Great Gear for Parties 2014
Whether you’re having people over for a candlelit dinner or a BYOB, call-the-cops dance party, you’ll probably need a few supplies before, during, and after your gathering. Having people over to your house is one of the warmest, most generous gifts you can give your friends and loved ones. If your guests are coming, they’re already primed to have a good time—all you have to do is keep them in the mood.
Some of the items here are seasonal and out of stock. We're working on updating this guide for 2014.
Our team put several hundred hours of research and testing into choosing these picks. For 2014, we were more selective about the items that made the cut, calling in and testing last year’s picks against new contenders. Some of these picks come from longer full guides, while other items were researched specifically for this collection.
A great party remains a sensory thrill that can’t be replicated in the digital sphere. Prepare just enough so you can relax and have fun. It’s your party, after all.
(illustration by Molly Snee)
Table of contents
- Pie plate
- Pie crust
- Probe thermometer
- Roasting pan
- Slow cooker
- Turkey deep fryer
- Waffle maker (for Christmas brunch)
- Kitchen towels
- Potato masher/ricer
- Puff pastry
- Cups (disposable, cold drinks)
- Cups (disposable, hot drinks)
- Carving knife and fork
- Folding table
- Folding chairs
- Glasses (most versatile)
- Glasses (champagne)
- Glasses (wine)
- Napkins (cloth) and tablecloth
- Pitcher for water
- Plates (all purpose)
- Plates (disposable)
- Serving utensils
- Utensils (disposable)
- Pie server
We found Lynch Creek after an exhaustive internet search of big box suppliers and small farms. Compared to last year’s pick, the Traditional Balsam Wreath from L.L.Bean, this wreath is 2” bigger in diameter and has 2 pounds more foliage, which makes it a full 50 percent heavier for almost exactly the same price. We also looked at the Mount Cadillac as ordered directly from Whitney Wreath, L.L. Bean’s supplier. While it’s the same size, weight, and texture as our top choice, it’s $4 more expensive. In addition, Whitney’s site says each order comes with “a free green-metal door hanger,” but I found this to be misleading; the door hanger that came with mine was a green plastic loop wrapped around the top, sort of like a ziptie that needed a pre-existing hook or screw on the door to hang from. I was left without a way to display it, since I thought a metal hanger was on its way in the box.
Christmas tree stand
To test our top contenders, we went to Adams Nurseries in Tonawanda, NY, who loaned us two Douglas fir trees to set up and take down. We used a force gauge to pull on each tree and see how much force it would take to pull one down. The Krinner maxed out our force gauge at 50 Newtons, even surviving past some of our test materials.
We considered almost 30 tree stands, and none even came close to matching the Krinner’s sturdy grip. A foot pedal-activated ratcheting system tightens a wire around the base of the tree trunk. Our reviewer, Ed Grabianowski, said, “If you do it right, you don’t even have to crawl under the tree to tighten the connections.”
The cheaper runner-up, the Cinco Express, only uses four screws to tighten the trunk to the base, which is less stable and requires a lot more effort. It’s also less than half the price of the Krinner and gets positive reviews, but we don’t like it nearly as much as we love the Krinner.
At five feet away, the colors (and even the all-white version) are warm enough to mimic the twinkle of incandescents. Unlike other LEDs, these sturdy, cool bulbs won’t flicker, and they use a feature called “Constant On” that means a busted bulb or two won’t affect the rest of the strand from staying lit. (But if you want to replace the broken bulb, you can do so easily.) And with a lifespan of 20,000 hours (compared to incandescents’ average 2,000-3,000 hours), these LEDs should last through ten seasons while using significantly less energy than fragile, traditional lights.
The SoundAsleep and Insta-bed look nearly identical when you compare them side by side; the pump, which SoundAsleep tells us is made by a third party, may even be manufactured in the same place. (The electronic parts even list the same patent numbers.) The pumps are slightly different, though, with the Insta-bed offering “Never flat” technology which allows a second pump to refill the mattress as it loses air in the night. However, we didn’t love the subtle buzzing of the secondary pump on the Insta-bed.
But what really sets the SoundAsleep apart is overwhelming enthusiasm for customer service. The mattress comes with a one-year warranty which should cover any leaks you may get (and all air mattresses are susceptible to them). Reviewers rave about their experiences with the company, and Sleep Like the Dead’s 97% satisfaction rate reflect that.
If you want something cheaper (and firmer), Sweethome founder Brian Lam likes these Texsport Camping Cots ($50). They also come in a Jumbo size for taller folks. They’re more appropriate for sleepers who prefer very firm support, but our staffers report that they’re sturdy, comfortable, and pleasantly raised up off the floor.
We wanted to love this durable cotton-filled Japanese futon, but even rolled up, it was as bulky as a 3-foot barrel and difficult to store. We also tried the ultra-portable Therm-a-rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad as a super compact option but found the three-inch thickness too spartan to offer to visitors.
While we looked at queen and twin options, we recommend putting only one person on an air mattress; sharing an air bed with another person is a surefire recipe for interrupted sleep.
Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth said, “It has plenty of bass and plays louder than any other all-in-one wireless speaker I’ve tested: 105 decibels at 1 meter, which is 3 to 5 dB louder than most of the best wireless speakers I’ve tested.” This is 27 dB louder than our favorite rugged Bluetooth speaker, the UE Boom.
Top-mounted bass and treble control knobs allow you to adjust the sound to your taste without distortion, even at dance party levels. A Bluetooth speaker isn’t going to be as powerful or rich as a stereo system is, but the Marshall Stanmore delivers rich, big sound for the wide variety of music styles we tested.
If you’re interested in filling a much bigger space—or the whole house—you should get our favorite whole home audio system instead. Or if you’d rather have something that you can move from room to room, and you’re willing to give up a bit of sound quality, get the Denon Envaya, which is the step up in our portable speaker guide. -Ganda Suthivarakom ↵
A good selection of candles can make or break a party’s atmosphere. There are four main styles of candles: tapers, which are tall, skinny, and placed in candlesticks; pillar candles, which are squat—usually at least 2-3 inches in diameter—and come in any variety of heights; votives, about 2 inches tall, 1 inch wide, and made to go in votive holders; and tea lights, small candles in metal cups that are traditionally used to warm teapots but are also great for accent lighting.
How long each candle lasts varies dramatically; a good pillar candle can last more than 24 hours, but for a tea light, 6 hours would be impressive. And for all candles, you’re looking for two main things: no dripping, which can ruin nice candleholders, and either no or very little smoke.
I looked at dozens of candles before narrowing down to the 16 candles I tested, researching reviews on Amazon and elsewhere on the web to figure out which ones were worth a second look.
Our favorite taper was Light in the Dark’s 10-inch-tall taper. The company seems to be selling other companies’ candles under their brand name: Last year’s testers were actually made by John Lewis Value, and this year’s samples came from a European company called Spaas. Beware, though: The package lists the candles’ length as 240 mm, which is about 9⅓ inches—not 10. However, they were still dripless and smokeless, unlike Entertaining with Caspari’s vastly-more-expensive tapers ($6.50/candle, versus Light in the Dark’s $1.60/candle).
The packaging claims a burn time of 7 hours, and we had no problems with dripping. The Caspari candles, however, dripped wax all the way down the candle after just half an hour and let off much more smoke when extinguished. We also looked at the Colonial Candle tapers, but unfortunately almost all of the candles broke in shipping.
For 2014, we also tested Crate and Barrel’s 12-hour 12-in. taper candles, which burned more slowly than the Light in the Dark. However, the hard paraffin wax was just a touch more brittle than the Light in the Dark candles’ wax, and the candles’ thick girth didn’t fit into some of the candlesticks.
