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As I've said before, my favorite kitchen gadgets are  at the end of each of  my arms, but there are some tools that I love, a few gift ideas for the cook in your life (I'll put links to my amazon store for the pix but it's getting late to order by mail so probably best to find these items at a brick and mortar store).  All of the following are great for the home cook and the professional cook as well.

I've made my appreciation for the scale more than clear, but just as I never miss an opportunity to add more butter to whatever I'm cooking, a word on behalf of the scale is something I cannot pass up.

One of the very best gifts you can give any cook is a Benriner mandoline, invaluable for uniform slicing and julienning—a value far beyond its $25 price tag.  I've had mine for ten years and have asked for a new one—it's time.

Flat edged wood spoons make great stocking stuffers–I can never have too many.  Round or oval spoons I find more or less useless.

A good sturdy set of tongs, not those flimsy cheapos.

If you're shopping for someone who prides him or herself on sauces, consider a 16-ounce thermos—which is great for holding sauces and keeping them hot till you need them.

In the higher ticket category, two good knives and a decent cutting board are critical—the work in the kitchen is ten times as difficult if you don't have a good sharp knife and big heavy cutting board.

A while back, a friend asked me what I thought of hand blenders–she
presumed I'd look down my nose at something she regarded as an
infomercial special, like the ridiculous slider hamburger mold that
cooks sliders in TWO MINUTES!!!  But hand blenders are truly
invaluable, for pureeing soups and sauces and i use the chopper cup to
make small quantities of vinaigrettes.

My mom used to own women's clothing stores and on December 24th, without fail, hoards of individual guys would come in at 5 oclock, frantic, having delayed in shopping for their mate, and would go on to overspend on clothes they didn't understand.  I would urge such folks to spend their money wisely on a big ticket item that's truly useful such as a Kitchen Aid mixer, or one of my new favorites, the VitaMix blender (above).

VitaMix is a very powerful blender with adjustable speeds that you see in almost every professional kitchen (where they're called VitaPreps) because they're so valuable.  They're invaluable in the home kitchen as well and their uses go beyond making healthful smoothies the company uses to market their product to the home cook (though they do this as well).  The first time I saw one being used, the chef was pureeing shrimp for delicious shrimp pot stickers. On Friday I made a broccoli soup that was exquisitely textured because of this device's power.  The soup was nothing more than broccoli that had been blanched and shocked, then pureed with some ice, seasoned with salt; lemon juice at the end and mount with butter—so delicious,nothing but pure broccoli flavor.  Vita-Mix is a Cleveland-based company and I love to support the home team.

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And of course there's always, The Elements of Cooking, my opinionated lexicon of cook's terms with extraordinarily nuanced, infinitely wise essays on the fundamentals of cooking. (If I did emoticons, I'd put a smiley face here, but I just can't bring myself to do it.) A reader named Jennifer wrote to me to say, "This is the book I have been looking for the last 15 years.  A recipe to be a better cook, not just produce different food."  That was my hope exactly, thank you Jennifer!  And chefs have written me to say they give it to their staff, who are so often immigrants with little or no culinary training. 

But if you want to give yourself a gift in this season of giving by giving to others—go to Chez Pim or any of the other bloggers participating in Menu for Hope and donate to this good cause raising money by raffling all kinds of truly wonderful prizes (see the list). It's a fantastic annual program that raises more and more money every year.

Happy giving!


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52 Wonderful responses to ““Gadgets” for cooks”

  • Russ H

    Michael. Have yyou had a chance to try a BlendTec blender? They have the hillarious “Will It Blend?” videos where the guy who invented it, destroys Ipods, lawn rakes, whole chickens, cans of pop, etc… in his blender. Funny, but is this blender any good on actual FOOD?

  • Todd

    I’ll second the recommendation for the vitamix. Absolutely awesome.

    We also recently acquired a robocoup R100 which is priced in the high-end consumer grade level (about on par with the vitamix). I’m not sure how I ever lived without one.

  • Timm

    Elements of Cooking is a great read, and came in handy for Skills II. We had to do “Cooking Terms” every night and know them at line up. In our Professional Cooking text book sometimes they wouldn’t have the word that was called for, and Elements usually had the word I was looking for.

    Though I had a hard time finding “Pearling” which happens to be what happens when fish is cooked and the proteins have turned white signifying that the fish was cooked. You can tell in mostly darker meat fish like Salmon.

  • JoP in Omaha

    Thanks for your updated list of useful tools, Michael. One I use a lot is my food mill. It makes making applesauce (among other things) a breeze.

    Happy holidays to all.

