The Elements of Brunch
Brunch made at home beats the long lines and rubbery omelets you find at restaurants. The right tools and a little pre-planning can help you spend as much mimosa-holding, scone-sampling time with your guests as possible. To find these brunch essentials, we hand-picked items from our full guides and conducted an additional 25 hours of research, testing our top picks over three brunches. This list benefits from the expertise of the two dozen entertaining and design professionals our writers have consulted.
Table of contents
Good, hot, and flavorful coffee is a brunch essential, but the task is best left to a machine when you’re serving a crowd. After 41 hours of research and interviews with leading coffee experts, plus time spent brewing hundreds of cups of coffee in 12 machines, we think the OXO On 9-Cup Coffee Maker is the best. The OXO makes better-tasting coffee than the vast majority of drip coffee makers, and it’s much easier to use than the other high-end machines we tested. You can read more about it and why we like it in our full review.
However, if you want the best-tasting pot of machine-brewed coffee, usability be damned, the Bonavita BV1900TS is the coffee maker for you. In two separate rounds of tests with different panels, tasters praised coffee made with this machine for its overall flavor and balance; the Bonavita also came the closest to achieving an ideal “total dissolved solids” reading in our controlled testing. It’s super-fast too, taking just 5 minutes, 20 seconds to brew a liter of coffee, including a pre-infusion period. ↵
Nothing beats fresh-squeezed juice, whether sipped straight or added to mimosas, and the very affordable Proctor Silex Alex’s Lemonade Stand Citrus Juicer gets the job done quickly and effectively. After testing 11 models for our guide, we found that the Proctor Silex was one of the easiest juicers to use (it won’t tire your wrists), and it produced sweeter juice than machines 10 times the price. It performed equally well on oranges, lemons, and grapefruit, and the two reamers never dug so deep that they extracted the white pith; in a taste test, we didn’t get any of the bitter flavor. It also has an adjustable pulp catcher in case you like smoother or chunkier OJ.
The juicer comes with a 34-ounce pitcher and two heads that stack like nesting dolls, both in use and storage. Everything but the motorized base—which probably won’t get too dirty anyway—is dishwasher-safe, but you can also easily rinse the pieces and wipe them down.
The Proctor Silex Alex’s Lemonade Stand Citrus Juicer was our runner-up pick last year. Amazon users also like it, with 197 reviewers giving it an average of 4.1 out of five stars as of this writing.↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $13.
Chances are, your brunch guests won’t drink juice in large serving sizes. A smaller, slimmer vessel like the glass, 1.1-liter Bormioli Rocco Ypsilon Brio gets it on the table without taking up precious space. Of the three carafes we tested, the Ypsilon showcased juice best and had the tightest-fitting lid. That fit is important, because the lid lets you shake up the jar’s contents and store leftovers without soaking up smells from the fridge. The Ypsilon’s plastic one fits like a cork on the inside of the glass. It doesn’t have the most reliable seal—when I turned a full carafe of water upside down the liquid slowly leaked out—but I could easily shake the contents with zero mess (hold down the lid with one finger for security).
The Ypsilon also beats out acrylic carafes, because the glass won’t transfer plasticky flavors to your juice, looks nicer, wears longer, and can be cleaned in the dishwasher without fear of clouding or cracking.
If you’re going with a full-blown mimosa bar, two or three of the Ypsilon can display a variety of juices. Or if the gathering is more intimate, mix up a batch of mimosas or Bloody Marys for two. You can mix directly in the carafe with any regular wooden spoon or spatula (no special bar spoon needed). When filled to the neck, it holds 32 ounces comfortably, which translates to about six 5-ounce servings of juice or four pint-glass-sized Bloody Marys (if your pint glass is packed with ice).
Overall, the Ypsilon has clean lines, no seams in the glass, and a modern aesthetic. It was originally brought to my attention after I was served from it in two separate San Francisco restaurants on the same day. Currently it has a solid 4½-star score (out of five) across 51 Amazon user reviews, and it comes in a range of colorful lid options (all colors except white were available when we published this guide).
