America’s Test Kitchen uses a rigorous evaluation process. Its team puts tools and equipment to work, over and over, to see how well they perform, then takes them apart to figure out why they work — or don’t. The team tries to damage them to assess durability, sends some for laboratory analysis, and even interviews engineers, designers and scientists about them. The ATK goal: to recommend well-made products that provide good, lasting value.

Chef’s knife

There’s nothing more important in the kitchen. A high-quality knife can make quick work of even the toughest tasks — breaking down a whole chicken, cutting a winter squash, dicing several onions.

The best knives are comfortable to hold, retain their edge and boast a blade shape that makes chopping smooth, all of which are key for ease of use and safety. No need for a knife set, because you will probably never use some of those blades. Plus, you’ll be far better served investing in a single, high-quality chef’s knife, one of the only blades you’ll ever need.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8" Chef's Knife

Still the best — and a bargain — after 20 years, this knife’s “super-sharp” blade was “silent” and “smooth,” even as it cut through tough squash, and it retained its edge after weeks of testing. Its textured grip felt secure for a wide range of hand sizes, and thanks to its gently rounded edges and the soft, hand-polished top spine, we could comfortably choke up on the knife for “precise,” “effortless” cuts.

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Nonstick frying pan

Here’s another kitchen staple worth pulling out multiple times a week. Nonstick skillets are ideal for cooking food that might otherwise burn or tear, such as eggs, breaded chicken cutlets and pancakes. We also like to use them for stir-fries.

Look for a nonstick skillet that is oven-safe, handy for foods that go from stove top to oven, such as a frittata. A 12-inch is the most versatile size, especially if you’re routinely cooking for your family. Ideally, the sides will be only gently sloped so that you get more cooking surface.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

OXO Good Grips Non-Stick 12-inch Open Frypan

This pan came slick and stayed that way. It cooked and released food perfectly, thanks to its darker finish and excellent nonstick coating. Its gently flared sides and lightweight design made it easy to load, unload, and move. Its grippy stay-cool handle was flawless and its cooking surface vast. It showed some light knife marks but otherwise emerged from testing unscathed.

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Blender

When you want something super smooth, this is the appliance you need — and when you consider all the frozen adult beverages you or your gift recipient will be making come summer, this present makes even more sense. You’ll turn to the blender instead of a food processor when it comes to pureeing hot soup and blending or crushing ice. Because of its shape, a blender can also more efficiently handle smaller amounts of food that might not come together in a larger food processor. Even if you choose not to use it for anything other than smoothies and milkshakes, it’s worth the investment.

Of course, you can spend several hundreds of dollars on a high-end blender that can easily tackle nut butters or heat a soup after you puree it. They can make juice, too, as long as you don’t expect the same quality you would get from a dedicated juicer. For most of us, though, an inexpensive blender can still handle plenty of tasks for a much lower price. Look for a narrow jar that ensures even blending and neat pouring. Straightforward controls are ideal, as is a relatively quiet machine.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Vitamix 5200

This quiet, high-powered blender has simple, intuitive controls. As for its blending capability, it was top-notch. It was able to produce fine-textured foods without incorporating excess air, thanks to its narrow blender jar. The tamper accessory was helpful when blending thicker foods, and the blender’s 7-year warranty insured our investment. It’s tall, at 20.25 inches, so it can’t be stored on a counter beneath a standard 18-inch-tall cabinet, and its narrow jar made scraping out its contents a minor challenge.

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AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Black and Decker Performance FusionBlade Blender

Inexpensive | Our top-rated inexpensive blender made impressively silky smoothies, frozen margaritas, mayonnaise, and pureed soups that were on par with those produced by blenders costing five times as much. It was notably quiet and didn’t stain or trap odors. It failed and overheated during the almond butter test but recovered afterward thanks to its overheat protection system. Its tall, narrow jar was light and easy to attach, detach, and pour from. It was somewhat hard to tell when its lid was securely attached, so we had to fiddle with it more than we’d like, and its hollow handle sometimes trapped water while in the dishwasher, but we cleared it fairly easily.

