The Best Gifts Under $50 for Cooks and Food Lovers


a collage of gifts under $50

‘Tis the season for giving gifts. ‘Tis also the season for running up credit card debt. But if your wallet’s feeling pinched, worry not: There are plenty of high-quality kitchen tools, tableware, and cookware out there—not to mention some pretty delicious specialty foods—that will cost you less than $50. Here are this year’s top picks, guaranteed to please even the most discerning recipients without breaking the bank.

Beautiful Serveware

At Serious Eats, we’re all about finding and sharing the most reliable cooking techniques and the best kitchen equipment. But there’s no denying we eat with our eyes too, so we want our food to look as good as it tastes. That’s why we recommend an assortment of beautiful serving platters. What’s lovely about the two below is that they’re dishwasher-safe, so when it’s time to clean up, you don’t need to spend all your time at the sink.

We like to complement neutral serving dishes with some color and maybe even some mood lighting. Throw in a perfectly packaged candle in a scent like saffron or Champagne for that extra ambiance.

A Cast Iron Pan

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Every home should have at least one cast iron pan. They’re affordable, durable, and great for a wide range of applications, from searing steaks to baking and serving dessert. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about cast iron pans out there that can make them seem overly daunting and high-maintenance (spoiler: yes you can wash them with soap!). If your giftee is feeling stressed about caring for their new piece of equipment, just send them the basics of cast-iron care to quell all their fears. If they’re still in doubt, this unbelievably rich chocolate skillet cake should convince them to embrace cast iron.

A Wok

This carbon steel wok, which features a flat bottom designed to work on Western stoves, isn’t just a gateway to the stir-fry recipes for which woks are best known. It’s also a great vessel for steaming, deep-frying, and indoor smoking, too.

If you want to achieve that signature smoky wok hei at home, you might want to throw in a torch too. (Carefully, of course.)

A Great Chef’s Knife

In our quest to discover the best chef’s knives, we found that not all good knives need to be super expensive. There are plenty that will help you slice and dice like a pro that are also extremely affordable, like this Western-style chef’s knife from Mercer Culinary. Pair the knife with a handsome magnetic rack for easy access and safe storage.

Killer Condiments and Sauces

While we often prefer to make our own condiments—like XO sauce and chili crisp—we wouldn’t turn our noses up at purchasing good-quality ones that’ll save us time and energy. Take colatura, for example, Italy’s answer to fish sauce. It’ll serve you well for Sasha’s spaghetti con la colatura di alici and any other recipe needing a salty, savory bite.

We also are loving this tomato concentrate from Gustiamo. It’ll amp up any pasta dish with rich, punchy umami flavor. A little bit goes a long way to making every meal more delicious.

For heat seekers, try Blank Slate Chili Oil (a quicker, no-fuss chili crisp) or Shaquanda’s hot sauce (which you can learn all about here).

Serious Eats staffers also have their own personal picks. Video Editor John Mattia loves to slather Mama Lam’s Malaysian hot sauce over just about everything, from eggs to beans and roast chicken; and Ariel Kanter recently discovered tamarind date sauce by Basbaas, which offers subtle heat and tangy sweetness for leafy greens, all manner of proteins, and even raw veggies.

All of these condiments and sauces will add vibrancy to anything you’re making—and they make excellent and affordable gifts that’ll last a lifetime in the fridge, though we doubt they’ll actually last that long.

Fragrant Oils and Extracts

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

If you know a budding baker, baking wizard Stella wrote a whole post about oils, extracts, and waters that can give a little extra life to classic desserts. Beyond those, a few drops of hazelnut oil will bring an extra-rich, nutty flavor to homemade Nutella, while this bergamot extract will add brightness and depth of flavor to Stella’s ricotta cheesecake.

Tweezers

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Tweezers are incredibly useful in the kitchen, whether you’re twirling pasta, flipping meat, or even getting a bit of eggshell out of a bowl of batter. Both the large and fine-tipped versions are also very affordable. Pick up a pair for under $13 and slide them right into stockings for a gift that is as nerdy as it is functional.

A Salt Cellar or Pig

One of the primary differences between an okay cook and a good cook is the knowledge of how to season food adequately. And, because salt is the seasoning every cook relies on most heavily, the first step toward this goal is ensuring easy access. If you’ve ever watched a family member reach for a little saltshaker while cooking—then spend way too much time agitating it up and down, squinting to see the tiny grains as they tumble out—get that person a salt pig or cellar, stat. These wide-mouthed vessels allow you to apply salt the way it should be applied: in big pinches, which you can then toss straight into your pasta water or sprinkle between your fingers onto a roast in a careful, controlled manner. (For a more detailed argument for this handy tool, read Daniel’s impassioned plea.)