  • Jim Azevedo

    Great reccomendations. Something I use all the time, but don’t see written up much is a pair of tongs referred to as “pom tongs” on a lot of sites. They’re small and easy to use for fussy operations like turning small frying foods that are hard to grab with larger tongs. You can find them with the drink stuff in a lot of cooking stores, as I guess they’re supposed to be used for ice. I’ve got a couple pair and use them all the time.

    I’d also like to remind all men that despite the ultimate coolness of things like the robocoup, etc., giving appliances to your wife for Christmas can lead to you having to sleep with one eye open, sleep alone, or take up residence in your pickup truck.

  • Eddie Lakin

    good choices. I recently also waxed rhapsodic about the benriner mandoline on my blog. (can be accessed by clicking my name below). I also ripped into the aforementioned mango slicer as a silly one-note that doesn’t even do that one thing well.

  • Nancy

    Michael: I’ve been cooking for over 50 yrs. (at home) & something else has always taken precedence over good knives. As important as it is, I just couldn’t bring myself to put that kind of money into a knife. (I just got my first copper pan 3 yrs. ago!) This year it’s a good knife, so I’m very happy to have your recommendation.

    Incidentally, I just discovered you by buying “Soul of a Chef”, which I enjoyed very much & have just ordered “Elements of Cooking” & “House” (something I desperately wanted to do when I was 25!). As for Thomas Keller…let’s just say, as excellent as his food no doubt is, such perfection is bordering on…well, okay…I’ll say it…sick!

  • Tessa in Jakarta

    “Elements of Cooking” was one of the last two books I purchased last year in December, shortly before I returned home to Jakarta, Indonesia, after living for more than two decades in southern California. Upon reading the reviews when it first came out, I just HAD to have it before I left the U.S., knowing that that book may not be available here at all (it’s not) or if it is, it’ll be very expensive!

    Thanks for a great blog and for writing compelling books. I really enjoyed “The Making of a Chef” and “Walk on Water”, they gave me fascinating glimpses into two worlds I would’ve never known on my own.

    BTW, any chance you will cover any Southeast Asian cuisines (esp.Indonesian)?

  • johnnyd

    Did I blow through the VitaMix website too fast or is that sucker really $449.00??

  • MessyONE

    This year I’m supplying a friend with a few gadgets that I use more than I ever thought I would:

    1. A couple of Microplane graters, so she can toss out that foul “lemon zester” (do they EVER work?) and grate Parmesan perfectly.

    2. Two OXO peelers. One regular, one serrated for softer fruits and veg. They are the sharpest, smoothest peelers around.

    3. The OXO mango pitter. Seriously. They separate fruit from pit perfectly every single time, leaving you with two immaculate mango halves.

    4. A stack of white towels. How she’s managed to survive with only four of these in the kitchen I have no idea.

    5. A couple of smallish silicone cutting boards. You don’t always need a massive board to cut, say, a lemon or two or chop a couple of cloves of garlic. They’re dishwasher safe, kind to knives and come in cool colors, which is never a bad thing.

  • Maura

    @ Jim Azevedo: I’d also like to remind all men that despite the ultimate coolness of things like the robocoup, etc., giving appliances to your wife for Christmas can lead to you having to sleep with one eye open, sleep alone, or take up residence in your pickup truck.

    That absolutely depends on the woman, Jim. I thought I had died and gone to heaven the year my husband bought me a mezzaluna. It wasn’t actually on my list, but he knew I wanted one. He was obviously paying attention.

    I’m still waiting for a kitchen scale. *sigh*

    I like MessyONE’s list. One microplane is not enough. And my white kitchen towels are like gold to me.

    Michael, I love my hand blender. With that, a little food processor and a good knife, I can do pretty much anything I could do with a full-sized processor. And storage is less of a problem.

  • Noah Laughton

    Elements has had such a profound impact on my perspective of food that I will be stuffing many stockings this year with it. My chef mentor always taught me to never forget about the basics and never get bogged down on trends and fads. Elements has brought me back to the light side. Thank you Michael for the reality check and your dedication to our craft. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

  • Pierino

    My favorite VitaMix moments were just checking out their ads in Food Arts. It was kind of like browsing through Playboy. Michelle Bernstein naked. Wow! Hot.

  • Sara

    I just received, for Chanukkah, a 11 cup Cuisinart food processor. It is the coolest thing I have ever gotten. I’m over the moon and my friends are mystified.

    Excuse me, I need to go look at it some more…

  • Sara

    I would also like to second the importance of those white bar/kitchen towels. I have, like, 200. I love them. My mom took them out of my apartment to wash in her new fancy washing machine, and is at a loss as to why I called her, hysterical, when I couldn’t find any of them. She was like, “You’ll have to dry with a paper towel.” And I was like, “I can’t pick up anything hot!!”

