This year, many of us have found ourselves spending a lot more time at home and, in particular, in the kitchen. Perhaps it has prompted you to experiment and try something new, or master a recipe or skill that you’ve always wanted to tackle but never had the time.
Sales and social media trends have shown a variety of hobbies surging in popularity — sourdough bread and canning, in particular. For folks interested in accessible food projects that allow for lots of fun and creativity, consider adding tools for pasta and ice cream.
The holiday season is an ideal time to treat someone you care about — including yourself! — to some of the tools that can be helpful to tackle one of these skills. The Washington Post teamed up with America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) to compile this list of gifts, with a few ideas at different budget levels in each category. Throw in a favorite recipe, cookbook or online class voucher for an extra-special present.
When your gift recipient starts turning out all kinds of masterful fare from their kitchen, you’ll be thrilled to know you helped get them there.
Despite the you-saw-them-everywhere-online loaves of sourdough this spring, there are plenty of ways to make bread that do not involve cultivating a starter. There are also many styles of bread, from soft sandwich to crusty boulle. With precision, patience and some solid equipment, anyone can bring the bakery home. These tools will help you do it.
PULLMAN LOAF PAN
Sandwiches are one of the ultimate work-from-home lunches. And baking a yeasted sandwich bread is one of the easiest ways to upgrade it. The good news is that it’s also one of the most straightforward types of loaves to make. A pullman loaf pan does most of the shaping work for you, with straight sides, sharp corners and a lid that helps create gorgeous square slices. Look for a lightweight pan that easily releases the bread. The lid should slide on and off smoothly.
The USA Pan 13-by-4-inch pullman loaf pan and cover make bread with a perfect tight crumb and golden-brown crust. The lid slides on and off easily, and the nonstick coating releases perfectly, making the pan a snap to clean. Created with lightweight material, it’s also simple to maneuver in and out of the oven.
DRY STORAGE CONTAINERS
A plastic container sounds pretty dull, but a good one can make all the difference. Bakers use them for a variety of tasks, from storing flour to proofing dough. The clear sides and markings make it easy to track how far dough has risen. Portioning flour from a wide storage container is much neater than from a bag, and it will keep the flour fresher and drier longer, free of pantry pests. Containers with flat tops are easy to stack, as well, for optimal organization. The best options are simple to open, a breeze to clean and hardy enough to stand up to repeated washings.
There’s a reason that food service professionals use Cambro 6-quart square storage containers. They’re sturdy, spacious and dead simple to use and clean, with no pointless bells or whistles. While they come in a range of sizes, the 6-quart size fit a 5-pound bag of flour with room to spare. Note that the lid is sold separately.
As almost any experienced baker will tell you, the best way to guarantee success is to weigh your ingredients. That’s especially crucial for bread, with which even small variations can add up to big problems. Portioning ingredients with a scale means you can tare, or reset the scale to zero, after each addition and measure consecutively into a single bowl. A typical capacity is 11 pounds, which is sufficient for baking. Keep in mind how easy a scale is to read, clean and use, and whether the buttons are accessible and clearly labeled. Slim models fit in tight storage.
The Oxo Good Grips 11-pound food scale with pullout display is accurate and has all the features that make it ATK’s longtime favorite: sturdy construction, responsive buttons, an easy-to-read screen, and a removable platform for easy cleaning. It also has two display options for weight. Users can choose to view ounces only (24 oz), pounds and ounces (1 lb 8 oz), grams only (2500 g), or kilograms and grams (2 kg 500 g), which comes in handy when doubling a recipe. The scale also uses decimals rather than fractions, so it’s more precise and easier to read.
You don’t have to have a stand mixer to make bread, as plenty of doughs can be kneaded by hand, but it sure can speed up the process and save your arms. Stand mixers are particularly useful for stiff doughs, such as for bagels, or looser ones, such as some focaccias.