We also tried the Anchor Hocking Glass Carafe, one of the few other choices with a reliable lid, but found its visible seam on the outside and thicker glass to be less attractive. The Simax Bohemia Cristal carafe matches the Ypsilon for looks, but the lid isn’t airtight and can’t be used for storage. We considered popular Weck juice jars, but the tiny parts securing the lids are very misplace-able and a bit fussy. ↵
If you’re having alcohol at the table, you must put out water for your guests. For an all-purpose water vessel, our pick is the simple Bormioli Rocco Frigoverre Jug with Hermetic Lid. You can easily add ice, the mouth is wide enough to fit a hand in (so you can scrub the bottom), and the container fits into the side of the refrigerator. The Frigoverre also works well for bigger batches of Bloody Marys because the lid allows you to give the jar a good shake when the mix inevitably settles. (The lid does need to be removed for serving, though.)
As with juice carafes, we think glass is best because it doesn’t give off any flavors to the water and it’s clear; people will see that it’s water and reach for it when they need it.
At the moment the jug has an impressive 4.2 stars (out of five) across more than 2,200 Amazon reviews. The most common complaint is about the narrow handle, but many Amazon customers say it isn’t a problem.
If you have multiple tables set up or are just looking for an inexpensive solution for water service, Donna Albertson, director of marketing and special events for the Ivy Room (an event space in Chicago), prefers the IKEA Korken bottles with swing tops. They’re really cheap, about $4. And as she told us, you can buy a lot of them and fill them ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about it while you’re whipping up eggs. They’re light, easy to aim into a glass and pour with one hand while sitting down, and bring to mind the kind restaurants use to serve water at the table. They are also recommended by The Kitchn. (Though the name seems to have changed from Slom to Korken, it looks like the same bottle.) If you don’t have an IKEA near you, this Bormioli Rocco Giara Bottle is more expensive but equally attractive. Amazon customers currently give it 4½ stars (out of five) across 309 customer reviews.↵
A wine glass stem is designed to keep your dirty fingers off the bowl as well as to preserve the temperature of the drink it holds. But if you’re making mimosas for brunch, no one will be worried if the temp of their OJ is off by a few degrees. The CB2 Cylinder Flutes are the best budget-friendly option we’ve found. The petite, delicate design is special and fun to drink out of. And they’re so affordable, you can serve a crowd without going broke. They come in clear-glass and pink-glass versions. All are eligible for $5 flat-rate shipping, so you can basically get eight glasses for around $20—a steal.
While at first I feared these looked too much like tiny Collins glasses, this shape offered advantages over other options. First, it makes them comfortable to sip from. Narrower flute openings make drinking awkward, always hitting you in the face. Compared to the Cylinder flute, the top on the Libbey Stemless Flute felt restrictive. Our pick also has a broad, flat bottom that planted it firmly on the table. Both alternative options I looked at tapered to a smaller base, resembling a more traditional Champagne flute. But this made the bases very tiny, and one glass in my Libbey set wobbled when I set it down.
I asked one brunch-goer her opinion on the shape of the Cylinder flutes, and she said, “I like holding it. It’s simple, but it’s not ordinary. If I had these at my house, my friends would want to know where I got them.”
If you’d like a stemmed glass, the Crate & Barrel Silhouette Champagne Glass is elegant, reasonably priced, and ideal for mimosas and Champagne cocktails. The Silhouette does not feature the qualities of finer Champagne flutes, fine for brunch mimosas. It’s made of regular old glass instead of crystal, which is okay because you won’t be using it to examine the color of a fine wine.
Bloody Mary mix
*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.
A good Bloody Mary isn’t too difficult to put together. But if you want flavor that goes beyond the classic lemon and Worcestershire concoction, prep can become all-consuming. A premade mix saves a lot of work, and in a blind taste test of eight premade preparations, Demitri’s Chilies & Peppers Bloody Mary Seasoning was the favorite. It’s bright, flavorful, and not so heavy it overshadows the meal to come.
Unlike other premade mixes, Demitri’s is a concentrate. You have to add both vodka and tomato juice. We mixed ours with something incredibly basic—Safeway’s 100% Tomato Juice—and it still came out the winner. The resulting drink was fresh tasting and not too thick, and it had a mild heat that would suit a wide range of tastes. “It’s so pleasant, I would love to have one of these with an omelet,” mentioned one taste-tester. Though it has chilies and peppers in the name, no one categorized it as spicy.
Adding seasoning to tomato juice instead of buying a giant, premixed gallon means you can mix batches for smaller parties, so no mix goes to waste. And the concentrate will stay good in the fridge for up to a year.
All mixes we tried specified either 4:1 or 3:1 ratios of juice to spirit. The Demitri’s didn’t recommend a specific ratio of mix to vodka, so I mixed it 4:1. Made in this way, the 16 ounce jar will make 10 quarts of Bloody Mary (that includes the vodka), or roughly 40 8-ounce servings.
