Practical Gifts for New and Aspiring Cooks

Heather says:

Despite what the media wants to say, I know many families are in practical gift mode, either by choice or circumstances. If you have a new or aspiring cook on your list, some of these kitchen items may be a hit. With the exception of the knife block, I’ve tried to keep the items fairly conservatively priced.

Be careful with the presentation.

A fat separator isn’t exactly thrilling to open, but perhaps you could include your grandmother’s recipe & technique for gravy. Adding a personal touch to these items changes the tone from, “Boy do you need some help in the kitchen or what?” to “Hey, I’m excited about your interest.”

A word to the husbands out there. Unless your wife has specifically asked for kitchen items or small appliances, these probably are not going to cut it. I know *I* love getting items like these, but if you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve probably noticed I’m a kitchen geek. My Christmas list focuses on items that will help me improve my food photography. That’s probably not normal, take that into consideration. I’d file these gifts in the siblings, adult children, aunts, uncles, & cousins circle. You’ve been warned.

The items I have listed are all tools I use frequently. There may be better or more expensive options out there, but these are ones I have experience with and believe to be a good investment. As you may guess, my kitchen sees a lot of use. These are the tools I rely on.

Not included in the list are: silicone whisks, wooden spoons and spatulas, measuring spoons, and measuring cups. All of these items are great and receive a lot of use, but I didn’t see any of my favorites on Amazon, but I know you can find great versions at World Market, one of my other favorite places to get lost. Sometimes, I just wander around their kitchen section and drool.

This list is not all inclusive of everything you need to set up a kitchen. I will do one of those in the future.

Chicago Cutlery 3 Piece Walnut SetThat said, let’s start with my favorite beginner knife set.

I still have two of these three knives, I use them all the time. I also haven’t ever properly taken care of them (except for the sharpening) and they have taken the abuse. The chef knife is the one I reach for on a daily basis. It’s so cheap that I really don’t worry about eventually replacing it. I know that probably puts me in some form of culinary sin, but there you have it. I’ve had these knives for ten years, but I have no idea where the paring knife went.

Chicago Cutlery 3 Piece Walnut Set 24.99

Chicago Cutlery Knife BlockI’m torn on suggesting the knife block. Really all a beginner cook needs are the three knives pictured above, but some cooks like variety and this one includes the sharpening steel. They will still need a sharpening stone. Please remember that knives are pretty personal. Some people swear by Henckels and Wusthoff, those are both fantastic brands and I used them when I cooked professionally and my restaurant footed the bill, but at home these are the ones I reach for time and time again.

Chicago Cutlery Walnut 10 piece knife set with block 74.95.

A peeler is another kitchen essential that can help take the drudge work out of cooking. A good peeler with a comfortable handle is an absolute kitchen necessity. Get rid of the chintzy all metal, rusted thing in the tool drawer and replace it with my favorite version. (I kind of like Oxo as you’ll notice in this list).

Oxo Good Grips Peeler 11.75

Need something super cheap as a stocking stuffer for a baker? How about a good biscuit cutter? I swore by using a glass until a friend sent me an actual biscuit cutter. What a difference. Go ahead and include this recipe for these excellent no-knead biscuits.

Biscuit Cutter 6.18 (If you aren’t ordering enough for free shipping, just wait until you see one at a box store like Target)

Le Creuset SpatulasA spatula is a spatula you say? I thought that, too until I received one with a Le Creuset gift. I went out and purchased similar spatulas to compare and I have to say the quality of this brand is superior to the cheaper versions I’ve found, the flexibility and strength are great. The head has never separated from the handle in the year and a half I’ve been using it. I don’t necessarily like the color of these -I dig red in the kitchen- but you may like the green.

Le Creuset 3 Piece Spatula Set 24.95

Want good gravy? A good fat separator makes pan gravy so much easier. Insert the plug, strain the pan juices, use the drippings on top to make roux, and then remove the plug and whisk in the  delicious pan juices. So easy. So good.

