Strolling through a store's cookware department presents so many choices that finding a gift for your favorite cook isn't so simple. There are plenty of expensive kitchen gadgets (panini presses come to mind), but how much a gift costs and how fancy it is doesn't mean it'll get much past its first "Wow" before turning into a dust-collector.
So this year, let's focus on kitchen tools or ingredients less than $25. Each item listed is a favored go-to tool or ingredient that passed my "what did I ever do without this?" test.
Paring knife: There isn't a day that goes by that I don't reach for a paring knife, whether it's to core a tomato, slice an apple or trim some fat. I first came across Forschner by Victorinox's 3-piece paring knife set ($12.99) in the cutlery section of a local chain. Its low price made trying them an easy choice. I've loved them from the moment I opened the package. Their high-carbon, stainless steel blades sharpen easily and stay sharp.
Knife sharpener: I keep a keen edge on those knives and all my knives with an AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener ($7.99). This sharpener's simple method made me an instant sharpening expert. Accusharp claims its carbide blades (the part that does the work) last 5 to 10 years before changing. When you reach that point, changing them out is simple and inexpensive.
Salt and grinder: The most frequently used seasoning in my kitchen: salt. I abandoned traditional table salt years ago when I switched to kosher salt. More recently I've upgraded sea salt crystals that require a grinder and Oxo's salt grinder (about $19) does the job the best. The Oxo grinder holds enough salt to last a couple weeks, adjusts from fine to coarse and works beautifully.
I buy my salt online from SaltWorks (saltworks.us), where I've found more kinds of salt than I'll ever try in my lifetime, plus they offer gift sets.
Digital thermometer: My instant-read digital thermometer lets me know what's going on inside what I'm cooking, even cake and bread. I found CDN's Q2-450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Pocket Thermometer ($16.95) an invaluable kitchen tool. A guest can ask for any meat done to any safe temperature and with this thermometer I hit the mark every time. A great stocking stuffer!
For gauging a dish that's going to clock some heavy oven time, like a roast, I turn to a Taylor Wireless Thermometer with Remote Pager Plus Timer ($21.95). I don't have to open the oven door (and lose heat) until my thermometer tells me my roast is ready.
When I asked my editor if she had a kitchen tool that met the frugal gift criteria, Deborah Pankey responded with Addison-based The Pampered Chef's (pamperedchef.com) Mix 'N Chop ($10.50). This uniquely shaped tool won't harm nonstick cookware, yet has the strength to easily break up ground meat for chili or casseroles.
I guarantee these items won't collect dust, only compliments.
Try this recipe: A recipe for a cookie bar that duplicated what could be found in a "trendy specialty cookie shop" caught my eye in a 2006 Cook's Illustrated magazine. It hooked me, but 1½ sticks of butter and 12 ounces of chocolate chips stopped me cold.
By cutting the butter in half (substituting drained applesauce) and using 6 ounces of mini-chocolate chips, I cut 1,485 calories and 124 fat grams. They're a perfect treat for the holidays and beyond.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.