Sure, every wedding registry's got a Kitchenaid stand mixer and a Cuisinart food processor on the list, and both are invaluable tools in the kitchen, but there are other fancy-pants tools that help make preparing great food more fun. Easier, prettier, more foolproof.
Your giftee might not require a $300 Dutch oven, but if they've been extra good this year, you should 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.
A Baking Steel
The Baking Steel is a thick-gauge steel sheet that is designed to replace a traditional baking stone in your oven for baking pizzas and breads. Because of steels superior thermal properties, it delivers more energy to your dough, resulting in crisper crusts, better charring, and superior pizzas.
When I first opened the box and tested this guy out last year, it was one of the first times in my life I remember testing a product and saying to myself, holy crap, this is a great idea. It truly changed the home pizza game and will make you wonder how you ever lived with less-than-perfectly-crisp-and-charred crusts your whole life.
And if you've got a backyard pizza-maker in your life, check out the Serious Eats KettlePizza and Baking Steel Special Edition, a device designed to convert your existing Weber Kettle grill into a full-blown wood-fired pizza oven capable of reaching temperatures of over 1000°F!
A Large Enameled Dutch Oven
A Dutch oven is the best vessel for anything that requires some heavy searing followed by gentle, even cooking—slow-cooked braises like pot roast, carne adovada, or better-than-Chipotle's barbacoa. It's also handy for soups, like spicy pork, green pepper, and pork soup, hearty escarole and barley, or roasted cauliflower and barley. And, of course, it's great for the best chili ever.
You can't beat the durability, good looks, and cooking power of a French-made Le Creuset. It heats the most evenly, sears the best, and lasts the longest. At over $300, it's not a cheap toy, but it'll last you or your lucky giftee a lifetime. Upgrade it with a stainless steel replacement handle to make it oven safe at high temperatures for recipes like no-knead bread
Best Buy: Lodge makes a fine enameled Dutch oven that consistently scores well in professional reviews and I've met many happy Lodge users. On the other hand, those reviews often neglect to account for longevity. I've personally seen two Lodge dutch ovens with heavily cracked and chipped enamel after only a few years of use. If you're willing to play a bit of roulette to save a couple hundred bucks, this may be the pot for you.
A 12-inch Straight-Sided Sauté Pan
Unlike a skillet, a sauté pan has tall sides set at a right angle to the base, which makes for a larger bottom surface for searing, better protection against splattering, and plenty of volume. A sauté also features a tighter fitting lid, which makes it great for slow-cooked braises or in-the-oven cooking. Want to wilt a whole mess of greens? This is the pan for you. It excels at searing or frying large batches of food, like a whole chicken's worth of parts.
All-Clad is the gold standard here with a relatively lightweight pan that still manages to pack in the power. Better design and construction helps it heat faster and more evenly while still delivering plenty of searing power.
Best Buy: The Tramontina 5-Quart Tri-Ply Clad Sauté Pan available from Wal-Mart perform nearly as well as the All-Clad at just about a third of the price. The All-clad heats faster and cooks a little more evenly, but most folks will be perfectly satisfied with the performance of this more economical option.
A High-Output Torch
Forget those puny kitchen torches designed to make crème brûlée for ants. they're more of a pain than their worth. If you want some serious torching power in the kitchen for bruleeing desserts or for finishing off a sous-vide steak, you want a real industrial-style torch designed for house work.
The Bernzomatic High Intensity Torch Head has an adjustable flame knob, an instant trigger so you don't have to worry about a separate sparker, and a trigger lock so your finger doesn't get tired when you're searing off a whole primal. It takes standard propane fuel cylinders (not shippable in all states).
A Large Casserole Dish
What it's good for: Since they're intended both for cooking and serving tableside, a good casserole dish should be both functional and attractive. A good one should be made with high quality glazed ceramic, so not only do they heat foods evenly (and more importantly, store that heat so your food stays hot while you're trying to corral the family to the table), but their smooth glaze is practically non-stick, making them simple to clean up afterward, even with gooey foods like this Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna.
Which one? The Le Creuset Stoneware looks as beautiful as it performs.
Best Buy: The Pyrex 9- by 13-inch Oblong Baking Dish might be lacking in the looks department, but it's a fine choice for casseroles if pure performance is your only concern.
A Sous-Vide Circulator
There are a number of new low-price/high-quality water circulators on the market designed for cooking foods sous-vide. I'm currently in the process of testing the , the Sansaire, and the Nomiku (stay tuned for full results next week!). While all three do the job they're designed for, the Sansaire is not yet available and the Nomiku costs $100 more than the other options, which makes the Anova a very attractive option.
With a portable circulator like this, any pot or large container in your house becomes a restaurant-quality water bath that will give you unparalleled control over how your food is cooked. Check out our Sous-Vide 101 page for recipes and more info on how it works.
The Splash-Proof Thermapen
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 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
Sure, you'll need a vacuum sealer to cook food in your new water oven, but a brand new FoodSaver V2244 Vacuum Sealer 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.
An Immersion Blender
I use my hand blender at least 20 to 30 times more than my full-sized blender. For smaller, everyday blending tasks, an immersion hand blender is the tool for the job. I've owned mine for 10 years now, and use it at least three times a week.
It's great for pureeing soups directly in the pot or rapidly breaking up whole tomatoes into rough chunks for sauce. I also use it to make fool-proof beurre monté, or perfect two-person servings of whipped cream. Ever get annoyed at those stubborn large pieces of egg white you come across when breading food? Blend the eggs for a few seconds and they'll be perfectly uniform and smooth. You like that froth on your hot chocolate? Heat it up in the pot and buzz it to create a luxurious foam. Lumps in your bechamel? All gone. You can even make foolproof mayonnaise or hollandaise in just about a minute.
How about if you want to make just a few ounces of perfectly smooth cauliflower puree or a half-cup of fresh mayonnaise? Impossible with a regular blender or food processor. But with the sturdy plastic cup that ships with the Kitchenaid Immersion Hand Blender, small, real-life-sized portions of food are easy to prepare.
Presto Pro Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker
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 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
However good their blender is, it's not as good as the Vitamix 1723 Professional Series 200, unless of course, it is that blender. With a ridiculous 2 horsepower 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.
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.