    Who needs oven mitts? Not this girl.

  • luis

    It’s not about the size of your skillet anymore than it is about tha gadgets….! Show me a cook on a fool’s errand and I will show you some idiot searching for new kitchen gadgets…..

  • S. Woody

    Thank-you, MR, for the reminder about thermoses. A few years ago, my partner’s daughter tried making creamed onions to go with Christmas dinner. Big problem: she used cocktail onions! This year, she wants the onions again, but has asked me to make them. I was wondering how I was going to get the sauce from our house to theirs, since every burner on her stove will be occupied and there’s no chance of my making it there.

    Also, re tongs: I’ve had a pair from OXO that have hard silicone inserts on the tips – great for turning food that’s cooking in a pan that shouldn’t get scratched.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Continuing on the Salt post….

    can u hear me yelping at joy as i eat my home made salmon -lox-gravlox on a bagel w cream cheese, straight from the ovens on St. Viateur?

    had to soak for 8 hrs….now i know what not to do and that is to cure it for 2 days.

  • YOD

    I’ve had my same Braun hand blender since the early-90s. Still in the original box. Love it!! I’m also a confessed whore for kitchen product infomercials. Saturday morning television is a gold mine for that. Fortunately, I don’t give in to impulses (tho I do have a Turbo Cooker & Miracle Thaw, thank you Kohl’s) and as much as I love to shout “set it…and forget it,” I’ll never buy a Ronco rotisserie. I do wish I had invested in a Food Saver though…

  • milo

    Good suggestions, decent pans are good gifts as well.

    While I love the microplaner, I’m perfectly happy with the way my lemon zester works, thank you very much.

  • Bob

    I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. The Benriner is evil. I believe Benriner is Japanese for “Finger cut off tool”. I’m still partially numb on my thumb (6 months later)… and yes… I was using the cheapo protector guard AND a towel. The thing should come with kevlar gloves and metal gauntlets.

  • milo

    I’ve had similar results with the mandoline. It does a great job but I have been banned from using it since I ended up going to the emergency room. I don’t even know if we still have it in the house or if it has been given away.

  • Dick Black

    I ‘d love to see a piece on enamel cookware. I thought Le Creuset was the only real contender until I see Kitchen Aid trying to inch in on the market. At first glance, it looks good but the directions state it is only good for temps up to 500 degrees. Any feedback from owners ?

    And I nominate Jamie Oliver’s “Flavour Shaker” as the most useless kitchen gadget ever invented. That guy should be charged with fraud. (btw, it was gift from a well meaning friend)

  • MessyONE

    Good oven mitts. I forgot about good oven mitts. Long ones that go up to the elbow.

    I am one of the LEAST graceful people I know, and I bake a lot. If it weren’t for my trusty mitts, I’d be a mess. It never fails (and I fear the scars are permanent) that I manage to burn the undersides of my arms below the elbow every single time I don’t use them.

    I’ve reconciled myself to the scars on my hands, after all, everything I do involves either sharp objects or heat. Those nasty edge of the door burns I can live without.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Is there anything better than the old Hamilton Beach milkshake maker for a good glass of chocolate milk or a fast home-made milkshake?

    Just wipe the blade and drink from the container….

  • FoodPuta

    All Hail the Vita Mix!

    Roast some tomato’s, onions and garlic in the oven until almost burnt, throw that (including juices from the roasting pan) with some salt, pepper. Blend that hell out it until it’s hot from the friction of blending.

    Now that’s and easy tomato sauce!

  • Rhonda

    Bob & Milo:

    I hear ya, Brothers! I have shaved off the tips of my fingers 3 times. Still, I love the Mandoline. I think you have to be very “present” when you are using it and not thinking three steps ahead.

    Now, for the four stitches in my finger earlier this year trying to cut through day old bread from Mark Bittman’s interpretation of Sullivan Street Bakery’s “No-Knead Bread” recipe — that, I am bitter about.

  • Maura

    Mandolines scare me. I’m messy and clumsy in the kitchen. No reason to tempt fate.

    Rhonda, I’ve been using bread flour instead of AP flour when I make bread (I use the no-knead baking technique, but I knead the bread). I still get a nice crust, but I’m no longer taking my life into my hands every time I try to cut it. I don’t know why the bread flour makes a difference, but it does.

  • Rhonda

    Thanks, Maura! I am very glad to hear someone else encountered the same problem I did.

    I had given up on this technique. Because of the differences in Canadian Flour, I thought I could get away with AP. Guess not.

