basically a food-safe rubber band.

Leather grill gloves, $25 We bought a used Big Green Egg ceramic grill from a friend this year, and these gloves, which I bought my husband for our leather anniversary, have turned out to be essential for changing plates and hauling large, hot hunks of meet out of the well. They’re also pretty good at moving hot oven racks that I forgot to take out of the oven before I began preheating.

Kochblume Spill Stopper, $22 These ingenious little lids stop pots from boiling over by breaking up the bubbles that cause the overflow. A great boon to anyone who has ever had to scrub burned-on milk off their stove.

Infrared thermometer, $24 I confess that when a friend got me this as a gift, I couldn’t figure out how I would use it. Actually it turns out to be quite useful for candymaking, to see if my pan is hot enough for the pancakes, or to verify the temperature of grills and ovens.

Salt Sampler, $17 All salt is basically the same stuff, but trace minerals can make surprisingly big differences in flavor. It can be fun to cook up a steak, or even a few potatoes, and then see how different kinds of salts subtly change the taste.

Urbani Truffle Oil, $20 Makes a nice accent to popcorn, potatoes, salads, even a steak. There are a lot of brands on the market, some of which can be rather medicinal; this one was the winner of the America’s Test Kitchen taste test.

Ruby chocolate, $24 This is a new product from Callebaut, and for someone who enjoys patisserie or candymaking, it’s something fun to play with for people who may be looking for novelty after nine months in quarantine. Made from a special kind of cocoa bean, it has a tangy, almost fruity flavor which is quite different from other chocolates. Do note, however, that it is, as Callebaut notes, “not bake stable”, which means it’s not a good gift for someone who makes a lot of cookies or brownies; its use is for candymaking, or else as part of a mousse or ganache.

Oversized Silicone spatula, $14 I don’t know about you, but I almost never think “gosh, I wish this spatula was smaller”. Much more often, I want something large. Enter the oversized spatula, sometimes known as a “pancake spatula”, which is made of silicone to protect your non-stick pans. For metal pans, I like the large metal grill spatula $16.

Fingerless gloves $13 If you’re going to be cooking outside this year—and I don’t know about you, but we’re still backyarding even as the temperature drops towards freezing—you’ll want something to keep your hands warm, especially if you’re using a portable hot plate or induction burner. But warm gloves can be too stiff to work easily, so if you’re having trouble working with gloves on, think about investing in some of these.

Wide butter dish with knife, $20 I always leave butter on the counter, because I don’t like trying to scrape a hard lump across my toast. I used to use complicated butter dishes with water in them to keep butter from going rancid, but eventually realized that we go through butter so quickly that the special precautions were unnecessary. And when the pandemic arrived, I started using even more. I also started buying European-style wide sticks of butter—first because they were actually easier to get at one point, then because I decided I liked them. Initially I cut them in half to fit the old butter dish, and then we bought this, which comes with a nice little knife to dole it out. Would also fit two sticks of American-style butter.

Salt jar with bamboo lid, $17 I have three of these on my counter—one for table salt, one for kosher salt, and one for flaked sea salt. It’s easy to reach in and grab a handful of salt whenever I need it, but when not in use, the silicone-sealed bamboo lid keeps my salt from getting wet and hardening into a solid lump.

Spider skimmer, 5 1/2 inch, $11 Bigger and more porous than a slotted spoon, I love these things for fishing raviolis or poached eggs out of water, solids out of simmering broth, or chicken out of hot oil.

Oxo Adjustable measuring cup, $11 If you work with sticky ingredients—honey, molasses, or similar—these are useful, because the plunger allows you to expel them cleanly, something that’s difficult to do with a traditional measuring cup. One cup adjusts to a variety of sizes.

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