Serious Eats

13 Great Kitchen Tools for Your Valentine

20140204-vaelntines-day-gift-guide-primary.jpg

You won't catch us turning down chocolates and flowers, but in our book, nothing says "I love you" quite like a big sharp knife or a functional pot. Seriously! Diamonds aren't the only thing that's forever—Le Creuset dutch ovens will last for generations and knife kits are many a cook's most treasured possession. Whether you're ready to drop the big bucks or just looking for something that says, "I care about you, and you care about food," we've got 13 top-of-the-line kitchen tools to help you find your way.

A Large Enameled Dutch Oven

20121127-carne-adovada-pork-chili-stew-13.jpg

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 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

If you're looking for something a little less pricey, Lodge makes a fine enameled Dutch oven ($80) that consistently scores well in professional reviews, though we haven't found it to be quite as durable.

The Splash-Proof Thermapen

20100319-splashproofthermapen-yellow_water.jpg

A good instant-read thermometer is the only way to ensure that roasts, steaks, chops, or burgers come out that perfect medium-rare every time. Forget about poking with a finger, relying on inaccurate timing guides, or the nick-and-peek method. Buy a high-quality, fast, accurate digital thermometer, and you'll 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.

Splashproof Thermapen
Via Thermoworks

Your purchase helps support Serious Eats. Learn more

A Benriner Mandoline

20131205-gift-guide-inexpensive-kitchen-tools-mandoline.jpg

The Benriner Japanese Mandoline Sliver makes short work of any slicing and julienning tasks. Forget about those fancy-pants $150 French models—they're heavy, bulky, a pain in the butt to clean, and with their straight blade, don't really do a great job.

The Benriner Mandoline Plus ($22.36), on the other hand, features a sharp, angled blade that cuts much more efficiently than the awkward straight blades or clumsy V-shaped cutters. Walk into any four-star restaurant, and we guarantee you'll find at least a couple Bennies—as they are affectionately called by line cooks—occupying a prominent place in the kitchen.

Plus faster slicing means more time to spend with each other, which on Valentine's Day is hopefully a good thing.

An Immersion Blender

20100319-handblender.jpg

For smaller, everyday blending tasks, an immersion hand blender is the best tool for the job and saves major clean-up time. It's great for puréeing soups directly in the pot or rapidly breaking up whole tomatoes into rough chunks for sauce. It can also be used 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 purée 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.

A Digital Food Scale

20131205-gift-guide-inexpensive-kitchen-tools-scale.jpg

Did you know that depending on how you scoop up a cup of flour, its weight can vary by as much as 25 percent? No wonder the pizza dough that came out perfectly last week is suddenly too wet to handle this week. A good digital scale will make inaccuracies like that a thing of the past. A scale can also help you figure out how much moisture your chicken lost during roasting, or exactly how far you've reduced that stock. Hooray!

Things to look for in a good scale: at least 1 gram or 1/8th ounce accuracy, a capacity of at least seven to eight pounds, a tare (zero) function, measurements in both metric (gram) and imperial (pound) units, a large, easy-to-read display, and a flat design for storage.

The Oxo Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-out Display ($49.95) has got all of that, plus a neat pull-out display that allows you to read measurements with ease, even when weighing large, bulky items that would otherwise obscure the screen.

Metal Mixing Bowls

20131202-equipment-gift-guide-kitchen-starter-kit-mixing-bowl.jpg

Wanna know why television cooks use glass mixing bowls? It's not because they're better than the more inexpensive metal version. It's for one reason only: metal bowls are too reflective and make life difficult for the camera operators. Go into any professional kitchen and you'll find that mixing bowls are exclusively metal. They're lighter, take up less space, and last longer (and yes, modern microwaves can even handle metal!).

If you've got access to a restaurant supply store, you'll find that the metal bowls are cheaper than anywhere else. If not, these Light Weight Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls ($28.25) come in a variety of useful sizes and will do just fine. And hey—they're shiny!

A Sous-Vide Circulator

20130916-anova-6.jpg

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There are a number of new low-price/high-quality water circulators on the market designed for cooking foods sous-vide. While our three favorites all 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.

