Who among us doesn't love a practical gift? Something that won't merely collect dust. Something that you can use over and over again, reminding you of the giver every time you pull it out. For certain people, that might mean a beautiful cashmere scarf or a handcrafted wallet. For those of us who love to cook, that practical - and beloved - gift is a new piece of kitchen equipment.
Last year, we stuck to the basics, with a gift guide full of essentials that appeal to home cooks of any and all levels. This go 'round, we're just as interested in utility, but we're mixing in some whimsy, too.
Don't get us wrong: These are the types of presents that will still get plenty of use and please food lovers who don't always splurge on themselves. It helps, however, to know your recipient a little better. Are they first in line at the newest artisan scoop shop? Get them an ice cream maker. Do they dream of Italy? Bam - pasta machine.
The Washington Post teamed up with America's Test Kitchen to compile this list of next-level gifts. You'll find ATK's top recommended products alongside each item, with a few best buys included as well. So read, shop and give - and then enjoy the fruits of your recipients' labour. We guarantee they'll be more than happy to share.
America's Test Kitchen uses a rigorous evaluation process. Its team puts tools and equipment to work, over and over, to see how well they perform, then takes them apart to figure out why they work - or don't. The team tries to damage them to assess durability, sends some for laboratory analysis, and even interviews engineers, designers and scientists about them. The ATK goal: to recommend well-made products that provide good, lasting value.
Grill pans can't do everything an outdoor charcoal- or gas-powered grill can, but they're much, much better than nothing. You may not get all that smoky flavour, but you will get intense heat and attractive grill marks. We've used ours for fish tacos, thinly sliced veggies and, of course, panini.
The best grill pans have distinct ridges. We favour cast iron for its ability to withstand high temperatures and retain heat. It can also go from stovetop to oven when needed. Lighter, non-stick pans tend to not cook as well or last as long.
Making pasta is more of a project than most of our everyday cooking. Still, when you have the time and interest, it's hard to beat the bouncy, silky texture of fresh-from-scratch pasta. You can also use the machine any time you need a thin dough, such as for crackers, crispy flatbreads and pierogies. Also: fondant for cake decorating.
We've focused on hand-cranked models since they don't require additional equipment and can be more affordable than mixer attachments. If you can, give a machine a test run to see how straightforward it is to use. You want one that clamps securely to the counter, is easy to operate (ideally with one hand) and gives a wide range of thicknesses.
Here's one where you really want to know your gift recipient. Do they often bake frozen food? Are they into trendy gadgets? Do they have room in their kitchen? If the answers are yes, then an air fryer may be a good idea. Just be sure everyone understands it is more like a convection oven than a deep fryer. Think very good oven-fried fare.
Plenty of air fryers will get the job done. Superior models have intuitive, simple-to-set controls. The machine should heat up quickly, too. Drawer-style air fryers take up less space in the kitchen and make it easy to remove the food.
If you were limited to only one tool for cutting, a sharp chef's knife would be the obvious answer. Still, knifework can be tedious, and the human hand will never get vegetables sliced as thinly as a good mandoline. Nothing beats it for speed or clean cuts, especially when it comes to putting together a gratin or a batch of homemade chips.
Quality mandolines are easy to use, clean and assemble without your hand having to be close to the blades. Some streamlined models only slice; others provide blades for julienne and even waffle cuts. Be sure there's enough room for bigger vegetables to fit comfortably on the handguard and a platform large enough to give you long slices for, say, french fries or whole zucchini.
Know someone who's into food technology? They'll probably be more than happy to start playing around with sous vide. Originally limited to high-end restaurants, this technique involves submerging food in a water bath at a specific temperature that is regulated by an immersion circulator. The result is even, hands-off cooking. People especially love it for meat and eggs, but they're finding ways to make everything from beans to desserts, too.
Obviously, accuracy is key. Immersion circulators should keep the water at the programmed temperature with very little variation. They should be easy to program, which can be done on the machine or through an app. The best models gently circulate the water so as not to jostle the food, and they won't take up much room in your pot or cabinet.