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Dutch oven

This is an investment that will give you a lifetime full of food. Its large capacity immediately lends it to soups and stews, not to mention boiling pasta. Because it can go from stove top to oven, a cast-iron Dutch oven is great for braises, too, where you might sear and then gently cook meat. It’s deep enough for frying and retains and traps heat well enough that you can bake crusty bread in it. The Dutch oven is the most versatile, and beautiful, pot in our kitchen.

Stick with a cast-iron model with an enameled coating. Unlike with regular cast-iron, there’s no need to worry about cooking acidic food. Plus, a light-colored enamel interior makes it easier to monitor what’s going on inside the pot, whether it’s how brown your meat is getting or the temperature of your frying oil. A large Dutch oven means, of course, larger batches of soup, plus the ability to roast a whole chicken or other large cuts of meat.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Le Creuset 7¼ Quart Round Dutch Oven

This perfect, pricey pot bested all the other models we tested. It was substantial enough to hold and distribute heat evenly without being unbearably heavy. The light-colored interior combined with low, straight sides gave us good visibility and made it easy to monitor browning and thermometer position. The broad cooking surface saved us time since we could cook more food at once. The lid was smooth and easy to clean. This pot is expensive, but it was exceptionally resistant to damage.

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AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole

Best buy | With an exceptionally broad cooking surface and low, straight sides, this 7-quart pot had the same advantageous shape as our overall winner, the Le Creuset. It was heavier but not prohibitively so. The looped handles were comfortable to hold, though slightly smaller than ideal. The rim and lid chipped cosmetically when we repeatedly slammed the lid onto the pot, so it's slightly less durable than the Le Creuset 7¼ Quart Round Dutch Oven.

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Food scale

A regular scale? That’s a downer gift to pair with a gym membership. A food scale? That says, “You deserve the best things in life.” Like, excellent baked goods. As almost any experienced baker will tell you, the best way to guarantee success — tender cakes, chewy cookies — is to weigh your ingredients. Plus, you can cut down on cleanup when you can reset the scale to zero after each addition and measure ingredients consecutively into a single bowl. You’ll find a scale is plenty useful for non-sweets, whether it’s evenly portioning burgers or confirming you have the correct weight for whatever meat or vegetables are called for in a recipe.

A typical capacity is 11 pounds, which is enough for everyday kitchen tasks. When weighing options (sorry!), keep in mind how easy a scale is to read, clean and use, and whether the buttons are accessible and clearly labeled. Slim models fit in tight storage.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

OXO Good Grips 11 Pound Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display

This scale truly has it all: ­consistent accuracy; a clear, bright digital display (which pulls out from the frame and includes a ­backlight); responsive, clearly labeled buttons; a removable platform that makes cleanup a breeze; and a sturdy, slim body that stores easily. Weights can be displayed in both grams and ounces.

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Food processor

You can find a gadget for almost any task these days, but the best investments are multitaskers that earn their keep. If there’s one thing that ticks all those boxes, it’s a food processor. It’s great for chopping — from coarsely broken up to finely chopped — vegetables, cheese or nuts. Grating and shredding? It can do that, too. Food processors can make mayonnaise, pizza dough and pie crust. Save money and ensure quality by grinding your own meat.

If you’re only going to buy one food processor, go big (11- to 14-cup capacity). You won’t have to empty the bowl as often, plus you’ll still get the shredding and slicing disks that are so useful. Big machines, in addition to a higher capacity, have strong motors, which is key for food such as pizza dough. If you have space for a second, a small processor can be handy for prep work and small amounts, although its usefulness is limited.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Cuisinart Custom 14 Food Processor

With a powerful, quiet motor; responsive pulsing action; sharp blades; and a simple, pared-down-to-basics design, our longtime favorite standard-sized food processor aced every test, surprising us time and again by outshining pricier, more feature-filled competitors. It was one of the few models that didn’t leak at its maximum stated liquid capacity. It’s also easy to clean and store, because it comes with just a chopping blade and two disks for shredding and slicing. Additional blade options are available à la carte.