OXO Fat Separator 14.99

Taylor ThermometerThermometers are essential in the kitchen. I loved this one until I left it beside the grill and an afternoon thundershower did it in. That was totally my fault, not the thermometer’s.

Taylor Thermometer 15.99

So this one might be slightly off topic, but if you have a wine drinker on your list, a waiter’s tool is a great gift. The wine reps used to hand these, with their logo, naturally, out and we’d snatch them up. A wine tool is far superior to a standard cork screw and doesn’t take up much room at all in the kitchen.

Waiter’s Wine Tool averages from $5 to $15

OXO Manual Can Opener

The newbie cook on your list will be the hero of the apartment complex during every power outage. Having an emergency food pantry really doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t get into the supply. Manual can openers are a must for every kitchen. Yes, even yours.

OXO Manual Can Opener 13.79

If you have someone who is starting to get serious about learning to cook, a set of ramekins may be exactly what they need. Why? There’s a technique called mise en place where cooks line up their measured ingredients. It’s an especially useful technique when you’re just learning and want to set yourself up for success. Going through the recipe and measuring ingredients beforehand helps reduce errors and ensures all the ingredients are actually on hand.

6 Piece Ramekin Set 12.67

I won’t lie, I’m a big fan of Pyrex. Next up we have a few of my favorites from that brand.

Pyrex Bakeware with lids – 26.73

Pyrex 1 Cup Glass Liquid Measuring Cup 8.27 (Yes, glass is far superior to the crappy plastic ones you see)

Pyrex 1 Quart Glass Liquid Measuring Cup 11.98 Not only is this handy for measuring liquids, it’s great for heating them in the microwave before adding to a recipe.

There are many more Pyrex items I’d add to the list, but I’m trying to keep this post under control, but still my glass mixing bowls are always handy, as are the 8×8 baking pans. You get the idea, I am a Pyrex fan for their price and quality.

This last item seems like a bit of a stretch, as it’s not really recommendation for a newbie cook,  but I use mine far more often than I ever thought I would and it’s going strong almost 12 years later. (This post is making me feel old) You see, it’s not only handy for peeling apples, it also peels potatoes in a flash. When you end up being asked to make potato salad for 60, that’s nothing to sneeze at. If you have a baker or preserver, they may love this handy device.

We also use this for a rare treat of french fried potato spirals. Oh. My. Word.  I suppose you could bake them, but as a once in a while treat?

Heaven, deep fried or apple pied.

Apple Corer, Peeler, Slicer averages $10 to $25

I know this list isn’t comprehensive, so what would you add? Aside from baking sheets? (I get mine at a restaurant supply store, great quality, low price).



30 Comments

  1. […] 15 gifts for new or aspiring cooks […]

  2. ThatBobbieGirl on December 2, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Digital timer. If you get the kind that comes with a cord you can wear around your neck, you can take it with you quite easily when you have to leave the kitchen. At one time we had 3 of these in the house, but my daughter took hers with her when she got married. (The nerve!) One is my husband's, which he uses when he needs to remind himself to check on something like an auction he's watching or a software installation so he can do the next step.

    Knife sharpener — and someone to show you how to use it. If I'd had this when I was a newlywed, I'd have had fewer accidents from using dull knives that made me push too hard when cutting.

  3. Bobbie Laughman on December 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Handheld Lemon Reamer (link to a photo http://tinyurl.com/32dxksh )
    For me, these work SO much better than the kind that you have to sit on top of a container to catch the juice. Make sure it's made of WOOD. I had used a wooden one and loved it, but then saw one made of black plastic that looked so cool, and looked like it would clean up more easily — but I couldn't get it to work very well for me. It was harder to grip tightly on the slick plastic and it just didn't seem to ream out the juice as completely no matter how much effort I put in. Wooden all the way!

  4. ThatBobbieGirl on December 2, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Kitchen scale!
    Not the kind for dieters to weigh out servings, but a larger-capacity one for food prep.