There are myriad speciality gadgets to get you the best homemade pizza. One of the best, cheapest investments you can make is a baking stone. Cooking pizzas and breads directly on a stone gives an intense, even heat for crispy crusts. It made all the difference in our bagel recipe, too. Leaving a stone in your oven can help maintain a steady temperature or provide an extra source of heat when you place roasting pans or baking sheets on top of it.
A rectangular stone gives you more flexibility in what you can cook on it, as well as a larger landing zone for when it comes time to slide a pie into the oven. Choose one that is oven-safe to a high temperature and is easy to lift and move.
The frozen foods aisle is no place to get your waffles. Anyone with an appreciation for this versatile breakfast - or dinner! - staple should own a waffle iron. It's one present that the recipient may actually be able to use the second they open it on a holiday morning. Belgian waffle makers produce impressively tall specimens perfect for catching all that delicious maple syrup.
Consider a model with two chambers for the batter so you can stop cooking and start eating sooner. The best irons let you flip or rotate the waffles for even cooking and alert you when they are ready. A nice feature: the ability to set the degree of doneness so you can satisfy everyone with their preferred texture and colour.
Even if you buy the best coffee beans, your investment will mean nothing if you grind them poorly. Plenty of coffee lovers swear by their burr grinders, and if you have the extra cash and space, by all means, grab one. A simpler, smaller and much cheaper blade grinder can deliver excellent results as well. And if you're looking for a tool to help you grind your own spices, a blade grinder is the answer. (It's best to have dedicated machines for each purpose to avoid flavour contamination.)
You want a blade grinder that, of course, gives you an even grind. Blades that sit low in the machine ensure bigger pieces don't escape under them. Clear lids allow you to monitor your progress. Grinders with larger capacities eliminate the need to work in batches.
Ice cream maker
Talk about the gift that keeps on giving - and giving joy. An ice cream machine is simple to use, and if you love ice cream, you'll be wowed by the texture and variety of what comes out of it.
For ease of use, cleaning and storage, we like models with a canister that requires pre-freezing. (Buy an extra if you want to make back-to-back batches.) They're more compact and affordable than self-refrigerating machines with a compressor. Single-button operation and simple-to-assemble pieces are key. The dasher that churns the ice cream should make smooth contact with the sides of the canister to ensure even freezing.
Steaming is one of the best ways to get superior colour and texture - and nutrition - out of your vegetables. Enter the steamer basket, which is also a must-have if you like to pressure-cook produce in your multicooker (i.e. Instant Pot). Our favourite way to cook eggs for a lunchtime egg salad sandwich is in the steamer basket, too. Poached chicken breasts are another option.
Buy a steamer basket that has plenty of surface area for holding food. It should seamlessly fold for storing and fitting in pots of varying sizes. Metal is sturdier than silicone for moving in and out of the pot, and a long handle can help with that as well.
Electric tea kettle
Boiling water is one of the most boring and impatience-inducing kitchen tasks. An electric kettle not only shaves minutes off the process but also makes for a neater pouring process than trying to decant from a pot or saucepan. This tool is an MVP for tea and coffee lovers, although we encourage you to think about using it anytime you need hot water, such as for rehydrating dried peppers and mushrooms or filling a pan for a water bath when you're making cheesecake.
How fast the kettle can boil water is a primary factor to consider. Wide glass kettles with clear markings aid in filling. And because burns are nothing to scoff at, well-designed spouts, comfortable handles and lids that open smoothly are important.
Brewing a batch of French press coffee is just the sort of zen moment that many coffee drinkers relish every morning. Pulling the press out to make coffee for guests? Now that's an A-plus hospitality move.
This soothing experience should not be marred by a bad piece of equipment. Good French presses are easy to use - the actual pressing should not feel like a workout - and clean. They should let through some sediment, but not too much. For people who like to linger over their morning cuppa, consider an insulated model that will keep the coffee hot for a longer period of time.
We included an instant-read thermometer in last year's gift guide. For continuous temperature monitoring, a clip-on probe model is especially helpful. It can free up your hands and give you peace of mind when you're deep-frying, making caramel sauce and roasting meat.
Oven-safe probes are what you'll need if you want to leave it inserted in a steak, turkey or other large hunk of meat during cooking. Programmable models that alert you when the desired temperature has been reached are especially helpful here. Of course, a good thermometer has to be accurate. Clear displays are another feature worth evaluating.