The 2012 Holiday Kitchen Gift Guide
As longtime readers know, when it comes to kitchens, I’m a gearhead. I love cooking, but I also love gadgets: low tech or high tech, a new tool makes my heart start racing a little faster, and my eyes go all saucer-wide. This is why we came out of the trees, folks. If it weren’t for some innovative gearhead whose wife probably rolled her eyes every time he brought home a new pile of flint, we’d still be covered in hair and eating bug larvae.
When you combine my two greatest joys, you get a kitchen stuffed to the rafters with appliances, handy tools, and gadgets. They have commandeered the butler’s pantry and taken over the basement. But they work for their keep: though my husband and I both work a very full schedule, almost all of our meals are eaten at home, cooked from scratch--and almost none of them are of the “saute chicken breasts for three minutes a side. Deglaze pan with wine and chicken broth. Serve” variety.
As you may have gathered reading this passage, I’m a bit . . . evangelical. When I love a gadget, I really love it--I spent much of 2011 chuckling to myself with pleasure every time I anticipated finally getting to tell folks about the awesome prep bowls I’d been using all year. This year, I’ve been waiting since January to tell you how great sous vide is. The annual kitchen gift guide is one of my favorite things to write--and judging from the nudges I’ve been getting on email and twitter, a few of you like reading it, too.
So here it is: my favorite gifts for the chef, at every budget level from “How thoughtful!” to “Oh, my God, you shouldn’t have!” Everything on this list is something that I personally use and enjoy. A lot of the items you’ll have seen on older lists--my kitchen doesn’t turn over that fast. But it was a banner year for kitchen gifting at the McSuderman household; our semi-renovation opened up whole new spaces for gadgets, and we responded by gifting each other with stuff to fill it.
Stocking Stuffers: Under $25
Microplane grater Every year I lead off with this, and why not? It’s admirably affordable, perfect for a Secret Santa or gift exchange. And it’s incredibly useful. If you’ve been grating your knuckles zesting lemons on an old fashioned box grater--or allowing loved ones to do so--then stop that right now! A microplane grater will zest a lemon in thirty seconds, taking off just the tasty yellow part and leaving the bitter white firmly on the fruit. It creates beautiful little clouds of parmesan cheese to top pasta or salad, or a puff of chocolate shavings to finish off your mousse. I occasionally bring it right to the table so people can grate their own. All around, one of the best “bang for the buck” tools I own, but lots of people still don’t have them.
Lock and Lock 7-piece Bowl set Like most of you, I have been struggling for years to solve The Tupperware Problem. Containers without lids. Lids without containers. All jumbled together in a confusing and space-consuming pile in a cabinet or drawer, forcing me to spend ten minutes hunting for a lid that matches a container every time I want to put something in the fridge. This seven piece bowl set is a nice alternative, especially for cooks who have limited cabinet space. The large bowls double as mixing bowls, and the manufacturer’s rep swears that you can even use a handmixer in it. (I haven’t, since I almost never use one, but I have used an immersion blender with no problem.) The locking lids really do keep the bowls airtight and water tight (I tested). Best of all, they store inside eachother with their lids on. The entire set takes up as much space on your shelf as one mixing bowl. I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of my existing pile yet, but I’m using it less and less, and plan to eliminate the remaining positions by attrition. I think this may be the terminal solution for refrigerator storage.
Fish Spatula This is a weird little item, especially for someone like me, who doesn’t actually like the taste of cooked fish. (Don’t yell at me, it seems to be genetic; my sister has the same aversion, even though both my parents love fish). I don’t quite recall how we acquired this, but now I wouldn’t do without it. It’s obviously designed for transporting your delicate fish from cookware to plate, but it’s good for any oversized item. I wouldn’t say I get it out every day, but I can say that when I’ve needed it, I’ve really needed it--it’s helped me lift a layer cake without breaking it, move the Arnold Schwarzenegger of capons to a serving platter, and otherwise solve tricky jobs that could easily have gone very badly indeed. Probably especially great if you actually like fish.
Pourfect Measuring Beaker I have a set of three (4 cup, 2 cup, 1 cup). In fact, due to some imperfect coordination regarding my wish list last year, I have two sets of three, hanging off of my potracks where I can reach them at all times, and that’s proven to be awfully useful over the last twelve months. The tall shape is suprisingly handy--I mix eggs and whip cream with an immersion blender in the largest size. Plus they’re easy to read and use, and the handles are just the right shape for hanging them, if you’re like me and want your equipment right out in the open where you can find it. I don’t love these *quite* as much as the mixing bowls (more on which a little later) but as liquid measures go, five stars.
Silicone/Fabric Oven Mitt I’ve been recommending silicone oven mitts for years, because they’re really heat impervious, as well as liquid impervious: you can immerse them in boiling water without hurting yourself. (Though this has its own dangers--remind me to tell you about the time that I forgot I was wearing a regular quilted oven mitt, and tried to fish something out of the pot. Owwwww.) The only downside of silicone mitts is that they’re really inflexible, good for only the clumsiest tasks, like fishing baking sheets out of the oven. Norpro has solved that problem by putting a silicone outside on a fabric inner: softer on the hand and more flexible, while still waterproof. If you really need fine motor control, however, I recommend my other new oven mitt favorite: the ove glove, which is a fabric with silicone pads stuck on it. Emphatically NOT waterproof, but great for grilling, and doing things like holding a hot piece of meat while you slice it, though you will of course have to wash it after.
Six-piece measuring spoon set This isn’t an expensive present. But it’s very useful. Measuring spoons, like other sort of spoons, seem to have an instinct to roam; over the years, attrition diminishes the collection of even well-equipped chefs, something which is usually discovered just when you really need the ¼ teaspoon measure right now. This is very close to the one currently in my kitchen, which I like for four reasons.
First, the elongated spoon shape makes it much easier to get into your spice jars; round ones often won’t fit, even the little sizes. Second, it has ¾ and ⅛ spoon sizes, which comes in handy more often than you might think. Sure, it’s not life-changing to be able to use a single spoon to measure a 1.5 teaspoons of something--but it makes cooking and cleanup just a little bit easier, and that’s pretty nice. Thirdly, all the spoons are attached to a single ring, which can be hung from a hook, making them easier to find. And fourth, they’re made of stainless. Plastic measuring spoons often look great, but then the numbering wears off, and while an experienced cook can tell ½ tsp from ¼ tsp at a glance, many, maybe most, can’t. If it feels a little too utilitarian, package it with a jar of a slightly out-of-the-ordinary spice--aleppo pepper, any of half-a-dozen specialty salts, or “true” cinnamon.