If you don’t want spice of any kind, try the bright, uncomplicated Trader Joe’s Bloody Mary Mix with Clam Juice. Don’t let the “clam juice” scare you off—it tastes nothing like it. I know many professional bartenders who claim fish sauce is the ultimate secret ingredient in a Bloody Mary, yet they remain bound to silence because most people recoil at the idea of such a thing in their drink.
For spice lovers, we’d go with Demitri’s Chipotle & Habanero. “It’s rich, interesting, has hot tomato flavor, smoke… it doesn’t cover the flavor at all and still has a big, long, lingering hot kick,” said one drinker. She also giddily proclaimed, “It’s like fresh Mexican food!”
We tried the much-loved Demitri’s Classic Recipe, but it fell flat. Demitri’s Extra Horseradish didn’t make the cut, because as one taster put it, “I don’t like horseradish or wasabi. I avoid horseradish like the plague.” We thought that might be a common sentiment and set it aside. Everyone enjoyed Zing Zang, but is was so incredibly thick that finishing a glass was a project. Freshie’s Hot Mary had lots of heat, but only heat, at the expense of other flavors.
We opted not to test mixes by V8, Ocean Spray, and Mr. & Mrs. T’s because they all include some sort of thickener like flour (yuck) or sugar additive (there are a million variations, but sugar isn’t an ingredient in any reputable recipe I’ve ever found). Tabasco brand was universally panned as too salty, and we set aside boutique concoctions engineered to a specific flavor profile, like the reportedly pickle-heavy McClure’s. ↵
The Proctor-Silex Belgian-Style Waffle Maker is your best bet for a waffle brunch. Of the 15 waffle makers we tested for our full guide, it delivered the most beautiful results, consistently producing evenly browned, deep-pocketed Belgian-style waffles no matter what kind of batter we used. The nonstick grid was the most effective, releasing waffles easily without extra oiling. It only takes four to five minutes to make a batch of four, so you can quickly serve a small group. The browning control offers better doneness precision than many other models, and a helpful light indicator let us know exactly when waffles were done.
Although we do wish this model had a beep or chime to indicate when waffles are done, we think it will serve well for occasional waffle making. ↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $37.
If you want an electric griddle for making a lot of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and even grilled sandwiches at once, we’d buy the Presto Tilt ‘n Drain Big Griddle Cool-Touch Electric Griddle. With 272¾ square inches of cook space, it’s big enough to make an entire 16-ounce package of bacon or 10 palm-sized pancakes at once. In our tests, we found it heated evenly and browned foods perfectly. The nonstick surface really works and also makes for easier cleanup. If you buy this, invest in a good plastic spatula—such as the OXO Good Grips Flexible Silicone Turner—as metal utensils can scratch the nonstick coating.
We tested the Presto against the Broil King Professional Portable Nonstick Griddle—the top pick of America’s Test Kitchen—and found that they cooked about on a par, but the Presto is half the price. Both griddles have a similar grease drainage system, but we like how the Presto has a small trough at the front of the cook surface that siphons cooking grease into the tray under the griddle. We did prefer the Broil King’s sturdier metal handles over the Presto’s flimsy plastic ones, but that was our only real complaint.
We also considered the Cuisinart 5-in-1 Griddler, recommended by America’s Test Kitchen, as well as the Amazon bestselling Presto 22-inch Electric Griddle with Removable Handles, but neither was as highly rated as the two we ultimately decided to test. The Presto Tilt ‘n Drain Big Griddle Cool-Touch Electric Griddle currently has a solid rating of 4.6 stars (out of five) across 940 Amazon user reviews. ↵
Gluten-free batter mix
While standard pancakes are pretty simple to whip up, gluten-free versions require specialty flour blends that not everyone keeps on hand. If you have a gluten-averse guest, a premade mix is the way to go. After speaking with a pro gluten-free baker and conducting a two-hour blind pancake taste test of four popular mixes, it’s clear that the needs of gluten-free eaters are so varied that there is no such thing as a best mix. There are, however, some mixes that do things better than others.