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AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Cuisinart Elite Collection 4-Cup Chopper/Grinder

Small | This processor had a sharp blade with great coverage. It turned out crisply cut vegetables and nuts and fluffy parsley. Its strong motor blended hummus and pesto with minimal scraping, and its small feeding tube allowed us to slowly add oil for fantastic mayonnaise.

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Cast-iron skillet

Your grandma had one and so should you. In fact, you may already have grandma’s, because that’s how long-lasting and tough they are. If not, you can’t go wrong buying one — and they can be had for relatively cheap. What can you do in a cast-iron skillet? Almost anything, but we especially like it for searing meats, because it can get screaming hot. Also: frying, chicken in particular. You can bake with one, too, whether it’s a bubbling cobbler, a tender-inside-but-crispy-outside corn bread or a big skillet cookie.

Many skillets these day are sold preseasoned, so you don’t have to worry about adding the protective coating of oil before you start cooking. That’s definitely useful, as is a helper handle, since picking up these rather heavy beasts can be challenging with one hand. Stick with traditional cast-iron over enameled for something that’s less expensive and can take the abuse of metal utensils and the broiler.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our favorite cast-iron skillet arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

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Multicooker

If you believe the hype, this is the appliance that can do EVERYTHING. In reality, it comes close. Perhaps the most popular feature is pressure cooking, which can make perfectly creamy beans, tender braises and steamed vegetables in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. Multicookers can also double as slow cookers, and they include the ability to keep food warm. Some models can make yogurt, too. There’s a reason — or many reasons — these have caught on among both home and professional cooks.

Larger models (6 to 8 quarts) can be used for almost any type of meal and can feed a family. It’s also crucial that the lid be easy to seal for pressure cooking. And so the machine actually starts cooking when you intend it to, clear controls are important. The best devices cook evenly and are capable of reaching a high enough heat to saute ingredients when a recipe calls for it.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1 Multi-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker

Recommended with reservations* | Home cooks and food bloggers alike espouse the life-changing value of the Instant Pot. So is it worth the hype? We found that it depends on how you use it. We were impressed by its abilities to pressure cook, make rice, and sear, but its slow cooking function took an insane amount of time. Half impressive and half disappointing, we gave it a Recommended with Reservations designation.

*While we do think other models are superior at slow cooking, our top-rated multicookers from Fagor and GoWise are being redesigned or are unavailable. And fans of the Instant Pot claim it makes their lives easier and motivates them to prepare food more at home. If that's the case, it's worth every penny.

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Stand mixer

This is often the hallmark of a dedicated baker. But it shouldn’t merely sit as a trophy on your counter, not only because it’s expensive but also because it can do a heck of a lot. Nothing beats its power and speed for kneading bread dough or whipping egg whites. It makes throwing together a cake batter or cookie dough a breeze. And if you or your gift recipient love to make pasta, ice cream or sausage, attachments make those tasks possible.

If you can swing it, a larger capacity machine with a bowl lift, rather than tilt-head, is worth the money. We find it much easier to operate, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to lock the head in place or knocking it into the wall. Other things to look for: A machine that can stand up to thick doughs and attachments that can reach deep enough into the bowl to sufficiently mix everything.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

KitchenAid Pro Line Series 7-Qt Bowl Lift Stand Mixer

This powerful, smartly designed machine made quick work of large and small volumes of food. The bent tines of its whisk fit the bowl’s shape perfectly, its Y-shaped paddle creamed quickly without allowing butter to bunch up in the crevices, and the model handled batches of stiff dough without flinching. Testers liked the bowl-lift design and large vertical bowl handle that aided pouring.

