Thanksgiving's come and gone, which means 'tis officially the holiday season, and various gift-centered celebrations are just around the corner. If you, like me, are obligated to purchase presents for a wide variety of friends, family, and acquaintances, then you're probably also, like me, on the lookout for ways to soften the blow to your bank account without compromising on the quality of your gifts. We've got a whole slew of gift suggestions under $50, and, if you've got a serious Serious Eats fan in your life, you'll want to visit our recently launched merch shop for all sorts of reasonably priced goods emblazoned with Serious Eats and Food Lab designs. But here, we wanted to highlight a few particularly worthy and useful options from our gift guide—practical items that any cook would love to have in their kitchen.
The goal here is not just to be frugal, of course—you'll want to tailor your gift to the person you're giving it to, whether that's a novice cook who needs the basics or a seasoned pro. But no matter the recipient, an affordable gift that's chosen with a little thought and consideration will almost always beat out a pricey one you buy at the last minute.
A Mortar and Pestle
If you're currently wondering why a mortar and pestle is the first thing on this list, then you probably don't own one. A good mortar and pestle is indispensable for any cooking project where getting maximum flavor from aromatic ingredients is the goal. As Kenji has explained (repeatedly!), it's absolutely the best tool for grinding up whole spices or making intense curry pastes, pestos, and flavor bases for guacamole. That's because the action of the pestle crushes the cells in garlic, chilies, and herbs, rather than shearing them, as a food processor does, and thus releases more of their aromatic compounds.
Aside from that superlative smashing ability, a mortar and pestle is crazy-simple to clean, unlike the coffee grinder many people use as a spice grinder. Anyone who cooks with any degree of regularity should own one, and, since a lot of people (including, once upon a time, Kenji himself) think they can get by without one, it's the perfect (life-changing) gift.
A Salt Cellar or Pig
One of the primary differences between an okay cook and a good cook is the knowledge of how to season food adequately. And, because salt is the seasoning every cook relies on most heavily, the first step toward this goal is ensuring a clear path to plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times. If you've ever watched a family member reach for a little saltshaker while cooking—then spend way too much time agitating it up and down, squinting to see the tiny grains as they tumble out—get that person a salt cellar or pig, stat. These wide-mouthed vessels allow you to apply salt the way it should be applied: in big pinches, which you can then toss straight into your pasta water or sprinkle between your fingers onto a roast in a careful, controlled manner. It's the very definition of a gift that keeps on giving—every day of the year, in fact. (For a more detailed argument for this handy tool, read Daniel's impassioned plea.)
A Salad Spinner
I'll never forget the day I volunteered to prepare a salad for a dinner hosted by my newly married friend, only to arrive with greens in hand and learn that he had just about every kitchen utensil and appliance conceivable—except for a salad spinner. All together now: Without a good salad spinner, it's nearly impossible to get your leafy greens dry enough that a vinaigrette can cling to them, and if your dressing can't effectively coat your greens, your salad will turn out a sad mess. (It is known!) Properly equipped, your giftee can ditch the bags of prewashed greens at the supermarket in favor of a bounty of fresh ones, which means their homemade salads will be immensely more flavorful and interesting. It's not just good for salads, either: A spinner is handy for cleaning herbs, mushrooms, and any other vegetables that need to be dried well before cooking.
A ThermoPop Instant-Read Thermometer
Yes, we trot this gadget out—or its pricier cousin, the Thermapen—pretty much every time we make a list like this. But that's a testament to its quality, its affordable price tag, and the fact that an instant-read thermometer is a necessity for any recipe that depends on cooking to a specific temperature (whether for food safety reasons or delicious-results reasons). We recommend the ThermoPop as a budget option because, apart from being inexpensive, it's reliable and easy to use, and it blows the competition away. I personally own one and love it. If you know someone who swears by a little palm trick for gauging the doneness of their steaks, or who's served you overcooked roast chicken on multiple occasions, or who's been struggling to get Stella's cake recipes to come out just right, giving them this thermometer is a no-brainer.
Few pots or pans are as versatile as a wok: You can sear, stir-fry, deep-fry, braise, boil, steam, and even smoke in a wok, all for just under $35. The flat bottom on this model is perfect for the standard-issue burners in most homes, and, with a little bit of elbow grease and know-how, a new wok will be ready to use in no time at all. This is the perfect gift for anyone who loves stir-fries or fried rice (or quick weeknight meals in general!), as well as someone who's interested in diversifying their cooking repertoire. I can attest that this is another one of those life-changing gifts: There is a pre-wok me and a post-wok me, and the post-wok me eats a hell of a lot better.
A Cake Stand
If you need a gift for an avid baker, or someone who plans on becoming an avid baker, a cake stand makes a fine choice. For the beginner, a basic turntable will make the delicate art of decorating a cake much, much easier, while an experienced pastry whiz will be thrilled to receive this good-looking number for fancy presentation.
A Hands-Free Soap Dispenser
This gift is perfect for germaphobes, for messy cooks, and for anyone who's a little bit of both. The hands-free option on this soap dispenser means you won't infect it with salmonella juice after cutting up a chicken, but its ability to dispense different amounts of soap depending on where you place your hands is the real draw. Placing them up high, near the nozzle, gets you enough soap for a quick wash, while placing them lower down gives you plenty to wash away stubborn pork fat or salad dressing.
But Wait, There's More!
We're not done. You can find plenty more gifts under $50 right this way »