Pamela’s Ultimate Baking & Pancake Mix, which created a pancake with a flavorful caramel-like crisp around the edges, is the only one we tested that has almond flour as a key ingredient. “Of course, being made of almonds [almond flour] is protein-rich. It can also lighten up a gluten-free baked good in combination with other flours,” said Patti Furey Crane, president of Mariposa Baking Co., a gluten-free bakery that ships nationwide and has multiple locations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In terms of potential allergens, it contains milk and almond, so if your guest has a dairy or tree nut allergy, skip this product (they’re integrated into the mix). To prepare, mix with egg, water, and oil.
The batter is thin and you can see the ground-up almond meal in it, prompting one tester to mention they weren’t sure if they liked seeing the flecks in their pancake. But the golden-brown crispy edges and added depth of flavor from the almonds made this mix an ideal companion for maple syrup.
“A great gluten-free baking mix is a combination of flours and starches,” said Crane. “Gluten-free flours are typically heavier than wheat flours, so the starches lighten them up. A starch, such as tapioca starch, also gives a chew to gluten-free baked goods.”
And of course, the issue at the heart of the matter is allergies. In Crane’s words, “Often people with gluten allergies have other allergies as well. Some people try to avoid potato or tapioca. Some people have nut allergies and avoid almonds altogether. The most common other allergy we see, though, is the dairy allergy. Gluten-free and dairy-free seem to go together often.”
For those also avoiding nuts and/or dairy, we recommend the King Arthur Gluten Free Pancake Mix. It produced a pancake that was so close to a wheat pancake, you’d never know the difference. They also turned a perfect golden brown on top and bottom, unlike Pamela’s mix, which consistently cooked up thoroughly but less evenly.
Rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch are used as the main components, and there are no milk or nut ingredients in the mix. However, the preparation calls for butter and milk, so substitutions should be made if necessary. But it’s very expensive—a 15-ounce package is $11 and makes 16 pancakes—so it’s probably too pricy for serving a big crowd.
We found the Bisquick Pancake and Baking Mix Gluten-Free strangely spongelike. Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pancake Mix, also cheap and dairy-free, produced thick batter that formed breadlike and somewhat dry pancakes. We detected a strong wheat flavor to this mix, which could possibly be attributed to the sorghum flour it’s made with (the only mix we tried that had it). Taste testers commented that it might make a good loaf of bread, but since it’s advertised specifically as a pancake mix, we set it aside. ↵
If you’re looking for a casserole dish to make stratas, frittatas, and other baked breakfast dishes, we like the HIC Ceramic 13-Inch Lasagna Dish. In our testing, we found that this dish performed about as well as those more than three times the price. This broiler-safe dish bakes evenly and has nice handles for carrying it directly from the oven to the table. The pan is big enough to easily serve food for six if you have some other sides. We’ve been long-term testing the HIC for more than two years, and it has held up well. The durable porcelain cleans up nicely, and we like how classic the pan looks. Although we prefer the white version, the HIC is also available in red, blue, green, and cream. It’s also the favorite lasagna pan of America’s Test Kitchen, and currently it has a rating of 4.1 stars (out of five) across 150 Amazon user reviews.
For an even more affordable option, we’d buy the Luminarc Borosilicate Roaster . This bakes as evenly as the HIC dish, but because it’s glass you can see the sides of food browning. It’s not quite as nice-looking as our main pick, it has smaller handles, and it’s also not broiler-safe (tempered glass can explode!). But it will work perfectly well for baked egg dishes, cornbread, or even as an impromptu cake pan. ↵
Most wire racks are meant only for cooling baked goods, but using a rack to cook your bacon is one of the simplest ways to serve up the ultimate brunch-time crowd-pleaser without spending 30 minutes in front of a hot skillet. A rack crisps bacon up evenly, raises the meat above its rendered fat, and allows the strips to cook up flat—no curling or soggy spots. The CIA Masters Collection 12 Inch x 17 Inch Wire Cooling Rack does the job perfectly. It’s one of the few racks we’ve found that are oven-safe and shaped to fit well in a half sheet baking pan. It’s sturdier than other racks we’ve looked at, and its tight grid pattern (as opposed to parallel wires) won’t let food bend or fall through.
We tested the CIA rack in a head-to-head bacon-off with a similar model, the Crestware Professional Cross Wire Cooling Rack. Following this method from Cooking Light, the racks cooked identically, but the CIA revealed two design advantages. It has a third set of feet that run down the middle, bracing the center of the rack. Should you ever want to use the rack for something heavier, like a roast, the third foot will prevent the rack from buckling in the middle. The Crestware does not have a center brace. The CIA was also easier to clean. Because the feet are not attached directly to the grid and are only at the edges of the rack, the free-floating design allowed me to quickly remove any trapped bits in one quick swipe. By comparison, I couldn’t easily get my sponge in and around the tightly welded metal of the Crestware rack.
