Shopping for the serious cook is not always as easy as it might seem. True, there are tons of “gadgets” on the market contrived to lure the foodie, but serious cooks generally do not want gadgets. Gadgets perform single, often obscure, tasks, and the rest of the time they take up drawer, shelf or counter space. And when the time comes to perform the task that the gadget is designed for, it can generally not be found or it has been utterly forgotten.
Instead of gadgets, stuff your chef’s stocking with some valuable tools that he or she will use on a regular basis for decades to come. Here are a few good ones!
Messermeister Vegetable Peeler – Selected by Cooks Illustrated a few years back as the best vegetable peeler, this bad boy has it all. Like high-end peelers, it has a sharp, serrated blade that will bite into every type of peel from carrots and turnips to the more difficult eggplant and melons. Unlike some of the more expensive models, it is very lightweight, making ten pound bags of potatoes much easier. Despite its weight and price, it is solidly built, and will last for years. Last holiday season Sur La Table had them in a variety of colors.
Commercial Non-stick – Available at restaurant supply stores and often at club stores too. Every kitchen needs a piece of non-stick cookware. We don’t use it much, but when we want it, it is invaluable. The down-side is that non-stick wears out, so paying top dollar for All-clad is foolish. I prefer to think of non-stick cook-wear as disposable, so I just pick up the two-packs at the club store, and in my kitchen, they last for five or six years. If you are going to get one piece, get a 10″ skillet, suitable for omelets and crepes and useful for flipping a couple of eggs too.
BIA Ceramics – This remains the uber-deal of the cooking world. BIA ceramics are embraced by the Cordon Bleu, and they are tremendously good quality. Better yet, the soufflé dishes are appropriately proportioned and have the correct lip for building good soufflés. The bulk of BIA products are plain, industrial white ceramic, giving a clean, good quality look to any kitchen. Some painted pieces may be found too. The best part is that, despite the high quality and finish, these are still available at fantastic prices. The first time I saw the BIA display at William Glen, I had to confirm the price with two employees before I believed it. Do not miss the aforementioned soufflé dishes, the tart pans, the loaf pans, the pâté terrines and the cow shaped creamers!
Silipats – Not just for the baker in your house, Silipats are incredibly useful pieces of modern technology for the traditional kitchen. These replace parchment for most baking tasks and they offer a small, nonstick work surface for bread doughs as well. The downside is that, like non-stick cookwear, they do have a limited lifespan, so every cook will appreciate a new one periodically.
Kitchen Shears – Too many cooks suffer with either the lousy shears that came in their knife set or, worse yet, a pair of retired sewing scissors in the kitchen. A pair of well designed shears is a fantastic multi-purpose tool for the kitchen. Look for shears that come apart at the joint, so that they may be completely cleaned after spatchcocking a hen, and solid stainless steel is better than the plastic hybrid models. The blade to grip ratio should favor the grip, so lots of leverage can be brought to bear on tough tasks. I have a pair of Forschner shears that I bought after checking out just about every other product on the market, and I love them, but I do not believe that they are available anymore. Wusthof makes excellent ones, but they cost a whopping $75. Just look for something that has short blades, long handles that come apart in the middle and are solid stainless and you will do fine.
Silicone Kitchen Tools – Mom had the Rubbermaid spatulas, and they were fantastic multipurpose kitchen tools. But you had to keep them away from the stove, or you would have the ickiest omelet ever. Today we have silicone tools, and, whilst more expensive than their rubber predicesors, they are wonderful additions to any kitchen. Sure, you can still get the last bits of mayo out of the jar with them, but you can also manage your omelet with them. Or scrape the bottom of your still red-hot non-stick roasting pan with no fear of damaging the non-stick finish. These are available in a range of prices, but they are mostly of similar quality, so go cheap. One-piece construction is a nice perk, so the blade and handle won’t come apart as the silicone softens with heat. Available at all level of cooking stores, but I keep an eye out at places like Ross and Marshall’s for mine.
Bamboo Kitchen Tools – I admit it, I love my big French stirring spoons, and I will not trade them for anything. I also have some great quality bamboo, however, and it grows on me. First of all, it is more soak resistant than the fancier stuff, and, when it wears out, throw it away! It is cheap and it is made from a completely renewable resource. And it looks cool too.
Olive Wood Kitchen Tools – The far end of the spectrum from the bamboo stuff, olive wood is what the finest of wooden kitchen implements is made. These are tools that will be treasured by the cook for years to come. They are beautiful, sturdy and resistant to most damage. The best part is that, despite how truly excellent olive wood tools are, they are still fairly modestly priced. Sure, you will pay four times what you might pay for bamboo, but these are gorgeous and not at all disposable.
Citrus Juicer – There are many varieties of citrus juicers on the market, but I like the old ones the best. My personal favorite is the old Wear-Ever model that looks like a big levered apparatus. I like it because it disappears in the back of the drawer when I don’t want it, but it does the job perfectly when I do. It will handle anything from small limes up to moderately large oranges quickly and easily, and it is dishwasher safe. Other options are beautiful depression glass models (or reproductions thereof) or the ever present reamers that most professionals prefer nowadays. The reamers are good because they don’t take up much space and they will work on any size of fruit. I, however, like to have some sort of strainer to catch seeds, though that task may be handled by any small strainer or, for that matter, fingers.
I hope that this list helps in your gift shopping excursions. When you are contemplating something in the store, ask yourself, How often will he or she use this? And will it do anything else besides ___? If it is something that will be used less than once per month, it is probably not something that will be treasured for years to come.