For pillar candles, we liked the Yummi candles, which come in three heights (3 by 8 in., 3 by 6 in., and 3 by 4 in.) and almost any color you can imagine. They cost $20 for three candles—about $6.66/candle—and have a claimed burn time of 60 hours. We burned three different candles for 2 hours, and in that period, the Yummi candles melted the least (the others were the Richland and Hanna’s candles). When extinguished, they let off a small-but-noticeable amount of smoke that was significantly less than the other two candles. They also dried the fastest, so no fingers should get burnt by slow-drying wax.
The best votive candles we found were Light in the Dark’s 15 Hour White Unscented Votive Candles, which claim to burn for an impressive 15 hours. Amazon reviewers indicate the actual time is closer to 11-13 hours, but that’s still impressive for a votive.
The candles are a bit taller than normal votives—they reached the tops of our votive holders, where most were ⅓ in. or more below—but once they burned down a bit, they fit perfectly.
We tested them against four other votive candles; out of the pack, they dried the quickest, gave off no smell, and put out almost no smoke.
Tea lights usually burn down within a few hours, so we were pleased with Richland’s Extended Burn lights. After 2½ hours lit, they had only burned down about a quarter of the way, and Amazon reviewers said they frequently give about 6½ hours of flame, very close to the 7 hours they’re rated for. Richland manages to do that without sacrificing size, as the metal tin that holds them is only a few millimeters taller than usual. And like our other favorite candles, these gave off very little smoke. -Jamie Wiebe ↵
Home music system
Rule the ambience for guests in every room of the house (no matter how big your palace is) with a whole home audio system. Our current pick is still the Sonos multi-room system (we recommend two PLAY:1 speakers and the $50 Sonos BRIDGE, which allows you to stream music on a separate wireless mesh network without clogging up your Wi-Fi). The Sonos system allows you to wirelessly play music from your library or a streaming service in multiple rooms of your house. Bose’s expensive SoundTouch supports Airplay for Apple devices, but it doesn’t have Bluetooth, which makes it less versatile; Samsung’s Shape M7 has Bluetooth but its streaming services selection is lacking. -GS ↵
In an age when most people only experience photos as pixels on their phones, nothing draws attention at a party like the tactile, retro charm of an instant camera. Our pick for an instant camera is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S ($90). Its film is widely available, and the pocket-sized prints make for excellent keepsakes with rich contrast, nicely saturated colors, and pleasing detail. The 2.4 by 1.8-inch prints from the Mini 50S, which cost about 70 cents each, were almost identical to those from the more expensive Mini 90 and much richer than those taken with last year’s pick, the Instax 210. -GS ↵
After sifting through professional and customer reviews alike, we found that Husky’s 42-Gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags are your best bet. We looked at more than a dozen brands and dozens more variations of each bag. This one won over Amazon reviewers and Good Housekeeping alike, and it received a secondhand nod from Popular Mechanics.
The key feature for an effective one-bag cleanup is puncture-and-abrasion-fighting thickness (typically measured in “mils,” or thousandths of an inch). A 3-mil contractor bag is notably tougher than the 0.5- or 1-mil thickness of kitchen bags. Factors that make Husky’s variety stand out are winning reviews on Amazon, near-flawless marks at Home Depot’s site, a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping, and a smart price: about $1 each if you buy a 32-pack on Amazon or just 45 cents each if you buy 50 at Home Depot.
Another great option, if your local hardware store happens to carry them, is the EconoGreen 42-gallon Contractor Clean-up Bags. They’re not available on Amazon at the moment, but they are 3-mil, inexpensive, recycled, and Popular Mechanics’ preferred big bag, after some brutal testing. -KP & GS ↵
We pitted three instant spot stain removers against some DIY methods and our favorite is still the Shout Stain Remover Wipes ($6 for 12). We splotched a silk shirt with wine, coffee, lipstick, and mustard, treating the fresh stains immediately. In our tests, the Shout wipes easily outperformed the Tide to Go pen. They were the only stain remover that got rid of almost all traces of lipstick on the collar. The single-use towelettes mean you won’t wind up redepositing an old stain on another piece of clothing. They also did a fair job on wine and coffee spills, leaving a minimal ring where the stain spread out across the silk.
The Tide to Go pen, on the other hand, seemed to work in the center of the stain, but the coffee and wine just widened out, spreading a stain outline around the nucleus. Plus, if you use it on a stubborn stain, you might want to think twice about rubbing that nib on another shirt.
The liquid does disperse the darkest stuff to the edges of the wet mark, so launder or rinse out after the stain has been addressed. The bottle doesn’t list ingredients, saying only that “it is made from fruit and vegetable extracts,” and it smells pleasantly of citrus oil.
The fact that it didn’t do anything for mustard and pretty much just spread the coffee around further doesn’t detract from the pony’s one trick. Everyone—from cleaning expert Jolie Kerr to Good Housekeeping, Cook’s Illustrated, and more—raves about this stuff.
The home remedies were a mixed bag. Using salt to soak up red wine didn’t seem to do anything but leave a blotch of purple sediment. Blotting and rinsing with a bit of dish soap worked very well on coffee and mustard—of course, you have to be prepared to take your shirt off to rinse through the stain, presumably while you tie up the bathroom and stand half-naked as your shirt dries. It should be noted that absolutely nothing but the dish soap worked well on French’s yellow mustard.
If someone at the party spills something onto the carpet, we recommend the Bissell Power Shot Oxy for Carpet & Area Rugs ($7), which powered through day-old ketchup, soy sauce, and wine stains much better than Resolve did. The Bissell Power Shot also did a surprisingly good job on fresh mustard, though it left a trace of turmeric yellow. Bissell Power Shot Oxy is Consumer Reports’ top stain remover and it got an A- from Good Housekeeping. (Both reviews call it Bissell OxyPro but we confirmed with the company that this is the new name for the same formula.)
The nozzle shoots a foaming white stream that makes it easy to see where you’ve already soaked the stain. Bissell Power Shot Oxy is also on the EPA’s Design for the Environment list, which means the EPA deems it a product that “contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.”
Amazon reviewers love it, giving it a 4.4-star rating out of more than 80 reviews. Note that it was hard to track down at neighborhood supermarkets and big box stores—buy it online, or look for it next to the vacuums at a big hardware store like Lowe’s.
While Resolve Carpet Triple Oxi Advanced Carpet Stain Remover had a more pleasant citrus smell, it wasn’t as effective on the mustard stain and had a lot more trouble with day-old, set-in stains. Without the oxygen bleach power of the other two models, the popular Folex Instant Carpet Spot Remover was a lot less tough on mustard. And the Bissell Professional Power Shot Oxy, which contains an additional anti-stain agent that our pick doesn’t have, smells overwhelming, like a nose-burning cross between Irish Spring and Windex. Regardless of where the stain happens, drop everything and treat right away for the best chance of removing the offending splotch. -GS ↵
We talked to five flower design experts for advice on how to match flowers to their best receptacle. They all agreed: Choose opaque vases rather than glass in order to hide untidy stems and make the flowers the focal point.
“The best shape for a vase is an hourglass: wide at the bottom, narrowed somewhere in the middle, and slightly flared at the top (like this bud vase).” A black vase pairs well with white or jewel-toned flowers, while one expert suggested green as a versatile option since the color will match most leaves.
Whatever vase you choose, make sure the stems have been trimmed to the correct height. “The rule of thumb for traditional arrangements is that flowers’ stems’ length should be no more than one and a half to two times the height of a vase,” said Meg. The best dinner table arrangements are short and don’t block the view of the other side of the table.
Our experts suggest a short, cube-shaped vase in white or black with flowers of a single species and color cut short enough so that only the heads of the flowers show above the vase. Tie the stems together with rubber bands and drop the bouquet into the vase for a striking, modern arrangement that’s also very easy.