Twine dispenser: This is sort of a medium-advanced chef gift. Most cooks these days do not, alas, truss their own roasts or carefully make cheesecloth bags to hold their soup herbs. Most cooks who do, already have a twine dispenser. But if you have someone who’s serious about cooking, but still building their kitchen repertoire, this is really handy. Mine has a chicken on it (Note to family and friends: the appearance of two chicken-ized items is not an announcement that I am collecting chickens and would like every chicken-themed objects you can lay hands on for birthdays, christmasses, and hostess gifts.) But quite nice chicken-free ones are available as well.
Pizza slicer: No matter what level of cook you are, you need a pizza cutter. Yes, even if you don’t make pizza (I’ve done it twice, both times with mediocre results). The rolling knife is useful for all sorts of things, because unlike a regular knife, it doesn’t squish your food as it cuts. Good for cutting quesadillas and sandwiches, slicing off strips of dough for breadsticks or cookies, cutting up your puff pastry or phyllo dough, dicing herbs like chives, and yes, slicing pizza. Alton Brown prefers the handle-less Zyliss model, which he says gives better control, but I’ve never gotten comfortable with it. So I stick with the traditional model, which is nice and heavy, with a good sharp blade.
Kuhn-Rikon Egg Separator Frankly, as far as egg separators go, all you really need is this model. But that’s probably a little small, even for a stocking stuffer. Plus, the Kuhn Rikon comes with two cups, and a separator that clips onto the side--especially good for cooks who are just venturing into things like meringues, custards, and mousses, and might be a little bit intimidated by separating eggs. Once the separator is clipped onto the cup, you can flip it over the edge. So you can put another cup next to the separator, wait for the white to drain off the yolk, and just flip the yolk into the waiting cup. The cups also have lids, so that if you, say, separate out eight egg yolks for hollandaise, you can save the egg whites and make a small angel food cake tomorrow.
Kitchen shears Indispensable for any serious cook. Yes you can function without them, but this is like refusing to use a gas stove because thermostats are just modern frippery. Good kitchen shears make light work out of everything from opening packages to taking the back out of a chicken. And unlike your standard pair of scissors, kitchen shears can be taken apart and cleaned, so that you don’t end up with a rich bacterial civilization tucked between the blades, sending out little colonization parties to your meals. A good pair of shears should be heavy and sharp; this pair, which I use, is both.
Butter boat Another old favorite; I think this one has appeared on every kitchen gift guide, and mine have given nearly a decade of good service. They work through evaporative cooling: you put water in the bottom, a stick of butter in the ceramic insert, and as long as you change the water every few days, your butter stays fresh. Butter bell partisans will scoff, but personally, every time I used a butter bell, I end up with a lump of butter sitting in the water. These work well enough that I have two sitting on the counter at all times: one for unsalted, and one for salted.
Oxo hand chopper This is the better-made version of the slap-chop, which apparently has a very short lifespan. My Oxo has been with us for years, and still going strong. Great for little jobs--a handful of nuts or herbs--and breaks apart to clean. Especially good for a young cook or someone in a small kitchen who doesn’t have a food processor. Plus, slapping the button is a good way to relieve stress.
Bamboo lid rack We have a lot of pans, which means a lot of lids, and no cabinet or wall space in which to store them. My husband hit upon this solution: a bamboo lid holder. Works beautifully with lids of any size, and fits under one of our motley assortment of work islands with no trouble.
Oxo Basting Brush Basting brushes have become rather a problem in recent years. On the one hand, the silicone brush I tried didn’t work that well--the silicone “hairs” were too floppy to spread the liquid evently, and several of its ciliae somehow broke off (not into the food, thank God). On the other hand, traditional basting brushes of the sort that my mother used for decades did not seem to be available. Oh, there was something that looked like them in the store, but when I started, y’know, basting, it turned out the bristles weren’t well attached, and came off in clumps. Right into my egg wash. And on the puff pastry. I put egg wash, puff pastry, and brush into the garbage, and considered whether Home Depot paint brushes were likely to be food safe.
But since I generally like Oxo products, I decided to give this one a try, and I’m glad I did. Solid construction, with a sort of floppy, flexible rubber flap under the “hairs” to give them a little more structure. Made slow-roasted barbecue chicken with it last night and got a beautiful, even coat of sauce on every leg. And it cleans more easily than a traditional brush; you can pop it right into the dishwasher.
Swivel Store Spice Rack Okay, so this is an As Seen On Television product. And yes, that’s where I saw it, before buying one on impulse in a Bed Bath and Beyond. But in my defense, it’s awesome. I’ve tried a whole lot of spice storage solutions over the years, and this is by far my favorite: no emptying jars into other little jars, and it fits neatly in my cabinet. The gimmick is that the shelves pull out and swivel forward, so you can look at a whole row of spices, then tuck it back when you’re done. I’ve been using this for over a year with no problems. However, I’m very tall, which does help if you’re going to store this high; shorter people would probably prefer this model, which pulls out and down instead of out and to the side.
Wilton Trim and Turn Cake Stand I’ve now had this for over a year, and it’s surprising how grateful I still am for it--it makes decorating a cake a positive pleasure. You do not need to be one of those crazy people who spends three days making a cake look exactly like a racecar for this to be useful. I use it for much more basic buttercream decorations, which are a very easy way to get “wows” on your cakes, since almost no one bothers any more, and it only takes 5-10 minutes to get a pretty nice effect. Great gift for someone who’s expressed an interest in cake decorating, especially paired with a nice tip set, an icing spatula, and an icing comb. (Note on icing combs, do not get sucked in by fancy ones with movable parts: a four sided piece of metal costs a few dollars and no one will be able to tell the difference.)
Krups Coffee Grinder I actually don’t use this for grinding coffee, because I have a burr grinder for that. But as I point out every year, the difference between fresh ground coffee and pre-ground beans is much larger than the difference between blade-ground and burr ground. If you or a loved one is drinking pre-ground coffee, it’s time for an intervention.
Even if you have a burr grinder, however, these are great for grinding spices. Fresh ground spices have much better flavor than pre-ground, and while it’s not practical for everything, I suggest giving it a try (though not with the grinder you use for your coffee). Cinnamon, whole cloves, and nutmeg, for starters, all benefit from grinding fresh: you get a much more complex flavor, and with a spice grinder, it’s not much more work than buying them pre-ground. Also great for recipes that call for a teaspoon of fresh-ground black pepper, which is otherwise incredibly tedious.
Amco Reference Refrigerator magnet They make a bunch of these magnets, and they're terrific. I have the one with common measure equivalents--how many milligrams in a teaspoon, how many teaspoons in a cup. There's nothing like having your hands full and being able to quickly check how many tablespoons make a pint without putting anything down. I think these make a great stocking stuffer for any cook.
