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 to compile this list of gifts, with a few ideas at different budget levels in each category for a ready-made collection. Throw in a favorite recipe, cookbook or online class voucher for an extra-special present. You’ll find ATK’s top recommended products below each item, with a few best buys included.
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.
BreadDespite 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.
PastaDried 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.