Wooden Spoons

20111208-college-gift-guide-3.jpg

A good wooden spoon is any cook's best friend. We've seen macho line cooks come close to tears when their favorite wooden spoon finally cracked in half after years of loyal, obedient service. Whether stirring sauces, tasting soups, or making the creamiest possible risotto, with rare exception, the wooden spoon is the the most essential hand tool for any cook. The Calphalon 3-Piece Wood Utensil Set ($12.21) gets you a round-headed one for stirring and tasting soup, a flat-headed one for scraping up fond and getting into the corners of pots, and a slotted spoon for lifting pasta or other food out of boiling water for testing.

A 10.5 or 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet

20100608-cast-iron-primary1.jpg

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Whether you're searing a steak, sautéing some veggies, frying up a rösti or latkes, or even making a foolproof no-knead pan pizza, a heavy-duty, seasoned cast iron skillet is the pan to reach for. Its weight makes it ideal for retaining heat, while its ruggedness means that a single pan will outlive you (and most likely your children and grandchildren). Not bad for under $20, like Lodge's 10.25-inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet ($15.92).

You might have heard that cast iron is a pain in the butt to take care of. Not so! It's actually a lot more forgiving than people think. You only need to spend about 30 seconds each time you use your pan to wipe it dry, reheat it, and rub a little oil in. Heck, we even wash ours with soap and water! For more info, check out our guide to learn How to Buy, Season, Clean, and Maintain Cast Iron Pans.

NB: For more on pots and pans, check out our 7 Most Essential Pots and Pans here!

A Great Chef's Knife

If there's one question we get most often, it's this one: what is the best chef's knife?

The honest answer? There is no such thing as a "best chef's knife." It'd be like asking a violinist to name the "best violin" or an architect to identify the "best material." There are many factors that come into play, and depending on what type of cook you are and how your hands, body, and wallet are shaped, you might opt for one over another.

For maximum power, precision, and versatility, we recommend a Western-style chef's knife like the Wüsthof classic, known for its durability and nice balance. It's is the ideal knife for the serious home cook who does a lot of heavy-duty prep and needs a single knife that will perform well at everything from mincing herbs to hacking through a chicken carcass. But at the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference, hand size, and intended uses—for a full range of options, pay a visit to our complete guide to chef's knives.

20131204-gift-guide-knife-wusthof-chef.jpg

A Wok

20131202-gift-guide-pots-and-pans-all-clad-wok.jpg

Whether you stir-fry or not, a wok is one of the most versatile tools in the kitchen. It's by far the best vessel for deep-frying; its wide shape and large volume make it easy to fit plenty of food in there with minimal contact and oil-use, with virtually no danger of splattering the stove-top with hot oil (or worse, overflowing). You can also smoke, braise, and steam in it. (Check out Wok Skills 101 for more info.)

You may have heard elsewhere that on Western stoves, a skillet is a better stir-frying vessel. This is not true. When tasted side-by-side, a stir-fry that comes out of a cast-iron wok tastes significantly better than one that comes out of a skillet, due to its shape, material, and the manner in which heat is transferred (a wok has a much larger hot area above and around the actual cooking surface, helping to produce that familiar smoky wok-hai flavor that is impossible to achieve in a flat skillet).

The downside: A wok will not work very well on an electric or induction burner. Take note.

Which one?: To be honest, any 1 1/2- to 2 mm gauge carbon steel wok will do the job, including the $15 chinatown kitchen supply versions, but the Joyce Chen Class Series comes with a domed lid (great for protecting yourself from particularly intense frying jobs) and a wooden spatula. You can ignore the 1-star comments on Amazon complaining of rusting. So long as you follow our care and maintenance guide, your wok should will achieve a deep black, lustrous non-stick sheen within a few uses.

A Large Casserole Dish

20121010-vegetarian-lasagna-spinach-mushroom-whole.jpg

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.

Presto Pro Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker

20121213-gift-guide-kitchen-tools-over-50-pressure-cooker.jpg

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?"

Printed from http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/02/valentines-day-gift-guide-kitchen-tools-for-home-cooks.html

© Serious Eats