I also compared the rack method with cooking bacon directly on parchment paper, but the advantages of using a rack were immediately clear. No cutting and fitting of paper. No draining the bacon on paper towels. No need to dirty an extra set of tongs fishing bacon out of a pile of rendered fat. On a rack, you can easily pull the bacon off with a fork or even your fingers, and the grease is quarantined in the pan below. And cleanup was about equal with both methods.
The CIA rack holds about 12 uncooked strips of bacon side by side if you really cram them on there. For Cook’s Illustrated, it’s the most highly recommended rack, and those who have purchased it on Amazon love it, currently rating it at 4.4 stars (out of five) across 545 reviews. ↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $15.
If you plan on whipping up some biscuits or scones or need to round out your bacon-roasting toolkit, the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet is our top choice for an all-purpose pan. In our tests, it did everything we needed without warping at high heat and for less than half the price of the most expensive model we tried. It baked cookies and pizza very evenly and we like that the uncoated aluminum can take a beating (unlike nonstick cookie sheets). To create a nonstick surface (and for easier cleanup), several experts we spoke with recommended laying down a layer of parchment on the sheet.
The Nordic Ware gets a very positive user rating on Amazon (currently 4.7 stars out of five across 2,601 reviews). Serious Eats says in a review that “these sheets have the weight and thickness to produce lovely, crisp, and most importantly, evenly browned cookies.” It also comes with a five-year limited warranty. ↵
You can use a tin to make muffins, of course, but a great muffin tin also opens the door to breakfast cups, spicy jalapeño cornbread, flaky cinnamon morning buns, and more. After considering eight models and making muffins in three, we recommend the 12-cup Wilton Recipe Right Nonstick Regular Muffin Pan. This was the least expensive tin we tried, and it turned out golden-brown muffins on a par with those from the pricier Wilton Avanti Everglide and Wilton Signature Perfect Results 12-cup pans. (The top-rated models just happened to be all Wilton.) The only drawback of the Wilton Recipe Right pan is its shallow handles; we wish they were bigger to make it easier to hold with clumsy oven mitts. (Last year we chose the Avanti Everglide for its wider outer lip, but the company has since discontinued that model.)
We found that the Wilton Recipe Right’s nonstick surface works well, although for perfect, no-muffin-left-behind baking we recommend using nonstick cooking spray. A nylon sponge didn’t scratch the pan, and neither did the butter knife we used to scrape bits of muffin from the bottom. It also didn’t warp in the oven or the dishwasher. The Wilton Recipe Right is an Amazon bestseller, with a current rating of 4.7 stars (out of five) across more than 1,500 reviews.
We eliminated silicone pans because they’re sloppy to handle and, as Cook’s Illustrated notes in an equipment review, they “really offer no advantage over the traditional pan.” We passed on the Rachael Ray Oven Lovin’ Non-Stick 12-Cup Muffin and Cupcake Pan due to a Cook’s Illustrated report of uneven baking performance and degradation of the silicone handles. We also dismissed the Chicago Metallic Commercial II pan that Real Simple highlighted, as well as the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Muffin Pan, because of an absence of handles. The Anolon Advanced Nonstick Bakeware 12-Cup Muffin and Cupcake Pan seemed too pricey (as did the Wilton Signature Perfect Results we tested, but since we already owned that one, we figured we’d see how it stacked up). The USA Pan Aluminized Steel 12 Cup Cupcake/Muffin Pan also has very positive user reviews, but we don’t think you need to pay that much to get a great tin with all the features you need. ↵
For special brunch dishes, such as shirred or coddled eggs or individual desserts, we recommend this set of 6-ounce HIC ceramic ramekins. They are oven-safe up to 500°F, microwave- and dishwasher-safe, and even freezable. Because they’re made of porcelain, they can also be put under a broiler, an advantage over lower grades of stoneware. That opens possibilities that would otherwise be off limits, like toasting creme brulees and browning cheese toppings.
We chose a ramekin with a fluted design instead of decorative or flat sides because those ridges serve a purpose. According to Aaron Toensing, who has more than 20 years of experience as a head pastry chef in several San Francisco restaurants such as Postrio, Bix, and Fog City Diner, “Those ridges around the outside disperse the heat. If it was flat, the heat would be more direct and the edges would burn, but since it’s fluted it slows” down the cooking process. This gives your dish an evenly baked interior and exterior, instead of burnt edges and an undercooked middle.