A Thermopop

Yes, we trot this gadget out—or its pricier cousin, the Thermapen—pretty much every time we make a list like this. But that’s a testament to its quality, its affordable price tag, and the fact that an instant-read thermometer is a necessity for any recipe that depends on cooking to a specific temperature (both for food safety reasons and consistent results). We recommend the ThermoPop as a budget option because, apart from being inexpensive, it’s reliable and easy to use, and it blows the competition away. It is, without exaggeration, an essential piece of gear for every cook and baker.

Something Sweet

You can never go wrong with chocolate. But instead of getting those grocery store boxes of questionable old truffles, upgrade to small-batch brands that care about the process, like Sol Cacao. Sol Cacao operates out of the Bronx and was founded by three brothers from Trinidad and Tobago. They grew up surrounded by cacao trees, often enjoying chocolate that they picked and made for themselves. Now, they offer single-origin bars with beans from Madagascar, Peru, and Ecuador (wrapped in lovely packaging to boot). Made simply of cacao beans and raw cane sugar, these bars are deeply flavorful with nuances like plum, raisins, and honeydew. They’re the ideal gift for anyone who values ending a long day with a really good bar of chocolate. (Which might just be everyone.)

A Chef’s Press and a Piece of Meat

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

We’ve written about why Chef’s Presses are the best. Use one (or stack a few) for a perfect sear on your chops, a bubbly brown quesadilla, or an oozing grilled cheese. They make for a gloriously functional gift, and they’re so affordable, you might even consider throwing in those chops as well.

An Inexpensive Espresso Alternative

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

If fancy espresso machines aren’t realistic for your price range (join the club!), that’s okay. We have an affordable solution: the moka pot. You can plop this handy percolating device right on your stove for very good, very strong coffee whenever you need it. You can use any kind of roast you like; just make sure to use coffee that’s ground finer than drip coffee but a bit courser than a typical espresso grind. Once you have your cup, get fancy like our Assistant Social Media Editor, Yasmine, by warming up some milk, frothing it, and plopping it right on top.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.



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Fried Calamari With Red Sauce Recipe


[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There are few dishes more emblematic of casual American dining than fried calamari. These crispy, succulent strips of squid are easy finger food, perfect for sharing family-style with a side of marinara sauce for dipping.

Fried calamari is a relatively recent addition to the American menu. In fact, it only rose to prominence on American menus in the late 1970s, according to this The New York Times analysis of food trends. Around the same time, in an effort to curb overfishing, state and federal marine conservation programs pushed the restaurant industry to consider adopting squid on their menus. Today, you can find fried calamari pretty much anywhere, like roadside clam shacks, bars, and, of course, at tried-and-true Italian-American red-sauce joints.

And while sharing a plate of fried calamari at a restaurant is how most of us enjoy it, that doesn’t mean you can’t also have fried calamari at home—in fact, as fried foods go, it’s pretty easy. The key is in the details: namely soaking the squid before giving it a well-balanced dredging, followed by a quick cooking time, for a light, golden crust and tender squid that’s never squishy, grease-laden, or rubbery.

I start by soaking the squid in milk and salt for up to two hours, which mellows out any fishy flavors and seasons the meat. Because of its slight viscosity, milk also helps the flour coating adhere to the squid.*

*Marinating in dairy is said to have a tenderizing effect on meat due to lactic acid. While this technique may work for other meats, I didn’t find dairy to produce any game-changing improvements in the texture of the squid here.

Then, to build a crisp, evenly browned exterior, I opt for a blend of wheat flour and cornstarch. Proteins in wheat flour promote browning, a bit of baking powder aerates the coating, and cornstarch keeps the dredge crisp and mitigates greasiness. That said, the exact ratio is a matter of personal preference. If desired, you can dial down the cornstarch to reduce the crispness (or omit it entirely—the calamari will still be delicious), or increase it slightly for a more crunchy shell. Just compensate accordingly with the amount of flour so that you end up with roughly the same volume of dredge.

Quick cooking means tender squid, so when it comes time to fry, success is largely a matter of maintaining a steady temperature and cooking the squid for just a few minutes. To keep the temperature from dipping too low, the best approach is to start with the oil a bit hotter than you’ll really need (around 365°F/185°C) to so that it’ll drop into the ideal zone (around 275-300°F/135-150°C) once the squid is added. From there, just use a thermometer and adjust your heat accordingly to keep it in the zone.



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The Best Gifts for Beginner Cooks


Coming up with gift ideas for the beginner cook is pretty easy—even if they already have the essentials. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go wrong. There’s a host of bad products (and product bundles) marketed toward the novice cook, and the sellers are counting on the neophyte to know no better and opt for an expensive nonstick skillet over a cheap cast iron pan. Luckily for them, you’re around to steer them in the right direction, and give truly useful gifts that will reward their early ventures into cooking.

