Do you have a friend whose kitchen aspires to be a laboratory, who weighs every ingredient to the milligram, who can name half a dozen culinary hydrocolloids and their relative merits?
These are gifts for that person.
A Controlled-Temperature Cooker
Sous vide has graduated from being a specialized technique adored by the few, to a specialized technique anyone can use. There are now a couple of consumer-grade sous vide cooker options on the market: the Sous Vide Supreme, which is a big tank of water that holds a constant temperature; and the new Polyscience Creative circulator, which you immerse in your own bath of water (a stock pot works well). The Polyscience one is a lower-budget (but still $500) version of the immersion circulators used in laboratories and kitchens worldwide: it keeps the temperature steadier than the Sous Vide Supreme, with no hot or cold spots, even if you add and remove food from the bath frequently. But it costs more, and it’s not styled like a countertop appliance, if you’re into that. The third option is the slightly more DIY approach, which entails buying your giftee a PID temperature controller that hooks up to a rice cooker or slow cooker. This is the cheapest and in many ways the most flexible option. Creative circulator, $500; Sous Vide Supreme, $429, or Sous Vide Supreme Demi, $329; PID controller, $147.
A Little Centrifuge
The world of centrifugation offers amazing possibilities in the kitchen. Whirling at thousands of times the force of gravity, you can clarify juices, make fresh nut butters and milks, separate soups, and even extract delicious things you never knew were there, like the butter from a pea. To spin with the big guys, you need a substantial piece of machinery that can handle multiple-liter batches, and preferably keep them cool while they go. That’s an investment of thousands of dollars. But you can get a notion of the potential of centrifugation by picking up a tabletop model. This model, made by Ample Scientific (a name that will become more and more ironic to you as you grapple with the machine’s low yield) can spin 120ml at a time, enough for a small serving of something. But it costs under $200, a couple orders of magnitude less than what Myhrvold’s got. It’ll get you started. Ample Scientific, $180
A Home Carbonator Rig
Even amateurs have SodaStreams now, but if someone’s serious about making things sparkle, a plain tank of CO2 and a hose is much more versatile, and vastly cheaper to refill. Mahoney went over how to build your own soda-making setup back in June, and it’s still an excellent idea. Pre-carbonate a dozen 2-liter bottles of cocktail before a party, and you’re off the hook for mixing drinks during the event. You can buy a pre-assembled gas regulator kit for your friend, instead of building it piece by piece: one end screws onto a CO2 tank; snap the other end onto a bottle of liquid and you’re done. Give this to your most seltzer-addicted friend. Keg Connection (CO2 not included), $99
A Nitrous Charger
The handheld N2O canister has come far since its original purpose of making easy whipped cream. Although you can still use it for that, it’s got additional culinary uses that make it a valuable, versatile thing to have in your kitchen. It turns any liquid into a frothy treat — I use it on egg nog — but a few years ago some bartenders started using the classic whipped-cream charger as a way to rapidly infuse flavor into liquor. Instead of lengthily soaking botanical ingredients in alcohol to let the booze sop up the flavor, your giftee can put (say) fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks in your room-temperature bourbon, pour the mixture into a nitrous whipper, and blast it with a charge of N2O. While it’s pressurized, swirl it around for a minute or so, then vent out the gas, pour out the liquid, and strain it. Voila, instant infusion! iSi Gourmet Whip, $99
A Mushroom Farm
Back in the spring, we talked about growing your own mushrooms in a Mason jar. It’s easier than that, though, to fill your home with savory homegrown fungi. Fungi Farm pre-inoculates alder logs with shiitake spores. You can just give the log a soak in water, then keep it in a dim place and watch it bloom. Again and again, for years. Shiitakes grown on logs seem to be much more flavorful than the ones in supermarkets, which grow on sterile media. You can eat these fresh or dry them, which hydrolyzes the proteins and concentrates the flavor. Fungi Farm, $23-$25.
A Pressure Smoker
A pressure cooker has an aura of quaintness and also of danger, but its value in the contemporary kitchen is unarguable. At 15 psi and 250°F (121°C), it makes quick pressure-cooked stocks, soups, stews; near-instant risotto; heat-treated shelf-stable foods, and other treats. An electric pressure cooker offers set-and-forget ease, but make sure you get a model that goes up to 15 psi, like the Nesco. Or, while you’re at it, why not get the Emson model, (also available through Hammacher Schlemmer), which has a rack and wood-chip chamber so it can be used as a small hot- or cold-smoker as well!
A Digital Kettle
You might not think that boiling water can be, or needs to be, improved upon technologically. That’s true, to an extent: but it can be made easier. Modern electric kettles let you set the exact target temperature you want your water to reach: full boil for black tea, 204°F (95°C) for coffee, 190°F (87°C) for oolong tea, etc. Try the Pino or the Bonavida, both excellent machines.
Countless variables go into a cup of coffee: region, varietal, altitude, harvest, processing, drying, aging, roasting, storing, grinding … but brewing, at least, is typically within one’s control, and there are ways to make it as scientific and reproducibly delicious a cup as possible. MojoToGo and ExtractMojo from VST Labs are applications — one for iOS, one for Windows — that calculate the optimal brew, based on the amount of water, temperature, mass of beans, and method, and plots each cup on a graph showing strength and extraction. Your giftee can figure the perfect cup and make it the same way every time. The software is designed to pair with an optional $499 refractometer that analyzes a drop of brewed coffee to measure the total dissolved solids in it. That’s a level of obsessiveness that not everyone needs, but coffee is serious stuff. MojoToGo, $69; ExtractMojo, $49-$149; Refractometer, $499-$599.