If you can swing it, a larger-capacity machine with a bowl lift, rather than tilt head, is worth the money. It’s much easier to operate, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to lock the head in place or knocking it into the wall. Other things to look for: a machine that can stand up to thick doughs without overheating or jumping around the counter, and attachments that can reach deep enough into the bowl to sufficiently mix everything.
The KitchenAid Pro Line Series 7-quart bowl-lift stand mixer is a powerful, smartly designed machine that makes quick work of large and small volumes of food. The bent tines of its whisk fit the bowl’s shape perfectly, its Y-shaped paddle creams quickly without allowing butter to bunch up in the crevices, and the model easily handles batches of stiff dough.
The KitchenAid Classic Plus Series 4.5-quart tilt-head stand mixer, a basic, compact, heavy machine, performs better than other bigger, more expensive mixers. It would be nice if its bowl had a handle, as would a bowl-lift (rather than a tilt-head) design, but those are small concessions given its lower price.
A good knife is so practical but so important, especially if you’re going to be slicing through a thick crust. It’s just as crucial if you plan to make thin, beautiful slices of sandwich bread, too. Serrated knives, often referred to as bread knives, should glide smoothly through a loaf without the need to saw. They should create a smooth, not jagged, cut. ATK says knives with fewer teeth, or serrations, can prove more effective, because the force is not divided as many ways. Those tips should be pointed, not rounded. Of course, the handle should be comfortable to hold, with a grippy material helping tremendously.
The Mercer Culinary Millenia 10-inch bread knife is a stellar blade coupled with a grippy, comfortable handle that earned the top spot in America’s Test Kitchen review of serrated knives. Its sharp points bite into everything from the crustiest bread to the squishiest tomato, producing crisp, clean slices.
Dried commercial pasta is a staple in many pantries, with good reason, thanks to its convenience and reliability. Fresh pasta is almost an entirely different food. Springy, flavorful and silky, it may change your mind about what pasta can be. It’s fun and even kid-friendly, so think about giving a gift recipient any of these items to open up a world of pasta possibilities.
Sure, you know food processors can be the ultimate sous-chef: ready to chop, grate, puree and crush a wide variety of ingredients. But maybe you’re less familiar with their capacity for doughs. This powerful-yet-elegant appliance can give you a touch-free way to bring together a pie dough, knead pizza dough and, yes, mix pasta dough. The pile of flour on the counter with a well of eggs in the middle is certainly a charming strategy for making pasta, but the food processor can do the same work with a lot less mess in a matter of seconds.
If you’re only going to buy one food processor, go big (11- to 14-cup capacity). You will not have to empty the bowl as often, plus you’ll still get the shredding and slicing discs that are so useful for other tasks. Big machines, in addition to a higher capacity, have strong motors, which is key for food such as pizza dough. Responsive buttons that are easy to press and have little to no lag time between when you press or let go of the button and when it starts or stops are crucial so that you do not end up with overworked dough.
The Cuisinart Custom 14-cup food processor excels with power, precision and a compact, streamlined design that takes up less space than most food processors, despite having one of the largest capacities, all at a moderate price. Its smooth, simple bowl and blade design are easy to handle, monitor during use and clean. Its unusual feed-tube placement allows for increased bowl visibility. It comes with just blades for chopping, shredding and slicing, and they can all be stored inside the bowl, with no accessories box to deal with.
Given enough time, dedication and counter space, you can roll and cut pasta dough by hand. Beginners, though, can especially benefit from an assist from a manual pasta machine. You anchor it to the counter and feed the dough through the rollers as you crank the handle, creating increasingly thinner sheets of pasta as you go through a series of thickness settings. At that point, the dough can be fed through attachments on the machine to create a variety of noodle shapes (a few attachments come in the box, and more are available for purchase) or cut by hand. There are pasta attachments for stand mixers, but a manual machine does not assume that the recipient has a mixer and runs cheaper than the mixer attachments.