Never underestimate the thermal power of many human bodies sitting together in a room, even in the dead of winter. A good room fan can help circulate stale air and freshen your guests. Our pick is the Vornado 660 ($100). It’s powerful, moving up to 584 cubic feet of air per minute, but it doesn’t create much noise (a plus when your guests are already making plenty themselves). It also has a pretty small footprint (not much bigger than 1 cubic foot), so it won’t take up too much room on your temporary dance floor. -GS ↵
Well-crafted individual cocktails require attention and time, so save them for more intimate dinner parties. For larger gatherings, it may make more sense to pre-mix a pitcher of a single cocktail like a Negroni or a Gold Rush that can be poured over rocks. Alternatively, you could make a big bowl of punch! -NG
Our pick for cocktail napkins (aka beverage napkins) is the Vanity Fair Impressions Beverage Napkin ($17). As with Vanity Fair’s standard paper napkins (also tested and recommended in this piece), the Beverage Napkins feel cloth-like and classy. They look and feel great for distributing with passed hors d’oeuvres and are equally fitting for keeping on hand at the bar. They’re also the most recognizable brand in your local supply store or on Amazon. In particular, they beat out Marcal Paper’s cocktail napkins, which earned mostly “they work” reviews, compared to the Vanity Fair’s compelling testimonials. -Kevin Purdy
For after-dinner coffee or holiday brunch for big groups, serving a large amount of hot coffee at once can be a challenge. Last year we recommended a large Chemex, but found the system too fussy and slow for a crowd.
We’re currently putting together a full guide to the best coffee machine, but our current auto-drip frontrunner is the well-reviewed 8-Cup Bonavita BV1800TH ($170), which heats water to the ideal temperature and comes with a thermal carafe to keep your coffee piping hot.
It’s a great investment if you regularly brew for a crowd. However, you should note that the Bonavita BV1900TS will be shipping any week now and early reviews indicate that it does make slightly better coffee. However, it has an MSRP of $190, which is more expensive than the already-quite-good BV1800TH.
If you’re not planning on buying a machine for your one big dinner party of the year, try making very strong coffee concentrate. We tried and liked this recipe from The Kitchn, which you reconstitute with two parts hot water. The method is just like cold-brewed coffee, which gives the coffee rich flavor with a bit less acid. If you have room in the refrigerator, you can store the coffee concentrate for up to a week, but if you don’t have any room to spare (and who does over the holidays), you can brew the concentrate at room temperature the day of your party. We found the results to be delicious and not watered down. The recipe makes eight 12 fl. oz. cups, but you could easily make more or less.
You can keep that java warm for hours in a carafe. Our pick is the leakproof, 51-ounce Thermos Stainless-Steel Carafe. This was the top pick from Cook’s Illustrated, and it earned 4.5 stars over 281 customer reviews on Amazon. An elegant stainless steel design and pouring spout mean you can bring the pitcher out to the table to top up empty cups.
If you’re hosting more than 20, make the coffee before the guests come and keep it hot in the Bunn Lever-Action Airpot ($50). It holds 128 ounces of hot coffee (enough for about 25 5-oz. cups) and was recommended by every barista we talked to.
Nissan and Bunn dominate the carafe field aside from a few other contenders that either fall short in function or have price tags that take them out of the running. For keeping a decent amount of coffee warm for a long time, the only real competition we could find was in a different Nissan product: their two-in-one thermal carafe and coffee press. It also comes with the drawback that if the coffee isn’t consumed at once, the grounds can oversteep. The only other model that seemed like it could overshadow the Nissan and Bunn thermal carafes, the sleek Alfi Juwel Chrome Plated Brass Thermal Carafe ($210), has a pricetag that makes it unreasonable for anyone other than professional baristas.
We reached these picks after asking seasoned baristas from various coffee shops including Spielman Roasters in Portland, OR, and Third Rail Coffee in New York City, all of whom immediately recommended either Bunn or Nissan without much loyalty to one over the other. -Audrey Lorberfeld ↵
For larger parties, grab big bags of ice from the supermarket or gas station. You’re going to want to separate the ice into two groups: ice that just cools your beers down and won’t be consumed and clean ice meant for adding to drinks. The clean ice needs its own container—nobody should have to stick a hand in the cooler to grab the stuff chilling the unwashed cans of beer.
After 20 hours of watching ice melt, our pick to hold that clean ice is the Oggi Stainless Steel Ice Bucket ($35). This shiny, stainless model is double-walled for insulation; it has a removable lid, a 3-quart capacity, and an included pair of tongs.
Last year we tested it against the OXO Plastic Ice Bucket ($40) and Oggi Double Wall Ice Bucket ($35). It remains our favorite after testing against two more options, the OXO Steel Ice Bucket ($50) and Threshold Hammered Metal Ice Bucket ($30). Covered, our winner kept ice the longest by far—there was still ice left after 20 hours!
All started with 2 quarts of ice. After 4 hours, ¾ cup of meltwater was at the bottom of the Threshold and OXO, but there was only ½ cup at the bottom of the Oggi. After sitting overnight (20 hours), again the Oggi did a better job of preserving the ice: There was a full ¾ cup less of meltwater than in either of the other options.
While the steel OXO bucket has some nice features, like an attached lid, it’s $20 more expensive than our choice and looks a lot like an appliance sitting out on the bar. The Threshold comes with a scoop instead of tongs. While using tongs can feel a bit precious while you’re poking through chunks of ice, the scoops don’t work very well in narrow buckets, sending the ice sliding off the scoop. Last but not least, our pick looks good enough to double as a wine bucket on the dinner table, and it didn’t sweat at all on the outside. -GS & EO↵
These Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino cherries are made from tart Marasca cherries and soaked in a thick, dark syrup with Maraschino liqueur—a far cry from the bright red sundae toppers.
An essential garnish for Manhattans and other cocktails, maraschino cherries are a staple of a well-equipped holiday bar. Say maraschino cherry and most people think of those candied, sickly sweet, neon red toppers on Shirley Temples and ice cream sundaes. Gross.
Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino Cherries ($25), on the other hand, are delicious and pretty much the best you can buy off store shelves. A great maraschino cherry foregoes artificial flavors and dyes. Instead, it’s soaked in a rich syrup—usually of juice (sometimes cherry, sometimes other), sugar, and some kind of liquor. The resulting cherries are very dark and have a natural cherry flavor with a nice kick of flavorful booze.
The original maraschino cherries were always soaked in Maraschino cherry liqueur made of Marasca cherries, which originated in Dalmatia (now in Croatia). The fruit was crushed, pits and all, which provided almond-like flavor. (This is why the standard supermarket variety tastes of bitter almond flavoring.) But some maraschinos are soaked in other liquors, such as brandy, rum, or bourbon.
The treated and artificially-colored variety gained enough popularity at the turn of the 20th century that the FDA issued Food Inspection Decision 141 in 1912, decreeing that those not preserved in Maraschino liqueur be labeled “imitation.” When Prohibition hit in 1920, booze-soaked cherries became garnish non grata, and by 1939, the FDA had to redefine maraschino cherries as the prevalent teetotaler kind Americans had come to embrace.
Luxardos are the original maraschinos, made with tart Marasca cherries and soaked in a thick, dark syrup with Maraschino liqueur. Although some Manhattan lovers find these too sweet, they’re a great alternative if you don’t have the homemade variety, and they’re much better than the standard supermarket offerings.
Although we didn’t find any comparative editorial reviews on maraschinos, we did learn that Luxardo is the preferred brand of many bartenders, the Sweethome’s resident cocktail guru (and author of Craft Cocktails at Home) Kevin Liu, and commenters on various Chowhound discussions.
In our research we did find several other smaller companies making maraschinos. Real Simple recommends Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries. The blog Thirsty South reviewed cherries by Ole Smoky and H&F Bottle Shop (as well as Luxardo). We also received a recommendation for Barker & Mills Bourbon Vanilla Cocktail Cherries and also looked into those made by Filthy Cherry and Unbound Pickling. However, these either don’t match the high reviews of the Luxardo or simply are too hard to source.