    Will try again.

    Now, how can we stop Bittman and Batalli from making PBS specials?

    Happy Holidays to all.

  • Bob

    Good to hear I’m not the only guy to lose fingers to a Benriner. Mine went immediately in the trash… Luckily, it was 2 days from my birthday and my uncle the MD gave me a fancy deBuyer with some cutting gloves. Kinda an expensive gag gift, but well worth it.

  • MessyONE

    To Bob, and all of the folks that have pruned their fingers on their mandolins: OXO makes a nice one with a great big knob on the top to hold on to that should keep your fingers away from the blade. It’s also super-adjustable and totally dishwasher safe.

    I say “should”. I’m certain that the truly devoted can end up in the emergency room using this mandolin, but it is safer.

  • Rhonda

    MessyONE, great advice. There is a safety guard for mine as well but it stops half way through. In order to prevent wastage, you have to go bare knuckled.

    The other risk not included on the mandoline directions is that when you have a particularily spectacular week and end up in emergency for the second or third time in a given week, they hand you over to Medical students who are just learning their trade.

    This is called the Frequent Flyer/Dumb Ass Prevention program which, in my opinion, is more effective than a safety guard.

    After one has experienced 5 freezing needles from a fresh faced (not yet graduated) Medical student, one is inclined to pay attention the next time.

    Buuuuuuut, that is just me…..

    At the end of the day, still like the mandoline.

  • luis

    Bob that is the biggest fear I have in the kitchen. (The Benriner is evil). As for the digital scale it is all it says it is. Wonderful, Acurate. But on my counter I still have and use my 10 dollar Taylor. Does the job and takes up very little space.
    Best gadget I recently got was the Accusharp knife sharpner. It’s got my knifes splitting hairs in half. My boning knife made short work of three pork butts I recently prepped and cooked. I have NO DOUBTs that thing will take your finger clean off. I have decent knife skills for a home cook but when the knife comes out… It’s total concentration and perfect form time. Mandolines make me unconfortable as well. But I don’t need to use them because the food processor will chop everything fairly even and very safelly. I love my Martin Yan chinese knife because it’s probably the safest knife in the rack. So sharp and big and wide…never gets close to my knuckles or my fingers.

  • Cameron S.

    Rhonda – I didn’t care for the Batali/Bittman in Spain series either – a few good bits, but I didn’t think Gwyneth needed to be there. She wasn’t very interesting.

    Anyways – I have a larger mandoline (it is white plastic from Germany) and always use butchers gloves and the guard. I have had some very close calls until I found the stainless steel / kevlar gloves. I kinda need to type.

  • kanani

    I can’t buy anything else until I figure out what I’m going to do with my 80 year old kitchen. I have to do it on a shoestring –from countertops to appliances. If you have any resources, let me know.

  • Newsmike

    Not a gadget, but a great gift for the foodie in your life is simple — offer to be their prep cook, dishwasher and cleanup crew. Let them pick out an array of recipes they’ve always wanted to try, go with them to buy ingredients, and let them happily cook while you do all the other necessary chores …

  • HappyHoarfrost

    I have my grandmother’s ancient flat-head wooden spoon–maybe it’s olive wood and indestructable?–that is the THE tool for scraping all the little bits of bacon into the same-pan scrambled eggs…
    My grandmother using that, and the flat sweep of her fingers (in lieu of a rubber spatula)are primary food memories.

    I love the fat cache of white towels as well. When they grow despicable beyond repair, I cut them into quarters and use for all manner of little dribbles, toddler cooking “help,” and general kitchen-ick. Perfect when a whole, pristine towel feels too greedy.

  • Eddie Lakin

    funny that so many write about cutting themselves on the benriner. not sure how it’s any different from any mandoline, though. but, i’ve done it too (see my recent blog post “cheap stuff that works vol.2–benriner mandoline”, which can be accessed by clicking on my name). not pleasant.

    one thing i’ve found helpful is once you lose the guard (and you always do), depending on what you’re slicing, you can use a large potato as kind of a ‘pusher’.

    oh, and thanks to those who mentioned the “miracle thaw” and the “flavor shaker” for giving me great ideas for my next blog entry–“stupid useless gadgets i hate vol.2”)

  • Joanne

    Good knives are such a joy. I’ve had a set of low end Sabatier for 10 years. This year my brother gave me a Global 7″ chef knife as a hostess gift for Thanksgiving family gathering. I fell in love with that knife. My mom and I fought over it when making a traditional dish. So my darling husband gave me a 5 piece set of Globals for Christmas!
    White kitchen towels are dear to me. I have in rotation 40 right now, with another 20 waiting to come out. I don’t even get mad when my husband grabs one for car maintenance, there’s always more.