Bialetti 8-inch nonstick frying pan I use this pan for one thing: cooking eggs. As far as I am concerned, cooking eggs is the only purpose for nonstick pans. And as far as I am concerned, this is the perfect pan for cooking eggs for one or two people. The nonstick is great, the sides are high so that you can get a lot of egg in there, and it’s small enough that a two-person omelette doesn’t end up spread out into a thin, crispy layer. Since I recoognize that not everyone is as down on nonstick as I am, I also think it would be a great, versatile pan for a beginning cook, or someone getting their first apartment.
Salt pig You’ll find that a recurring theme in my kitchen guide--and kitchen decorating--is the desire to have everything right there where I can reach it. That, in brief, is the purpose of a salt pig: it keeps your salt on the counter, right next to your stove, where it’s always easy to reach. Mine is actually in the shape of a pig, but for those of you who don’t like cute animals on the counter, this is the sleeker more modern version. The shape is supposed to keep humidity and grease from making your salt clumpy and disgusting. The most important thing, however, is that it makes it easy to reach in and scoop out your salt with one hand.
Warming Gravy Boat My family has finally stopped laughing at me about the warming gravy boat. Sure, it’s bringing gadgetry to something that’s been done without it for hundreds of years. On the other hand, it’s decently attractive, and . . . warm gravy! Even half an hour into Thanksgiving dinner! You can also put a chocolate sauce in here and let it gently warm in time for dessert. You’re going to have a gravy boat anyway, so why not one that does some of the work for you?
Vacuum marinator To use this, you need a food saver (look down the list). If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can't use the one I have (though there is also a manual model). But if you know someone who has one, consider adding this to their kitchen. I’ll be frank about the downside: it apparently has a tendency to crack if you put it in the dishwasher. The heat weakens the plastic and then the vacuum finishes it off. We handwash ours, and it’s now provided a year of steady, solid service with no problems. Allows you to marinate in minutes rather than hours--the vacuum pulls open the muscle fibers to let the marinade in. Our tests have been very successful, and I now also use it to quick-brine when I’ve forgotten to start a recipe the night before.
Four Cup Gravy Separator Much easier than trying to skim the fat off by hand, and much faster than letting the food sit in the refrigerator overnight (though sometimes, that’s the better method). Also doubles as a handy four-cup liquid measure for recipes that aren’t too fussy. I use this all winter for gravies, sauces, and stews. They have a two cup model, but it's not big enough for stews, whereas the four cup works just fine on small amounts.
Spill stopper This is a silicone lid that sits on top of your pots and prevents them from boiling over. Kuhn Rikon says it is literally impossible for your pot to boil over while using one of these, and while I haven’t pushed one to the limits, so far, we’re spill free. If you know a chef whose stovetop is frequently the victim of overflows, they’ll find this pretty useful--and their dishwashing brigade will be eternally grateful.
Cookbook stand Mine is out on the counter all the time, with a cookbook in it. Doesn’t entirely eliminate drips and spills, but makes it less likely that you’ll have to spend hours carefully trying to peel stuck pages apart.
Splatter guard Know someone who sautes or fries a lot? Someone who is, perhaps, splattering grease all over innocent bystanders, their own (now pockmarked) arms, and the lovely backsplash you paid good money to install last year? They need a splatter guard. The fine mesh doesn’t capture all of the splatters, but it does get most of them, and you can still see your food well enough to catch it before it turns into high-priced organic charcoal.
2 Cup Saucepan This is such a useful size, but it's a size that almost no one ever buys for themselves. If you want to heat a little bit of something up fast, it's a lot faster in a tiny pan--and this doubles as a measuring cup. Perfect for melting butter.
Thoughtful Trinkets: $25 to $50
Pre-seasoned cast iron skillet You can’t beat cast-iron for the price. It’s a little fussy to care for--you can’t leave it wet, for starters. And those handles heat up, so make sure you always use a potholder. But nothing else holds heat as well; it produces a perfect, practically instant sear. Particularly great for people with an induction cooktop, or folks who have taken to sous-videing, because you can get such a nice crust on the outside in a very short period of time.
Silicone Pastry Mat: Silicone is very not-sticky, which turns out to be very useful for making pastry. Flour dries out pastry, but it’s also necessary to keep it from sticking. Enter your silicone pastry mat, which simply cannot get things stuck to it. Allows you to use less flour (I wouldn’t try none) for a better texture. Also has handy circles marked to make it easy to roll out your crust to the right size.
Silicone rolling pin I praised the virtues of the silicone pastry mat, and this is it’s counterpart. Works super-well, easy to keep clean, and your pie crust just will not stick. Even my mother, a kitchen luddite, has been converted from wood.
Salad Spinner I resisted this for years. “Paper towels work fine” I said, and that’s true--for regular lettuce. Which most people don’t need to wash anyway, since the advent of pre-washed bagged lettuce. Then I picked one of these up on sale. And discovered what you can do with it that paper towels won’t do, like easily get the sand out of your bok choy stems by putting the bowl in the sink, filling it with water, and pulsing the bok choy in the water for thirty seconds. (Trust me: do this in the sink.) Or dress your salad with a perfectly even coating. Super useful, though I still wouldn’t get one for a small urban kitchen unless the recipient eats a whole lot of bok choy and leeks.
Sachi Collapsible Insulated Basket Technically, this is not a piece of kitchen equipment. However, if you carry food to other places, like church or friends’ houses, this is terrific. It collapses for easy storage, and then expands to a large insulated basket: keeps hot food hot, cold food cold. It’s also great for grocery shopping if you’re single or a couple; I take this to our farmer’s market on hot Sunday mornings in the summer, and all the dairy products arrive home still fresh. Also obviously works as a picnic basket, which is how we use it for long car trips. Comes in multiple colors and patterns--if you don't like the black damask, just search on "Sachi basket"
Tupperware cake taker Like the insulated tote, this is a way to carry your food, not make it--but if you’re a cake baker, transporting the things to other peoples’ houses comes with the territory. And this is far and away the best cake carrier I’ve found. It’s nice and high, and cylindrical rather than conical. Most importantly, the locking mechanism for latching the top onto the bottom is easy to use, even one handed, and so far completely foolproof over years and years of use.
Tea press I’m not a big fan of french-pressed coffee. No, please don’t email about how I haven’t experienced good French press: I live with a java-guzzling certified coffee snob, and I’m two blocks away from a very good coffee shop, and after years of trying gamely to like pressed coffee, I’ve quite made up my mind.
However, I do love pressed tea. It allows you to use loose-leaf tea, which is easier to keep fresh in storage. But because the tea leaves go in a nice strainer in the center, you don’t pay the traditional price for using loose-leaf: the things floating around in your cup. Makes a lovely gift for anyone who’s a regular tea-drinker.
Chemex As I say, I do not care for french-pressed coffee. But that doesn’t mean one needs to be tethered to a coffee maker. The chemex does a brilliant job of making filtered coffee using boiling water and filters rather than an electric appliance. Great for dorm rooms or other places where a coffeemaker might not fit. My mother, who has experimented with just about every fancy coffeemaker known to man, still uses one of these.