The HIC’s shape and size also make it more versatile. Ramekins in squares or other shapes aren’t the best option for baking, because the corners change how the dish cooks. “Any time you have an indentation like that it’s going to create a different product,” warned Toensing. For baking rich sides or desserts, 6 ounces is a good size. “The souffle ramekin,” said Toensing, “it’s 4 to 6 ounces. I don’t think you can go smaller than that. [Smaller ones] are just for condiments, like ketchup and aioli.” And the larger, 8-to-12-ounce sizes? Use them for less sweet, more savory dishes like macaroni and cheese or a small eggplant parmesan. The HIC ramekins come in seven sizes, ranging from 1 to 10 ounces.
Looking for a way to use your ramekins for brunch? Try this incredibly easy approach to egg prep by Mark Bittman, who claims baking them en masse is “the easiest method for cooking eggs in quantity.”
The ramekins are a bestseller on Amazon, where they currently get a rating of 4.5 stars (out of five) across 335 reviewers. We looked at 18 other options, the most notable being this also-popular Norpro Porcelain Ramekin Set, which doesn’t come in the same range of sizes as the HIC. Pillivuyt makes porcelain ramekins, but they’re $8 to $10 each (ouch). ↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
Our favorite all-purpose spatula, the Mercer Hell’s Handle Fish Turner, is one breakfast tool we wouldn’t want to go without. Although technically made for flipping fish fillets, its thin and flexible stainless steel blade slides easily under things like eggs and pancakes, while the gentle upward curve of the tip also keeps foods from sliding off the edge. The spatula’s sharp tip and flexibility also make it great for scooching under the edge of a frittata, strata, or even into a pan of cinnamon rolls.
All of the experts we spoke with agreed that if you have one spatula you should make it a fish spatula. As chef Howie Velie, associate dean of Culinary Specializations at the Culinary Institute of America, told us, “The spatula doesn’t know that it’s made for fish. For me and for a lot of other chefs, it’s kind of an all-purpose, light spatula. I use it for everything.” In our tests, the Mercer beat out three other top-rated models, even one three times the price. Its only flaw was that the textured, synthetic handle melted a bit when resting on the edge of a searing hot pan for 15 seconds. However, the other fish spatulas we tested suffered from the same problem.
Metal spatulas easily scratch nonstick surfaces, and there is a lot of nonstick in the pancake-frying, egg-flipping world of brunch. For this purpose we like the OXO Good Grips Silicone Flexible Turner. While it can’t beat metal for sharpness or dexterity, the blade is still one of the thinnest of the plastic spatulas we tested, allowing us to scoot underneath warm cookies without mangling them.
This turner has a flexible, stainless steel core sheathed in thin, heat-resistant silicone, which we found didn’t melt at high heat. The rubberized handle is comfortable, and the medium offset angle makes lifting foods quite easy on the wrist. Some Amazon users complain of the silicone splitting apart. We didn’t find that problem in our testing, but OXO products come with the company’s great anytime satisfaction guarantee if it happens to you.
For scraping down the sides of bowls and pans we prefer the Kickstarter-born GIR Spatula. It’s made of a single piece of silicone with a nearly invisible edge seam, so it’s easy to wash, even in the dishwasher. It’s slim enough to fit into a peanut butter jar, and its parallel edges make it comfortable and quick for scraping down the sides of a large bowl or sauté pan. The tip is thick enough to give the spatula heft for pressing down doughs, yet still flexible enough to glide smoothly and cleanly around the edges of a batter bowl.
The GIR’s grippy, rounded handle feels better than the competitors’ flat, thin sticks. And because both flat sides of the blade are symmetrical, it can be used by left- and right-handed cooks. The GIR Spatula comes with a lifetime guarantee. It’s a pleasure to use, and the bright, popping colors would look great hanging on the wall.
Who needs serving forks when spring-loaded tongs are so much more practical? Winco’s 7-inch Tongs, while utilitarian and simple, are the most efficient option we’ve found for a true multipurpose serving tool. The scalloped tips grip most foods on any buffet or table, and these versatile tongs can be used year-round for kitchen tasks. They come in different lengths, but we find the 7-inch size works great for serving without being too big and bulky.
