27 June 2014

What to buy your cook friend for a gift.

No this is not angling for someone to buy me some of these items. However, I frequently get complaints from friends who like to cook. They go something like this:

"Hey Dino, my birthday's coming up!"
"That's great, (friend)! I hope you have a good time when your family and friends come over."
Fast forward to a few weeks later.
"Hey Dino. The birthday was a lot of fun, but now I have a whole bunch of garbage I have to get rid of somehow."
"Huh? Didn't you ask people not to bring gifts?"
"Yes, but my (well-meaning relative/friend) knows I love to cook, so they got me _________."

Here are some examples of the _________ that said friend of mine (or I) would find utterly useless:
- Electronic gadgets of all shapes and stripes that take up counter space, unless you know that the person specifically wanted that specific thing that you bought. This means that those electric ______ cookers are likely to be garbage. If it's an electric "sandwich cooker", an electric "pancake cooker", electric "cupcake maker" (no I'm serious; this is actually a thing), electric "doughnut maker", or other such thing which is basically two surfaces that get hot, it's likely going to end up in the closet, gathering dust. There are rare (very rare) exceptions to this rule, which I will go over.

- Knife sets. These are not only a waste of perfectly good steel on something that will promptly go dull in five minutes flat, but also a waste of money. A good cook will use maybe two knives at the most. One will be the chef's knife, which gets used all the time. One will be a serrated knife, which gets pulled out to cut bread. Aside from that, the paring knives, the vegetable knives, and all the other random knives that come in a set rarely get used. In my years of cooking, I've reached for a paring knife all of once, and that was to cut open a box. Avoid them like the plague.

- Cookware sets, UNLESS you know that the person specifically wants it. Anyone who likes cooking will have specific needs for their cookware. For me, I like relatively heavy bottomed pots, because most of my cooking involves things that can stick to the bottom. I don't make a lot of pasta or noodles, where the thinner stock pots with much larger sizes are good, because they boil the water much faster than my heavy pots. I've got my pressure cooker for heavy duty jobs, and I tend to use small pots for the rest of it. The total amount of pots and pans I use on a regular basis is 4: 1 cast iron skillet, 1 pressure cooker, 1 wok, 1 saucepan. Aside from that, I like having access to (but don't require) a stock pot as well. Even then, I can use my pressure cooker as a stock pot. If you get me cookware, I likely won't have space for it, and won't be able to use it.

- While I'm here, let me just discourage any kind of gadget that's meant to solve a problem that doesn't really exist. Those little mini choppers? They're useless, because anything that needs to be chopped in that quantity can be handled with a knife. An electric can opener is a bacterial disaster waiting to happen. Those pressing chopper things are equally garbage. The blades bend, and the thing becomes useless after the first time.

So what DO you get your cooking friend (aside from that Cusinart food processor, Kitchenaid stand mixer, or Vita-Mix blender)? Hopefully the following list will help guide you in shopping for a friend who enjoys cooking. This is NOT a comprehensive list. Let me know if you see something you would like that would fit this theme.

Silicon Baking Mats Anyone who cooks, even people who don't bake, loves the silicon baking mats, because they are durable, useful, and very easy to clean. You line your baking sheet with it, and your vegetables, cookies, or whatever else you want will lift right off of it without adding extra fat to the mats! They last for years, but do get discoloured and ugly, so people who know about them love them, and those who don't grow to love them.

Wooden Spoon but only this kind. Avoid the flimsy ones. They break, and get thrown away. You want this heavy duty kind, because wooden spoons are a pleasure to use when cooking. Unlike metal, which gets hot, wood can rest in the pot, and be OK.

Silicon Heat-Resistant Spatulas I reach for these almost every day, if not every day. They're inexpensive, and the shape of the head is such that it will reach all the way to the bottom of your dish that you're trying to scrape out. I've managed to get the last bits of peanut butter out of the jar with this spatula. My spice mixes never sit in the pan when I use this. It gets out every bit of oil, spice, and everything else. It's heat-resistant, so I can use it with my nonstick cookware to stir, or to flip pancakes and the like. I will always be happy to get these, because I love them so.

Amco Swing-Away Can Opener The absolute best can opener I have ever used. It opens cans, and can be put in the dishwasher with no trouble. Really, this is all you need. Even if someone has a can opener like this one, it will be loved to have a backup.

The Last Peeler You'll Buy Not really. They do go blunt after about four years or so, but for the price, they're well worth it. Something about using a brand new OXO peeler is just a pleasure. It makes you want to go out and peel things just because you can. It glides right through the skin, and you're left with perfectly peeled fruit or vegetables. Every other peeler I've used has been shoddily made, and dulls rather quickly. This is the only one I like.

Scissors Always handy to have around, even outside of the kitchen, and this particular brand is very sharp and long-lasting.

Side Towels These are useful, and can be endlessly customisable. You can get as nice or as inexpensive as you want, and they're something that really helps out around the kitchen.

Tongs But this particular set. So many are hard on the hands, and a pain to use. These are a dream.

Microplane This is one of those tools that every cook likes to have at least one of, because they're so useful for so many things. Nothing grates nutmeg quite so nicely. Ginger goes through very finely, and with no fibrous strings. Garlic comes out in delicate threads that disappear within a dressing. Chocolate comes out as these fine thin shavings that float atop your desserts. When you zest a citrus fruit, run the microplane over the fruit, and not the other way around. It'll go much more quickly. They also go dull after about a year or so of use, so having a fresh sharp one is always handy.

Winco Whisks Best I've ever used, and ever so handy to have around in all different sizes.

Slightly more expensive gifts 
Anti Fatigue Mats Nobody whom I've known who owns a set of these goes a day without using them. They make your back feel so much nicer when standing on them versus on the bare floor.

Waffle Iron/Griddle This is the one exception to the "don't buy a thing with two hot surfaces that meet to make a random thing" rule. Why? Because it's really small, can double as a panini press, a griddle upon which to make pancakes, and the plates reverse to make waffles. EVEN THEN, I would still strongly suggest you ask the person if they'd like something like it, because chances are that they already have a favourite pan that they'd use for those same purposes.

Peugeot Pepper Mill Literally the best pepper mill I've ever used. The grind size is very easy to set, and the filling mechanism is a magnet that locks onto the top of it. Nothing has done such a good job as this one, and I've tried them all.