Rabbit corkscrew Still my favorite corkscrew. It’s about the only thing short of a jackhammer that can remove some of those plastic corks which continue their insidious march across the American wine market. Particularly great for older folks, or anyone else who’s having trouble with hand or arm strength
Generous Gifts: $50 to $150
Pourfect mixing bowl set it’s kind of hard to exaggerate how much I love these bowls. I am not yet reduced to collaring strangers in the street, but my friends have all heard about these bowls at excruciating length. Basically, some clever person figured out how to make a prep bowl that pours easily into anything--no spills, nothing left at the bottom of the bowl. They even have measuring lines inside them, so you don’t need a separate liquid measure if you’re using them. They have a built in pour-shield to keep liquid from coming out the sides, and the wider end, where the handle is, is shaped to let you grip it with one hand, with the handle resting on your wrist, so that you have great control of where you’re pouring.
I keep finding new uses for them, like dumping the fryer oil into the big one so that I can carefully pour it into storage or disposal containers. You can crack a dozen eggs into one, and it will magically dispense them exactly one at a time into your mixer. There’s even a little ledge under the pouring lip, which latches onto the edge of your mixer bowl and helps you tip it up to get the very last drop out. I have two sets of these, one of which came with the measuring cups (another wishlist mixup) and I’m glad I do. The measuring cups are in handy sizes like ⅔, ¾, and 1 ½ and 2 cups, as well as the standard, and they’re very good measuring cups. But the bowls are the star of the show. They’re absolutely the handiest prep bowls I’ve ever used, and I really can’t recommend them highly enough.
Chinois and pestle This is definitely a specialty item. You have to be pretty serious about making sauces or preserves for a Chinois to be anything other than a waste of space. But now that I have one (I got one for our wedding), I wouldn’t be without it. There’s simply no way to get a gorgeously velvety texture to your soups and purees without putting it through one of these. And if you do foams and espumas, you have to have one--otherwise, you’ll clog the valves on your foamer. I use mine at least once a week, and more in the winter, when it’s soup season.
When you’re shopping for a chinois (aka a boullion strainer on Amazon) make sure you’re getting one that’s actually a fine mesh. Many of the things that are described as a chinois are actually what’s known as a “China Cap”: a metal cone with holes punched in it. There’s nothing wrong with these--my grandmother used one for decades--but they are not fine enough to get a really perfectly smooth texture. If you’re going to get a china cap, I’d recommend getting a food mill instead, which has holes of roughly the same size, but is easier to fit over your pot, and has a handle to make things go a lot faster.
You don’t technically need the pestle--mine went awol for a while, and I did fine with a wooden spoon. But it is a little more efficient, and it looks cool.
Crockpot Slow Cooker For years, I have had a slow cooker that I really love. It’s got a lovely earthenware insert that can be used to sear on the stovetop or popped into the oven, it’s easy to set, and it looks good on my counter. Unfortunately, it’s also out of production. However, I recently picked up a second slow cooker, this one, at a garage sale. That one is very much still in production, and it’s great: large capacity, excellent cooking. (Its insert does not, alas, work on the stovetop).
You can buy much pricier ones from All-Clad or Cuisinart that look much more impressive, but I’ve cooked in them at friends’ houses, and in my experience, that’s all they give you: more impressive looks. The technology of slow-cooking simply isn’t that complicated: it’s an earthenware crock inside an electric heating element that keeps things above 140 and below 200. So a pricey brand name just can’t bring much to the party that you couldn’t get from your trusty old crockpot--at a third of the price.
If you don’t want quite this much capacity--if you’re cooking for one or two, and hate leftovers--then I recommend getting an older (pre-1990) crockpot off of eBay. In recent years, food safety regulations and fear of liability has caused manufacturers to raise the heat on their slow cookers, which means the food cooks faster. I entertain enough that I reluctantly gave up lower heat for larger capacity (old crockpots tend to come in 2-3 quart sizes, rather than the 5-6 quarts that are standard now.) But only an older crockpot will give you really low and slow cooking. Of course, if you’re getting it as a gift, make sure you’re gifting the kind of recipient who will appreciate that you’re trying to give them something that’s just not available any more--rather than thinking, “Oh, lovely, a ratty old crockpot.”
Waring Pro Digital Deep Fryer My husband, who is from the south, has been making noises about learning to deep fry, so this is what Santa brought him on his birthday. I mean . . . the birthday fairy. Whatever, nitpickers. Anyway, it’s the best (cheap) deep fryer on the market. No kitchen-sized deep fryer is going to compete with the models you find in professional kitchens, which heat the oil faster and have more accurate thermostats. But if you have the space, this is pretty much indisputably superior to what you can do on your stovetop, even with an accurate thermometer, a cast-iron dutch oven, and an indomitable will. First, you get a hell of a lot less splatter (see, splatter guard). Second, it maintains the temperature by itself, rather than you standing there fiddling with the stove dial. And third, the baskets make it a hell of a lot easier to place and remove the food than even the nicest wok skimmer.
The Waring Pro Digital thermostat is not accurate to within 0.3 degrees, or anything, but in months of use, it has proved more than adequate. (It runs a bit hot, so if you err, err low). The digital readout makes it very easy to set and use. It heats up quite quickly. And though the general rules for fryers in my house are “Outside Use Only”, the one time we used this in the house, it surprisingly did not make our abode smell like a run-down McDonald’s. The biggest issue that you will have with this machine is that it makes frying too easy, and therefore, too tempting; we have placed an unofficial once-a-month use limit on our machine.
Food Saver Vacuum Sealer Yup, I’ve seen the infomercials and thought, “Those people seem to have a lot of life problems I don’t have.” I was never tempted. Then the husband bought me a sous vide machine last Christmas. (More on this below). The sous vide required a vacuum sealer (you can kludge it with plastic bags and a straw, but I am not that dedicated). And so we purchased this vacuum sealer.
A pricey chamber sealer, which will allow you to pack liquids, was not in the budget, so we settled on Food Saver, the market leader in consumer-level vacuum sealers. Food Savers come in a bewildering array of models that do not seem to be distinguished by any obvious differences in features, other than pointless cosmetic ones. There is one important choice, however: automatic vs. manual.
Manual are cheaper, and some people complain that the automatics either don’t do as good a job, or use too much expensive bag material. After long thought, I decided that I was willing to use an extra inch of bag material (cost: roughly 3 cents) rather than stand there and watch my bags so that I could leap into action at the absolutely perfect sealing moment. No one who has eaten the food thus produced has so far complained that they tasted of inadequate vacuum.