These days, most professional bartenders and home cocktail fans like to make their own. There are a variety of recipes floating around the internet. Kevin Liu likes this recipe adapted from the book The Art of the Bar. It’s a great option if you can get some good cherries during the summer, but it’s not all that helpful in the dead of winter. -Christine Cyr Clisset ↵
Filling a big glass punch bowl with cocktails before your guests arrive frees you from bartending duty for the rest of the evening; as a bonus, the vessel makes an amazing conversation piece no matter what you put in it. This 10-Piece Punch Set (the same product as this Libbey 10-piece set) ($30) features a durable, modern-looking glass bowl that holds 352 oz., or 11 quarts. While that may sound enormous, in testing this proved to be exactly the right size to hold a large punch recipe for multiple guests plus ice and garnishes.
It also comes with a 5-oz. plastic ladle, which doles out exactly the right serving size and maintains the aesthetic of glass while being more durable than a glass ladle. Also included are eight glasses that match the bowl and hold 11.7 oz. each, the exact right size for ice, garnishes, and two ladles of punch.
We tested it side-by-side with the Libbey Selene Punch Bowl Set (which is the same product as Macy’s The Cellar 10-Piece Punch Bowl Set). I initially preferred the perfectly round, fish-bowl shape of the Selene in the photos, but when set side-by-side with our top choice, that design took a back seat. The opening at the top is more restrictive, limiting your view of the garnish and contents. The smaller mouth on the Selene won’t fit a larger ice ring; the largest it can accommodate is only 8 inches, whereas our pick can take a ring up to 10 inches.
At first, I thought the pedestal at the bottom of the 10-Piece Punch Set would make it hard to ladle out the last of the ingredients. But as my punch sat out and the garnishes slowly floated to the bottom, they gathered in that clear pedestal, displaced the last amount of drinkable liquid, and looked beautiful all over again, whereas in the Selene bowl they just disappeared.
Though it seems like a great deal at first, there are too many reports of breakage on the Selene to make it worth saving those few dollars. Both models need to be handled with care, but the top is significantly flimsier on the Selene, and it’s difficult to wash without handling the top rim. I didn’t break it, but I didn’t get it fully clean, either. -EO
If you have a smaller table or just prefer a different look than galvanized steel, the Prodyne Big Bath Party Tub ($30) is a good option. It can hold eight beers or four bottles of wine, plus ice, and the big rounded lip acts as a very sturdy handle, making it easy to relocate if necessary.
The disadvantage to the Prodyne is that the clear acrylic will reveal the inevitable ripped labels and bits of debris collected in the ice throughout the evening, so if that sounds unappealing, go with the Remington.
We’ve now looked at about thirty models from Amazon and major retailers in many different styles. We eliminated models that cost more than $40, which seemed like a reasonable price for something that only gets used for parties, and the Tablecraft bucket was the perfect size. We liked the price on this big Behrens Round Galvanized Steel Tub, but the seams were sloppily sealed with glue. And the Grasslands Road Silver Metal Party Drink Chiller Tub is flimsier than our top choice without being a whole lot cheaper.
Etiquette expert Lizzie Post recommends tubs of galvanized metal and plastic for less formal occasions: “I don’t pull those out for formal parties, because I would rather pour drinks into the glass for those,” she told us.
Just make sure you place a towel underneath them to absorb any condensation that might build up over the course of the evening. Because these are generally not insulated, you may have to top it up with ice as you refill with beers.
You won’t want to use a galvanized tub for ice you’re going to serve to guests. The American Galvanizers Association and the FDA say galvanized steel should be safe for food as long as no acidic substances come into contact with it, which can make zinc leach out. We say better safe than sorry. Besides, we have an ice bucket pick as well if that’s what you need. Event planner Linnea Johansson had another fun suggestion—load your washing machine up with ice and put your beers in there. It gives your party a fun speakeasy vibe (we’re hiding the booze in the laundry room!) and the meltwater just drains away. Wherever you keep your beers, put the bin for recycling right next to it so when a guest grabs a new one, they know where to drop the one they’ve polished off. -GS ↵
Stocking a bar is a matter of personal taste; it’s your party, so buy what you prefer. As long as there’s something to drink, your guests will be happy to linger. But if you need to stock up from scratch and want suggestions for basic, crowd-pleasing bottles of liquor that are good for most cocktails but won’t (completely) blow your budget, we narrowed it down to seven selections.
After speaking to five celebrated bartenders, researching what the entertaining experts had to say, and cross-referencing their responses, we recommend Absolut vodka, Tanqueray gin, Dolin dry vermouth, Wild Turkey bourbon, The Famous Grouse whisky, Pueblo Viejo blanco tequila, and Bacardi Silver rum.
Chad Solomon of beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons called Tanqueray a “Rolls-Royce-quality” gin.
Dolin Dry was Chad Solomon’s and John deBary of Momofuku’s pick for dry vermouth, a key ingredient in martinis.
Of bourbon, DeGroff also said, “Right there in the heart, at 101 proof, is Wild Turkey. This man is the master.”
The Famous Grouse whisky got points from Solomon for being “more of a mixer than a sipper … it’s not overly sweetened and has a little bit of smoke to it.”
And for white rum, DeGroff told us, “obviously Bacardi.”
Different cocktails (or straight sipping) may be better suited to different bottles. You know your friends, so pick and choose the alcohol you think they’ll enjoy most. -NG ↵
Case of sparkling wine
Real Champagne is expensive, and most of us can’t afford to buy it by the case. Luckily there’s much to choose from beyond the French stuff these days, from peachy proseccos to minerally cavas.
If you’re having a celebration and want to get enough to pour into everyone’s cup without going broke, we recommend Gruet Brut (~$15). Gruet Brut is a non-vintage sparkler from Albuquerque, New Mexico, made in the French style by a family from Champagne.
Chad Solomon, Milk & Honey bar alumnus and partner of beverage consultancy Cuffs & Buttons, told us, “It’s quite lovely to sip on.” Michael McCaulley, wine director and partner of Philadelphia’s Tria bar-cafe, said, “It’s toastier, it’s bready, it’s complex, it’s awesome with luscious cheese.”
It’s also widely available across the US, including at online shops such as Astor Wines and Spirits that ship around the country.
To figure out a great bottle that can be bought by the case, we consulted “best of” lists from various sources, including The Nest, Huffington Post, Wine Enthusiast, Good Housekeeping, Food & Wine, and Serious Eats. Then we sought out the experts.
Sommeliers and bartenders from all over the country filled us in on some of their favorites, and our research turned out to be right: Again and again, our sources listed Gruet Brut as one of their favorites, even without our mentioning it. Just to make sure, we pitted it against Wine-Enthusiast-approved Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut ($12), which pops up on top sparkler lists, and the similarly well-received Segura Viudas Aria Brut Cava ($12). It was the clear favorite.
For this year, we did a sweep for any new standout bubbles, but there are very few new sparkling wine producers since it’s expensive to make. Nothing we dug up comes close to the Gruet in availability or critical acclaim. -Nick Guy ↵
After sitting down to dinner and tasting through 10 popular and widely available boxed wines, Big House Cardinal Zin ($18) was everyone’s favorite red. With sommeliers, graphic designers (we judged each box on appearance, too), and just regular people who love to eat in attendance, this flavorful, rich Zinfandel pleased both the sophisticated palates and the drinkers who were just in it for the buzz. In addition, the $30 La Petite Frog Picpoul de Pinet (which we affectionately nicknamed The Frog) was singled out as the best boxed white for a holiday party.
One 3-liter box holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine and tucks neatly into the fridge. In addition to taking up just a tiny bit of space next to bowls and trays, it can take three weeks or longer for the wine inside a box to go bad, as oxygen doesn’t enter the package. Then, after opening, store the box in the fridge (even the reds) to preserve the longevity of the wine. This means you’ll have wine ready for multiple parties, even if they’re weeks apart. Your typical bottled red, should you have any left, would last only until the next morning.