Whenever we shop for new cooks, we think back to our own starting mistakes. Why did we wait so long to buy an instant-read thermometer? Or a scale?

In part, that’s because once we’ve replaced a poor tool with a superior one, we have a far greater understanding of its value. The gift you’re giving is more than just the item in question: You’re passing on the wisdom of your experience.

A Nice Pan

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Cooking is a lot more enjoyable if you have a decent pan or two. For novice cooks who are in the market for a Western-style skillet, we recommend investing in both a cast iron and a tri-ply stainless steel pan.

Cast iron pans are prized for being durable, versatile, and affordable. They are kitchen workhorses with excellent heat retention properties, making them well-suited for a wide range of tasks like searing steaks, frying latkes, and baking cornbread. Sure, cast iron requires a little extra care, but with just a few seconds of upkeep, this is a pan that will last well past a lifetime.

Tri-ply stainless steel skillets are much lighter than cast iron pans, better at conducting heat, and won’t react with acidic ingredients. They’re ideal for quickly sautéing vegetables, making pan sauces, and tossing ingredients like a badass.

An Awesome Chef’s Knife

Picking a knife can depend on a range of factors, such as hand size, experience level, and intended uses, which is why we’ve devoted an entire guide to knife-related considerations. But we’re confident recommending our house favorite, the Misono UX10, to the majority of cooks. This knife is sharp straight out of the box, and it will stay sharp despite repeated use. It’s light, well-balanced, and it will certainly make the prospect of learning how to chop and slice all the more enticing for someone setting out to master knife skills.

Another benefit: It’s nice enough that it’ll provide ample motivation for the new cook to learn how to properly store and take care of their knives, and the importance of keeping them sharp, either by sending it out for proper sharpening or learning how to sharpen it themselves.

A Set of Tongs and Tweezers

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

A pair of tongs is invaluable for moving food around during cooking, acting as an extension of your hand. From fishing out noodles from boiling water to turning steaks or cutlets, these tongs from OXO can handle it all without damaging or scratching your pans. And if you’d like to get really cheffy, pick up a pair of tweezer tongs. They’re an affordable stocking stuffer that will impress and excite any kitchen newbie.

An Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

[Photo: Emily Dryden]

A Dutch oven is another piece of equipment that we use all the time for making soups, stews, and braises, as well as for deep frying, and even baking bread. They’re sturdy, easy on the eyes, and will last a lifetime. Staub and Le Creuset make the best investment piece Dutch ovens on the market.

The Right Stand Mixer

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

If the budding chef in your life is in fact something closer to a budding pastry chef, they won’t be able to realize their dreams without a good stand mixer. Many baking recipes pretty much require a stand mixer. Stella recommends the KitchenAid Pro due to its powerful motor and its solid-metal gears, which help it power through things like cold butter easily and quickly. Throw in standard attachments, like a pasta maker or meat grinder, and it’s basically a one-stop shop for specialty food production.

Measuring Tools

A cook can’t accurately follow a recipe if they don’t have the correct tools to measure out their ingredients, so getting your giftee a set of measuring cups and spoons is a great place to start. But also, keep in mind that volume isn’t the only (or best) way to measure out a recipe’s ingredients. For accuracy and ease of use (especially with baking projects), a digital kitchen scale is hard to beat, and it makes for a great gift.

A Cutting Board

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll probably want some milk. If you give a cook a knife, they’ll need a cutting board to put it to use. Whether you choose plastic or wood is up to you. (Of course, we did the research and can help you find the best of each.)

Plastic cutting boards are inexpensive. Our favorite from OXO is sturdy, but light, and it’s dishwasher-safe. It’s the kind of thing a new cook can feel comfortable using because they’re hard to damage and easily replaceable. However, a good wooden cutting board, like this one from The BoardSmith, is worth owning. It’s extremely durable, gentle on your knives, and very good looking.

Spices (Fresh Ones!)

It’s possible that your beginner cook already has a few basic spices in their pantry, but lord knows how old they are. If they’re over a year old, they might as well be sawdust. So do your giftee a favor and pick up a bundle of fresh spices from Burlap & Barrel, one of our favorite spice purveyors. You can build your own bundle with classics like dried thyme and ground turmeric, while also adding a couple exciting options in there, like Icelandic kelp and urfa chile, to inspire your giftee to experiment in the kitchen.

Fun Pantry Ingredients

[Photo: Daniel Gritzer]

A few weeks ago, we wrote a story about our favorite pantry ingredients worth the splurge.

There’s no better way to get a new cook in the kitchen than a basket full of tasty ingredients, like Sicilian tomato estratto for rigatoni alla vodka, fish sauce for Brussels sprouts muchim, and olive oil for well, everything.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules with this one. But if you love cooking with a certain ingredient, chances are your beginner cook will too.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.



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