The model I chose was basically the cheapest automatic. It has some nice features: a wet/dry setting, and a marinate setting, which I use a lot. And it does a fine job sealing. Which leads to the obvious question: who needs a vacuum sealer? Let me walk you through what we use it for, and you can decide for yourself:
1. Marinating Really great for this. Seems to speed up the process considerably.
2. Storing stuff we buy in bulk Like many of you, we are Costco shoppers. And like many of you, we have watched, dismayed, as our room-sized hunk of Manchego went moldy. Now I cut off a month-sized piece, and vacuum-seal the rest.
3. Freezing this kind of vacuum sealer will not cut down on freezer burn entirely--the bags are not quite thick enough for that. But it will minimize freezer burn, extending the life and flavor of your frozen pot roasts and other goodies.
4. Sous vide Obviously, if you don’t have a sous vide machine, this does not apply to you. If you do, bite the bullet and get a vacuum sealer.
A vacuum sealer is not for everyone; I definitely wouldn’t buy it just to marinate, for example. But if you like to make meals ahead and freeze part, or buy a lot of bulk foods, you’ll probably get the money out of it. As always, though, don’t buy it unless you can leave it on or near a counter; if you have to set the thing up every time you use it, you won’t get your money’s worth.
Miallegro Stick Blender My basic philosophy on appliances is that they should not be replaced merely because they are old and unattractive, but used until they are actually falling apart. Well, that’s what happened to my old Cuisinart hand blender this year, so it was time for a replacement. Which one to buy?
My oft-expressed belief about hand blenders hadn’t changed: there isn’t much difference between them. I’ve used pricey Vikings and cheap Brauns, and none of them has made me think: “Wow, that’s life changing”. They all perform the same basic functions about the same: whipping cream, blending powdered drinks, beating eggs, and pureeing soups right there in the pot. You should stay away from the ultra-cheap models, which are underpowered and tend to break, but anything medium-grade or above is a fine choice.
So how did I end up with a hand blender from an obscure Venezuelan company you've never heard of? Two words: wall mount.
Any major appliance should be out on your counter. I make an exception for waffle irons and similar things that do an important, but infrequent job. But the core items you spend a lot of money on--food processor, stand mixer, hand blender--should be on the counter. Otherwise you’ll resist using them, at which point, you might as well not buy them.
The stick blender is an awkward shape, so the only way to keep it close to hand is to have the thing mounted on your wall. The Miallegro was the only one I could find that mentioned a wall-mount in the description, so I bought it. And it turns out, I love it. It’s nice and powerful, and the wall-mount works well. It has a whisk attachment that’s easy to change, and to my surprise, I use it all the time--it beats up perfectly homogenized eggs in a few seconds, and then the whisk attachment pops off for easy dishwashing.
There is also the standard stick-blender head, of course, and the Miallegro’s comes with five or six different blades that you can pop into it: one for powdered drinks, one for frothing, etc. I confess, I don’t bother, because changing them is a bit fussy; I just use the standard two-blade.
But even without those extra blades you probably won’t use, the Miallegro is a very decent price for a stick blender that has so far delivered a year of solid, heavy use.
Electric kettle Like many Americans who have spent time living in the UK, while I was there I fell in love with electric kettles. Then when I moved back and bought one I was disappointed; the ones in America are nowhere near as good (read: fast). That’s not some design flaw, but a function of our electric wiring, which is different from Britain’s, and therefore not capable of pushing as much power through the coils.
Nonetheless, a good electric kettle is worth having. You can’t burn the bottom out of an electric kettle by putting it on the stove and forgetting you did so, and you can bring it out into the dining room or living room when you’re entertaining. When my grandmother lost her eyesight to macular degeneration, and it was no longer safe for her to use the stove, a kettle meant that she could still have a cup of tea whenever she wanted. I like the Cuisinart cordless model because the cordless feature makes it easier to carry kettle to cup, and it’s so tough that ours still works even after I accidentally set it down on a hot stove.
Peugot electric salt and pepper mills I know what you’re thinking: she’s too lazy to grind her own pepper??? Before I got these, I too would have scoffed. But my mother, who was having some trouble with her hands, tried them out, and then gave a set to us one Christmas. Now I’m a convert. Not because I’m too lazy to grind, but because the electric mills let you do so with one hand. Super useful if you’re stirring bechamel or trying to salt and pepper the inside of a capon. And of course if you do have arthritis or other problems that make it hard to use a traditional grinder, this is a huge help. Added plus: it’s very easy to set the fineness of your grind by twisting the bottom, which comes with markings from coarse to fine.
Burr Coffee Grinder: Burr grinders produce better tasting coffee because they don’t heat the beans as they cut, and they give you a perfectly even grind. They’re also a little bit easier to use. The beans live in a hopper on top of the grinder, whichwill measure the amount of coffee it grinds for you, rather than requiring you to carefully spoon the right amount into a blade grinder’s bowl. And the ground coffee is deposited in a little cup which pulls out and dumps neatly into your coffeemaker. This is what the McSuderman household uses every day, and after three years of use, it’s still giving us a great cup of coffee.
Calphalon Stir-Fry Pan You shouldn’t bother buying a wok if you’re cooking on an American stove. Woks are made to be surrounded by very flame, not sit on top of modest btus, and they don’t work right on our burners. A stir-fry pan is a better compromise--like the illegitimate but much-loved child of a saucepan and a wok. It gives you some of the benefits of a wok--more heat down at the bottom to sear, less heat on the sides, where you can park your vegetables. But it also works pretty well for sauces, which is great for someone who is short on storage space for 97 different pans. I use it for stir-fries, but it sees just as much duty as my new, extra-large saucepan.
Kitchenaid Mixer Ice Cream Attachment This is the best ice cream machine short of one of those very pricey models that have their own compressor. You stick the bowl in the freezer overnight, then pour your ice cream mix in and stick it on your Kitchenaid. Better than standalone machines that work along similar principles because unlike those machines, your Kitchenaid mixer has a very large, powerful motor. The large powerful motor keeps the paddle moving through the ice cream mixture, preventing big ice crystals from forming. And that, in turn, is what makes for smooth, creamy ice cream.
Zojirushi Fuzzy Logic Rice Cooker Rice cooker testimonials are full of people saying “Finally, I can make rice without burning it!” I am not one of those people. I never found cooking rice particularly difficult. So why did I register for a rice cooker?
Well, an Asian friend talked me into it, and I don’t regret it. The rice cooker makes better rice than I do--perfectly light and fluffy every time--and if I’m not ready to eat when the rice is, it keeps the rice perfectly warm and fluffy until I’m ready. It takes longer than cooking it on the stove, but since I don’t have to stand over it, I don’t care. Obviously, not the right gift for your paleo friends, but for others, it’s a surprisingly useful appliance. It’s especially good for brown rice, which tends to be inedible the first five or ten times you try to cook it.