    I have a kitchen scale that I use more than I ever thought I would when I received it as a gift. It's wonderful when you buy in bulk but are preparing a recipe that calls for a container of a specified weight. (Most recently used it to weigh out one pound of ricotta from a larger container, and one pound of macaroni from my 3 gallon-sized storage container. I've also used it when portioning out meats for freezing — so I can buy a huge pack of ground beef and still freeze it in one pound packages. (Put the meat in quart size zipper bags and squash 'em flat. They freeze and thaw much more quickly than those Frozen Lumps O'Meat )

    Mine isn't digital, but the one I recently bought for my daughter is. Look for one with a capacity of at least 5 pounds.

    • ThatBobbieGirl on December 2, 2010 at 10:40 am

      This is gonna look like I'm spamming, but my comment was too long to post — had to break it up. Grr.

  5. Tiffany @ NOH on December 1, 2010 at 9:38 am

    As Keter was mentioning, IKEA really does have some nice knives…but you have to get the 365+ ones — the rest are kinda shoddy. They also have the best garlic press in the world there…and some other cool, cheap stuff like a double boiler for next to nothing.

    I was totally thinking about how much I needed a fat separator at Thanksgiving this year…but a biscuit/cookie cutter? What are those? Oh, wait, you're not just supposed to use a glass all the time? My bad! 🙂

    I'm definitely with you, though. Give me something for my kitchen for any holiday and I'm in heaven. Last year I got a KitchenAid 450 — talk about a huge score!! 😉 From my inlaws, not the hubby lol
    My recent post 10 incredible and free resources for baby signing

  6. Joyce on November 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    My set of the Chicago Cutlery knives is now about 25 years old and going stron so I highly recommend them. I do have them professionally sharpened every few years.

    • HeatherSolos on December 1, 2010 at 7:41 am

      That's wonderful to hear. Someone asked me yesterday, "You mean Chicago Cutlery isn't crap?"
      In my experience, no.
      As long as a knife has a full tang and isn't serrated or made from high carbon steel, much (not all) of the usefulness of the knife is dictated by personal preference.

  7. Melanna on November 30, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    If you don't own it already, you must get the Ikea cheese grater. I tried the larger plane style ones, the box grater and every other combo out there and hated them all. Then when shopping for a new grater in college (read: no budget!) I bought the Ikea one. It comes with the larger and smaller grater plates. These snap onto a container that catches it all (now it comes with 2 containers) that has that grippy plastic on the bottom so it doesn't slide all over the counter. Then it has a lid for storage if you grate too much. I love it. Best of all, it's cheap Ikea prices.

    A good set of oven mitts is also a must. I'm still looking for a pair I love. So many now only come with one glove and then that "finger grip", but I like to bake with stoneware and it's too heavy to lift with one hand. I'm clumsy and prefer to be fully gloved while reaching into hot appliances.

    And thank-you, Heather, for mentioning what is not appropriate to buy your wife for Christmas. Our vacuum is dying and I had to make a point to mention to the husband that this would not be an appropriate Christmas gift. He seemed surprised.

    • HeatherSolos on December 1, 2010 at 7:38 am

      I use kitchen towels for oven mitts. I have one set of semi pretty towels and the rest are called bar towels. I buy them at Sam's, Costco, or the restaurant supply store. They are just white terry cloth towels. I fold them over several times and use those instead of gloves. Again, this one is just a matter of preference.
      I admit we probably wash more towels than we should and my husband is often aghast at how many I can use in a day, but I won't just use paper towels, nor will I run the cross-contamination risk. So, multiple kitchen towels it is. 😉
      Re: Husbands and gifts. I think as a spouse we're obligated to make our feelings known in these situations. I think in general people see a problem and want to fix it. Hey, you need a new vacuum, I'll get you one and your life will be easier. However, as the person who receives said gift, "Oh goody, a gift that represents the work I harbor a resentment for having to do." (I may be exaggerating a little and communication might be the key, but still those feelings exist for a lot of women and I think this will be a whole post now.)

