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’ labor. 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 flavor, 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 favor cast iron for its ability to withstand high temperatures and retain heat. It can also go from stove top to oven when needed. Lighter, nonstick pans tend to not cook as well or last as long.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Lodge Square Grill Pan ($27.95, www.lodgemfg.com)
Perfect grilling at a low price made this a solid best buy. It has a smaller surface that fits just three burgers or two strip steaks and it can’t be cleaned with soap, but it scrubs clean with hot water and a stiff brush. (It will also become more nonstick with use.)
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Marcato Atlas 150 Wellness Pasta Machine ($69.99, amazon.com)
The Ferrari of the pasta machine world, this model is a little more expensive than others on the market, but it sure is a pleasure to handle. It sported both the widest and the narrowest thickness settings in our lineup; we barely had to roll dough out to fit it through the machine, and we could effortlessly dial the machine down to produce gossamer-thin sheets. Its laser-sharp noodle attachment produced perfect fettuccine and angel hair every time.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Imperia Pasta Machine by CucinoPro ($47.99, amazon.com)
Best buy: This model has a slightly smaller range of thickness settings compared to others that we tested, and we needed to use both hands in order to adjust them, but it made beautiful, precisely cut fettuccine and angel hair every time. And it came with a handy plate that helped guide the sheets of pasta through the machine.
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Philips TurboStar Airfryer ($199.99, amazon.com)
Testers loved this machine, which has a slimmer, compact footprint and shorter stature and thus takes up less room on our counters. Its cooking basket is roomy enough for one pound of food and has a nonstick coating. We also like that the bottom of the basket can be removed for even deeper cleaning, if needed. Its digital controls and dial-operated menu make setting the time and temperature easy and intuitive. It stops cooking as soon as the set time is up, and its drawer-like design allows you to remove food without exposing your hands to the heating element.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: GoWise USA 3.7-Quart 7-in-1 Air Fryer ($79.99, www.gowiseproducts.com)
Best buy: Although this air fryer’s digital controls aren’t quite as intuitive as those of our favorite model, it’s still easy to set the time and temperature once you get the hang of the multiple buttons. It cooks food quickly and crisply, and its display is bright, large and easy to read. Though it’s a little bigger than our favorite model, it’s still short enough to fit under cabinets, and its drawer-style design and automatic shutoff are a boon to safety. Like other models, it has a nonstick interior, which is easy to clean.
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 hand guard and a platform large enough to give you long slices for, say, french fries or whole zucchini.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Swissmar Borner Original V-Slicer Plus Mandoline ($50, www.swissmar.com)
This simple device makes cuts effortlessly with stunningly precise results. Its hat-shaped guard protects well; cleanup and storage are a breeze, thanks to its compact vertical caddy. Even with just four cuts, all this adds up to a slicer that we’ll use every day.
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Joule Sous Vide ($249.95, www.breville.com)
This slim, lightweight machine heated water almost as fast as the biggest circulators and was the most accurate in our lineup. Though it doesn’t have a display and requires a smartphone to work, its app was intuitive and simple, and its enclosed electronics meant we didn’t have to worry about getting any part of the circulator wet. Testers loved its magnetic bottom, which allowed it to stand stably in the center of metal pots. (We wished its included clip was a bit wider for nonmetal vessels, but the company now sells a “Big Clamp” attachment for $24 that addresses that issue.) It also had the largest distance between water lines, so we could forgo refilling even during longer cooking projects, and it was small enough to store in a drawer when we were done.
There are myriad specialty 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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Old Stone Oven Pizza Baking Stone ($42.99, honeycando.com)
Our longtime favorite stone just keeps on performing. In our tests, pizza and bread came out deeply golden brown and crisp, light and dark turkey meat cooked evenly, and the raised feet built into the underside of this stone make it easy to grab and maneuver. Tough and durable, it has held up well in the rough-and-tumble world of the test kitchen for nearly a decade. One very minor quibble: A few testers complained that the feet sometimes sit a little unevenly on the oven rack.
