In the years since I first learned to to cook, I have never owned anything that was over $100 that could make my cooking better. This is part due to not having the money to buy anything nice and part due to stubborn resistance. If I never had a Le Creuset then stews basically tasted as I expected them to, and if I always kneaded dough by hand, I could never know the ease of having a Cuisinart dough hook.
Believe it or not, there are many, many cooks just like me. As Hamilton Nolan, classic Gawker blogger and resident scholar of frugality once wrote, "You don't need that fancy shit." This totem applies across hobby platforms, with the minor exceptions of horseback riding and most winter sports. Otherwise, why are you buying all that crazy kerfuffle and spending all your bread? Remember back in the day when pilgrims didn't have a food processor? They still ate, didn't they? They ate damn well, too. Lots of pumpkins and apples and good-ass butter.
If you want to buy a gift for your friend/family member/lover/cousin/dog/Backyardigan that will enable them to cook great meals without them having to spend a ton of money on fancy culinary tools, you should look no further than right here. The only ingredient you need in order to make any meal delicious is ~~love~~, so why let a wretched immersion blender* beat it to a pulp?
This is an easy one. Buy a bottle of wine (price: doesn't matter) and then drink it. Give the empty bottle to your friend and now they never have to buy a rolling pin. If you're feeling precious, stuff it with Tootsie Rolls so it doesn't seem like you're just giving a beloved friend your recycling to toss out.
These are the kinds of cheap and silly gifts that you see at cooking shops and don't ever pick up because you think, "Who would ever use this?" But the beautiful thing is that this is a practical gift for someone who doesn't have a lot of money. Onions get used in every recipe and many, many times you'll find you don't need to use the whole thing. Stuff it in an onion keeper and you've saved yourself 50 cents.
Tongs are definitively the most important tool in a home kitchen. Without question! Tongs are an extension of your hand and can be used in twirling pasta, fluffing salads, turning meat—all kinds of good crap. By nature of the fact that they are used frequently by any home cook, they get worn out fast. Buy your frugal cook a pair (or many pairs) and you've given them a blessed gift to last a lifetime.
This stupid ingredient is called for so much in recipes and I still don't really know how it helps. Like bay leaves, when you need it most, it is nowhere to be found even though you swore you picked some up last time you were at the grocery store. It's also great for digestion if you put a little in your water before or after eating dinner. You'll feel stellar buying it for yourself and giving it to someone else.
These can be used for storage or for icing a cake. Ziplocs are pricey enough that they can be a pain to buy yourself and keep in stock, but if a friend were to toss a couple boxes your way, this would be a great windfall. A perfectly acceptable use for a Ziploc bag is to freeze soup. Pour your soup into a Ziploc bag, zip that buddy up, toss into the freezer, and save for later. Ready to eat some frozen soup? Put the Ziploc in a warm-hot water bath and pour out when the soup begins to liquify again.
Napkins are not something your friend will request or want. You will give him or her twelve cloth napkins because you care about your friend and every time they have a dinner party, they have shitty paper napkins getting tossed around. Wasteful trash! The ideal is to have twelve cloth napkins at the ready for nights when guests come over—they are simple, reusable, and make everyone feel a little more upscale. A double present.
An item that only bakers really remember to buy but one that gets called for in too many recipes is parchment paper. I'm not quite sure I understand its purpose and am certain there is a conspiracy behind its consistent use, but just trust me. If you need to line your baking tin with cookies, where's the parchment paper? Buy it, they'll thank you later.
As the Serious Eats food lab points out, bay leaves are good in everything from stews to soups to alongside cooked birds. They add subtle flavor to dishes that, though it may seem imperceptible, actually help to deepen the quality of your meal. A jar of bay leaves, if your frugal cook does not have one, will be the added touch they need. If they don't put a bay leaf (or a couple) in their soups, never go to their house again and break off the friendship forever. Send nasty letters and throw in a bay leaf.
One of the biggest complications in being a frugal cook is that affording extravagant ingredients like meats and other exotic ingredients is out of the question. But how can meals be made hearty without fatty cuts of meat and, say, fresh imported fiddleheads? I cannot recommend highly enough buying your pal a bag of Textured Vegetable Protein; I favor the Bob's Red Mill brand, and toss it into everything from chili to soups to stews to pastas as a means to add not only protein but substance. Recommended for vegetarians, too! Tastes great!
An elegant gift for the elegant gifter. Olive oil and sea salt are two items that never go out of fashion but always end up near empty just when you need them most. This is also a subtle reminder to your friend that you'd like to be invited over for a casual dinner party soon, as there is nothing like good bread and olive oil dotted with sea salt. Just make sure you don't buy shitty olive oil—go somewhere middle of the line. I recommend Partanna from Sicily, but here's a guide to help you out.
This is the best cookbook and I will accept no debates. It may be slightly outdated, and sure, it isn't jam-packed with illustrative matte photographs of rhubarb crumbles and loosely strewn slices of butter cake on light wood tables, but it is handy and necessary and very frequently can be a goddamn savior. The Joy of Cooking is even more useful when it has been lightly used by another cook, as the transitive property of cooking means that a well-loved edition comes with the prior cook's culinary knowledge. You can buy a used copy on Amazon for $4.23.
*Any readers who want to buy me an immersion blender, that's cool, too.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]