Anybody can gift-wrap a matching apron and oven mitts. But if you really want to impress the foodie in your life, give the gift of kitchen tech.
To suss out which gizmos are worth giving, we went to the master himself, Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive turned high priest of modernist cuisine. Myhrvold spent hundreds of thousands of dollars decking out his Bellevue, Wash., kitchen-lab, outfitting it with texture analyzers that determine meat's doneness, a laser that precision cuts pasta shapes and microns-thin daikon slices, even a centrifuge that separates peas and other matter into their component parts.
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Admittedly, most of that won't land under the tree this year. But we walked the lab with Myhrvold to get ideas for outfitting a modernist kitchen on any budget. Here are the basics:
Digital thermometer ($10 to $60): Start with a really good digital thermometer. "The texture and taste of food changes with temperature," Myhrvold says, so it's important to measure accurately. Digital thermometers also are fast, giving accurate readings in just seconds.
Digital scale ($15 to $40): A reliable scale is a must. "We weigh rather than using teaspoons and cups," Myhrvold says. "It's more accurate."
This is true if you're measuring flour for bread or if you're measuring xanthan gum to thicken a sauce. Myhrvold recommends a scale for ordinary weights up to a couple of kilos, and, if you're serious about pursing modernist techniques, a second model that measures tiny quantities -- hundredths of a gram -- for gums and gelling agents.
Lab sieves ($35 to $75): Similar to what you might see used by a kid on the beach, except lab sieves have very tiny openings -- think less than 1/100th of an inch. In labs, they separate different sized particles. In the kitchen, Myhrvold uses them to create super-silky sauces, jams and stocks, with every last bit of sediment removed.
Blow torch ($50 to $65): "We like the Home Depot ones," Myhrvold says. "They're simple, they're reliable, and when you want to make something hot -- really hot -- there's nothing like it."
Use a blow torch to sear a steak or brown a chicken while still preserving the perfect doneness of the item in question.
$100 to $200
Whipping siphon ($120 to $150): Normal people use this to make whipped cream. Myhrvold uses it to serve scrambled eggs in foamy little dollops or to lighten sauces and soups. It also can be used to vacuum marinate meat, a process that uses pressure to create more flavor.
Pressure cooker ($50 to $200): Besides cooking things quickly, a pressure cooker also cooks them better. "It's the best possible way to make stock," Myhrvold says, explaining that the high heat in the pressure cooker does a better job of extracting flavor than the traditional long, slow simmer method. The pressure cooker also can reduce vegetables such as carrots to soup with a little help from baking soda to foster caramelization.
More than $200
Sous vide machine ($329 to $499): The granddaddy of hipster kitchen appliances. Myhrvold is unrelenting in his devotion to sous vide, the water bath method used by chefs to cook items to an exact doneness. "It gives you exquisite control over temperature," Myhrvold says, eliminating the need to pinch and poke your meat.
Plus, he adds, "You can do really, really cool things." Like cook scrambled eggs and dispense them from your whipping siphon (see above). The truth is, you can make a sous vide cooker with a cooler and some plastic bags. But if you want the real deal, maybe splurge on the machine and cut back somewhere else.
Countertop induction burner ($75 to $250): Powered by magnets, these energy efficient burners heat food more quickly than ordinary stoves, but leave your pot handles cool. Plus, it lets you use inexpensive steel pans to achieve the same results as the priciest copperware used on gas burners.
Dehydrator ($50 to $325): Tell me again why I want this? "It's cheap and it's fun," Myhrvold says with a twinkle. "And there's a lot of cool stuff you can do with it." Witness, candied rose petals. Cocktail sauce leather -- think fruit leather made from cocktail sauce (Duh! You wrap it around shrimp!).
Blendtec or Vitamix blender ($350 to $900): These super fancy blenders have more power and better blade contact with the food than your average wedding gift, transforming chunky items into silky smooth purees. They make one heck of a smoothie (or, you know, other stuff).