I‘ve spent plenty of holiday seasons on the other side of the register, working retail in culinary stores. Sure, the pay stunk, but it was fun in its manic way. The many shots of free espresso we brewed with the automatic coffee machines and the ceaseless soundtrack of peppy Christmas standards kept us alert and full of . . . well, it wasn’t cheer, really. Let’s just call it adrenaline.
Often, I was not really behind the register at all, but slowly circling the shelves laden with specialty serving pieces and larding needles, seeking fresh customers to zero in on. But I also handled scores of merchandise returns, especially in January. Sometimes people exchanged things because they wanted a Dutch oven in eggplant instead of cobalt, or a knife with an eight-inch blade instead of a six-inch blade.
But often it was because the gifts they’d received just plain didn’t work. The things listed below? I highly advise you not buy them for those you care about. But don’t take my word for it. Trust the sad sight of the returns shelf in the stockroom, sagging with busted crap.
1. Peugeot pepper and salt mills This French company makes luxury automobiles, bikes, scooters—and pepper mills. Their mills are not cheap, and they are often handsome to look at. Too bad they don’t work. What to give instead: I like Mr. Dudley mills, but, to be honest, my favorite mill was some off-brand acrylic thing. It still works great. Vic Firth (specialty: drumsticks, rolling pins) mills are well made, too.
2. Battery-operated milk frothers These little wands seem like such a great solution: froth milk at home for cozy, fancy coffee drinks. Save money all year long! But they’re fragile and often junky; many have life spans of less than a year. What to give instead: The much more expensive Nespresso Aeroccino works exceptionally well, until it stops working. I’ve seen dozens of frothing gadgets, and there’s no single one to recommend unequivocally. That’s why I like to leave it to the pros. How about a gift card for the recipient’s favorite coffee shop?
3. Silicon bakeware of any kind I’ve used this stuff and it’s awful: floppy, challenging to store, impossible to get clean and (most importantly) useless at browning things in the oven. What to give instead: Aluminum baking pans are moderate in cost, and they usually outperform their more expensive, heavier counterparts. Steer away from nonstick lining if you can; it wears out, interferes with browning and still needs to be greased anyway.
4. Expensive knife block sets A hefty wooden knife block packed with a dozen different knives is visually impressive, especially if those knives are made by one of the big-name players: Wusthof, Shun, Henckel. Of the seven knives I keep in my kitchen, I use three in regular rotation: the chef’s knife, the serrated knife and the paring knife. There’s no reason to have a massive knife block using up a bunch of counter space when you’re only going to use only three or four of those knives. What to give instead: An empty, smaller knife block with a gift certificate. Real knife geeks don’t covet knife block sets; they covet individual knives.
5. Stupid cutting, pitting and dicing gadgets The mango pitter. The avocado slicer. The melon gutter. Useless. This is the junk that’s appealing for a month, until you discover it’s actually not helpful at all, and then it languishes in the back of some overcrowded drawer until it goes to the Goodwill or garage sale. What to give instead: A gift certificate to a knife-skills class, where it’s possible to learn to pit mangos, slice avocados and dice onions with one handy tool: a decent knife.
6. Boxed gourmet baking mixes We’re talking Stonewall Kitchen and Barefoot Contessa. At eight to 12 bucks a pop, you are buying a box full of flour, sugar and baking powder at a 500 percent markup, plus the baker still has to furnish the eggs and butter. What to give instead: A good baking book (I’m really fond of John Barricelli’s Seasonal Baker) or a decent electric kitchen scale.
7. Gravy separators I used to think these were a Thanksgiving lifesaver—they are supposed to make it easy to pour the fat off your roasted bird’s pan juices—but after a few frustrating annual gravy-making sessions, I’ve decided it’s just as easy to skim off the fat with a big metal serving spoon, and most people already have one of those. Plus, gravy separators are a bitch to clean. What to give instead: Martha Holmberg’s excellent Modern Sauces. Honestly, I don’t recall if she recommends using a fat separator or not, but in that book, she offers tips culled from a lifetime of savvy sauce-making.
8. Digital probe thermometers This is the kind of thermometer that has a probe connected to a digital command center by a cord. You stick the probe in your hunk of roasting meat, pop the whole thing in the hot oven, then conveniently look at the digital display on your oven door or countertop, thereby getting up-to-the-second temperature readings of your cooking beast without even opening up the oven! What a great idea, right? Yeah, if the thermometer wasn’t made to break. These things quit working if you even look at them the wrong way. Besides, I’m a fan of poking and prodding and examining. How are you ever going to be familiar with what properly cooked meat looks like or feels if you don’t, you know, look at it and touch it from time to time? What to give instead: Instant-read thermometers, the cheap ones. I prefer the dial kind over the digital kind, because you can easily calibrate them. I have two, and I usually cross-check if I’m cooking up a very expensive piece of meat I don’t want to ruin.
9. Crappy mandolines A crappy mandoline is worse than no mandoline. I’ve used a bunch that are hard to store, flimsy and give inconsistent results. And the more rickety a mandoline, the more likely you are to cut yourself. OXO, Zyliss, Swissmar, Chef’n: suck, suck, suck, suck. What to give instead: A decent mandoline does not have to break the bank. There’s a reason chefs always gush over those Japanese Benriner mandolines: they work—and usually start around $25.
10. Waring pro blender Waring is the granddaddy of blenders, dating back 60-some years. And they are fine if you want to whirr up a smoothie or have a margarita party now and then. But they are not very powerful, and therefore less versatile than other, more modern blenders. What to give instead: Santa, I have been, at times, very, very good. I could ask for a KitchenAid or a Breville, but I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. So, yeah, a Vitamix, please. If not this year, then next, or the one after that. Until then, I can always use an extra instant-read thermometer.