Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Holiday Gifts for the Beginner Cook

I'm still eating asado negro leftovers, and I haven't really seen a recipe or piece of food writing I want to comment on... so I thought I'd make the de rigueur blogger gift recommendations. I've oriented these towards someone who is interested in getting into cooking/baking or who is still pretty early in the process... basically I'm making a list for myself 3 years ago, but hopefully it can help others:
  • The New Best Recipe: The geek's Joy of Cooking. It's obsessive compulsive about steps and ingredients, but at least they explain why. While the Cook's Illustrated narrative style is often worthy of parody,  they always teach you a something about cooking... and it's also a godsend for the beginner since these recipes always come out (note that the magazine and their other books are less dependable in that regard). It's still my reference for any classic dish.
  • The Bread Baker's Apprentice: This is not a "no-knead" easy weeknight bread baking book. This is pretty hard core. This is a book for someone who wants to know the hows and whys and who isn't against spending more time to make sure their bread comes out right. In other words, it's the perfect bread baking book for someone who appreciated NBR...  i.e. someone like me.
  • Knives: This is fairly common advice, but I'll repeat it: don't get sets. You need basically three knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread/serrated knife. I like my slicer, but I only bring it out for roasts and the like...  and I'd love a boning knife, but it's not like I break down chicken carcasses all that often. A good affordable brand recommended by Cook's Illustrated is Victorinox/Forschner... they don't hold an edge as well as my vastly more expensive Shuns, but we've got them in several locations we cook (home, Maine, beach) and they are solid and very dependable.
  • Knife sharpening: But if you are buying gifts for someone who already has decent knives... but perhaps never uses them...  it's worth considering getting them professionally sharpened. Sharpening is something that should be done at least once a year, is fairly inexpensive, and is easy to get done over the holidays. Obviously not a great thing to do as a surprise (ZOMG! Somebody stole my knives!!), but it should be well appreciated by any cook... and can make a gigantic difference. Using a sharp knife after months/years of getting by (dangerously!) with dull ones can be extraordinarily eye opening... and push them towards better knife care. Hardware stores and cooking stores are good places to ask about knife sharpening, but Chowhound can also be a place to seek info.
  • Honing Steel: In a similar vein, using a honing steel every 3 or 4 times I cook (I should do it every time really, but often forget) has helped my knives hold their edge longer. It's not hard to use at all... here's a slideshow from Serious Eats that gives the basics. Maybe a combo gift with the professional knife sharpening.
  • Kitchen Scale: Even if you don't think weight vs. volume makes a big difference in baking (you are WRONG btw), it's tons and tons faster... which makes it worth it all by itself, even if it didn't also make your results more consistent and repeatable. I actually have a scale on my list again this year, even though I already have one, because ours doesn't do small enough graduations to weigh out salt or yeast. I think you want one that can do at least 0.05 oz, like this guy
  • Instant Read Thermometer: In this day and age, it probably goes with out saying... but if you have any interest whatsoever in cooking meat properly then you need a thermometer. The Big League thermometer is the Thermapen ($$$), but a 10-15$ one is vastly better than nothing. I used to be a fan of those remote probes that allow you to monitor whatever you're cooking's temperature without opening the oven door... but I've just found that they break too easily. I've purchased at least 3 different ones from 2 different companies and they've all broken down fairly quickly. I say just get a regular thermometer and take the damn roast out of the oven to check it... you want to check the temp in a few different spots anyway.
  • Baking Stone: A little specialized perhaps... since it's only for people who bake bread or homemade pizza... but if they do... or would like to do... either of those things they absolutely need  to own a baking stone. Something I haven't tried, but that was recommended by my French bread baking instructor is to go with tiles instead of a stone. With a trip to the hardware store you could get them cut so that they perfectly cover one oven rack...  giving you significantly more usable space than a typical stone.
  • Fat Separator: Indispensable for making gravy or pan sauces. I have this one and love it, but Ruhlman praises this guy... and I have to admit it does seem pretty cool.
  • 6 to 7.5 Quart Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven: The is the most important pot/pan in my kitchen is not my skillet or sauce pan... it's my dutch oven. At least half... maybe three quarters... of the dishes I make are made in my dutch oven. The versatility of being able to move straight from stove top to hot oven, with a nice tight fitting lid, can not be understated. I might like pot roasts, stews, and braises more than the average bear... but it's just a great thing to own, and if you don't own one it really cuts off a large section of many cookbooks. You can still make perfectly wonderful food with a cheap beat up old skillet, but you're going to have a lot of trouble making even a beef stew without a dutch oven. Note that you don't have to get a $300 Le Creuset... as pretty as they are... there are lots of more affordable brands out there. The key is the cast iron for the even heating and heat retention and the enamel coating to keep the iron from reacting with any acidic cooking liquids.