Seek out a pasta machine that clamps securely to your work surface and does not require two hands to adjust the knob that controls the thickness. Attachments should produce clean cuts that go all the way through the dough when making noodles, so they do not stick together.
The Marcato Atlas 150 Wellness pasta machine is the Ferrari of the pasta machine world, a pleasure to handle. It has an impressive range of thickness settings. You will barely have to roll dough out to fit it through the machine, and it’s easy to dial the machine down to produce gossamer-thin sheets. Its laser-sharp noodle attachment produces perfect fettuccine and angel hair every time.
The name broadcasts the purpose this handheld tool was designed for, but it’s basically just a rolling blade you can use in any way you want. Want to make crackers or even cookies? Go for it. Naturally, a pizza cutter can also be useful for pasta, whether you’re using it for big sheets of dough destined for lasagna, wide noodles or individual ravioli. The most important thing is to find a cutter that makes smooth, precise cuts. It should also have enough heft to give you the momentum and force to power through whatever you’re cutting. A comfortable, nonslip grip and the ability to stand up to many uses and washings are other considerations.
The Oxo Good Grips 4-inch pizza wheel does it all — it’s comfortable to hold and allows for a powerful grip. Its streamlined design does not trap food, and it still looks brand new after 10 rounds in the dishwasher. Its blade is sharp and visible for precise, straight cuts. The blade is tall, too, at 4 inches, so it rolls right over stacked toppings and towering crusts with ease.
Canning is another time-honored kitchen tradition enjoying a surge in popularity this year. It’s a great way to preserve the season and give something to look forward to. Or share the wealth, as many people do, by giving out jars of jam and pickles as gifts.
A sturdy pot is an essential canning tool. Use it to cook jams and preserves. Boil a brine for pickles. Of course, it’s just a kitchen staple in general, for preparing soup, cooking pasta and grains, making caramel, even gently scrambling eggs. In theory, a good one should last a lifetime. The best are clad in multiple layers of metal over the surface of the saucepan, and not just the bottom, for efficient, even cooking. They should be user-friendly, with a secure, ergonomic handle that stays cool. A helper handle on the opposite side of the pan assists with maneuvering and pouring, particularly when the pan is full. Durability, whether against burned food or dings and drops, is paramount.
The All-Clad stainless 4-quart saucepan excels with uniform, steady heating and good visibility inside the saucepan to monitor browning. Its cup-shape, stay-cool handle is easy to grip, and a helper handle provides another grabbing point when the pan is full. Even after ATK’s durability test that involved brutal whacking on concrete, this model emerged with only tiny dents inside and one slight dent on the bottom, and it still sat flat on the counter.
The Tramontina Gourmet tri-ply-clad 4-quart covered saucepan has the same tri-ply fully clad construction as far more expensive pans, with two layers of stainless steel sandwiched around a layer of aluminum. It performed almost as well as those more expensive pans, too, but it runs slightly faster and hotter. Its moderately heavy frame is easy to lift and scrape food from, but its handle gets hot during extended cooking.
Once cans are processed in a water bath, they’re lifted out and then set aside to cool. A good jar lifter is necessary because you do not want a hot glass jar slipping and potentially breaking. Moreover, you need a secure grip on the jar so you can hold it steady without tipping; sloshing the contents around can interfere with the vacuum and prevent the jar from sealing (when you hear the characteristic ping of the metal lid).
The Ball Secure-Grip Jar Lifter features a game-changing innovation: a spring-loaded hinge that pops the grabbers open when the handles are released. This makes releasing jars a smooth, one-handed task by eliminating the need for the user to pry the grabbers back open. It has broad, molded handles that are comfortable and secure, and its wide, plastic jar grips increase the contact between the lifter and the jar, giving it a stronger, more confident hold.
