There are two ways to Christmas shop for a cook. You can drop a wad on a spectacular piece of equipment that will get used three or four times a year and sit in the pantry the rest of the time. Or you can convert a relatively small amount of money into a potful of tools that will get used on a daily basis. While I know that $500 home sous-vide machine is going to get a lot of oohs and aahs come Christmas morning, I can't help but wonder whether it's the convenience of having a lot of the small tools around that will be appreciated more in the long run.
With that in mind, I wandered over to the closest kitchen-supply store to see what I could find. These might not be the big-ticket blowout items that will be the centerpiece of your holiday gift-giving, but for very little money, you can certainly fill the stockings of cooks near and dear with essentials that will get used over and over and last a lifetime.
Here are more than a dozen of my favorites, all costing less than $10 (and most of them less than $5).
Metal bowl, $4.99: You simply can't have too many of these. Use them for mixing batters, tossing salads, whipping cream, making mayonnaise or marinating meat. They wash up easily and they're nearly indestructible. Ideally, you'll want the sturdiest ones you can find, but honestly, I've got a couple cheapies that I've been banging around for nearly 20 years and they haven't given up yet.
Fish spatula, $3.19: Maybe it's a little thing, but have you ever noticed how normal frying spatulas always seem a little clunky to handle? A fish spatula is built to work from an angle rather than head-on. It's also thinner and lighter, which makes it better suited for handling delicate filets (hence the name). But they're by no means only good for seafood; they work just as well with eggs, crepes or just about anything fragile that needs turning.
Bench knife, $1.49: This is a tool very few home cooks seem to have in their kits. But if you work with dough, you'll find it incredibly useful, whether it's for scraping a work surface clean, cutting a mass of bread dough in half, neatly dividing bar cookies or slicing up logs of cookie dough. I even sometimes use mine to transport chopped vegetables from the cutting board to the stovetop.
Tongs, $1.39: This is another one of those items that any good cook is going to want to have in multiples. They can be used for so many different things: tossing salads, turning meat and vegetables while they're cooking, flipping steaks on the grill. It's also a good idea to buy them in several lengths (long ones are even better for working over a fire).
Offset spatula, $1.99: Technically, I suppose, these are intended as icing spatulas — the bend in the blade makes it easier to spread frosting evenly. But you'll probably find that you quickly start using them for many other things. They let you maneuver in tight spots, which means they work great for flipping pancakes, which always seem to wind up crowded together on the griddle. You can even use larger ones as cake or pie servers.
Heat-proof spatula, $4.49: Whoever came up with the silicone spatula deserves some kind of culinary medal of honor. These things are so handy they're even edging out some of my long-loved wooden ones. They're stiff but still fairly flexible, so you can scrape the bottom of a bowl or the sides of a mixer or food processor, and because they won't melt, you can even use them to get to those hard-to-reach corners of a hot pot.
Instant-read thermometer, $3.99: Of every tool listed here, this is the most essential. You can make do with a clumsy spatula or a clunky mixing bowl, but unless you're a real ace, you absolutely have to have an instant-read thermometer for cooking meat. Yes, you can twist the leg of a roast chicken to feel the joint, or do the press-test with a steak on the grill, but the only way to be really sure you're hitting your temperature marks is with one of these. You can get fancy ones that have digital readouts, and I love the one I have that links the readout to the thermometer by a heatproof cord so I can leave it in the oven. But start out with one of these, or even better, since they tend to get misplaced, two.
Whisk, $8.39: Most cooks have one, but they really would be happier with three or even four. You need one standard whisk for sauces, a balloon whisk for whipping egg whites and cream, and a little whisk that will let you get into the tight corners of saucepans. Once you've got those basics, then you can play with flat whisks for use in sauté pans, or coil whisks for light sauces. You can even find whisks that look like modern sculpture, with a little metal ball at the end of each wire strand. I'm not sure what they're good for, but they're really cool-looking.
Pastry brush, $1.69: You're going to want several of these. Use one for basting savories with oil (these are best made with silicone fibers so they won't melt in the heat); use another for brushing sweets with jellies and glazes; and have a third for brushing excess flour and sugar from pastry dough. Wrap the handles with different-colored tape so you can tell them apart (there's nothing like glazing a fruit tart with the brush you last used for basting garlic and olive oil onto eggplant).
Microplane grater, $8.49: You don't have one of these yet? Where are you, in the Dark Ages? These graters are quite simply one of the best kitchen inventions of the last 20 years. They're actually wood rasps, heavy-duty files that are used for shaping furniture. Think that would do the job when it comes to zesting citrus or grating hard cheese? These work like a dream. This is the original model, woodworking hardware simply repackaged as a kitchen implement. For an extra couple bucks, you can get one with a rubber handle that is designed just for cooking and is even easier to use.
Metal measuring spoons, $2.59: Don't laugh! Sure, everybody has one set in their drawer, somewhere. But what do you do when, inevitably, you can't find it just when you need it most, or when the same recipe calls for a tablespoon of oil and then a tablespoon of salt? This list is all about affordable luxuries and having two or three sets of measuring spoons ready at hand certainly fits the description. And while you're at it, pick up a couple sets of measuring cups too ($4.99).
"Spider" skimmer, $1.99: I'm always surprised when I walk into someone's kitchen and don't find one of these. As frequently as that happens, I shouldn't be, but really, these are so useful. They're a quantum improvement over the traditional slotted spoon, particularly when it comes to rescuing food from pots — pasta and blanched vegetables from boiling water, or little fried bites from hot oil. With just a little practice, you can clear an entire pot with one sweep.
Cooling rack with folding legs $4.99: I'd never seen one of these before, but it's genius. Most cooling racks come with short 1/2-inch feet. By the time you've loaded them with cake or cookies, the light metal is sagging so much in the middle that the food is right on the countertop. This rack is much sturdier and with the longer legs, the cooked food stays safely elevated so air can circulate and cool it more quickly.
Fish grill, $9.99: It takes a real knack to cook fish on the barbecue--the skin seems compelled to weld itself to the grill. One of these handy baskets works wonders. You can load it up with a couple of medium-sized fish (or up to a dozen sardines). Flipping is a breeze, and you can free them from the basket away from the fire, where it's much easier.
Measuring cups, $4.99: See measuring spoons You can't have too many of these around the kitchen.
Ice cream scoop, $7.99: I know it's a little thing, but turning out a nicely formed ball of ice cream instead of a roughly hewn wedge makes any dessert look so much nicer.
Dredger, $2.19: I've got a couple of these. They're incredibly handy. One I keep filled with flour for dusting meat or buttered cake pans. The other is filled with sugar for decorating.
Melon baller, $1.59: I rarely use this for preparing melons, but it's by far the easiest way to core an apple or a pear, and it works wonders removing the seedy centers from cucumbers and tomatoes. You can even use it for scooping out perfect little balls of ice cream or sorbet.
Items and prices from the Dish Factory, 310 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles; (213) 687-9500; http://www.dishfactory.com.