And in terms of economy, boxed wine is a no-brainer. Our top pick is around $18 per box, which means you’re paying less than $5 per bottle. Big House doesn’t get as much press as some of the more exotic boxed varietals do, but the positive real-world response over dinner overwhelmed any lack of critical praise: “Mmm.” “This is really good.” “Wow, this is so pleasant.” “I’m baffled… this is what a cheesy looking Zinfandel tastes like?” “I’m surprised.” “Yum!” There wasn’t a single hesitation, reservation, or negative comment in the group, and Real Simple recommends Cardinal Zin specifically for Thanksgiving.
Of the La Petite Frog, commentary ranged from “I think the Frog would go great with a holiday meal” to “The box doesn’t look like shit and it’s a decent tasting wine” and “I would feel cool showing up to dinner with the Frog.” Wine Enthusiast, Forbes, and even The Atlantic have sung its praises. You would be doing yourself a disservice judging the taste of a bottle of wine by its packaging, but since this recommendation is meant for holiday entertaining, I enlisted the help of a professional packaging designer to help critique our choices. There were several boxes that were easier to eliminate because of distracting brand messaging and text placed directly where the pour spout is.
Most of those side panels aren’t fun to look at. The Frog was the favorite box of the bunch, and though the artwork on the Cardinal Zin wasn’t to anyone’s personal taste, the presentation was still great. The shape of the box is nice, the colors are nice, and no one felt like they were looking at the back of it or at an advertisement.
We tasted 9 other wines and dismissed them one by one, mostly because they didn’t receive the same positive reaction regarding taste that the Cardinal Zin had. Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir was the second favorite option, but the design of the box didn’t hold up to scrutiny, with one diner mentioning it “looked like it should be holding cleaning supplies.” In addition, everyone enjoyed the smell and flavor of Black Box Pinot, but wasn’t as well received as the more fruit-forward profile and rich texture of the Cardinal Zin. The box didn’t seem the right choice for a holiday party, either—it reminded two people of wine they take camping.
Bota Box, whose Pinot Grigio was the second-favorite white, suffered the same fate. Since it’s so widely available, the packaging didn’t feel special enough (“it’s just kind of scrappy looking”) for holiday festivities. One diner mentioned, “It tastes good, and I’d be happy serving it if I planned on taking it out of the box. But the whole reason I’m buying a box in the first place is so I can set it out and forget about it.” -EO ↵
Bitters have since dropped any pretense of improving your health, but their bitter, herbal flavors still add much-needed balance and intrigue to otherwise one-dimensionally sweet or tart cocktails.
Bitters come in all sorts of variations, but none are as universally useful as Angostura ($12.50). Although the bitters market is growing rapidly these days, it was easy to find the brand you should have on hand. Every single bartender we spoke to and every magazine article we read agreed; everything and everyone recommends Angostura.
It’s not so much that Angostura is necessarily better than other bitters—what’s important is that it’s the most universal. When the ambiguous term “bitters” is mentioned in a recipe, it’s almost always referring to Angostura. If you’re making a Sazerac, you’re going to want Peychauds. Fee Brothers, as just one example, has over a dozen of different varieties, including rhubarb and celery flavors. But the flavor profile of Angostura is what you want for the greatest number of recipes.
We talked to five top bartenders from around the country, and all of them said that Angostura was the one to get. It’s available pretty much anywhere and even called for by name in many classic cocktails like the Manhattan. As Derek Brown wrote on The Atlantic, “Being the most common bottle of bitters behind the bar happens to be a good thing in the case of Angostura. While it lacks the bright spice of other aromatic bitters, it’s a workhorse.”
Many other bitters have more specific uses, but, as Chad Solomon of Cuffs & Buttons told us, Angostura’s classic flavor profile goes with just about everything and it’s “the benchmark for everybody else.” That’s a ringing endorsement if we ever heard one. -NG
Wine glass markers
Giving guests a single glass for the evening reduces the amount of washing up you have to do at the end of the evening. But asking people to keep track of their own glass over the course of a long evening may be a bit too much to ask if you’re also pouring plenty of wine.
We recommend these white Sharpie Peel-Off China Markers ($10 for 12). They’re cheap, last a long time, don’t require a sharpener, and write easily on either the bowl or the base of the glass. The key thing is to write names on the glasses when they’re dry and empty—otherwise, condensation from chilled wine makes the glass wet and cold, and the china markers won’t work.
We recommend white because black is difficult to see against red wine, but white can still be seen through lighter colored wines. We love that you can use them on wine and champagne glasses of all sizes, stemless glasses, highballs, and even plastic cups.
The china markers won’t rub off on hands or clothes, don’t dissolve under condensation, and can be washed off the glasses with soap and water (or in the dishwasher) at the end of the night. Wine writer Anthony Giglio told Improvised Life, “The china marker is my secret weapon: I bring them to dinner parties as host gifts.”
These disposable Oenophilia Stemtags ($9 for 100) are a good runner up, but they don’t work if your glass lacks a stem, and they’re more expensive in the long run than the china markers.
We didn’t love these Wine Glass Markers ($9 for 3), which come with opaque, metallic ink that takes 1-3 minutes to dry and, even when dry, can rub off a bit onto hands and clothing. If you’re drinking a chilled wine, you also have to write above the fill line so your name doesn’t get dissolved by condensation. However, they are a better choice if you’re passing around glasses without stems.
Even those markers are much better than plain dry erase markers, which were too translucent against the glass to read easily and wiped off with a brush of the thumb.
A good baking dish is an indispensable, versatile tool around the holidays that can be used for both cooking and serving a variety of dishes for any meal. After a year of longterm testing and a recent head-to-head with four recommended competitors, we found that our favorite from last year—the HIC Porcelain Baking Dish (~$30)—is still the best casserole dish for the value.
It’s a classic-looking dish that performs well in the oven and is pretty enough to fit in with other formal or fancy table settings. It will easily serve between six and eight for sides, thanks to its slightly flared edges and 2¼-inch depth that’s sufficient for layered ingredients. (If you’re feeding a bigger crowd, you may want two of these dishes or a larger dish altogether.) It can also serve double duty as a breakfast/brunch dish for baking breakfast casseroles like egg strata.
For our recent full guide to casserole dishes, we pinpointed models to test by looking closely at this Cook’s Country review (the only other comparative review we could find), and by reading user reviews on Amazon, Williams-Sonoma, and a couple Chowhound threads (this and this one, in particular). We also spoke with a ceramics engineer to find out what makes a great porcelain or stoneware dish.
A 9” by 13” rectangular baking dish works really well for most side dish recipes such as stuffing and au gratin potatoes as well as for main courses like lasagna and other baked pastas. Oval dishes may look prettier, but they are less versatile; no one wants an elliptical lasagna. Although you’ll find stainless steel and enameled cast-iron baking dishes, those made from ceramic (stoneware or porcelain) or glass tend to be more popular because they’re more affordable, lightweight, and bake very evenly.
In our most recent testing, we found the HIC cooked just as well as the four other dishes we tried, evenly caramelizing roasted squash pieces and forming a nice browned crust on eggy strata, and its large handles made it one of the easiest to carry directly to the table. It performed as well as models more than three times the price and is much prettier than the the glass Arcuisine dish we tested. It also cleaned up very easily.
The HIC is also Cook’s Country’s top choice for a lasagna pan, and it gets good reviews on Amazon (4.3 stars, 92 reviews). It’s worth noting that some Amazon reviewers complain about this dish being smaller than advertised. It appears the dish is advertised with exterior measurements of 9” by 13” and 2½” deep. However, the accurate measurement is 10¾” by 7 1/4″ at the base of the inside of the dish, flaring out to 12¼ ” by 8½” at the top of the dish (inside measurement) and 2¼” deep. To be fair, the same is true of the Arcuisine model we tested, which also has flared sides. -CCC ↵
For baking cookies of all kinds, we like the rimmed Nordic Ware Naturals Baker’s Half Sheet ($11). After testing nine different models for our Best Cookie Sheet guide, we found the heavy-gauge aluminum Nordic Ware baked cookies evenly without warping at high heat, all for a fraction of the price of some of the other sheets. And because the Nordic Ware has rims, it also works well as an all-purpose pan for baking pizza and roasting vegetables.
