One of the many perks of having a food blog is that trying new stuff is part of the job. Every month I buy new ingredients, kitchen tools, and cookbooks because I'm curious. I want to try them. I want to tell you about them.
And sometimes brands and companies send me stuff for free because they hope I'll like them and want to tell you about them. I love when that happens.
I really only tell you about the things I actually like and use myself. Plenty of things get sent my way that you will never hear about (don't even get me started on the box of meat chips... bleccchhh.)
But mostly, this works out well for me. Like I said, I like buying new things! I like getting things for free! I like trying new things! And I like telling you about new things.
So as 2021 draws to a close, I thought I'd round up my favorite new or new-to-me kitchen tools and food things from the past year. The things I tried for the first time this year and absolutely loved and think you'll love too.
Here are the top 10 new-to-me-in-2021 practical kitchen things that made my life better this year.
**Some of the items on this list I requested or received as PR gifts/review samples. I wouldn't include them here unless I really loved them and thought you would too.
1. Challenger Bread Pan**
The Challenger Bread Pan is my number one favorite new-to-me kitchen tool of 2021 for a few reasons. I'd been wanting one of these pans forever, so when Jim Challenger asked if I was interested in giving one of their bread pans I try, of course I said yes.
I knew I would love the inverted Dutch oven design which makes it easy to transfer bread loaves in and out without burning my arms. I also knew I would love the handles on the sides AND on the top which make lifting easy.
What I didn't realize (until I had it in my kitchen) was just how many other ways there are to use the Challenger bread pan.
The bottom is shallow enough to make dinner rolls or focaccia or cornbread. You can put it on top of your gas stove as a makeshift griddle for frying eggs and bacon. I've even used the bottom of the pan to roast a chicken!
2. Omsom's Krapow starter (limited edition!)
Omsom is an AAPI women-owned food brand that sells "starters" — packets of sauce and spices — that make creating dishes from different regions of Asia super easy at home. Each one is developed in collaboration with a chef who specializes in that region's cooking. And the accompanying recipes can be done in less than 30 minutes!
I've been a fan of Omsom's starters since 2020, but they get a spot on this list because, in early 2021 Omsom introduced a limited edition Thai Krapow starter in collaboration with Pepper Tiegen which I honestly can't imagine my pantry without.
If you've never had pad krapow (which means "fried holy basil"), it's a medium-spicy basil stir fry dish that is super cozy and delish served over rice with a fried egg on top. You can can make it with chicken, pork, tofu, mushrooms — whatever you prefer! All you need to add is fresh basil, green beans, and some diced red pepper.
We had been making pad krapow gai (fried thai basil chicken) from scratch using Chef John's recipe for the past few years but, honestly, the Omsom starter is better than homemade. And it saves us a ton of time, too. That's a win-win if you ask me.
On January 1, 2021 if you told me, "Rebecca, your end of year favorite items roundup is going to include pouches of microwavable beans" I would have laughed directly in your face. But here we are! I'm a beans person now!
I get dozens of PR emails from brands every week. Most I ignore. But for some reason, when FILLO's Americas Made emailed me and asked if they could send a sample of their beans, I said yes. And I'm so glad I did.
Each packet is about 2-4 servings (depending on if you're using it as a main or a side) and takes just 60 seconds to heat up in the microwave. They're super flavorful, very filling, and so easy to make. Truly a low-effort, high-reward pantry staple to have on hand.
We use FILLO's beans in burritos and quesadillas, served some plain with rice and a bit of lime juice, in grain bowls, and so much more. I particularly like the Cuban black beans and the Puerto Rican pink beans, but all of them have been great.
The pouches even have a notch about halfway up the side so you can tear them open in the middle and dig right in with a spoon. I even gifted a variety pack of FILLO's to my dad for his birthday. And he loved them! Not too shabby for a bunch of beans.
4. Cool Beans by Joe Yonan
Remember when I said I'm a beans person now? (It was like two paragraphs and probably three ads ago.) I really meant it! Cool Beans by Joe Yonan (the Food and Dining Editor at the Washington Post) has been on my radar since it came out in 2019. At the time I just wasn't sure I needed a whole beans-based cookbook.
But when we fell in love with the FILLO's beans and Jimmy said he was interested in cooking more beans from scratch, I finally had the perfect reason to add Cool Beans to our collection. I got him a copy for his birthday. (Yes, that's right, I've given two people the gift of beans this year.)
We've been burning through the recipes ever since. It's quickly become one of the first cookbooks we turn to when we want to turn whatever dried or canned beans we have in our pantry into a 5-star meal. And they make excellent leftovers too.
Recipes to try: Red Beans and Rice, Southern Baked Beans, Curried Red Lentil Stew.
5. HiccAway - a straw that cures hiccups!
I don't get hiccups like normal people do. By which I mean, I don't get cute, little, quiet hiccups. I get huge, painful, loud, uncomfortable, relentless hiccups. They are terrifically embarrassing for me and anyone in the vicinity.
I spent 33 years assuming my hiccups were incurable. After all, every folk cure — sipping water upside down, holding my breath, sipping water while upside down holding my breath, etc. — had never worked. I had resigned myself to suffering hiccups loudly for the rest of my life.
