Stuck for the perfect gift for the cook in your life? Here are a few suggestions.
A Good Chef’s Knife
You don’t have to break the bank to provide your favorite cook with some serious hardware. While Wusthof, Henckels and Shun get all the shelf space down at the Towels-’n'-Such, there are are better bargains to be had, knives that are fully equal to or better than the big names but with more reasonable price tags. If you like the heavier German style of knife, the Messermeister Meridian Elité series has very comfortable handles and comes with one of the best factory edges I’ve seen. If you like the thinner, lighter western-style Japanese knives, the Mac Professional series is always my first recommendation for people getting into high performance knives. They feel great and can take industrial levels of abuse before losing their edges. Global knives have a “love ‘em or hate ‘em” handle style, but these are the knives that started the Japanese knife revolution, convincing professional chefs to abandon their heavy German knives in droves. These three knives redefine the modern chef’s knife.
One of my favorite online vendors is ChefKnivesToGo.com. They are running specials on all three of these knives, including some good deals on starter sets that include an 8″ chef’s knife and a high-quality paring knife, all with free shipping.
Instant Read Thermometer
Yes, these things are expensive, but once you use a ThermoPen instant read thermometer you’ll be spoiled for life. I have two, an older version and the new splash-proof model. I use them every time I cook. I know my chicken is juicy and perfectly roasted when I pull it from the oven at 165° and that my bread is going to come out exactly as I expect it to because it has hit the target 200° threshold. No guessing. No confusion. No archaic subjective tests for doneness. I know with absolute confidence that whatever I’m cooking is right where it should be, and I know it immediately. No interminable waiting with the oven door open for a dial thermometer to register.
My favorite Soehlne Futura digital scale has been discontinued, so I couldn’t replace it when it took dive off the kitchen counter. The Soehlne would weigh up to 11 pounds or 5 kilos with fraction of an ounce accuracy. If you bake, using a digital scale rather than measuring in cups and teaspoons is the difference between using your new high-tech laptop and writing in the mud with a stick. Luckily my wife gave me the MyWeigh KD-8000 for my birthday. This scale is amazing. It even allows you to measure using baker’s percentages, the method bakers use to weigh ingredients in proportion to the flour weight. That’s just freaking cool. This scale can handle up to 8 kilos or 17.5 pounds of ingredients with 0.1oz accuracy. It’s reasonably priced, too.
A World Class Cutting Board
You may not be able to get one in time for Christmas, but David Smith at The BoardSmith is making some of the finest cutting boards available today. When I was writing “An Edge in the Kitchen” I got to test drive just about every type and manufacturer of cutting board available. These are the cutting boards that I use, recommend, and give to friends and family.
Give David a call or drop him an email to see what he has in stock.
In the interest of full disclosure, my main cutting board, an 18″ x 24″ maple beauty, was provided by The BoardSmith as a demo unit for my classes and videos. I have purchased all the others. My board can be seen in my YouTube videos, most notably Dicing Onions: Classic & Cheat Techniques
A subject near and dear to my heart. While I believe that everyone can learn to sharpen his or her own knives, I recognize that most cooks just aren’t going to. That’s fine. Be that way. See if I care. However, a sharp knife is a cook’s best friend, and too many of us suffer in silence, continuing to use a dull knife even as it gets harder and harder to cut cleanly and safely. Give the cook in your life the gift of a revitalized knife. Many places offer knife sharpening services, but I will say that if your cook has decent knives, give Dave Martell a try. Dave’s service, JapaneseKnifeSharpening.Com, is an offshoot of his brick and mortar business, D&R Sharpening Solutions, outside of Philadelphia. His mail order sharpening — for both Japanese and standard European style knives — is the secret weapon of an embarrassing number of high end chefs. He offers gift certificates, so you’ll have something to put in the stocking.
A heavy pizza stone in your oven can make a world of difference. I keep mine in at all times. The temperature in an average residential oven can swing as much as a hundred degrees as the elements cycle off and on. The thermal mass of the pizza stone helps keep the oven temperature much more stable, and it helps hearth breads and pizza crusts crisp up just like you want them to. I realize that a big hunk of tile is not the most glamorous gift you can give but the baker in your life will appreciate it.
The World’s Best Peppermill
Not like I’m biased or anything, but the Magnum peppermill is truly badass. This is the six inch model. For the truly pepper obsessed there is even a Magnum Plus nine-inch model. The Magnum holds a cubic boatload of peppercorns, has an infinitely variable grind screw on the bottom and delivers astonishing amounts of pepper with a single turn of the top. I’ve used mine for years and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Tom David, the creator, must be some sort of peppermill savant. His Unicorn brand peppermills, including the Magnum, have one of the best grind mechanisms I’ve ever seen. And check out the travel size MiniMill. I keep one in my knife kit. I’m one of those obnoxious people who, if you invite me to dinner, brings my knife roll just in case you need help in the kitchen. And I’m certainly not going to put up with the dessicated powdery substance that used to be pepper tucked away in your spice rack.
Heavy Duty Blender
If you want to spend some serious money, you can’t go wrong with a super powered blender. There are really only two worth mentioning, the BlendTec and the Vita-Mix. These things run between $400 and $500 dollars, so you’d best be sure your relationship is strong before whipping out your credit card, both to ensure that your sweetie is worth it and to make sure he or she won’t blow a gasket when the bill comes. There’s a great comparison between the major high-powered blenders in the article Big Time Blending from the Washington Post that covers their relative strengths and weaknesses. I ended up with the BlendTec for the very simple reason that it will fit under my overhead cabinets. The Vita-Mix is almost 21 inches tall and won’t fit under standard overhead kitchen cabinets, which are usually 18 inches from the countertop. That limits where you can put the blender when it’s not in use. The BlendTec is just under 16 inches tall and fits just fine next to the stove. Both the BlendTec and the Vita-Mix blenders have loyal followings, and both are excellent machines. I use my BlendTec not only for the usual smoothies, soups and sauces, but also to make peanut butter (where it’s a little less capable than the Vita-Mix), prepare foods for canning, purée root vegetables, and grate hard cheeses for pizza toppings. You could just about chip your Christmas tree in one of these things.
and finally . . .
A Good Book
Obviously, those of you who don’t already own An Edge in the Kitchen should purchase a copy immediately. In fact, buy several and give them to all your friends. Give them to strangers. I don’t care. Just buy them. Please? I’ve got a kid in college. While you are ordering, though, also pick up a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. It’s a best seller for very good reason.
Ratio isn’t a cookbook or recipe book, it’s a thoughtful breakdown of how ingredients relate to one another to create foundation recipes. A basic shorbread cookie is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat or butter and 1 part sugar. Remember 3:2:1 and you’ve got not one cookie recipe but hundreds of cookie recipes. You can add just about anything you want, but if you stick to that ratio your cookies will come out great. Same thing with mayonnaise and other sauces, sausages, doughs and batters, and even desserts. If you’ve ever wondered how to get away from cooking with recipes and learn to improvise in the kitchen, this is the gateway. Now Michael even has a Ratio iPhone app. I don’t have an app. I’m not that cool.
If you’ve been floundering, looking for that perfect gift for the cook in your life, any one of these will deliver the holiday magic — guaranteed.NOTE: Except where specifically mentioned, every piece of gear in this review has been extensively tested, used and abused in my kitchen. All of the vendors linked are reputable, reliable dealers from whom I’ve purchased kitchen gear and can personally recommend. I have no business relationship with any of them except as a satisfied customer.