The Zojirushis are, in my humble opinion, the only rice cookers worth buying . . . and my opinion is shared by everyone I’ve talked to about this. They actually monitor the progress of your rice, which is what gives you that perfect cook. Cheaper models are just an electric heating element and a timer, at which point, you might as well just go back to the stovetop.
Zojirushi has a number of models, ranging from “cheap electric heating element and at timer” to one that cooks the rice under pressure, and apparently makes sublime brown rice. But at almost $400, it had better transport you to ethereal realms never before seen by human eyes.
We don’t eat enough brown rice to justify the cost; ours is the entry level fuzzy logic cooker, which does a superb job on both white and brown rice. It’s the lowest-priced model I recommend. And also the highest-priced model, actually: it’s pretty hard for me to imagine needing more rice cooker than this. I mean, once you get to “perfect, fluffy rice every time”, it’s time to stop. Though if you’re flush with cash and love brown rice more than life itself, I suppose you might as well go for the gold.
A word on knives
Knives get their own section because, like many a Facebook status, it's complicated.
The first thing to know about knives is that they’re very personal. Never purchase one of those sets-with-knife-blocks, either for yourself or another person; they’re generic, and rarely have room for the extra knives that you are bound to need to complement your personal cooking style. Some people swear by cleavers; others (like me) are terrified by them. A ten-inch chef’s knife is the perfect size for some people, too hard to control for others. And so forth. So buy individual knives, as needed. The minimum starting kit is a serrated knife, a chef’s knife, and a paring knife; add from there as you discover new needs.
But beware of the kitchen snobs who sniff that they only need three knives and a cast iron dutch oven. It’s entirely true that you can make do with this minimal kit--if you’re the only person who ever cooks in your kitchen. We entertain friends and family frequently, and by “entertain”, I mean that everyone merrily congregates in the kitchen, chopping and sauteing. Communal cooking is not possible with one good chef’s knife.
Beware, too, of the snake-oil salesmen who promise permanently sharp knives. There ain’t no such thing--unless you never use them. Using a knife dulls its edge. Buy a sharpener, or pay a professional for frequent sharpenings. A dull knife is a dangerous knife--while you’re sawing away through that steak, you’re apt to saw right through your finger.
I prefer Japanese knives. Not knives made in Japan--most of my knives are made by Shun, which is a division of Kershaw. Japanese is a style of knife: sharper angle, harder steel. They’re harder to sharpen than German knives, their main competition, but need sharpening less often. In general, my take is that German knives stand more abuse, while Japanese knives have a little more finesse, but it’s really a personal choice: use both, and figure out what you like. I have both and use both frequently.
I also like ceramic knives, which maintain their edge a lot longer. However, they also break if you drop them, a bad gift for the fumble-fingered. And they are not as heavy as steel, so they’re not good for your heaviest tasks.
We have a really absurd number of knives because I got a whole lot of them for my wedding. (Cue obvious jokes here) Here are my favorites, the essentials for my kitchen:
Paring knife: You have to have one, as there are certain jobs that just can’t be done with a larger knife. The 3.5-inch is your most versatile, the essential for a basic starting kit. I also like a bird's beak knife, for fiddly decorative things like making radish flowers and skinning apples in one long peel. And a four-inch paring knife, which is my mother’s preferred parer--not so much finesse, but it gets the job done faster.
Utility knife A five-inch serrated knife. Very good for things like tomatoes and other soft fruits, or small loaves of bread. If you don’t have a bread knife (I didn’t for years), this will substitute on even large loaves in a pinch. The most important thing about a serrated knife is solid, inflexible construction--don’t buy something cheap for $5, as the floppy blade will just make a mess. But you don’t need to splash out here, either; the sawing motion does not require a finely balanced knife or an exquisitely sharpened blade. I love my Ken Onion 5-inch ultimate utility, which was a wedding gift, but a less pricey Henckels would also be a fine choice.
Mini Chef’s Knife My 4.5-inch Shun Ken Onion chef's knife is probably my favorite knife. It has the shape of a chef's knife, and the fine motor control of a paring knife. I use mine more frequently than probably any other knife in our kitchen. The size makes it perfect for chopping herbs or shallots, or trimming chicken breasts, but it’s versatile enough to attack any but the very largest onions or roasts.
Large chef’s knife These come in sizes from dainty 8-inchers to 12-inch monsters. 12 inches is too large, in my opinion; it’s like trying to dice onions with a battleaxe. And 8 inches is a little too small for someone my size, unless they have trouble with their hands. I have a beautiful 10-inch Shun Ken Onion chef’s knife which I like very much--large enough to tackle anything, but small enough to still have good control. But I’m a very tall woman with very long fingers; someone smaller than me might well prefer the eight-inch version. I can’t recommend this knife highly enough, if you like Japanese knives; it’s obviously cool to look at, but it’s also a joy to chop with.
Santoku Knife As the name suggests these originated in Japan; they’re shorter than chef’s knives and have a flat bottom, which some people prefer; chopping with them is less of a scissor motion, and more like something you might see on a Benihana commercial. They’re great for vegetables or slicing meat and fish into bite-sized pieces.
Bread knife As I suggested above, once you have reached the “not floppy” threshhold, it doesn’t really matter what kind of serrated bread knife you buy. Get one that’s nice and big so that it can tackle a large loaf, but don’t splash out on a fancy bread knife unless you really have money to burn. Frankly, a little saw from Home Depot would work just as well.
Carving Knives: We use a nice 12 inch carving set that my father gave us, or a chef’s knife for things that need to be jointed. Don’t buy an electric carving knife unless you have serious problems with hand strength; you’ll use it only a few times a year, and it doesn’t really give you more control or better cutting--if you find yourself sawing through your roast, it’s time to sharpen your knives. Plus, a slip of the electric knife can really mangle your roast.
As I say every year, though, with knives, it’s important to know your giftee. If you’re not sure, I recommend the 4.5-inch chef’s knife; no one has one, and it’s so versatile that they can almost certainly use it.
Knife Sharpener: I have protested against electric knife sharpeners for years, but gave in when Shun came out with one of their own. Make sure that you have one that is specific for your kind of knife: do not sharpen a serrated blade in a regular sharpener, and Japanese knives need sharpeners set at their angle. Also be careful after you sharpen--it's a prime time for cuts, because you've forgotten how sharp knives can be.
Knife Block: Because you’re not buying a set, you’ll need a knife block. Oh, you can get those magnetic things that stick to the wall, but I find I’m far too likely to impale myself on them while reaching for something else. And there are drawer storage kits that are probably great if you have a lot more drawers than we do. But most people probably need a knife block. I have the gigantor 22-slot block, because as I think I mentioned, we got a lot of knives for our wedding. Most people don’t need this much space. But you should always buy a block with more slots than they have, so that they have room to add on later.