And then, in 2021, I learned of the HiccAway. The HiccAway straw genuinely cures hiccups. It takes a few tries to get the hang of it, and I can't pretend I fully understand the science of it, but whatever it does works. Something with the esophagus?
Anyway. If you've got hiccups, you need the HiccAway!
I've been resistant to pre-cut parchment sheets for years because they always come in flimsy plastic packaging and I never have anywhere to store them. But this year my friend Erin Clarkson (aka Cloudy Kitchen) influenced *cough*bullied*cough* me into trying these pre-cut parchment sheets from Kana Goods and I'm never going back.
They come in sturdy cardboard packaging which makes them easy to store vertically or horizontally, and I can usually get two, three, or even four uses out of them before I need to toss them in the recycling bin.
I particularly like Kana Goods' square and round cake pan parchment sheets which have helpful little tabs on the sides to make lifting your bakes out of the pan even easier! The 8" square pan liners work well to line loaf pans too!
7. Cookies: New American Classics by Jesse Szewczyk
Within thirty minutes of opening Cookies: The New Classics by Jesse Szewczyk, I was whipping together batch of smoked paprika chocolate chip cookies. I don't think I've ever gone from buying a cookbook to using a cookbook so quickly before.
Not only are the photos gorgeous (Jesse is a supremely talented skilled food stylist) but the recipes are incredibly inventive too. The book is broken down into eight unique categories: chocolatey, boozy, fruity, nutty, tart, spiced, smoky, and savory.
There are flavor combinations and techniques in here that are so simple but absolutely elevate these cookies to new heights. The recipes are straightforward and simply written — making it a breeze for even a beginner to make use of advanced pastry techniques.
Cookies: The New Classics features a range of recipes for a range of skill levels, so don't be intimidated if you're a new baker; there's plenty in here for you! And even the most experienced pastry chef will be delighted by all of the new and interesting flavor and technique combinations inside.
For years I've used instant read thermometers that cost no more than $20 and figured they were just fine. I knew professional chefs swore by the Thermapen, but I just didn't think there was a reason to spend more than $20 on a thermometer!
But when the Thermapen MK4 went on sale earlier this year, my friend Emily (@100daysofpasta) endorsed hers so highly that my curiosity got the best of me. I ordered one in a very snazzy shade of yellow.
And you know what? I totally get it now. I love that the Thermapen MK4 (now available as the Thermapen One) is simple — it turns on instantly when you pick it up and goes to sleep when you put it down, which means there are no buttons to end up hitting accidentally; it has a display that rotates and lights up, so you can hold it in either hand (or inside a dark oven) and still read it clearly.
And that's just the stuff you can see that makes it great. In terms of the technical specs, the Thermapen is fast and accurate, which is what really matters.
Cascatelli pasta is the brainchild of Dan Pashman, who hosts the Sporkful podcast. Earlier this year he chronicled his journey creating a brand new pasta shape in a riveting multi-part series titled "Mission ImPASTAble."
The final design, a shape called Cascatelli, is designed for maximum sauceability ("How readily sauce adheres to the shape"), forkability ("How easy it is to get the shape on your fork and keep it there"), and toothsinkability ("How satisfying it is to sink your teeth into it").
I ordered four boxes shortly after Cascatelli launched. It took 12 weeks for them to arrive, and I was so nervous they wouldn't live up to the hype. But they absolutely did. It's great for brussels sprouts carbonara, pasta a la vodka with sausage crumbles, and any other saucy pasta dishes with lots going on.
Whenever I'm in Vermont, a stop at a Cabot store is always a must. They've got an impressive range of cheeses and cheddars that are so fun to try. So when Cabot entered the boxed mac and cheese game earlier this year I was super excited.
Sure, I'm a chef and Jimmy loves cooking and we regularly make elaborate dinners even on weeknights. We are who we are. But sometimes who we are is very tired, and on nights like that, a box of mac and cheese just really hits the spot. We always keep at least 2 boxes around for "emergencies."
One bite in and Cabot's Pepper Jack and Seriously Sharp boxed mac and cheeses immediately earned forever favorite spots on the top of my boxed mac and cheese ranking. They're in good company up there with classic Kraft, and Annie's White Cheddar & Shells. (Cabot's bacon cheddar mac is good and I wouldn't turn it down, but the smoky flavor can read a little artificial imo.)
As far as I can tell these aren't available for purchase online, but we've found them at our local Stop and Shop. You can use Cabot's store locator to find them near you!
- Meater+ — This wireless meat thermometer saved our Thanksgiving turkey by alerting us to the fact it was done 30 minutes before we would have started checking! My parents' oven runs hot, and we didn't know. But the Meater+ did.
- Spicewalla Berbere Spice Blend — My new favorite popcorn seasoning! It's also great with scrambled eggs and feta.
- Kewpie Mayo — I'd heard about this ultra rich and silky Japanese mayo for years but hadn't tried it until this year. It's thicker and a bit sweeter than regular mayo because it's made with rice vinegar. And it is so good!
- Rancho Gordo Beans — Believe the hype!!! Their gift boxes are phenomenal, too.
- Homemade Soup Dumplings — I featured this soup dumpling kit in my DIY food gift kits gift guide, so didn't feature it here, but these were so much fun to make. There's plenty of agar agar left too, so I know I'll be making lots more soup dumplings in 2022!