If you don’t need a pan that can handle roasting temperatures (400°F-ish and above), we’d get the Bakers and Chefs Half Size Aluminum Sheet Pan (2 for $11) available in-store at Sam’s Club. We found they baked evenly and they’re a great value, but in our tests they did warp slightly at high temperatures. Keep a cookie sheet on hand if you’re baking a pie, too—they catch sugary juices before the overflow can carbonize the bottom of your oven. -CCC ↵
We’re working on an update to our Dutch oven guide, but our current frontrunner is still the Lodge Color Dutch Oven, and we’d recommend the larger 7.5-quart size for a big gathering. Lisa McManus, senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen, also advises buying a large model so you can brown meat in as few batches as possible.
Lodge is already renowned for its remarkably affordable plain cast iron, and we found that its enameled cast iron offerings performed admirably. The interior is off-white, which makes it easy to see the delicious fond you can deglaze into your sauce. Differences in cooking results between Le Creuset and Lodge were difficult for us to discern, but the price difference is enormous—the Lodge goes for about a quarter of the cost of the Le Creuset equivalent. The Lodge also comes with a limited lifetime warranty, so if a well-meaning guest’s thermal shock mishap causes cracks, you can reach out to Lodge for a replacement. -KP ↵
If you’re hosting family for the holidays or looking to do more informal entertaining, you’ll likely find yourself serving up big breakfasts and brunches. A large electric griddle makes this super easy. It frees up stovetop space, allowing you to cook bacon, sausage, and eggs all on one surface, and you can make huge batches of perfectly browned pancakes and French toast in minutes. Based on several hours of research, reading editorial reviews and testing models with lots of bacon and many pancakes, we recommend the Presto Tilt ‘n Drain Big Griddle Cool-Touch Electric Griddle ($45).
A nice griddle will have a big cooking surface that heats evenly and drainage for grease. A nonstick griddle is particularly nice, as you don’t need to use extra fat for cooking pancakes and French toast. It’s important not to use metal spatulas on these griddles, as they can scratch the nonstick surface
. America’s Test Kitchen was the only source we found for a thorough review of electric griddles. We pitted their top-ranked model, the Broil King Professional Griddle ($100), against the Presto, which has great Amazon user reviews (4.5 stars over 547 reviews) and was also reviewed highly at Macy’s. We also looked at the Cuisinart Griddler ($90), recommended by America’s Test Kitchen and the Amazon best-selling Presto 22-inch Electric Griddle with Removable Handles ($35), but neither were as highly rated as the two we ultimately decided to test. Although the Broil King has nicer metal handles than the Presto’s plastic ones, the cook surfaces themselves look and cook almost identically—and the Presto’s price is less than half of the Broil King’s.
We loaded up each griddle with a big batch of pancakes and a full 16-ounce package of bacon. Both griddles made perfectly browned pancakes and did a nice job of sizzling bacon. However, the Presto’s square shape felt bigger and more versatile than the Broil King’s rectangle. When we measured the cook surfaces, the Presto had 272¾ square inches of cook space while the Broil King came in at 267 ¾. 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. The Broil King only has a hole in the cook surface that leads to the tray. Neither are dishwasher safe (you can’t get the plug area wet), but both are easy to clean. -CCC ↵
For the most gorgeous, evenly-browned holiday pies, we recommend the $40 Emile Henry Pie Dish. It’s a bit spendy as far as pie plates go, but in our testing for our pie plate guide, the Emile Henry was one of the only dishes to create perfectly-browned crusts and evenly-baked fruit and quiche fillings.
Favored by many pro and home bakers, the Emile Henry is also a very pretty plate (available in a range of mouth-watering colors) and has a nice ruffled rim for perfectly fluted edges.
If you’re looking for a shallower, less expensive plate, we recommend the Pyrex Bakeware 9-inch Pie Plate ($8).
At first, we thought this would be our first choice, because glass pans are a favorite of many pro and home bakers due to the fact that you can see the crust as it browns. However, Pyrex changed its glass formula in the past few decades and a small percentage of this bakeware has been exploding in people’s ovens (and even on countertops), raising concerns about baking in glass. In our own testing, we didn’t have a problem. Yet because of the minor (but real) safety issues, we can’t recommend this pan for everyone. -CCC ↵
After testing three widely-available premade pie doughs, we weren’t terribly impressed by any of them. However, if you must go premade, we found that Pillsbury’s Refrigerated Pie Crust ($4) easily beat out both Trader Joe’s Gourmet Pie Crust and Wholly Wholesome’s Organic Rolled Pie Dough for ease of use.
Convenience is the goal with premade pie dough. You really should be able to just take it out of the package and put it right into the pie dish without fussing with tears or cracks in the dough. The Pillsbury was the only dough that didn’t crack when we unrolled it, and it was easy to lay out in a variety of pie dishes we tested it with.
Both the Trader Joe’s brand and the Wholly Wholesome cracked when we unrolled them and were generally a pain to use. The resulting crust should have a nice flaky texture and a balanced flavor that would work both with a sweet or savory pie. Although the Pillsbury wasn’t the best-tasting (Wholly Wholesome tasted closest to homemade), it had a good flavor that worked both with the savory caramelized-and-bacon quiches and the classic apple pies that we made. The Pillsbury was also the only dough that pinched easily and didn’t tear when we folded it over apples to make hand pies. At only $4 and available in the refrigerator section of most supermarkets, the Pillsbury dough is reliably available and consistent to work with.
We chose these three to test as they were the top-rated premade doughs in reviews by Cook’s Country, Serious Eats, Good Housekeeping, and BlogHer. We read great things in the BlogHer review about the all-butter French Picnic dough sold at Whole Foods, but opted not to test it, as it’s not available nationally. Beyond these, we did not find good reviews of other ready-made pie crusts.
Although you can buy pre-formed pie crusts in disposable pans in the freezer section of your supermarket, our research told us that these usually don’t taste as good and aren’t as versatile as premade pie dough that comes rolled in a sheet. With the latter, you use your own pie plate, giving your pie a more made-from-scratch look, at least.
All that said, if you happen to have a food processor (or a little extra time), we’d highly recommend making your own dough instead of using the premade variety. When we tested our three premade doughs against homemade dough, the homemade tasted much better and had a delicious buttery flavor and flaky texture that totally beat the store-bought dough. We like this recipe from Martha Stewart. If you only have a pastry cutter (or even a couple forks in a pinch), try this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. -CCC ↵
When throwing a party, the last thing you need is to be shackled to the oven, constantly checking the temperature of the roast. This is why a good-quality probe thermometer is an indispensable tool in a home cook’s arsenal, especially if you roast, smoke, or grill large hunks of meat on the regular.
The ThermoWorks Chef Alarm ($59) is at the top of its class. It’s not cheap, but the Chef Alarm boasts some features that its competitors do not. The probe and cord are good up to 700°, considerably higher than the 400 degrees allowed by other models
. It’s durable, too. This professional-grade probe thermometer has an Ingress Protection rating of IP65, meaning the body of the unit is protected against ingress of dust and “low-pressure jets of water”.
Probe thermometers often die early; my household has gone through three or four probe thermometers in the past 4 years. I plan on putting this one through the test with our oven and outdoor smoker. Its Amazon rating of 4.7 stars over 200 reviews puts it miles ahead of the competition in terms of customer satisfaction. If you do a lot of roasting and grilling throughout the year, this thermometer would be a good investment.
