Any great cook can tell you that all you need to make great food is a fire and a cooking surface. Any surface will do. But let's face it, there are some things that just make cooking more fun. Easier, prettier, more foolproof. Your giftee doesn't need a $300 Dutch oven, but if they've been extra good this year, you might consider spoiling them. Every item on this list is something I use in my own kitchen at least once a week, if not every single day, and most I've had for years and plan on using for the rest of my life.
The Splash-Proof Thermapen ($89)
A good instant-read thermometer is the only way to ensure that your roasts, steaks, chops, or burgers come out that perfect medium-rare every time. Forget about poking with your finger, relying on inaccurate timing guides, or the nick-and-peek method. Buy a high-quality, fast, accurate digital thermometer, and never have a piece of over or undercooked meat again.
The Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen by Thermoworks has a hefty $89 price tag, but it's money well-spent. It's head-and-shoulders above the competition with a stunning range of -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C), 1/10th of a degree precision, unparalleled accuracy, and a read time of under three seconds. Because of its wide range, you won't need a separate meat, candy, or deep-fry thermometer—a singe tool does all three tasks, and how.
Asides from my knives, it's my favorite piece of kit, and it rarely leaves my side while I'm in the kitchen.
FoodSaver V2244 Advanced Design Vacuum Sealer ($78.28)
Sure, you'll need a vacuum sealer to cook food in your new water oven, but a brand new FoodSaver V2244 Vacuum Sealer ($78.28) is useful for so much more. I like to season whole steaks, pork chops, and chicken breasts, seal them, then throw them in the freezer. They keep for months and months with no freezer burn, and when I want to cook them, I can drop them directly into my water oven. Soups, stews, brases, vegetables, and ground meats can be sealed in the bag, then flattened and frozen to maximize surface area. This leads to rapid freezing and defrosting (not to mention optimizing storage space in the freezer), for better quality food on the table much, much faster.
Presto Pro Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker ($64.54)
You think to yourself, "A pressure cooker? That's for like making beans and stews and stock and stuff, right? I'm not going to use that every day." The reality is, once you get a pressure cooker, suddenly all of those things become everyday foods. Make stocks in half an hour. Cook beef to tender braised perfection in under an hour. Cook dry beans in 45 minutes. It's a staple of most South American kitchens for these very reasons, and there's no reason why you shouldn't use one in your own kitchen. While top-of-the-line models can set you back over $200, the Presto Pro Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker ($64.54) is sturdy and heavy-duty with a thick bottom for even cooking (I use it as a normal pot all the time), with a firmly locking lid that won't leave you thinking, "Is this going to blow?"
Vitamix Professional Series 200 ($448.95)
However good their blender is, it's not as good as the Vitamix 1723 Professional Series 200 ($448.95), unless of course, it is that blender. With a ridiculous 2 hp of power, an unbreakable 64-ounce polycarbonate container, a tamper for pushing down stubborn vegetables, and a fully analog control dial that lets you adjust the speed from slow mix to pulverize-the-crap-out-of-anything-turn-Chunk's-hand-into-Goonie-mush and every state in between, this, my friends, is the blender that dreams are made of. No, it's the blender that makes liquid blender soup out of the blenders that dreams are made of.
The Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4 Quart Round French Oven ($304.99)
Imagine you cook one stew a month for the rest of your life, but you want that stew to be the perfect stew. Slow cooked, moisture-filled, worry-free. Then let's supposed the average Serious Eats reader will live, say, another 40 years. Conservative estimate. 40 years x 12 months = 480 stews over the course of this one pot's lifetime, and that's not including the soups, stocks, braises, and loaves of bread you'll make in here. Nor the ones your children will make. Nor your grandchildren. Suddenly, the price tag of $304.99 for the Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4 Quart Round French Oven, a pot that will outlive you by several decades, doesn't seem that high, does it?
All-Clad 3-Quart Stainless Steel Saucier Pan ($190)
Saucepans are nice, but I find the squared edges annoying—food gets caught in there, and it's hard to stir or whisk it out. A saucier can perform all of the same functions, with the added advantage of rounded edges that make whisking and combining ingredients a snap. A 3-quart size is just large enough to heat up enough soup to feed four to six people. It'll hold a couple bottles of wine, but is still a reasonable enough size that you can reduce those bottles down to a cup or two without having to switch out to a smaller pot.
If you like using the low-heat, low-water method of cooking pasta, this pot'll do you as well. Cook the pasta, drain it, and add your sauce directly to the pot and heat to combine for no-mess, no-fuss cleanup. Oh, and it's a good friend to have for boiling and poaching eggs.
The All-Clad 3-Quart Stainless Steel Saucier Pan ($190) is ultra-sturdy with superb heat distribution and weight balance. It's got a tight fitting lid for retaining heat as well.
The All-Clad Stainless Steel Sauté Pan With Lid ($99.95)
This is one of the major workhorses in my kitchen. Perfect for browning large quantities of meat or sautéeing a whole horde of vegetables (and their minions), its thick construction, even heat distribution, and excellent heat retention properties means it cooks evenly and quickly, with none of the rapid drops in temperature you might be used to with thinner construction pans. What does this mean? It means less risk of your meat steaming instead of searing when you accidentally add too much to the pan.
Why is tri-ply construction important? Stainless steel is heavy and can retain a lot of heat, but it's a slow conductor. Aluminum is lightweight (and retains less heat per unit volume), but transfers heat really fast. Combine the two in a single pan by sandwiching the aluminum in the center, and you've got a skillet that can retain heat for maximum browning, and will distribute that heat evenly over its entire surface, eliminating hot and cold spots.
The All-Clad Stainless Steel Sauté Pan with Lid ($99.95) might be expensive, but its massive size and perfect thermodynamics are worth the extra bucks (besides, it's on sale!).
Misono UX10 Santoku ($215)
I'd be a liar if I told you that this knife is the best knife that money can buy. In fact, I'd be a liar if I told you any knife is the best knife money can buy, because, like choosing a spouse, there is no universal right answer. (Some folks might even say there's no right answer period. No offense to my lovely wife). But there are certain qualities to look for.
A solid, full-length tang—that's the section of the blade that extends into the handle—offers balance, stability, and longevity. A riveted handle (preferably with three rivets) will ensure that your hand will never break off. A comfortable, slip-proof grip near the hilt of the blade will help you keep a grip in the slippiest of circumstances. A santoku-style blade gives you better control over precision knife cuts. Modern hybrid stainless steel that is easy to sharpen and stays sharp.
There are many knives that fit this description, and if you truly care about your giftee, you'll take them shopping. But you might start by looking at the one that I use, the Misono UX10 Santoku ($215), which performs all those functions with style and grace.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.