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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A recipient's personality, lifestyle and skill level are among several things to consider when purchasing a cooking gift.

A pressure cooker or popcorn popper may not fit in your Christmas stocking, but it fits Utah's stay-at-home mood right now.

These, as well as fondue sets, raclettes, mixers and mixing bowls, are big sellers this year, according to some local stores that specialize in small kitchen appliances and tools.

This year's hot tools and appliances seem to signal a return to the kitchen, as well as the desire to save money and time.

The Nesco 3-In-1 electric pressure cooker (about $130) can also be used as a slow cooker or a steamer, said John Hair, owner of John and Jennie's Bosch Kitchen Center.

"It is very easy to use and cooks your food in half the time. The best part is that you can just set the time that you would like to pressure cook your food and walk away."

The aisles of coffee makers are probably due to people trying to save money on their latte or cappuccino habit. A hot cocoa machine called Cocoa Latte (around $28) is selling well in the gourmet housewares departments in Harmons stores, reports Julie Ward, sales director. "I think this is a Utah thing."

Other big sellers this year: the Cuisinart Popcorn Maker and the Waring Pro Theater popcorn maker. This could have something to do with regular popcorn's cheaper cost than microwave-style popcorn. But Ward credits the rise in movie-watching at home.

"I do believe that consumers are having fun in the kitchen again and spending time preparing supper," she said. "I am also seeing a more retro trend in what is selling."

For instance, fondue pots, big during the '60s, are back; and the raclette grill, another Swiss cooking implement involving melted cheese, is a hit this year. "This is the third year we have sold this item in Harmons, and we are selling them three times the rate we did in the past two seasons," Ward said.

The small grill has two tiers. Meat and veggies are sauteed on the top, while cheese melts in individual shallow pans below. Diners take some of the meat and veggies from the grill, and then pour the melted cheese over all.

One experienced Salt Lake City cook, Karin Palle, said she's gotten great use from the raclette grill she was given several years ago.

"It hosts eight, and has been a great entertaining tool," she said."

But at around $60-$140, it's an expensive toy if it just gathers dust.

Another popular item is Pourfect, a line of calibrated measuring cups and mixing bowls, said Ward. Their popularity may point to the return to home baking, as demand for dough mixers, such as the Bosch Universal Plus, has been high, according to Greggory Tuft of the Tuft Bosch Kitchen Center.

But Utah has always had better sales on baking or sweet-related items than other parts of the country, said Nick Granato of Spoons 'n Spice. "We always sell a lot of ice cream makers, popcorn poppers, Bundt pans and anything that has to do with baking."

Likewise, while home canning equipment surged in sales this year, "they've always been a big business for us," Granato said.

He said Utahns generally follow the rest of the country in buying the popular items of the day, "as long as it's a good, viable product and not just gimmicky. Utahns are a bit more wise and frugal with their money. They won't just spend $500 on something that's going to marinate their meat, when they can get a tenderizer and do it otherwise. They want to make sure it will be worth the investment."

Most of the proprietors credit the Food Network for new cooking tools.

In talking to a number of experienced cooks and chefs, oft-mentioned favorite tools included food processors, immersion blenders, Sil-Pat silicone baking mats, hand-held choppers, stand mixers, and good knifes and pans. The infomercial star, the Magic Bullet, got mixed reviews. Many say they avoid trendy gadgets in favor of the basics.

"Gadgets are great if you know how to use them and if they honestly make life easier," said Marguerite Henderson, a Salt Lake cooking instructor and cookbook author. "I believe they are just one more thing to wash. A good sharp knife does the trick most times."

And what is incredibly useful to one cook may just be counter clutter to another.

Consider which of yesteryear's "must-haves" are still around: the Crock-Pot and the Presto Burger 1975, the hot air popcorn popper in the early '80s, and the bread machine of the 1990s. Low-carb diets fueled the George Foreman grill sales in the early 2000s, but proprietors say sales of these are down, likely because the market is saturated.

When shopping for a kitchen gift, consider:

Recipient's personality. Do they enjoy the latest in computers and cell phones? Do they enjoy all the bells and whistles? A no-frills person is likely to be happier with a good knife and cutting board than the latest chop-o-matic machine.

Recipient's lifestyle. A hurried have-to cook will probably use more time-saving tools, while the hobby foodie may enjoy more adventurous or complex items.

Counter or storage space necessary.

How easy it is to clean? Can you throw it in the dishwasher? Are there a lot of little parts that could easily get lost?

Does it routinely need replacement items? How easy are they to buy? For instance, can you buy more plastic pouches for your vacuum sealing machine?

Does it fit with the recipient's specialty? "When people ask for help in choosing a gift, I ask what their interests are," said Nick Granato. "Do they like coffee, or grilling or baking? From there, you look at what some of the popular items are."

Skill level. "I love using a good mandoline, but without the proper training, it can become very frustrating and dangerous to use," said Bob Bryant, head of Harmon's culinary classes.