We tried other, better-looking tongs, but they couldn’t match the Winco’s utility. These Rosle locking tongs are attractive and hefty, but the locking mechanism worked only 75 percent of the time and left us struggling to get them unlocked. The Crate and Barrel Scissor Handled Serving Tongs are made for salad and not really useful for much else. We also tested the Norpro Deluxe Serving Tongs but found that the small scissor handles are cumbersome for large hands, and the smooth paddles don’t grip very much. ↵
How to cram all those berries and whipped creams, cornichons, olives, and garnishes onto your table in one deft move? The ceramic Crate and Barrel 4-Piece Form Server is the most elegant and practical option we’ve found for getting the job done. Fill it once, set it out, and let your guests pass the removable inserts around the table, no awkward lifting or platter shuffling required.
Recommended to us by Vikki Marsee, event planner and co-owner of All You Need Is Love Events, this form server has three oval-shaped bowls that come in staggered heights of 3 inches, 3.5 inches, and 3.75 inches. They’re each 6.5 inches across, so they’re big enough that you won’t need to refill constantly. The bowls nest inside an 11-inch-diameter dish with a tall rim that can do double duty as a serving tray or platter. Move everything to the table in just one trip, with the added peace of mind that none of it will slide onto the floor in the process.
Once it’s on the table, it operates as its own centerpiece. Guests can pass the individual bowls without having to get up and hover around a large platter or pass a big awkward dish. The lipless design of the inserts makes setting them down in between crowded glassware and breadbaskets an easy task, which is tough with bowls that have wider brims.
We did notice that the bowls have a little wiggle room inside the serving tray, perhaps a quarter inch, and can slide around a little. While the addition of a nonslip base for the bowls would be nice, we didn’t think this was a dealbreaker. The tray buffers against any tragic mishaps.
Of course, there are always timeless looks. This Food Network 4-Piece Serving Tray seemed promising, as well as this Sagaform Stoneware Set, but we were afraid these styles might soon look out of date. This Gibson Serving Bowl Set didn’t have the wow factor of the smooth lines and staggered heights of our top choice. ↵
If you like your butter at room temperature, a butter bell offers a cleaner and more attractive alternative to a standard covered dish. The Emile Henry Butter Pot is our favorite because of its secure lid, large capacity, and overall attractive design.
The Emile Henry works much like other butter bells. First, you pack the lid, which has an interior compartment built into it, with butter. Then, you place a small amount of water in the accompanying dish and invert the lid inside the jar. The water creates an airtight seal, preventing the butter from going rancid while stored at room temperature. The design is smart and compact; butter doesn’t get smeared everywhere after one use. And the airtight seal keeps butter fresher than a regular dish.
Of the three I tested, the lid on the Emile Henry Butter Pot was less wobbly and fit more snugly than both of my other stoneware options, The Original Butter Bell Crock and the Le Creuset Butter Bell. The shape of the Emile Henry’s interior pocket is also unique. It’s an inverted cone shape, instead of an open bell, which allows it to hold two sticks—almost twice as much as The Original Butter Bell Crock—and the shape also helps keep the butter from sliding out. The lid doesn’t have a handle, but that became an advantage, because I could flip it and slide it onto the table with just one hand. If you force it, you can do this with the other models, but it’s trickier and requires some finger acrobatics.
Two sticks (16 ounces) might seem like a lot of butter. But in my two-person, not extremely butter-centric household (or so I thought!), the smaller (8 ounce) bell was empty in four days. A bigger capacity means you pack it less often. And if you’re serving a crowd at brunch, it means not having to refill mid-meal.
One major issue people seem to have with butter bells is that some users can’t get their butter to stop from sliding out of the bell. I didn’t have this problem with any of the bells. I packed the butter in all the way, pushing out all the air bubbles. I did not get a chance to test them in hotter summer temperatures, though. The warmest my kitchen got during testing was 72°F. Some people in warmer climes also say mold can grow in the moist air pockets. Salted butter should discourage bacteria growth better than unsalted. Butter bell enthusiasts suggest changing the water every other day, and using your butter within a few days when it’s warm out. I filled mine with salted butter and in several weeks have had no issues with mold of any kind.