If you find yourself cooking roasts only a couple of times a year or you simply don’t want to spend that much money on a probe thermometer, there’s the Polder Classic Digital Thermometer and Timer. It’s probe and cord are only good to 392°, so it’s low and slow with this guy, but that should be fine for most turkey recipes. -GS ↵
After 15 hours of research, we called in seven roasting pans and ended up roasting over 100 pounds of turkey, 30 pounds of chicken and 20 pounds of vegetables, all of which ended up in the deserving care of CHiPS, a charity in Brooklyn that serves hot meals daily. In the end, we found that the Cuisinart MCP117-16BR MultiClad 16-inch Rectangular Roasting Pan with stainless steel rack is the kitchen stalwart that will prove itself useful throughout the year. It not only roasted a 15-pound turkey to golden, juicy perfection; it also performed well on the stovetop, making gravy and searing chicken to golden crispness.
With sturdy, riveted handles and tri-ply construction throughout, this pan performed like a champ for a middle-of-the-road price of $80. Cook’s Illustrated rated it their number-two pick behind their standing champ the Calphalon Contemporary Stainless Steel Roasting Pan with Rack, which we also tested but didn’t like as much. (We found the raised bottom a bit problematic when it came time to make gravy or sear meat on the stovetop, as the drippings and oil tended to run into the crevices.)
We also recommend the All-Clad Large Flared Roaster ($200) as a step up for those who would consider themselves frequent roasters (at least once a week). If you’re a once-a-year cook who only needs a pan big enough to hold a big bird, the $20 Granite Ware 19-inch Covered Oval Roaster is a solid step-down alternative. But it’s pretty much impossible to use on the stove. It’s ¼ the price of the Cuisinart for ¼ the capabilities and only a good buy if you’re only roasting turkey and don’t plan on using it for other things.
For 2014, we took a look at new offerings from Sur La Table, Viking, Williams-Sonoma, and Tramontina, but none of them could beat our top pick. The Sur La Table pan has a meddlesome raised middle that makes deglazing on the stovetop a pain. Tramontina’s offering isn’t tri-ply, just stainless steel, which means it conducts heat poorly. Viking just reissued their cookware with production by a new company, but at a price point of $199, it’s too much to beat our top pick. -Lesley Stockton ↵
We considered many models across the budget range and couldn’t find anything perfect—most of them run too hot. After more than 40 hours of research and testing, our pick is the Hamilton Beach 6-quart Programmable Set ‘n Forget ($50), which is large enough to hold a 4-pound brisket. The built-in meat probe seems gimmicky, but the expert we spoke to, Phyllis Pellman Good, says it’s useful. Keep in mind, though, that the short probe may not be long enough to reach into the front cut of the brisket.
Slow cooker recipes generally require about 8-10 hours, which you can easily program into the unit’s timer. Even with the slow-cooker’s guarantee of sub-200 degree cooking, there are additional steps you can take to guarantee buttery brisket with excellent flavor. In The New York Times, Melissa Clark suggests starting with a fatty deckle cut, also known as the point, a second cut you may have to special order from your butcher. It has more veins of fat; they melt in the cooking process and provide that tender, looser mouthfeel.
If you’ve gone 8 hours and haven’t reached optimal melt-in-your-mouth texture, keep cooking on low for a few more hours. Smitten Kitchen, a big fan of slow-cooker brisket, lets hers go for 10 hours.
Also, instead of cooking on the day of, Christine Cyr Clisset, who wrote the Sweethome’s slow cooker guide, encourages you to make your dish two days in advance. She found that the roasts she made in the slow cookers were incredibly flavorful by day three.
It’s easy to pop the slow cooker’s stoneware container into the fridge. You’ll also be able to skim off any chilled fat that rises to the top, which makes for a less greasy, more elegant sauce. Also, slow cookers set on low are also the perfect serving vehicle for hors d’oeuvres like glazed meatballs. -GS ↵
Turkey deep fryer
Fried turkey tastes great, and as long as you follow safety precautions, it can be fun. Besides, big holiday meals are like theatrical productions, and there are few things flashier than putting your mitts on and pulling a gorgeous, crispy, burnished bird from a vat of boiling oil.
After testing several and frying a couple of birds, our pick for best turkey fryer is the Bayou Classic Aluminum Turkey Fryer Stockpot – 30 Qt. ($50) and the Bayou Classic Single Burner Patio Stove (SQ14) ($50). The affordable, quick-heating stockpot kit has everything you need to get the job done except the oil, the turkey, and the propane tank; the separate stove is solidly built, powerful (enough) and has the four-legged stability you want when you’re handling four gallons of bubbling peanut oil.
Bayou is one of the leading brands in the turkey frying category. We chose aluminum for its ability to conduct heat quickly—crucial in sealing the bird’s juices under the fried crust. The included clip-on thermometer, measured against a Thermapen, was pretty accurate. The Bayou Classic Single Burner Patio Stove heated the oil to 375 degrees in about 30 minutes; once we lowered the turkey in, the temperature dropped to about 320 degrees, but it came back up to 350 in about ten minutes. The results were delicious—bronzed, crispy skin and rich flavor in a fraction of the time required to roast a turkey.
A propane fryer with 4 gallons of bubbling peanut oil produces a 10-pound bird with golden, crackling-like skin and flavorful meat in about half an hour, saving time and precious space in the oven. We found the best price for peanut oil at Costco, where a 35-lb. container (about 4.5 gallons) cost $45.
As far as electric turkey fryers go, we can’t in good faith offer a recommendation. This year we tested the two leading models, the Masterbuilt Butterball Turkey Fryer ($130) and the Waring Pro Rotisserie Turkey Fryer/Steamer ($240).
The Masterbuilt Butterball fryer produced a turkey with oily, soggy skin that clung to the meat like wet clothing. The Waring Pro produced slightly crisper skin but still disappointing results. In our tests, even when filled to “max fill” line with oil, both models failed to cover the 14 lb. turkey completely, leaving us to choose the lesser of two evils—top off with more oil to cover the turkey completely (which is too dangerous) or let the turkey cook with the ridge of the breast exposed to steam.
That steam is one of the the reasons these turkeys wind up soggy rather than crisp. Both fryers instruct you to fry the turkeys with the lid on, probably to reduce the amount of spatter in a home kitchen, but it goes against the science of frying. As a food fries, steam escapes, causing those rolling bubbles in a vat of hot oil. The steam needs to escape to form a crispy crust. Putting a lid, even a vented one, on a pot of frying food doesn’t let the steam escape, so you can end up with soggy, greasy food.
If you want crackling, deep-fried turkey skin, you won’t get it from an electric fryer. But you’ll come closer to it with the Waring.
Cleanup was just as you’d expect. You have to have to dispose of 3 gallons of oil, just as you have to do with a traditional turkey fryer. If you must have fried turkey on Thanksgiving, and you have the outdoor space, the best bet is to spring for the Bayou Classic set up. After you’re done frying turkeys, you can also do crawfish and lobster boils in the spring and summer to get more out of your investment.
Frying turkeys is serious business, and you need more than just the turkey frying kit before you get started. Follow the instructions from your favorite pro. We found this Serious Eats guide, this Alton Brown video, and this Sam Sifton recipe on Bon Appetit to be the most helpful. -GS ↵
Waffle maker (for Christmas brunch)
Waffles make excellent brunch fare, and feeding a large crowd is a snap if you put out a big batch of batter and let your guests make their own to their exact specifications. After testing eight top waffle irons and evaluating the top four with ten tasters, our favorite is the Chef’s Choice WafflePro Express ($70). It works with either Belgian or traditional batter, creating deep pockets for syrup and butter.
After choosing from six browning settings, a beep alerts guests when their waffle is ready so they don’t have to keep a watchful eye on their food while they wait. In our tests, the WafflePro Express produced consistently delicious results over the course of a half hour, though later waffles took longer to cook than early waffles. In our tests, we found its clamshell shape much easier to clean than the messy flip irons.
