Top-rated gifts for the cook in your life

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For some, pushing a microwave button counts as cooking -- and then there are those who enjoy spending a Saturday afternoon leafing through cookbooks and trying new recipes or rolling out dough for an after-dinner sweet. Here’s some cooking gear that impressed the testers at Consumer Reports and that your favorite cook will appreciate.

A stand mixer for the baker. In our stand mixer tests, the Breville BEM800XL, $300, was excellent at whipping cream, mixing large batches of cookie dough, and kneading bread dough. It beat out such favorites as the KitchenAid Classic and the KitchenAid Artisan, which we also recommend, as well as other brands thanks to a bevy of convenience features, including a leaf beater with a flexible edge that scrapes the bowl as it turns and a timer that lets you set your desired mixing time.

The sharpest knives in the drawer. Zwilling J.A. Henckels is a premium name in kitchen knives and its $315 Twin Professional “S” 7-piece set was the best we tested. The forged knives are sturdy and sharp and the handles are very well balanced, which should keep your hands from getting tired. Always wash your knives by hand and keep them sharp with regular honing.

Cookware that sizzles. The 10-piece nonstick Swiss Diamond Reinforced cookware set is made of aluminum and comes with a lifetime warranty. It was the best set we tested and at $575, the most expensive. The Swiss Diamond pots and pans were very good at evenly heating food and superb at releasing food when new, and the sturdy handles stay cool to the touch. Our nonstick durability tests are tough—steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes—and the Swiss Diamond nonstick surface held up very well. The $200 Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-piece set was nearly as good overall but its handles aren’t as sturdy or comfortable.

A steamy toaster oven tell-all.  Cooking with steam promises speed and healthy food prep. The Cuisinart CSO-300 Steam & Convection Oven, $300, looks and works like a regular toaster oven except that it has a removable reservoir that you fill with tap water for steam cooking. Our toaster testers were impressed by the steam-cook results. A steam-baked loaf of bread was slightly crispier than that baked in a conventional oven and the rice and broccoli were tender, although they didn’t cook any faster than they did on a cooktop or in the microwave. We did save time cooking a 4-pound chicken using the steam-bake mode set to 450°F. The chicken was fairly evenly browned and done in about 40 minutes—half the time of an electric wall oven set to 350°F (the recommended temperature on the chicken package), and our tasty yams took two-thirds the time.

A blender that makes and heats soup. From one of the biggest names in premium blenders, the $450 Vitamix 5200 has long been our top-scoring blender. In addition to acing our frozen drinks, purée, and ice crush tests, it's one of the few models that makes hot soup and that can blitz whole fruits and vegetables into smooth, creamy juice. While you’re paying a premium, there are even more expensive blenders on the market, from Vitamix and such other manufacturers as Hamilton Beach, Blendtec, and Omega.

New and classic cookbooks
Giving a cookbook together with cooking gear may get you invited back for dinner. Two favorites mentioned in this year’s New York Times’ gift guide include “Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean recipes to feed the people you love” and “The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook.” Some of our favorites include “Gourmet Today,” “Around My French Table,” and Cook’s Illustrated's “The New Best Recipe,” which all feature recipes that are easy to follow with impressive results. Or you can check out cooking classes offered by top restaurants and bakeries in food-crazy ZIP codes or by culinary schools such as the boot camps and artisan bread baking classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

More from Consumer Reports:
Low-cost alternatives to high-end appliances
5 signs the house you want to buy is a money pit
Washer and dryer features that save loads of money

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