A wide-mouth canning funnel is important if you’re going to be focusing on jams or chunky preserves and conserves, but a standard one can fit the bill if the primary canning use is transferring liquid, such as brine or sugar syrup, into jars. While there’s not a lot to a funnel, plenty of things can go wrong if it’s not designed well. The funnel must be stable so it can sit on top of the jar without tipping over. The opening on the bottom should be wide enough to allow ingredients to move through freely but small enough to fit in a wide variety of containers (this is important if you plan to use it to decant, say, spices into small jars). Even though they’re cheap, funnels should be able to go through the dishwasher repeatedly without damage and end up free of stains or orders.
The Winco PF-8 plastic funnel that’s 8 ounces and 4 inches in diameter has a spout that’s nearly 2 inches, which makes it feel securely anchored during use. Its spout is a tad narrower than ideal, but it allows foods and liquids to flow reasonably well. Viscous barbecue sauce proved challenging, but slowing down our pour or tapping or shaking the funnel can mitigate that problem.
The same saucepan you use for prepping your canning ingredients probably will not be sufficient for the water bath needed to process the filled jars for safety and storage. A large canning or stock pot allows you to process multiple jars at once so you can do the job in fewer batches. It should be roomy enough to fit a couple of jars on a rack (to keep them from rattling on the bottom) without having them bump into each other. A clear lid so you can monitor things is important, as are comfortable, handles that are easy to grip when you need to move a filled, and potentially hot, pot.
The Roots and Branches stainless-steel multiuse canner has comfortable, grippy handles and a clear lid that allows users to effortlessly monitor the pot’s contents. Both the pot and the rack are made from stainless steel and emerged from America’s Test Kitchen’s testing looking almost brand-new.
Every season is ice cream season, so do not be afraid to add this package to your winter gift giving. Crafting custom ice cream flavors is an excellent, approachable project for unleashing kitchen creativity. Sorbets and frozen yogurt are also fair game.
ICE CREAM MACHINE
An ice cream machine is simple to use, and you’ll be wowed by the texture and variety of what comes out of it. Can it beat store-bought? You bet.
Models with a canister that requires freezing are good for ease of use, cleaning and storage. (Buy an extra if you plan to make back-to-back batches.) They’re more compact and affordable than self-refrigerating machines with a compressor. Single-button operation and simple-to-assemble pieces are key. The dasher that churns the ice cream should make smooth contact with the sides of the canister to ensure even freezing.
According to ATK’s testers, desserts from the Cuisinart frozen yogurt, ice cream and sorbet maker came out “even-textured,” “velvety” and “delightful.” They also liked its lightweight, compact design and the simplicity of its one-button operation.
ICE CREAM SCOOP
If you’re going to invest the time, money and effort into making ice cream, you might as well have a good scoop. For something extra-nice, consider a model with a fluid inside that conducts heat from your hand to allow the ice cream to melt ever so slightly for easier scooping and more picture-perfect portions. Regardless, the most effective scoops feature bowls that are shallow and more oval-shaped. A wide handle assists in a sturdy grip.
The Zeroll Original’s gently curved oval bowl forms perfect round orbs that release easily. Even better, its wide, comfortable handle contains heat-conductive fluid that warms up instantly when your hand grips the exterior; when that heat travels to the bowl, the warm metal slightly melts the ice cream or sorbet so it’s particularly easy to scoop.
ICE CREAM CONE MAKER
So you’ve got a true ice cream fan on your hands. Why not take the whole ice-cream-shop-at-home concept to the next level with a gadget for making cones? Anyone who has seen or used a waffle machine will be familiar with the process. Pour in some batter, close the top, let it cook. Then shape into a cone. The ideal iron will produce evenly brown and crisp cones. It should be easy to clean, too, since these types of appliances are always prone to batter overflow.
The Chef’s Choice 838 Waffle Cone Express is an easy-to-use, solidly built machine quickly and reliably makes perfect, evenly golden-brown waffle cones. A color-control knob lets you set your preferred browning level, nonstick plates release smoothly, and cleanup is simple, aided by an overflow channel that contains messes.