Bamboo cutting boards: I am evangelical on the subject of cutting boards. Wood, wood, wood. Never ever buy glass--gosh yeah, they sure are sanitary, but they’ll blunt your knives. The white plastic ones are better, but they should really be thrown away every few months, which is about how long it takes for the cut marks to start incubating bacterial colonies. Wood cutting boards, on the other hand, can just be sanded off every few months. (I use a little mouse sander and it takes under a minute). Plus, they look better, which means you can keep them on your counter, rather than fiddling in a drawer every time you want to cut something. We have a big one that sits on our counter at all times, and a few smaller ones that are kept under a counter, within easy reach.
Extravagent gestures: $150 and up
Masterbuilt electric smoker The southern boy is in charge of our household’s outside cookery: smoking, deep frying, and grilling. This was our joint gift to each other for our anniversary, and while we’re still getting the hang of smoking, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Barbecue snobs will sneer at an electric smoker, but electric heat is great for enclosed cooking, particularly slow cooking: better temperature control and more even heat.
Smoking meat with a traditional setup is a daunting endeavor, requiring constant monitoring and quite a bit of skill. The electric smoker takes over a lot of those tasks, and while we may not get results as good as the most highly skilled pitmasters, we get much better results than we would if we had tried to teach ourselves to smoke on a wood or charcoal kit--indeed, I'm sure we'd never have tried. I feel like even avid smokers are slowly being won over to the ease of electric; as one friend shamefacedly confessed, “I thought it was terrible, and then I realized that I wouldn’t have to sit outside with the mosquitos for 14 hours.”
We chose this one because it has a window, which turns out to be largely useless (the smoke darkens the glass so that you can’t see well anyway), because it has a fairly large capacity, and because you can add the wood chips from the outside: less smoke on your clothes, and you don’t lose heat. Overall, we’ve been very happy with our choice. So far we’ve failed at brisket (“brisket is hard,” said a barbecue sage we consulted), but delivered on outstanding ribs, shrimp, and pork butt.
Breville Toaster Oven This is pretty much the uncontested king of toaster ovens right now. It’s got excellent temperature control, a lot of functions, and unlike most toaster ovens, it actually makes good toast. I chose it because it has a convection function for faster baking, and it’s large enough to bake a bundt cake. I use this constantly, especially for parties and in the summer, when I don’t want to turn the oven on if I can avoid it.
Kitchenaid Ultra-Wide-Mouth Food Processor Here is a conversation I have now had about a hundred times.
“I’m thinking about getting a food processor. Which one should I get?”
[Two weeks later] “I just used the food processor. I can’t believe I waited to get one for so long!”
If you cook a lot, a food processor is invaluable. But don’t forget Megan’s Rule: it has to live on the counter, or it’s not worth getting. Food processors have big, heavy bases with big, heavy motors, and about half a dozen assorted parts. If you have to drag the thing out every time you want to use it . . . well, you won’t, that’s all.
The most important things to look for in a food processor are a nice, powerful motor and a very wide mouth; if you have to pre-process your foods by chopping them into smaller pieces, you won’t use it as much. I love my Kitchenaid (since relegated to the basement by the Thermomix, but I still use it for some tasks, like shredding and slicing). Unfortunately, they just redid their line, and the reviews haven’t been all that good. If you can’t get a hold of one of the older models, I recommend getting this Cuisinart instead, which is now supposed to be the market leader.
All-Clad saute pan Just what you need for really huge jobs, like 5 pounds of stew meat that needs to be browned, or enough stir-fried bok choy to feed a large dinner party. High sides catch the spatter--you can shallow-fry in a few inches of oil in one of these. And nothing escapes over the side, as things are wont to do from my skillet. They come in multiple sizes, but I like the largest one; when you need a big pan, you really need it. However, if you have an underpowered stove, especially an electric one, consider a smaller size.
Kitchenaid Stand Mixer Still the king of stand mixers, and a must-have for anyone who bakes a lot. Yes, you can mix a cake by hand, but you can also make your own gelatin by boiling calve’s feet down. The point is, why would you, unless your kitchen is so tiny that you can’t fit a single appliance? (And that’s very tiny indeed--I happily used my Kitchenaid in a 435-square foot apartment.)
I prefer the bowl-lift rather than the tilt-head models; they have more power. (The motor is in the head, and if you have to tilt it back, this limits how heavy it can be made). Five quart is fine for most people; for those who do big batches, it’s probably worth upgrading to the six- or seven-quart models. But remember that a larger bowl size will make it harder to do small tasks like a little bit of whipped cream, so if you get a larger model, you should probably add a 3-quart work bowl.
There are all sorts of attachments you can buy and some people swear by them; the only one I personally use regularly is the abovmeentioned ice cream maker, but then, I don’t have a baby who needs food pureed to slush, and have never had the urge to grind my own wheat from scratch. I do not recommend the meat grinder, which we tried, to terrible, terrible effect. Your food processor makes very nice ground meat.
A word on all the lovely colors that these mixers now come in: I wouldn’t. Kitchenaid mixers last forever, and that tangerine that’s so now is going to be really, really then in ten years. If it clashes madly with your decor, you’re going to want to take it off the counter . . . and you know how I feel about that.
Sous Vide Supreme Demi This has been the big addition to our kitchen this year. The southern boy bought me one for Christmas last year, after I offhandedly mentioned that I’d really like to try one someday. I was excited, of course, but I thought of it as a very expensive toy, something that we’d use a few times and then drag out three times a year for dinner parties.
I was so, so wrong.
We use this all the time, especially in summer. It’s simply the killer app for meat. You literally cannot screw up your food: it delivers absolutely perfect steaks, roasts, and cutlets every single time.
That’s because the food never gets above the target temperature. With traditional cooking, you’re heating to your oven to say, 350, in the hopes of getting the inside of your roast to 125 or 130. Of course, by the time the inside gets to 125, the outside is going to be much hotter than that--which is to say, quite possibly overcooked. And the food continues cooking after you take it out, so the whole thing may be dry by the time you eat.
Sous vide places it in a water bath that’s exactly the target temperature: it’s not possible to overcook. That alone would be worth the price, but there’s more: you can do stuff with sous vide that you can’t do with any other machine. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are actually delicious and moist, rather than kind of dry and tasteless. Medium-rare chuck roast, cooked for three days so that all the proteins collagen has melted down and it’s gone from chewy-tough to deliciously tender. Three day short ribs. It’s supposed to be great for fish, but I hate cooked fish, so it’s hard for me to comment.
When the food is cooked, you just sear it a couple minutes a side on a cast iron frying pan or a grill (you can also use a blowtorch, but I haven’t). Perfect food, every time.
