There are many people for whom it’s difficult to buy gifts, but the enthusiastic home cook isn’t one of them. Enthusiastic home cooks simply love gear, and anything that will make their cooking lives easier and more luxurious, or transport them to a headspace that feels more like Top Chef and less like the daily grind, will be welcome.
If you are reading this gift guide because the idea of giving a gift to your friend who treats every night like they are a Chopped contestant intimidates you, I urge you to relax. A home cook who is already well into their journey will likely have most of the basics, anyway—and, crucially, they’ve evolved past the point of cooking for social media, understanding that there’s no need for fussy “all-in-one” pans in millennial colors, when the regular stuff works just as well. The best tools don’t always look pretty. They’re prized for their functionality and their ability to take a beating in the kitchen. What you want to look for here is functional, no-nonsense stuff that will last for a long time and, crucially, is well-made. With that understanding in mind, you can treat shopping for this person as the chance to go really wild—food is fun, remember?
It might seem strange to recommend books that aren’t cookbooks, but reading excellent food writing is sometimes more inspirational than leafing through Ina Garten’s latest or one of those coffee table cookbooks with the same bold graphic cover and quirky voice. Every home cook should have Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and More Home Cooking on hand for brief moments of culinary self-doubt or personal inertia. Colwin, who died at just 48, was a food writer and novelist whose work embodies the home cook’s generosity of spirit—making do, improvising, exhibiting grace under pressure. Naturally, there are also recipes, all of which are unfussy enough to tackle at 7 P.M. on a Tuesday and delicious enough to remind even the most experienced home cook of the beauty of simplicity. (Please look at this recipe for creamed spinach with jalapeños if you need further convincing.)
Some other options include this doorstopper James Beard biography that was a rollicking romp through the life of a colorful and also somewhat sad culinary giant, written with verve and sensitivity by John Birdsall; Top Chef gentleman Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef; and, finally, Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums—a beautiful requiem for the heyday of Gourmet.
Focus your attention here on gifts that are delightfully impractical or have highly specific uses, and tailor the gift to the home cook’s strengths and also weaknesses.
Here’s a very sharp, very good mandolin for slicing things, some new tongs (a ride or die kitchen tool), and a garlic press. Or, if you want to get cute while still being practical, a salt pig is a nice thing to have on the counter, as is this French butter crock, which keeps the butter cool but still spreadable, so that you do not have to worry about it going rancid on your counter. Everyone needs kitchen scissors for chopping up fine herbs, for cutting the twine before you truss Mr. Chicken, and for lazily cutting bacon into strips, if you don’t feel like using the knife. Stasher bags ($69.74 for this “starter kit,”)—reusable silicon bags that are supposed to replace Ziploc bags for sustainability—aren’t a must-have, but they are nice to have!
Big-ticket items are a risk, but I firmly believe that every home cook could use both a wok and a good rice cooker. The former is more versatile than you might think, and the latter, depending on the make and the model, is essential. If you want to be very kind and spend a large amount of money on someone you like, get both! It’s the holiday season, and maybe, if you’re lucky, the recipient of your generous gift will make you some fried rice.
Spices and condiments can be pricey if you don’t watch it, but they are a treat that any home cook worth their salt (ha ha!) will love.
Penzey’s Spices is a delightfully weird and wonderful spice company based out of Wisconsin and should you purchase anything from their store, you’ll be treated to the prose stylings of their founder, Bill, who wrote in his most recent mailing, “As humans we need the humanity cooking connects us to. We need its energy. We need its strength. It’s where our hope lives.” This gift box of spices from Penzey’s contains a well-balanced assortment of some of their signature spice blends, and is perfect for the home cook looking to upgrade from dusty jars of McCormick’s and the economy-sized tub of cumin they bought once in an emergency.
Other condiments that are essential to a well-stocked kitchen include a restaurant-sized jar of Laoganma’s spicy chili crisp, a god-tier condiment that works in pretty much any application, and can also be enjoyed directly out of the jar. If this sauce is literally too spicy, this chili oil with crunchy garlic is an adequate substitute, delicious in its own way, and slightly more mild. Here, some more ideas: this giant bucket of Maldon sea salt; a jar of Brooklyn Delhi’s mango chutney; an economy-sized tub of pork sung (imagine beef jerky, but pork, then pulled into fluffy floss); and, finally, a jar of hot pepper jelly is the best gift anyone could hope to receive.
Generally, it’s okay to serve the food in the thing you cooked it in, but if you know your friend values aesthetics and the sheer theater of hosting, then look no further.
A tablecloth is nice, but also somewhat fussy; if your friend does not have regular access to a washing machine, the gift you’ve given them will be nothing more than another chore. Cloth napkins, on the other hand, are much more useful and can be used in many ways; go buy this vintage set from Etsy ($32 for a set of 6) before I do. Other options that are just as nice: these hot pink strawberry guys ($26 for a set of 4); some gorgina vintage Kantha cloth ones for a steal ($13.99 for a set of 5); or, these, which are cottagecore-meets-1980s-cocaine chic ($22 for a set of 4).
Wing on Wo & Co, a family-owned ceramics shop in Chinatown, makes some of the most beautiful tableware I’ve seen, at a very reasonable price point. This plate ($65, but it’s handmade and worth it!) which is inspired by the art of the Tang Dynasty, absolutely rules, and is perfect for serving little snacks: a clutch of Marcona almonds, some nice cheese, maybe a fig or two. Finally, if you want to give them something that transcends trendiness and will last for a long-ass time, please consider the vast array of enamelware serving plates and platters as seen here: imagine a big, glistening ham on this platter. Perfection.