Given how much time I spend in my own kitchen, I’m often asked for gift ideas for both novice and experienced cooks. My suggestions typically tend to be practical and long lasting as I am not a big fan of unnecessary gadgets or gimmicks. If it’s been in an infomercial, you won’t likely find it at my house. Below are a few ideas – these are items that I turn to regularly in my culinary adventures. Please note that I did not receive free samples of any of these products, nor was I compensated in any way for promoting them. I just use ’em cause I love ’em.
One-piece silicone spatulas – if you’ve ever had the head of a spatula pull off the handle (revealing a gross, germ-infested interior), you’ll know why I love these one-piece versions. They’re sturdy and effective and come in a whole range of cheerful colours. I have them in several sizes and use them every day. Look for these at kitchen stores.
Digital kitchen scale – I underestimated how handy these things are until I bought one that actually works! Many recipes call for ingredients by volume, but without a scale, how can you figure out how many potatoes make 2 pounds, or which measuring cup gives you the equivalent of 100 grams of sugar? The best part about kitchen scales today is that they are inexpensive and quite sturdy. They’re often on sale at hardware stores for about $10.
Prepara herb saver – I love cooking with fresh herbs but resent buying bunches in the winter, using only a little, and having the rest spoil in the fridge. I now own several of these great herb savers and they really do work. It’s a little tricky to keep tender herbs like basil fresh for more than a couple of days, but sturdier ones like parsley, cilantro, thyme, etc. will last for up to three weeks. Lee Valley Tools offers them year-round.
Neoprene oven mitts – less bulky than the silicone variety, neoprene is the same material wetsuits are made of. It’s flexible and offers great heat protection. Best of all, you can slip them on even when your hands are wet (great for kitchen multi-taskers like me) and lift the hottest pan or pot. They’re really grippy and easy to wash too; I’ve been using the same pair for years. Better kitchen stores should have them.
Cast Iron frying pan – the original non-stick cookware, cast iron is fantastic because it heats evenly and consistently and a sturdy pot or pan will last forever. I have found a few at garage sales and thrift shops; even rusty ones can be cleaned and re-seasoned to offer decades more service (just make sure they’re not cracked). I use my cast iron pans on the stovetop, in the oven and even on the barbecue. If gifting, you might also want to include these instructions on how to season and care for cast iron pans.
Mortar and Pestle – another oldie but goodie; this tool has been around since ancient times, for good reason. Once you start grinding your own spices, you’ll see why. The exercise is oddly satisfying and nothing compares to the aroma and impact of freshly ground herbs, seeds, etc. when you are seasoning a dish. My preference is for stone, rather than wood. Buy one that could hold at least a half-cup of spices at one time with room left over to crush them. You can often find these at Asian markets, as well as at kitchen shops.
Instant-read digital thermometer – this takes the guesswork out of roasting or barbequing meat; it’s also essential for making candy, cheese and more. I bought mine at Canadian Tire for under $15 and have used it for years.
The Flavor Bible – this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand how and why different ingredients work together. Billed as the essential guide to culinary creativity, it offers loads of useful tips, particularly the ingredient-based flavour affinities which explain what seasonings and foods pair well together. I turn to this book on an almost daily basis.
The Food Lovers’ Companion – this is another go-to food reference book that I couldn’t live without. It’s a comprehensive source of useful information about thousands of ingredients and culinary terms and it makes decoding recipes so much easier. I have a full-sized version as well as a smaller one that I often take shopping with me.
Secrets of the Best Chefs – this is my new favourite culinary book. Recently published by Adam Roberts of the award-winning blog The Amateur Gourmet, it’s both a reference guide and an outstanding cookbook, jammed with tricks and tips as well as lots of detailed how-to info. I think it would be ideal for any home cook that wants to unleash their own creative genius and be less dependent on others’ recipes.