      • Jen on December 1, 2010 at 3:19 pm

        I think in general *MEN* see a problem and want to fix it. Ever try to vent to your husband/boyfriend about a bad day at work or something? Has any of them ever just listened and said something like "wow, that really sucks"? No, they always tell you about what you should have done or said differently, or what you should go in and do the next day. Always trying to solve a problem for you when sometimes, I'm capable of solving problems myself. Just like you're capable of purchasing a vacuum yourself too, and for a Christmas gift might want, say, a diamond necklace. Anyway, I think there is something on the Y chromosome that prevents men from listening passively – they always see a problem that they have to solve. It's got to be biological.

        • HeatherSolos on December 1, 2010 at 3:27 pm

          Eh I'm a problem solver and I'm pretty sure there aren't any Y chromosomes here. So we can't generalize too much.
          I end up biting my tongue a lot because I *know* I should just listen, but really every part of me is screaming fix it, fix it. 😉

          • Jen on December 1, 2010 at 4:00 pm

            Well, at least you have the good sense to just listen a lot of the time! I realize you can't generalize too much but I really think it's largely a male problem. Not to say that there aren't some women who suffer from this too, but I'm betting 80% of the overzealous problem-solvers out there are men 😉

    • casey on December 16, 2010 at 4:33 pm

      Both my sister & I have spent the last two months trying to explain to my father that an ironing board is not an appropriate Christmas present. I don't care if she said she wanted one, it's still not a Christmas present. (Or a birthday present, Mother's Day present, or 40th anniversary present).

  8. Jenny King on November 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    MICROPLANE!! Some call it a kitchen rasp.
    These things are superb for grating nutmeg, Parmesan cheese, zesting citrus and more.

    • HeatherSolos on December 1, 2010 at 7:32 am

      Great suggestion. Those are definitely handy and I could use one. I could also really use a zester. In my head these are filed under the next level of cooking. I need to come up with a term for those with moderate experience.

  9. Jen on November 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I think instead of glass mixing bowls (which I have and work great), maybe aluminum mixing bowls would be better. They are not microwavable, but are much lighter and i think that would probably be better for me ultimately. But I'm not about to replace them, so I'm just sticking it out with the glass ones for now! I also like the comment about the bamboo utensils – I may try to pick some of those up, since I like wooden spoons for cooking but don't particularly care for the bacteria.

    My other suggestion would be two (different color) plastic cutting boards, one for meats and one for not meat.

    I also love my pyrex measuring cups, I have the 2-cup and 4-cup size and use both of them all the time. But damn, they are heavy when you drop one on your foot. You know, hypothetically. If you were clumsy.

    • HeatherSolos on November 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm

      Great suggestions, Jen. I personally prefer glass, I think it's mostly a matter of preference.
      Also, I'm clumsy, too which is why I always recommend wearing SHOES in the kitchen. 🙂
      Ever drop a knife?
      Yeah, that's why.

  10. @Tastelikecrazy on November 30, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I made my list – finally. And then I read through the comments and realized I need to add like ten more things…which I'm *not* doing. And I can't live without my Pyrex.
    http://tastelikecrazy.com/2010/11/30/8-kitchen-gi

    • HeatherSolos on December 1, 2010 at 7:30 am

      Great list, Amy. As I mentioned there are more items that could go on here, I just didn't want to frighten people off with a full catalog. 😉

  11. Keter Magick on November 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    If you have an Ikea in your area, do check out their selection of chef's knives. I own three and they are not beautiful unless you like black plastic handles, but they are well made – full tang with three rivets – and take and hold a great edge. I handwash them and expect them to last for the rest of my lifetime. They are also inexpensive. I suggest buying a diamond grit sharpener; they work much better than steel or ceramic rods and will last forever.

    Regarding colors of tools: I use almost exclusively stainless steel utensils, although I measuring cups and spoons with black plastic on the handles. These I hang on a stainless steel bar behind my cooktop, so they do need to match. I put pull-out drawers beneath my cooktop and in the top one is a small basket with less glamorous looking tools, including a $2 grocery store special silicone spatula that is the ugliest thing you've ever set eyes on….but works like a dream and will probably last forever.