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AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

KitchenAid Classic Plus Series 4.5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer

Inexpensive | This basic, compact, heavy machine’s across-the-board performance knocked out many competitors that were bigger and much more costly (although its tilt head broke on an extreme abuse test). We wish that its bowl had a handle, and a bowl-lift (rather than a tilt-head) design would have been nice, but those are small concessions given its affordable price.

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Instant-read thermometer

This is an investment anyone on your gift list will appreciate. Cooking already involves plenty of guesswork, or at least educated guesswork, so why introduce another element of surprise? Go for a digital thermometer, ideally one with a probe long enough to keep your hands clear of hot liquid and reach the center of large cuts of meat. The faster it registers a reading, the better.

Getting your meat to the right temperature is not only a matter of taste. There’s that whole preventing food poisoning thing, too. (On the flip side, overcooked meat isn’t pleasant either.) But you’ll also want to whip out your thermometer for monitoring liquids, such as frying oil and caramel. And your bread and loaf cakes will be perfectly cooked if you know exactly when they’ve hit the right temperature.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4

Our longtime favorite is still the best instant-read thermometer on the market. It's dead accurate, fast, and so streamlined and simple that it's a breeze to use. It does just what we want: “Tell me the temp; get out of my way,” as one tester put it. Its long handle gave us plenty of room to maneuver, allowing for multiple grips, and a ring of slightly tacky silicone kept our hands confidently secured. The automatic backlight meant we never had to stop and adjust in low light, and the rotating screen is handy for lefties and righties needing different angles. The auto wake-up function is extremely useful; you don't have to stop and turn the thermometer on again midtask. The digits were large and legible, and it's waterproof in up to 39 inches of water for up to 30 minutes. It's also calibratable, promising years of accuracy.

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from Thermoworks.com

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Thermoworks ThermoPop

Inexpensive | This economical thermometer was dead accurate and extremely fast. Compared with fancier models, this model felt like driving a standard car. The display does rotate and has a backlight, but you have to stop and press a button for both functions. You have to be more careful when holding its small lollipop-shaped head, but it makes the best of its size with a grippy, ergonomic design that's reasonably secure and easy to push and pull out of dense foods. Because the head is so small, this model did put our hands a little closer to the heat.

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from Thermoworks.com

Slow cooker

Having a warm dinner on the table as soon as you walk in the door is a dream worth having, especially on weeknights. This is the appliance that can help you make it a reality. Slow cookers are ideal for braised meat, soups and stews, but you can also use them to make other less obvious dishes, such as applesauce, poached shrimp and custard cakes. And even if you’re not starting a dish from scratch in your slow cooker, you will be glad to have one when you need to keep your Thanksgiving mashed potatoes or holiday mulled beverages warm. Despite their wintry appeal, slow cookers are actually great for summer when you don’t want to heat up your kitchen.

The best slow cookers are oval-shaped to accommodate large cuts of meat and have intuitive controls that are straightforward to set. An appliance should cook the food evenly with no hot spots, and even if the insert is a little weighty, you want it to be easy enough to lift without burning yourself.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker With Solid Glass Lid

We loved this slow cooker's well-designed, straightforward control panel with a countdown timer that was simple and unambiguous to set and allowed us to monitor progress at a glance. The roomy, heavy stoneware crock cooked gently and evenly and never boiled, so food emerged tender and juicy. We loved that its broad, protruding handles with grippy textured undersides usually stayed cool enough that we could pick up the crock without potholders. Thick insulation kept heat directed toward the crock, and a built-in internal temperature sensor gave this slow cooker extra “brains” to keep the temperature below boiling, which helped guarantee better results.

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Knife sharpener

A lot of us are probably fine paying $5 every now and again to have a professional sharpen our knives. But for a knife aficionado, hard-core DIYer or cook-who-has-everything, a knife sharpener might be the way to go. There will be no paying out at a shop, no extra trips and immediate gratification.

