‘Tis the season for giving gifts. ‘Tis also the season for running up credit card debt. But if your wallet’s feeling pinched, worry not: There are plenty of high-quality kitchen tools, tableware, and cookware out there—not to mention some pretty delicious specialty foods—that will cost you less than $50. Here are this year’s top picks, guaranteed to please even the most discerning recipients without breaking the bank.
At Serious Eats, we’re all about finding and sharing the most reliable cooking techniques and the best kitchen equipment. But there’s no denying we eat with our eyes too, so we want our food to look as good as it tastes. That’s why we recommend an assortment of beautiful serving platters. What’s lovely about the two below is that they’re dishwasher-safe, so when it’s time to clean up, you don’t need to spend all your time at the sink.
We like to complement neutral serving dishes with some color and maybe even some mood lighting. Throw in a perfectly packaged candle in a scent like saffron or Champagne for that extra ambiance.
A Cast Iron Pan
Every home should have at least one cast iron pan. They’re affordable, durable, and great for a wide range of applications, from searing steaks to baking and serving dessert. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about cast iron pans out there that can make them seem overly daunting and high-maintenance (spoiler: yes you can wash them with soap!). If your giftee is feeling stressed about caring for their new piece of equipment, just send them the basics of cast-iron care to quell all their fears. If they’re still in doubt, this unbelievably rich chocolate skillet cake should convince them to embrace cast iron.
This carbon steel wok, which features a flat bottom designed to work on Western stoves, isn’t just a gateway to the stir-fry recipes for which woks are best known. It’s also a great vessel for steaming, deep-frying, and indoor smoking, too.
If you want to achieve that signature smoky wok hei at home, you might want to throw in a torch too. (Carefully, of course.)
A Great Chef’s Knife
In our quest to discover the best chef’s knives, we found that not all good knives need to be super expensive. There are plenty that will help you slice and dice like a pro that are also extremely affordable, like this Western-style chef’s knife from Mercer Culinary. Pair the knife with a handsome magnetic rack for easy access and safe storage.
Killer Condiments and Sauces
While we often prefer to make our own condiments—like XO sauce and chili crisp—we wouldn’t turn our noses up at purchasing good-quality ones that’ll save us time and energy. Take colatura, for example, Italy’s answer to fish sauce. It’ll serve you well for Sasha’s spaghetti con la colatura di alici and any other recipe needing a salty, savory bite.
We also are loving this tomato concentrate from Gustiamo. It’ll amp up any pasta dish with rich, punchy umami flavor. A little bit goes a long way to making every meal more delicious.
For heat seekers, try Blank Slate Chili Oil (a quicker, no-fuss chili crisp) or Shaquanda’s hot sauce (which you can learn all about here).
Serious Eats staffers also have their own personal picks. Video Editor John Mattia loves to slather Mama Lam’s Malaysian hot sauce over just about everything, from eggs to beans and roast chicken; and Ariel Kanter recently discovered tamarind date sauce by Basbaas, which offers subtle heat and tangy sweetness for leafy greens, all manner of proteins, and even raw veggies.
All of these condiments and sauces will add vibrancy to anything you’re making—and they make excellent and affordable gifts that’ll last a lifetime in the fridge, though we doubt they’ll actually last that long.
Fragrant Oils and Extracts
If you know a budding baker, baking wizard Stella wrote a whole post about oils, extracts, and waters that can give a little extra life to classic desserts. Beyond those, a few drops of hazelnut oil will bring an extra-rich, nutty flavor to homemade Nutella, while this bergamot extract will add brightness and depth of flavor to Stella’s ricotta cheesecake.
Tweezers are incredibly useful in the kitchen, whether you’re twirling pasta, flipping meat, or even getting a bit of eggshell out of a bowl of batter. Both the large and fine-tipped versions are also very affordable. Pick up a pair for under $13 and slide them right into stockings for a gift that is as nerdy as it is functional.
A Salt Cellar or Pig
One of the primary differences between an okay cook and a good cook is the knowledge of how to season food adequately. And, because salt is the seasoning every cook relies on most heavily, the first step toward this goal is ensuring easy access. If you’ve ever watched a family member reach for a little saltshaker while cooking—then spend way too much time agitating it up and down, squinting to see the tiny grains as they tumble out—get that person a salt pig or cellar, stat. These wide-mouthed vessels allow you to apply salt the way it should be applied: in big pinches, which you can then toss straight into your pasta water or sprinkle between your fingers onto a roast in a careful, controlled manner. (For a more detailed argument for this handy tool, read Daniel’s impassioned plea.)
Yes, we trot this gadget out—or its pricier cousin, the Thermapen—pretty much every time we make a list like this. But that’s a testament to its quality, its affordable price tag, and the fact that an instant-read thermometer is a necessity for any recipe that depends on cooking to a specific temperature (both for food safety reasons and consistent results). We recommend the ThermoPop as a budget option because, apart from being inexpensive, it’s reliable and easy to use, and it blows the competition away. It is, without exaggeration, an essential piece of gear for every cook and baker.
You can never go wrong with chocolate. But instead of getting those grocery store boxes of questionable old truffles, upgrade to small-batch brands that care about the process, like Sol Cacao. Sol Cacao operates out of the Bronx and was founded by three brothers from Trinidad and Tobago. They grew up surrounded by cacao trees, often enjoying chocolate that they picked and made for themselves. Now, they offer single-origin bars with beans from Madagascar, Peru, and Ecuador (wrapped in lovely packaging to boot). Made simply of cacao beans and raw cane sugar, these bars are deeply flavorful with nuances like plum, raisins, and honeydew. They’re the ideal gift for anyone who values ending a long day with a really good bar of chocolate. (Which might just be everyone.)
A Chef’s Press and a Piece of Meat
We’ve written about why Chef’s Presses are the best. Use one (or stack a few) for a perfect sear on your chops, a bubbly brown quesadilla, or an oozing grilled cheese. They make for a gloriously functional gift, and they’re so affordable, you might even consider throwing in those chops as well.
An Inexpensive Espresso Alternative
If fancy espresso machines aren’t realistic for your price range (join the club!), that’s okay. We have an affordable solution: the moka pot. You can plop this handy percolating device right on your stove for very good, very strong coffee whenever you need it. You can use any kind of roast you like; just make sure to use coffee that’s ground finer than drip coffee but a bit courser than a typical espresso grind. Once you have your cup, get fancy like our Assistant Social Media Editor, Yasmine, by warming up some milk, frothing it, and plopping it right on top.
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