  • Bryce

    I just finished opening up Christmas presents with the family, and witnessed a priceless expression on my brother’s face after receiving a gadget from our mother. It’s essentially a meat tenderizer crossed with a rolling pin (“so you don’t splatter blood all over the kitchen,” our mom says). I opened my gift from her, which was a classic, heavy mallet/tenderizer, and simply smiled at my brother.

    Other useless gadgets that I’ve received for presents in the past have been a “pizza oven,” which is essentially just a really big, flat toaster oven, an Iced Tea maker, and a small rotisserie oven (which I broke after its first use)

    I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or ziploc bags. I can’t imagine cooking in a kitchen without them.

    Ruhlman, your recipie for the pork pie in “O” magazine lists the option of using canned broth instead of real stock…what gives?

    Off to make dinner…we are cooking some of the whole pig we bought a few weeks ago. Breakfast was biscuits and gravy with some of our homemade country sausage, and we’re cooking a ham for dinner, with a first course of the French Laundry recipie pig head. That was incredibly fun to make, and I hope it turns out well!

  • johnny

    i have to agree that the mandoline is incredibly useful in a kitchen, and would be a really nice addition to any cook’s quiver.
    however, i personally think it is a moody culinary utensil of jekyll and hyde proportions.
    i’m no big fan of heights, but i am totally afraid of the mandoline. it’s been twice in the kitchen, ripping through an oversized prep list, that the metal devil got a piece of me. the second cut went through the thumbnail and haunted me for months. the result is mandolinaphobia.
    yes, i know, i know…the guard…but not all big kitchens are always up to date with their inventory at hand…and when you have to quickly go through 50 pounds of carrots…you kind of get impatient and distracted.

    my favorite tools are
    *my wok from 1974
    *cherrywood wok tool/spatula, shaped like a ginko leaf- it hugs the curves perfectly, and i can bang the hell out of it and it doesn’t crack.
    *my vegetable cleaver by global. 11 years old and going strong!
    *mini food processor

  • joe blow

    Totally unrelated question to the thread that maybe someone can answer: I was reading in the archives that consomme won’t become clear if the stock from which it is boiled or taken above a simmer. Can anyone explain why that is techincally/chemically? I’m not questioning the truth of it, but i can’t wrap my head around the mechanics of why it would be so…

  • Julie

    Your list is useful. Thanks for posting it. I agree about the Vitamix-a great investment for good cooking and good health. I got mine off of Craig’s List for 100 dollars. It had been used 5 times in a vacation home. Lot’s of times people buy health gadgets in January and then sell them in June.
    I had a question about the cutting board. I’ve always had the plastic kind thinking they were the most practical because I can put them in the dishwasher and sterilize them that way. Do you use the same cutting board for meats and non meats? What is your method of cleaning your wooden cutting board?

  • Jimmy

    Ruhlman suggests:

    “One of the very best gifts you can give any cook is a Benriner mandoline, invaluable for uniform slicing and julienning….”

    If using a mandoline is acceptable, then why not a garlic press? Garlic presses can uniformly pulverize garlic quickly and efficiently, and yet it is hated by chefs because they claim that it’s a amateur’s substitute for “proper knife usage” — a n00b tool, so to speak. Tell me, what does a mandoline slicer do that a chef’s knife cannot do? Are you telling us that we are so clumsy with the chef’s knife that you can’t expect us to uniformly slice and julienne in the same way that we can easily mince a clove of garlic?

    More to the point: why is the chef-hate for the garlic press NOT extended to the mandoline slicer (or the food processor, for that matter)? I believe that this inconsistency is due to sheep-like conformity to “chef culture”, but I would like to hear your explanation, Michael.

    For that matter, anyone on this blog can answer. After all, my beef isn’t with hating on the garlic press, but rather with sheep-like conformity.

    If you are planning on arguing, “Anyone who is well-trained with the chef’s knife will not need the garlic press”, the please explain why that argument does NOT apply to the mandoline slicer, specifically, like this: “Anyone who is well-trained with the chef’s knife will not need the mandoline slicer”.

    If you’re planning on arguing, “The chef’s knife can slice and julienne just fine, the mandoline just does it faster”, then please explain why that argument does NOT apply to the garlic press, specifically, like this: “The chef’s knife can mince garlic just fine, the garlic press just does it faster”.

    If you’re planning on arguing, “The garlic press doesn’t mince garlic”, then please explain how the pulverized garlic coming out of the garlic press differs significantly from minced garlic.