12 gifts for beginner cooks (and 5 to avoid)
The building blocks of a solid kitchen.
Tribune News Service
There is always someone on the holiday gift list just starting out in the kitchen: the recent college graduate, the newlyweds setting up house, the niece who has discovered baking, the cousin who has gone crazy for grilling.
We compiled a list of a dozen basic tools to help get them started.
At least one, at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter. They retain heat, they don’t scratch easily, and they get hot enough to truly sear meat. But buying good cast iron isn’t as easy as just going to a store, unfortunately. Modern cast iron takes longer to develop that dark, shiny seasoning. The best cast iron is old. Look online or scour flea markets and your grandmother’s cabinets.
You need two kinds: A straightedge peeler and a serrated-edge peeler. A serrated peeler isn’t a luxury. It can handle delicate tomato and peach skins, and it can tackle tough squash rinds and leathery mango peels. Zyliss makes a great one.
This is your best oven tool. Don’t waste money on air-insulated, nonstick baking sheets. Buy two aluminum half-sheet pans. You can use them to roast vegetables or chicken legs, bake cookies or make a jelly roll.
The choices here are typically a fine-mesh bowl sieve or a colander with bigger holes. A simple fine-mesh bowl works well because it doubles as a steamer and a colander. Silicone colanders that press down flat for easy storage are a blessing in a small kitchen.
The original, with the 2-inch-wide shaft, is useful, but we also like wider ones, which can handle citrus zest but also can make a snowy pile of hard cheeses like Parmigiano.
The choices are endless, so here are a few points to consider: Make sure the dry measuring cups have flat edges, so you can level things. Round cups make it easier to get every last bit of sticky things out. With liquid measuring cups, bigger is better. Buy the 2-cup or 4-cup size and forgo the 1-cup size. Measuring spoons should be sturdy. Spring for a set with a 1/8 teaspoon, and consider getting two sets. Having one set for dry ingredients and one for wet saves time when you’re making multiple dishes.
Flimsy metal tongs are hard to use and can tear up food. Try a locking pair with silicone pads that soften their grip on foods.
Want to make quick work of coleslaw? A mandoline is invaluable for slicing or chopping vegetables. Nervous about someone taking off a fingertip? Pair this gift with a cut-resistant glove.
Yes, multiple: You need a heavy whisk with thicker wires for mixing heavy batters and a lighter one with thin wires for beating air into delicate things. A short one for small bowls and a flat one, for making sauces in a skillet, are nice to have, too.
Every kitchen needs a good pair of scissors. Get a pair you can take apart and run through the dishwasher. (And find a place to hide them so they don’t keep walking away.)
Buy one cutting board with a juice groove or trough that is large enough to carve a turkey or a large piece of beef. Wood or plastic depends upon your preference. For all other cutting and chopping tasks, buy a set of flexible cutting mats. Some come labeled for use only with seafood, meat or vegetables.
Buy a set of nesting mixing bowls. As much as those brightly colored plastic bowls are enticing, glass bowls are a better fit. You can use the small glass bowls as the top of a double boiler. They retain heat if you need to keep food warm, and they keep food colder if you need an ice bath.
What not to buy?
Trust us: We’ve wasted plenty of time, money and valuable kitchen space on things that didn’t earn their keep. Our picks for dumbest kitchen gear:
• Onion goggles. All you need is ventilation. Turn on the range hood if onion fumes are getting to you.
• Avocado and mango peelers. A little practice and a sharp knife are all you need.
• Poultry syringes. Injecting flavor is a great idea, but we always end up frustrated when spices clog the tube. Is it that hard to plan ahead and marinate?
• Egg separators. Practice, people. If you really need help, use a funnel (another handy kitchen tool we use all the time).
• Creme brulee torch. Save yourself some money: Go to a hardware store and pick up a small propane torch on the plumbing aisle. Same thing, and it lasts longer.