Before we got one, I thought of this as a specialty appliance for hard core food/gadget freaks. Now I think of it as a basic appliance that virtually all meat eaters should have. This was definitely the discovery of the year for us.
We have the smaller model, and I’ve had no trouble feeding an eight-person dinner party with it. If you have a big family, or want to give a lot of big parties, you might want to upgrade to the full sized model, which costs more, and takes up more counter space, but can hold a lot more food. You can also buy an immersion circulator to stick on one of your pots; they’re usually much more expensive (because they move the water as well as maintaining the temperature. And for those who like a more DIY vibe, there are thermostats that let you hack a cooler or a crock-pot to a sous vide machine, which looks intriguing, though I haven't tried it myself.
Whichever model you get, you’ll need a vacuum sealer, which we’ve already covered. Luckily, the vacuum sealer has other uses besides sous-videing.
The one downside of sous vide is that there aren’t yet a lot of great cookbooks for it. If you do decide to take the plunge, I’ll be doing a post on some basic sous-vide principles after Christmas, so watch out for it.
Technivorm Moccamaster This is quite simply the best coffeemaker on the market. It has no bells and whistles: it doesn’t grind the coffee, or also make tea, or let you fry an egg on the side. Nor does it have a timer. What it does is deliver the water at exactly the right temperature to make a perfect cup of coffee. And it puts that coffee in a thermal carafe which keeps it piping hot for hours--the southern boy frequently makes a pot, takes it up to his office, and is still drinking hot coffee four or five hours later. Don’t worry, you won’t miss the timer--the Moccamaster brews a pot in under ten minutes.
Sodastream Glass Carafe Selzer Maker Space in our kitchen is at a premium. On the other hand, we like to drink soda. This lovely wedding gift from the southern boy’s boss has solved that problem. It carbonates water for you, so you have club soda any time you want. And they sell all sorts of flavor mix-ins which emulate popular sodas. These aren’t perfect--the diet coke, for example, is not a good enough substitute--but it means that we never find we’re out of ginger ale, or tonic water, or lemonade. Sodastream has much cheaper models which make seltzer just as well; we chose this one because it has glass carafes, which look nicer and seem more environmentally friendly.
Le Crueset Dutch Oven Enameled cast iron gives you the cooking properties of cast iron--great heat retention--without the rusting problems. It’s no good for searing, because the enamel doesn’t like really high flame. But it’s perfect for stovetop simmers, and of course, braising and casseroles. You don’t need to splash out on Le Creuset--companies like Lodge also make very fine pots at a lower price point. But everyone should have one in their kitchen. Five quart is the most versatile, but 7-quarts or even 9 quarts are ideal for people who give big parties or family dinners (though just remember, iron is heavy, and you do have to get it out of the oven).
Copper stockpot These are made for one thing: making a whole lot of liquid. Pile in your roasted bones, your aromatics and your vegetables, and leave it just barely bubbling overnight. Obviously, they also look fantastic. But new ones are also fantastically expensive. Keep an eye out for one at an estate sale or a garage sale. Make sure you're getting something that feels like a real pan--there was a booming business in purely decorative copper pans from the 40s to the 70s. And make sure that the tin is still good; if not, you will need to get it retinned, or risk unpleasant reactions between your food and the copper. (Email me and I'll hook you up with the name of our guy in Philadelphia.)
Thermomix I have taken a lot of flak for owning this thing, and fair enough; it’s the world’s most expensive blender. It makes a Vitamix look like a penny-pinching alternative. But I’ve had it for a year, and I love it even more than I did when I bought it.
The Thermomix is actually three machines in one: cooker, food processor/blender, and scale. It is superb at all three (though US cooks be warned: the scale is in metric). The design of the machine means that different speeds actually do different things: speed 5 delivers chopped onions, speed seven delivers diced onions, speed 10 purees them into pulp. Yes, you can chop onions in this--unlike a food processor, which either leaves them all different sizes, or turns them into slush, or worst of all, makes a half-slush, half-too big mess.
But the cooking is why you pay big money for this machine. Because it stirs constantly, it makes soups and sauces in ways that you just can’t do on a stovetop. Throw all the ingredients for bechamel in at once and 10 minutes later you have perfectly velvety sauce. Instead of slaving over the sauce just before dinner, you can chat with your guests, or concentrate on the entree. It also makes basically foolproof genoise. And truly caramelized onions--the kind you never make because you have to spend a couple of hours stirring--are practically a joy: just put in the onions and the butter, and tell the machine to cook them for you while you hang out on the couch.
It’s also a top-notch blender; maybe the Vitamix gets smoothies slightly smoother, but ours have a lovely creamy consistency and we’ve yet to find the frozen fruit which gave the motor any pause.
The machine does a great job of steaming vegetables, which I do all the time; you can boil soup in the bottom, and steam the vegetables to serve alongside in the basket that comes with it. I’m still learning tricks to do with the Thermomix, like filling the bowl with water and soaking a dozen cloves of garlic, then neatly removing the skins by running the machine backwards for a few seconds (the blades go clockwise to cut, counter-clockwise to agitate with the flat side of their blades). It’s just amazingly versatile and well designed.
I’ve heard a fair amount of scornful chaffing about how real chefs don’t need equipment like this. And of course, it’s true: I don’t need this machine. I already make very good bechamel, outstanding chopped onions, fine genoise. I know how to peel garlic. I made soup from scratch before I got a Thermomix. Why on earth would I need such an expensive piece of equipment when I already know how to do what it does by hand?
But the Thermomix lowers the time cost of doing all these things, which means that I--who frequently don’t stop working until 8 or 9--can do them more often. We eat meals cooked from scratch, or leftovers from same, almost every single night. Substantial meals with lots of ingredients and steps, not a chicken breast sauted in a little lemon and then slapped down next to a bed of lettuce. It’s healthier, it’s much cheaper (little temptation to go to a restaurant that isn’t as good as what I could contrive at home), and it’s good for our marriage to sit down to a delicious home cooked meal together.
Oh, and it replaced several appliances (blender, scale, food processor), saving me space. The bowl pops straight into the dishwasher, so cleanup is easy too.
Unlike the sous vide, I don’t think that everyone should have one of these. If you don’t have the money, if you don’t have space on the counter, or if you don’t cook a lot, this machine is simply not for you. It’s only worth it if you’re going to use it the way I do: almost every day, and as more than a simple blender. But after a year of owning this, I use it more than ever, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision to buy it.
If you do decide to buy one, it’s a bit of a process: they are not distributed in the United States. I ordered mine from Canada, at the link above, though I’ve heard rumors they’re cracking down, and buying one may now require one to actually go to Canada. No, I have no idea why they’re not distributed here--liability, maybe. At any rate, it’s perfectly legal to own one, or to buy it in another country. But you may have to work for it. All of which is to say: this is not a decision for the uncommitted.