A good sharpener will restore a knife to its proper angle (more often a slimmer 15 degrees these days). That’s key for smooth slicing and chopping, as well as safety. To keep the process as foolproof as possible, the sharpener should securely hold the knife and keep it from wiggling around. A diamond abrasive won’t rough up the blade, and it will last longer. If you don’t anticipate having to do major repairs, a manual model is sufficient for ordinary sharpening.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Chef'sChoice Trizor XV Knife Sharpener

Electric | With diamond abrasives and a spring-loaded chamber that precisely and gently guided the blade, this sharpener “purred” with perfection, consistently producing edges that were sharper than on brand-new knives from edge to tip. “I’m cutting this paper into confetti,” said one tester. It was the only sharpener to quickly remove nicks in the blade; in 10 minutes, a severely damaged knife looked and cut like a brand-new blade. A big perk: It can convert a 20-degree edge to a sharper 15 degrees.

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AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Chef'sChoice Pronto Manual Diamond Hone Asian Knife Sharpener

Manual | Our favorite manual sharpener quickly and easily restores a razor-sharp edge to blades that have no serious damage. Its high guides ensured that the blade met the abrasive at a precise and secure angle so we could put even pressure along the entire edge. The handle was grippy and comfortable, “anchoring itself in your hand,” and the tool can easily be stored in a drawer.

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Sheet pan

All right, so a rimmed baking sheet doesn’t sound like an exciting gift. But once you (or your gift recipient) start turning out showstopper cookies, gorgeous roasted vegetables and hearty sheet-pan suppers, you’ll get why this is a kitchen must-have. This workhorse can survive plenty of abuse, whether it’s going under a super-hot broiler or into the deep freezer. It’s also incredibly versatile (use it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert!) and cleans like a dream even after you make a mess of it.

When you’re pulling sheets out of the oven, a comfortable, relatively high rim is important, especially if you’re cooking anything that releases liquid. Pick a sturdy, durable model that won’t warp while heating or sag under the weight of your food. The half-sheet (18 by 13 inches) is the size we turn to time and again.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet

Everything prepared in this sturdy, warp-resistant sheet cooked appropriately and evenly. Best of all, our new favorite is a few bucks cheaper than our old winner.

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Immersion blender

What can you make with it? Soups. Gravy. Smoothies. Mayonnaise. Guacamole. Vinaigrette. Pancake batter. Sauces. Frothed milk. Whipped cream. Baby food. Salsa. In other words, a lot. Plus, it’s cheaper, smaller and in some situations even more efficient than a traditional blender or food processor.

Because immersion blenders can be messy or downright dangerous when used improperly or designed poorly, comfort and security are crucial. The handle should be comfortable and easy to grip, and the blade end should fit securely on the handle end. Choose a model that has a limited number of speeds controlled by accessible, responsive buttons.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN RECOMMENDED

Braun Multiquick 5 Hand Blender

This blender’s two speeds were well calibrated and were all we needed to bounce from task to task with ease. Out of all the products we tested, it was the easiest to maneuver—light and slim, with a grippy body. It had a whisk for perfect whipped cream and a blending cup that contained splatter. We downgraded it a wee bit for leaving small, precise bits of kale in its (still perfectly drinkable) smoothie.

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from Amazon.com

The New Essentials Cookbook

Cooking well is about knowing when to reach for a nonstick skillet and when not to, why you “reverse sear” thick chops, and what umami really is. The New Essentials Cookbook presents a new approach to building on your skills with a lineup of what we consider today’s essential dishes, each paired with insightful, practical “Think Like a Chef” sidebars with tips and how-tos to help you tackle all kinds of recipes with confidence.

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from Amazon.com

About this story

Design and development by Amanda Soto. Illustration by Mel Cerri for The Washington Post. Photos by Tom McCorkle; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post. Product photos courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen.

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