A round, turning lazy Susan won’t fit on all tablescapes, but we’ve found it can help keep the table tidy; condiments and extra utensils stay in one place, and people are encouraged to stick things back where they belong. After considering 15 models and testing three, we found the Core Bamboo 14” Lazy Susan was the best for serving condiments, spices, and other brunch staples. When loaded with a full water carafe and three heavy stoneware jars totaling 7 pounds, the bamboo platform didn’t wobble, shift, or lean in any direction. If you put one heavy thing on the far edge the platform does tilt up and lift off the rotating mechanism a little, but that happened with all three models we looked at. When we splashed the Core Bamboo with sugar, water, and tomato juice, all wiped off cleanly without staining or damaging the surface.
The Core Bamboo’s size provided enough room to be useful while not bogarting all the space on a smaller breakfast table. The round platform’s 14 inches are roomy enough for a full set of tea/coffee fixings or a carafe of juice and 10 stacked 10-ounce glasses, with room to spare.
If you want something slightly bigger, the Core Bamboo also comes in a 16-inch size. Just keep in mind that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Larger lazy Susans work best on round tables. No matter what the size, when placed on a rectangular table, only four people can reach it comfortably. If you have a spacious, wide dining table that you can’t reach the middle of with your arm extended, or a round table that seats eight or more, a larger size would be appropriate.
The 19” Lazy Susan at World Market was our second favorite option, and though sturdy and well made, it came unfinished and requires wood oil to prevent it from staining over time. The 18” Sur La Table Acacia Lazy Susan was knocked out of the running because it has a slight rattle when rotating.
Less expensive models we considered all came up short. The IKEA Snudda was only in stock at six of the 40 IKEA stores listed online. There is a high star rating for the Lipper 10” Bamboo Turntable on Amazon, but the lower-starred reviews cited problems with the product arriving scratched or damaged. There were similar complaints when I looked into their 18” Acacia model. Getting an unmarred product seemed to be a roll of the dice, so we didn’t test them. Plastic versions like this OXO look better as storage inside kitchen cabinets than on the tabletop. Marble options felt stuffy. ↵
*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.
One of the worst problems to have at a brunch gathering is insufficient seating for your guests. That’s where folding chairs come in handy. After four hours of research and six months of long-term testing, we suggest going for the Mity Lite Flex One folding chair, a durable, ventilated seat made of steel and flexible polypropylene that molds to the sitter’s shape and can purportedly hold more than 1,000 pounds. It is an inch and a half wider than your standard folding chair, can be stored in a closet, and is comfortable enough that your seated guests won’t feel like second-class party attendees.
We tested the Mity Lite Flex One against the IKEA Terje for comfort, and the winner was crystal clear. We were able to sit in the Mity Lite Flex One for hours. The Mity Lite’s wide seat and back move slightly with your body, while the tall 9-inch backrest provides plenty of support. The Terje’s rigid slatted wood seat is 2 inches narrower than the Mity Lite’s, with no give.
Much of the editorial around this category focused on the looks of the chairs. We eliminated metal folding chairs without covered seats because nobody needs that cold-metal-against-warm-thighs feeling at a party. On Amazon, the National Public Seating padded metal folding chairs got equally high marks from customers but aren’t as wide or flexible. ↵
The simple, polished WMF Manaos Serving Spoon is our favorite serving spoon. We like its elegant handle, and the bowl of the spoon is big enough to serve up home fries and fruit salad, as well as soft casserole dishes like spoon bread and baked eggs. It measures 10 inches long, and the bowl is 2¼ by 3 inches. It gets rave reviews on Amazon, where it holds a 4.8-star rating. Reviewer HLK says, “Very nice spoon for the price. Feels solid, washes well. Looks more expensive than it is.”
If a high-polish finish isn’t very important to you but having a multitasking utensil is, we recommend the Gray Kunz spoon. This spoon is an essential tool for chefs and line cooks in fine dining kitchens all over the world, where it’s often used by the pros for saucing, plating, cooking, and tasting. Developed by chef Gray Kunz while he led the kitchen at the now closed Lespinasse in New York City, they were standard issue for every cook in that kitchen. The Gray Kunz spoon doesn’t have the shine of our top pick, but its brushed finish and ergonomic handle make it a comfortable and attractive spoon.
When it comes to serving sliced meat or vegetables like asparagus or green beans, we think serving tongs are best. If you want something fancier-looking than our Winco recommendation, the Crate and Barrel Caesna Mirror Serving Tongs balance style and practicality. Versatile, easy to grip, and made of high-polish stainless steel, these tongs work well for serving both casual and dressed-up dinners. ↵
(Photos by Eve O’Neill.)
Originally published: March 21, 2016