Looking for a perfect gift for the cook or home entertainer in your life?
Then you're in luck: Whether you plan to spend $5 or $300, this is the season when specialty stores display a nearly endless selection of kitchen gadgets that make great holiday presents.
But don't rush to the mall just yet: Choosing the right tool or kitchen appliance for a gift takes some thought. After all, you want to give a present that's going to be used -- not banished to the back of a drawer or cupboard.
That's why we asked a confessed gadget freak -- and a respected Baltimore food professional -- for some guidelines on selecting kitchen accessories that will delight home chefs.
"Buy straightforward equipment to do a straightforward job," advises Billy Himmelrich, the owner of Stone Mill Bakery and a new cooking school, Ecole, at Green Spring Station in Lutherville.
"And keep in mind that items that work on only one food item don't get used very often," the French-trained chef adds. "So try to buy a gadget that does more than one task -- and in more than one medium."
An example: an electric juicer. "Most people just shove carrots through them," Mr. Himmelrich says. "But used intelligently, a juicer can create bases for sauces and thickening agents."
Now, let's go shopping. Question: This holiday season, what's hot, new and exciting in the world of kitchen gadgets?
"Anything to do with roasting garlic," responds Kari Cook, manager of the Crate & Barrel at Towson Town Center.
So a good bet for your favorite gourmet is the Garlic Cellar ($7), a terra-cotta garlic holder with a perforated lid that stores up to two heads of garlic.
TTC "It keeps the garlic cool and dark, so it stays fresher longer," Ms. Cook explains. "We also sell 'The Garlic Book' [$10], a cute little cookbook containing garlic recipes ranging from appetizers to desserts."
When shopping for inexpensive kitchen gifts this Yule season, Ms. Cook says, don't forget the three P's -- pepper, pizza and pasta.
"Pepper grinders [$5 to $30], wood-handled pizza cutters with oversized 4-inch wheels [$6] and pasta tongs and spoons [$4 to $9] are gadgets that make great gifts."
Another popular gift item available at Crate & Barrel is a terra-cotta bread warmer [$9] that you heat in the oven and that keeps rolls, loaves of bread and focaccia warm throughout the meal.
The mechanically inclined chef will appreciate a double-action potato masher ($5) that speeds up the task of whipping potatoes by hand. "Mom's had one little grate on one end, but this one has two plates with a spring action that whips potatoes fluffier and quicker -- and it saves energy," Ms. Cook explains.
At Lechters Housewares, a new water-filter system by Brita ($20) tops the list of nifty kitchen gizmos that make great gifts. "It's like a water pitcher and does a nice job of cleaning tap water," explains Don See, Lechters' Baltimore area manager. "Just fill it with tap water -- and bingo!"
Romantic candlelight dinners have one drawback: It's hard to see how much pepper you're grinding on your Caesar salad or fettuccine alfredo.
Not any more: The Chef Specialties Electronic Peppermill with Light ($20, including peppercorns and batteries) is an electric pepper mill that not only grinds the peppercorns, it throws a little light on the subject. "It's kind of cute," notes Mr. See.
Another knotty problem -- quickly peeling a garlic clove -- is banished forever with this new gadget: "With the Garlic Peeler [$15], you just pop a clove of garlic into the basket, press it, and out pops a peeled clove," Mr. See explains. "I've never seen anything like it."
Strictly speaking, cookbooks aren't gadgets: For most chefs, they're necessities. Yet some nifty accessories on the market can make using a cookbook both easy and fun.
A top seller at Books for Cooks is Helping Hans ($5), a clip similar to the gadget used to keep bags of potato chips closed -- only this clip is designed to hold your cookbook open as you cook.
"It's cute and funny," says Arlene Gillis, owner of the Harborplace specialty book shop. "We sell a ton of them."
Book Marks for Cooks (a set of 36 for $7) is another item that's popular with gift-givers during the holidays. "It's a set of tabbed bookmarks with funny phrases printed on them," Ms. Gillis says. "One of the most popular quotes is by Miss Piggy: 'Never eat more than you can lift.' "
At the Cook's Cupboard at the Rotunda, manager Jill Kearns says the Banana Hang-up ($12) makes an excellent gift for the culinarily inclined. "It's a wood stand with brass hooks for hanging bananas and grapes," she says. "It helps the fruit ripen and prevents bruising."
Another hot gift item is a manual knife sharpener by Chef's
Choice ($30). "It sharpens a knife in two stages," Ms. Kearns says. "The first stage sharpens the knife and the second stage hones the edge. It's very easy to use."
Coffee is still the rage, Ms. Kearns reports, and the Espresso Novo by Krups ($200) is the kitchen-equipment shop's best-selling espresso machine.
"It has a 20-ounce water tank so you can continually make espresso," she points out. "The Espresso Novo also has microchip control that lets you make steam at any time for cappuccino. And it can make hot water for tea or coffee at any time."
Automated bread makers are another trendy item this season. "The Panasonic Bread Bakery [$255] makes a one-pound loaf of bread. And it's programmable, so you can set the timer ahead of time to make a loaf for breakfast or dinner," Ms. Kearns says.
That's not all: The bread machine mixes the ingredients, adds yeast at the right time, kneads the dough, and bakes the bread in a non-stick pan. "It's basically foolproof," Ms. Kearns adds. "We've had demonstrations in the store, and it makes a nice loaf of bread."
For a new twist on an old favorite -- roast chicken -- check out this gadget: the Spanek Vertical Roaster ($20), a device that stands the bird upright while it sizzles in the oven.
"It's been around for a long time but seems to be more popular as a gift item this year," Ms. Kearns reports. "Roasting the chicken vertically is a healthier way to cook the chicken -- it funnels the heat inside and sears it so the juices are sealed in. Now, it's the only way I roast a chicken. It really, really works."