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 color.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Cuisinart Double Belgian Waffle Maker ($99.95, www.cuisinart.com)
Featuring a six-point dial for customizing waffle doneness, this waffle maker quickly and consistently turned out two perfect waffles at a time, each with a crisp, evenly browned exterior and custardy interior. With indicator lights on both sides of the waffle maker and a loud audible alert, it was easy to tell when each waffle was done. Weighing nearly 10 pounds and measuring over 20 inches tall with the lid up, this model was by far the biggest and heaviest of those tested — but that extra bulk ensured stability and durability. Two minor flaws: the lack of a removable drip tray and the shortness of the handle, on which hot condensation tended to accumulate.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Preston Flipside Belgian Waffle Maker ($52.99, www.gopresto.com)
The Flipside made well-browned waffles that were almost 1½ inches high. On the downside, if we wanted to make adjustments, doneness could only be varied by increasing or decreasing the duration of the cooking time using a built-in timer that must be reset before every waffle. But the timer itself proved quite useful, giving you an audible alert not only when the waffle was done, but also a minute before — a smart feature that helps ensure that you’ll never overcook your waffle. One small safety issue: Like several of the other machines, the Flipside tended to collect condensation in its handle, dripping hot water when flipped.
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 flavor 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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Krups Coffee and Spice Grinder ($19.99, www.krupsusa.com)
This grinder received top marks for its clean, relatively even grinding and simple, easy-to-use design. We particularly appreciated its wide, clear lid, which afforded us the best view of the grinding process, and we liked that its grind button was situated off to the side so we didn’t obscure the lid with our hands during grinding. Its grinding chamber was a roomy oval that provided a wide base for us to cleanly load and empty the coffee. It held enough coffee beans to grind 70 grams of coffee, enough for a full 10-cup pot, and its low-lying blade ensured that no whole beans were left after grinding.
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker ($59.95, www.cuisinart.com)
We still love our former best buy. Its desserts were “even-textured,” “velvety,” and “delightful.” We also liked its lightweight, compact design and the simplicity of its one-button operation.
Steaming is one of the best ways to get superior color 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 favorite 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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Oxo Good Grips Stainless Steel Steamer with Extendable Handle ($19.99, www.oxo.com)
This steamer fits a good amount of food, and we love its telescoping handle: When the handle is extended to the full 4 inches, it’s easy to grip to move the steamer in and out of the pot. The handle can also collapse to 2.5 inches when the steamer is in the pot or for compact storage. Our only quibble? The metal leaves are a bit finicky to clean and bent a little during testing, though the unit remained perfectly functional throughout.
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Oxo On Clarity Cordless Glass Electric Kettle ($79.99, www.oxo.com)
This large, sleek glass kettle was one of the quickest in our lineup. The power switch lights up in an icy blue when it’s activated, the handle is wide and comfortable, and the kettle sits securely on its base. We also liked its slow-open lid, which prevents accidental burns from steam and splashing water. It has a removable filter in its spout which, while not strictly necessary, is a handy feature in areas where the water has sediment.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Capresso Silver H2O Electric Kettle ($59.99, www.capresso.com)
Best buy: This kettle impressed us throughout testing with its speed and deep, stable base. The power button is conveniently located on its handle. Our only quibble: Sometimes the light-up indicator was a bit dull in bright daylight. The kettle is much shorter and has a smaller capacity than our winner, which makes it a good option for people who prefer a smaller kettle.
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 cup, consider an insulated model that will keep the coffee hot for a longer period of time.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Bodum Columbia French Press Coffee Maker ($79.99, www.bodum.com)
This thick, insulated pot was as simple to use as a traditional glass press, but it kept coffee hotter much longer. It’s also sturdier, with a round, comfortable handle. It took top honors in our tasting, producing coffee that tasters called “rich,” “rounded,” “nutty,” and “full-bodied.”
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Bodum Chambord French Press, 8 cup (39.99, www.bodum.com)
Best buy: Tasters praised the coffee from this classic pot: “good flavor, lots of sediment,” with a “pleasant” taste and a “slightly richer,” “not-too-thin texture.” It’s easy and straightforward to set up and clean. But the thin glass walls of this traditional press lost heat faster than insulated pots did. It does a great job if you’re drinking the coffee right away, but it cools off quickly.
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.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: ThermoWorks ChefAlarm ($64, www.thermoworks.com)
This thermometer, with an oven-safe probe, was the most accurate among those we tested, plus it had an intuitive design. It’s the only model we tested that can be calibrated; we also liked the programmable high- and low-temperature alarms, the adjustable brightness and volume, the on/off switch and the small knob on the probe that stayed cool for over-the-pot adjustments.
America’s Test Kitchen recommended: Polder Classic Digital Thermometer/Timer ($24.99, www.polder.com)
Best buy: This basic thermometer doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of our winner, but it has three key features: a timer, a programmable temperature alarm and the ability to work in the oven. We also liked its on/off switch and flexible, plastic-coated cord. Most important: It was a very close second in accuracy.