Who among us doesn't love a practical gift? Something that won't merely collect dust. Something that you can use over and over again, reminding you of the giver every time you pull it out. For those of us who love to cook, that practical — and beloved — gift is a new piece of kitchen equipment.
In this batch of gadgets, we're looking at utility, but mixing in some whimsy, too.
Don't get us wrong: These are the types of presents that will still get plenty of use and please food lovers who don't always splurge on themselves. It helps, however, to know your recipient a little better. Are they first in line at the newest artisan scoop shop? Get them an ice cream maker. Do they dream of Italy? Bam — pasta machine.
The Washington Post teamed up with America's Test Kitchen to compile this list of next-level gifts that provide good, lasting value. You'll find ATK-recommended products alongside each item, so read, shop and give — and then enjoy the fruits of your recipients' labor. We guarantee they'll be more than happy to share.
Grill pans can't do everything an outdoor charcoal or gas-powered grill can, but they're much better than nothing. You may not get all that smoky flavor, but you will get intense heat and attractive grill marks. We've used ours for fish tacos, thinly sliced veggies and, of course, panini.
The best grill pans have distinct ridges. We favor cast iron for its ability to withstand high temperatures and retain heat. It can also go from stove top to oven when needed. Lighter, nonstick pans tend to not cook as well or last as long.
Lodge Square Grill Pan
Perfect grilling at a low price made this a solid best buy. It has a smaller surface that fits just three burgers or two strip steaks, and it can't be cleaned with soap, but it scrubs clean with hot water and a stiff brush. (It will also become more nonstick with use.)
Making pasta is more of a project than most of our everyday cooking. Still, when you have the time and interest, it's hard to beat the bouncy, silky texture of pasta from scratch. You also can use the machine any time you need a thin dough, such as for crackers, crispy flatbreads and pierogies. Also: fondant for cake decorating.
We've focused on hand-cranked models, since they don't require additional equipment and can be more affordable than mixer attachments. If you can, give a machine a test run to see how straightforward it is to use. You want one that clamps securely to the counter, is easy to operate (ideally with one hand) and gives a wide range of thickness.
Marcato Atlas 150 Wellness Pasta Machine
The Ferrari of the pasta machine world, this model is a little more expensive than others on the market, but it sure is a pleasure to handle. It sported both the widest and the narrowest thickness settings in our lineup; we barely had to roll dough out to fit it through the machine, and we could effortlessly dial the machine down to produce gossamer-thin sheets. Its laser-sharp noodle attachment produced perfect fettuccine and angel hair every time.
Imperia Pasta Machine by CucinoPro
This model has a slightly smaller range of thickness settings compared to others that we tested, and we needed to use both hands in order to adjust them, but it made beautiful, precisely cut fettuccine and angel hair every time. And it came with a handy plate that helped guide the sheets of pasta through the machine.
Here's one where you really want to know your gift recipient. Do they often bake frozen food? Are they into trendy gadgets? Do they have room in their kitchen? If the answers are "yes," then an air fryer may be a good idea. Just be sure everyone understands it is more like a convection oven than a deep fryer. Think very good oven-fried fare.
Plenty of air fryers will get the job done. Superior models have intuitive, simple-to-set controls. The machine should heat up quickly, too. Drawer-style air fryers take up less space in the kitchen and make it easy to remove the food.
Philips TurboStar Airfryer
Testers loved this machine, which has a slimmer, compact footprint and shorter stature, thus taking up less room on our counters. Its cooking basket is roomy enough for a pound of food and has a nonstick coating. We also like that the bottom of the basket can be removed for even deeper cleaning, if needed. Its digital controls and dial-operated menu make setting the time and temperature easy and intuitive. It stops cooking as soon as the set time is up, and its drawer-like design allows you to remove food without exposing your hands to the heating element.
GoWise USA 3.7-Quart 7-in-1 Air Fryer
While this air fryer's digital controls aren't quite as intuitive as those of the TurboStar, it's still easy to set the time and temperature once you get the hang of the multiple buttons. It cooks food quickly and crisply, and its display is bright, large and easy to read. Though it's a little bigger than our favorite model, it's still short enough to fit under cabinets, and its drawer-style design and automatic shutoff are a boon to safety. Like other models, it has a nonstick interior.
Know someone who's into food technology? They'll probably be more than happy to start playing around with sous vide, a technique of submerging food in a water bath at a specific temperature that is regulated by an immersion circulator. The result is even, hands-off cooking. People especially love it for meat and eggs, but they're finding ways to make everything from beans to desserts, too.
Obviously, accuracy is key. Immersion circulators should keep the water at the programmed temperature with very little variation. They should be easy to program, which can be done on the machine or through an app. The best models gently circulate the water so as not to jostle the food, and they won't take up much room in your pot or cabinet.
Joule Sous Vide
This slim, lightweight machine heated water almost as fast as the biggest circulators and was the most accurate in our lineup. Though it doesn't have a display and requires a smartphone to work, its app was intuitive and simple, and its enclosed electronics meant we didn't have to worry about getting any part of the circulator wet. Testers loved its magnetic bottom, which allowed it to stand stably in the center of metal pots. (We wished its included clip was a bit wider for nonmetal vessels, but the company now sells a "Big Clamp" attachment for $24 that addresses that issue.) It also had the largest distance between water lines, so we could forgo refilling even during longer cooking projects, and it was small enough to store in a drawer when we were done.
Anyone with an appreciation for this versatile breakfast — or dinner! — staple should own a waffle iron. It's one present that the recipient may actually be able to use the second they open it on a holiday morning. Belgian waffle makers produce impressively tall specimens perfect for catching all that delicious maple syrup.
Consider a model with two chambers for the batter so you can stop cooking and start eating sooner. The best irons let you flip or rotate the waffles for even cooking and alert you when they are ready. A nice feature: the ability to set the degree of doneness so you can satisfy everyone with their preferred texture and color.
Cuisinart Double Belgian Waffle Maker
Featuring a six-point dial for customizing waffle doneness, this waffle maker quickly and consistently turned out two perfect waffles at a time, each with a crisp, evenly browned exterior and custardy interior. With indicator lights on both sides of the waffle maker and a loud audible alert, it was easy to tell when each waffle was done. Weighing nearly 10 pounds and measuring over 20 inches tall with the lid up, this model was by far the biggest and heaviest of those tested — but that extra bulk ensured stability and durability. Two minor flaws: the lack of a removable drip tray and the shortness of the handle, on which hot condensation tended to accumulate.
Preston Flipside Belgian Waffle Maker
The Flipside made well-browned waffles that were almost 1½ inches high. On the downside, if we wanted to make adjustments, doneness could only be varied by increasing or decreasing the duration of the cooking time using a built-in timer that must be reset before every waffle. But the timer itself proved quite useful, giving you an audible alert not only when the waffle was done, but also a minute before — a smart feature that helps ensure that you'll never overcook your waffle. One small safety issue: Like several of the other machines, the Flipside tended to collect condensation in its handle, dripping hot water when flipped.
ICE CREAM MAKER
Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. An ice cream machine is simple to use, and if you love ice cream, you'll be wowed by the texture and variety of what comes out of it.
For ease of use, cleaning and storage, we like models with a canister that requires prefreezing. (Buy an extra if you want 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.
Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker
Its desserts were "even-textured," "velvety," and "delightful." We also liked its lightweight, compact design and the simplicity of its one button operation.