    Oh, and a word about silicone colors: only a few dyes take well to silicone without changing its properties, and of those many are not safe for food or cost a fortune. Your favorite color probably isn't one of the few viable alternatives unless you like lime green (which I do, but not on static display). It's not a design consipiracy. ;o)

    • Keter Magick on November 30, 2010 at 1:09 pm

      Pardon my typos.

      • HeatherSolos on November 30, 2010 at 1:14 pm

        I speak typonese, no worries there.
        I have the red Le Creuset silicone spatula, I didn't search for other colors this morning as the post was taking long enough. 🙂
        I, too, have a hodge podge of utensils, some ugly some not, but they are all hidden in a cabinet so it doesn't matter. The red just makes me smile. 🙂 Aesthetics are usually one of my last considerations.
        We don't have an Ikea, the closest is about 4 hours away.
        My knives are on a magnetic strip inside a cabinet, too.
        We had to replace our microwave out of necessity yesterday and it is now the ugly stepchild of the kitchen. It's white. I can't stand a white appliance, but it's probably only for a few years, if our track record holds.

  12. Keter Magick on November 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Bamboo harbors bacteria, too. All porous materials will. Stainless steel, plastic, and silicone won't.

  13. bernicewood on November 30, 2010 at 11:27 am

    My husband (who does his fair share of the cooking) likes wooden cooking utensils, however I didn't realize they can harbor bacteria. I am going to find some bamboo itensils instead!
    Bernice http://livingthebalancedlife.com/2010/afraid-to-l

  14. Erica Mueller on November 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Woot! I have the Pyrex baking wear and 1 qt measuring cup and I LOVE them! I also have a similar knife set, doughnut/biscuit cutter and veggie peeler. 🙂 Silicone spatulas? They ROCK! I have had one for about 3 yrs and it still looks brand new.

  15. Steven Berry on November 30, 2010 at 10:11 am

    nice list, it is true, if you make a list of something – people will read it 🙂

  16. CarolinaDreamz on November 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I'm all for red in the ktichen, too! And there is no way I'd go for that green.. what are they thinking with colors lately? That green would be something my eldest daughter would love, I bet. :

    I just started using my chef's knife on my new cutting board.. the whole reason for the Ikea Blvd detour coming home from a conference, with girlie, in NC.

    I took Alton's advice and bought a cheap little crepe pan. Of course, I don't know where it is, at the moment and I haven't tried to use it, yet.

    I think my suggestion for Christmas gifts are still go hand made and get an apron or napkins on Etsy. 🙂

    Love your list. I think all those things are in my kitchen. I have a different thermometer, wrapped under the tree.

    and YES, Kirsten, to the spoonula! I wish I could find some real strong yet not long oak wooden spoons.. mine have about had it and well, its been a couple years that I've been looking. I don't want anything to do with the cooking show name ones. 🙂

    Next Christmas, I'm giving everyone I know your book. 😛 (Of course, that means a whole 2 copies, but still.)
    ~Heidi

  17. Kirsten on November 30, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I would add a 12" cast iron skillet ($27 at crate & barrel – lid is $27). Spoonulas (a cross between spatulas and spoons & run about $10-15 depending on size) which are awesome for one-pot dishes. A mandolin…yes I know the stainless steel ones from Williams Sonoma are expensive but Pampered Chef sells one for much less, but is plastic. My Pampered Chef one has lasted 10 yrs now! A Cuisinart mini prep $30 – great for herbs, garlic, shallots & mincing smaller items. Mine has lasted 15 yrs and is due for replacement because the blades are dull. A good handheld mixer. I use mine for mashed potatoes, batters, etc. If you can't afford a kitchenaid standing mixer you have to have a handheld.

  18. rachel on November 30, 2010 at 10:14 am

    If I don't already have them — I want everything on here 😉

    I love my biscuit cutters — biscuit cutters will change your biscuit life 😉
    My ramekins are my favorites.. I want more!! They are so useful for so many things!!!

    That's the thermometer my dad uses, I want!

    Fantastic list, heather!

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