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I think I speak for most chefs and line cooks when I say I hate cooking at other people’s houses. There are 37 knives and none of them are sharp, the spatulas are large, plastic and unwieldly, and in the gadget drawer, you see three different tools for peeling garlic and you can only assume there’s a fourth in there preventing the drawer from opening all the way. You ask the host for a basic metal sheet tray to roast mushrooms on and Sharon proudly returns with a deranged As-Seen-On-TV brownie dish designed to cook only edge pieces, and she’ll have the audacity to ask you, “will this work?”
As frustrating as these situations are, they make my life pretty easy come Christmas. Most people lack basic, quality essentials that professionals cannot live without. While these might not be the cutest or flashiest gifts on the market, they are very affordable, and their recipients end up using and truly loving them a lot.
While this guide is more about types of products rather than exact makes and models, I do suggest options for sourcing almost all of these gifts locally. Most of my recommendations can be found at either United Restaurant Supply in Raleigh or Whisk Carolina in Cary. United primarily sells to restaurants (but they are open to the public) and Whisk is a locally owned home kitchen supply store with a great selection and a friendly, knowledgeable staff.
1. Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl Set
Vollrath Mixing Bowls, United Restaurant Supply, $39.52 for a seven-bowl set (sold a la carte)
United (and most other restaurant supply stores) sell stainless steel bowls individually, ranging from less than a quart in size to 20 quarts. The biggest one I have is 13 quarts, and I think that’s about as big as any home cook will need. Buy the 13 quart and every smaller bowl they offer for a matching and affordable seven-piece set.
2. Instant Read Thermometer
ThermoPop by ThermoWorks, Whisk Carolina, $34.99
Taking the temperature of meat is the only real way to check doneness throughout the cooking process, so no matter how good a cook is, it would be foolish to not have a quality thermometer around. Made by ThermoWorks—the undisputed kings of kitchen thermometers—this newer model delivers serious value in plenty of fun colors.
3. Fish Spatula
Dexter Traditional Fish Turner, United Restaurant Supply, $24.98
Also known as a Peltex or offset-slotted spatula, this ubiquitous chef’s tool somehow eludes most home cooks. Nine times out of ten, when I’m looking to flip something in a skillet or on a griddle—whether it’s a big pancake or a delicate fish fillet—I’m reaching for this. If the person you’re buying for is a lefty, look online for a left-handed one.
Unicorn Mills 9-inch Magnum Plus Pepper Mill, Amazon, $49.00
Perfect for anyone who likes the taste of pepper and doesn’t like twisting a piece of wood for 30 minutes. With every twist, the big stainless-steel burr-style grinding mechanism sprays fresh pepper like a 12 gauge. Many cheaper models have a ceramic or plastic apparatus which wears down over time; I have had a Unicorn for years, and it shows no sign of slowing.
5. Small and Medium Silicone Spatulas
OXO Small and Medium Silicone Spatulas, Whisk Carolina, $22.98 for both
You’ll be surprised by how much you want to use these things. I reach for the larger one to stir food around in sauté pans or scrape out mixing bowls and the mini one for small saucepan jobs or getting soups and sauces out of the blender.
6. Commercial Grade Half Sheet Pan with Cooling Rack
Set of four Thunder Group Half Sheet Trays and two Halco Wire Pan Grates, United Restaurant Supply, $35.56
Oven trays sold for home use are often overpriced or inconsistently-sized and flimsy, so I recommend buying them from the restaurant supply store. A stack of four sheet trays plus two fitting wire racks for cooling and elevated cooking make a convenient, compact set that will become the new go-to for oven tasks in any kitchen.
7. Carbon Steel Skillet
De Buyer Mineral B 12-inch Fry Pan, Whisk Carolina, $89.99
Buy one of these and tell your hipster friend that nobody cares about his cast iron pan anymore. Like cast iron, carbon steel pans need to be seasoned and taken care of, so don’t buy this if you don’t think the receiver can handle the responsibility. Carbon steel carries some of cast iron’s heft, but it’s tempered with sleekness and maneuverability. For versatility, buy something with an 8-inch to 9½-inch cooking surface (the one I recommend has 9 ¼ inches). Avoid pans that aren’t smooth to the touch (like Lodge). If the model has flared sides like this, it should weigh no less than 4½ pounds.
8. Salt Holder
RSVP Endurance Salt Server with Spoon, Whisk Carolina, $29.99
While I’ve never seen one of these in a professional kitchen, Alton Brown uses one, and that’s good enough for me. If you really want to be like AB, buy a box of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt while you’re at it.
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