Beware of one-food wonders. Look for multi-use items. "Don't buy something that can only be used for one cooking operation, such as a hot dog cooker or a bacon cooker," advised Bryant, "The only exceptions to this rule would be a good popcorn popper or rice cooker."

You don't need a panini maker if you've got a grill pan and lid, advises Marguerite Henderson. "Flip it once and you've got grill marks on top and bottom."

Take a class. "If you see a demonstration of the product, it will give you a better idea of if you will use it at home," said John Hair, whose store offers free classes using many of the store's products.

Cost. "Price is not always the best indicator," cautioned Tuft. "If you can buy a quality item once, it is much better in the long run than buying a replacement every year."

Downsize your options. If you can't afford to get a new barbecue grill for that outdoor cook, consider the new Circulon grill pan (around $70), a bag of flavored wood chips or other accessories.

A vacuum-sealing FoodSaver machine is $100 or more; but if the idea is to store leftovers, you might try plastic storage containers or printing identifying "leftover labels."

"For gifts under $25, you cannot beat the Butter Bells (a crock to keep butter fresh) or the Kuhn Rikon paring knife. Both are gifts that most people would not already have, and both are items that we can hardly keep in stock," reported Greggory Tuft.

Other budget-wise choices that people can always use more of: the silicone pot holder or spatula.

"The pot holders can be used to cover things in the microwave, or as a trivet, or to help open jars, too," said Granato. "And they're easy to clean — just throw them in the dishwasher."

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Potential gifts for cooks

The sky's the limit

The Sous Vide Supreme, a countertop water oven that duplicates the trendy cooking method in high-end restaurants.

You vacuum-pack foods in air-tight plastic pouches, then submerge them in a low-temperature water bath (typically 120-190 degrees Fahrenheit). The results are moist, tender foods that don't get overcooked. It sells for $449 at www.sousvidesupreme.com — and this price doesn't include the vacuum-sealer or plastic pouches.

The Bosch Universal Plus dough mixer has been a very high "in-demand" item this year, according to Gregg Tuft of Tuft Bosch Kitchen Center. Although it retails for around $500, "there (are) not too many kitchen appliances you can say will last you the next 30-plus years," he said. "It has the capabilities to do anything from kneading 15 pounds of bread dough to a quick smoothie in the morning." It's available at local Bosch kitchen centers.

Under $100

 The Circulon nonstick outdoor grill pan is for outdoor cooks who don't like part of their food sliding through the grate and into the fire.

The patented design has a combination of solid and vented ribs that channel flammable grease toward the edge of the pan, to eliminate flare-ups. A pour spout built into the corner of the pan allows you to neatly drain collected grease after cooking ($69.95, in department and speciality stores nationwide.)

 The Baker's Edge brownie pan has interior sidewalls, so every piece of brownie will have two or three chewy edges. It's around $35 in retail stores or on www.bakersedge.com. A similar idea, the Perfect Brownie Baking Set, is around $19.95 in national retail stores and at www.perfectbrownie.com.

 Pourfect mixing bowls: These ergonomic-handled mixing bowls have a nonslip silicone base, measurement markings, a dripless pour spout and pivot that allows the bowl to latch onto the edge of a stand mixer without hitting the beater or spilling. They come in one-cup to 12-cup sizes, and cost $15-$40, depending on the size and set. Available nationwide in department and cooking stores, and Amazon.com.

 The Paula Deen 19-Piece Kids Baking Set features real tools that are sized to fit small hands: measuring cups and spoons, wood rolling pin, mixing spoon, stainless steel offset turner, silicone spatula and spoon, a stainless steel whisk, and a liquid measuring cup.

The sturdy, dishwasher-safe tools come in a clear plastic storage box. Available in stores nationwide and at www.potsandpans.com, for about $24.99.

 Healthy FoodTees: These are T-shirts, aprons and totes with clever designs promoting fruits and veggies. For instance, a picture of celery paired with the word, "Stalker." Or a picture of two beets, "heart beet," or a cauliflower and "flower child." They range in price from $20-$49, with part of the proceeds going to the Food Studies Institute and can be ordered on www.FoodTee.com.

 "Julie & Julia" on DVD or Blu-ray. The hit movie to inspire some culinary fun stars Meryl Streep as the legendary Julia Child and Amy Adams as the food blogger who cooked and blogged her way through Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes interview with cast and crew, and the Blu-ray disc has a tour of Child's kitchen, now housed at the Smithsonian, a bio on Child, and cooking demos from Child and other top chefs. The DVD retails for $28.96 and Blu-Ray for $39.95.

 ChopKeeper Cutting Board: Made of colorful, thin, hard plastic, it has 1/2-inch raised sides to keep juices or crumbs from spilling. It's shaped so that you can funnel the chopped food more easily into a bowl. One caution: In the Deseret News test kitchen, we found it was hard to keep slippery foods from sliding around on the board's smooth surface. They are dishwasher-safe, and $10.99 for a package of three trays, at www.argeecorp.com or 800-449-3030.