For an extra large crowd with impatient diners, we like the Calphalon No Peek Waffle Maker ($93). It makes four smaller, square waffles as opposed to the WafflePro Express’s one big, round waffle, but the waffles are extra thick, Belgian-style. However, the machine needs to reheat for between 45 seconds and a minute and a half between batches. -GS ↵
After testing absorbency, durability, and stain resistance in five highly-rated models, we recommend the Now Designs Ripple Towel (2 for $16).
This super-absorbent, thick terry cloth towel was Cook’s Country’s pick (subscription required) when we looked at kitchen towels last year, and after a year of using it, we can tell you that it’s worth its high price. It can do it all: dry vegetables, clean up spills, and survive a hot-water bleach cycle.
The Now Designs towel didn’t leave a speck of lint when drying potatoes and kale and wiped up four ounces of water with one swipe. When handling hot pans from the oven, the Now towel only needed to be folded in half twice (as opposed to the three times with other towels we tested) to give hands more coverage.
We also stained our towels with thick hot chocolate, coffee, red wine, and yellow mustard, and we soaked them in OxiClean and ran them through a hot-water bleach cycle. While the Now Designs towel shrank two inches lengthwise, it wasn’t seriously handicapped by the shrinkage (18½” x 26¼” post-wash). This towel dried a sink full of dishes and still had room to absorb water from one bunch of washed kale.
If you’re looking for something inexpensive for wiping up spills, we recommend the Utopia terrycloth kitchen/bar mop towels. They left behind specks of lint on food, but were very effective for wiping up spills quickly. They’re less than $1 each.
After one year using the Now Designs and the Utopia towels in heavy rotation in my kitchen and on food styling jobs, I still stand by these picks. The rippled towels from Now Designs hang from my refrigerator door and do most clean jobs, like wiping hands, drying dishes and drying washed produce. The Utopia towels tackle the dirtier jobs, such as cleaning up large coffee spills, mopping the floor, and general cleaning. Both are very absorbent and durable.
Other towels we looked at and dismissed included the Tekla from Ikea at 79 cents apiece. It’s thin and has an open weave when new, but tightens up after the first wash. Although it doesn’t have near the absorbent capacity of the Now Designs towel, it has a fabric loop sewn in for easy hanging, making it the only towel in our testing lineup with that feature.
The Mainstays flour sack towels are proof that not all flour sack towels are created equal. They have an open weave that more resembles muslin than a kitchen towel and doesn’t tighten up after a wash; the towel just becomes misshapen. We also looked at Amazon’s bestselling Keeble kitchen towels, which were adequate but didn’t measure up in size or absorbency to the Now towels. -LS & KO ↵
Whether you’re serving ready-to-cook hors d’oeuvres or cooking up a full-blown holiday meal, you’ll find good potholders or an oven mitt come in handy. In a new round of testing this fall, we found that our picks from last year are still the best around.
The 7” by 7” Excello Terry Potholders ($11 for three) have terry cloth on one side and a heat-protective silver lining on the other that we’ve found particularly effective at protecting hands from hot baking dishes and skillets. They’re top-rated on Amazon, getting a solid 4.3 stars over 511 reviews.
In our test, we could hold the handle of a 500-degree cast-iron skillet for roughly 28 seconds. Last year the Excello potholders easily beat out America’s Test Kitchen’s top choice, the Ritz Basic Pot Holders (we could only hold the skillet for 8 to 10 seconds with these), and this year we found they provide much more heat protection than the Amazon top-rated Calphalon Textiles Pot Holders (we could only hold a skillet for 23 seconds with these). After a year of heavy use, the Excello potholders are still going strong and we have no complaints.
We haven’t found a better oven mitt than the San Jamar Cool Touch 15” Flame Oven Mitt ($40). Not only does it protect the back of the hand and forearm, but it offers great heat protection without a lot of bulk. That means you can easily grab a baking dish, rimmed sheet pans, and skillets with these gloves.
Of the four mitts we tested, the Cool Touch, which is made of flame-resistant Nomex and Kevlar, offered the best overall balance of protection and comfort. Last year we tested the Cool Touch against the Michael Jackson-style Ove Glove and the Mastrad Orka silicone oven mitt, and this year against the Amazon top-rated Super Flex Silicone Oven Mitts. Although some of the mitts offered a little more heat protection, the Cool Touch was the most comfortable to use and consistently offered between 16 to 20 seconds of heat protection against a 500-degree skillet handle.
In a year of using this mitt daily, it’s held up well. Since it is flame resistant (we checked!), it could also double as a BBQ mitt. Its bright red color is also festive for the holidays. The magnet in the hanging loop means you can easily stick the mitt on the fridge, but be aware that it will also stick to the racks in your oven, so take care.
The Cool Touch is the updated version of America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country (subscription required) top pick, the Kool-Tek Oven Mitt. It receives 4 stars over 36 Amazon reviews. Beyond Consumer Reports and America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Country, we didn’t find other editorial reviews on potholders and oven mitts. Because of this, we also looked closely at user reviews on Amazon to make our testing selection.
One note: You might want to have at least one of each for lifting heavy cast-iron skillets or a roasting pan (complete with the bird) from the oven. -CCC ↵
Mashed potatoes are always a crowd-pleaser, and to make enough to feed a crowd with minimal fuss, mess, and frustration, use the $13 OXO Smooth Potato Masher.
We spent 17 hours researching and testing everything from ricers to food mills for an upcoming guide, and this affordable, simple tool came out on top. Because of its grid plate, the OXO masher breaks up potato quickly and requires very little effort on the cook’s part. Unlike the other mashers we tested—especially those with small, round holes—it cut straight through the potato. It took just one downward twisting motion to hit the bottom of the bowl, and ultimately we ended up with smooth, fluffy mash.
The short U-shaped handle gives you plenty of leverage, and engaging your elbow and punching downward gives you more power. It also feels less awkward than holding a stick handle and mashing in a churning, straight up-and-down motion. Being able to use the OXO comfortably with just one hand frees up your other hand to hold the bowl steady, and the rubbery material is easy to grip. The OXO’s larger square perforations make it easier to clean than other models we tested.
The short, fat shape allows it to fit fairly easily in a drawer, though not in a utensil container like a stick model would. It can also be hung from a peg or hook. The Cuisipro masher has a similar shape, but like other models with round perforations—such as the Jamie Oliver version—it compacted the potato into the bottom of the bowl rather than breaking it up.
Wire zigzag mashers are especially ineffective because of their small mashing surface area. The potato also tends to get stuck in the loop and must be scraped off, which slows down the work at hand.
Many food pros prefer using a food mill for making super creamy and smooth potato puree, but we found that even the easiest food mill can turn the task of mashing potatoes into a huge hassle. The potato tended to get stuck above the blade and repeatedly needed to be scraped down. The consistency of the mash was also unappealingly loose and thin.
If you want your mashed potatoes absolutely lump free but still fluffy, opt for the Chef’n FreshForce Potato Ricer. It required the least amount of effort among the ricers we tested, and the action was very smooth, thanks to a clever design that places the fulcrum of the lever (which is pretty much what a ricer is) farther away from the potato than it is usually located on other ricers. That and the compound leverage produced by the dual-gear mechanism increase the amount of force applied. The ergonomic handles weren’t slippery when wet and were stiff enough so there was no loss of force from bending.
In addition, the ricer comes in two pieces. Instead of removable discs, the Chef’n FreshForce uses a cup with a perforated base that slips into the handle. It’s easy to fill the cup with potato and then put it back in or to clean the cup between mashings without having to maneuver the whole unwieldy package around (which you have to do with the other models). The cup’s holes create finely riced potatoes, without a coarse option, but for mashed potatoes, it’s just right.
The extraordinarily popular RSVP ricer came with interchangeable discs, but it was more fiddly to disassemble and thus more of a pain to clean, and the handles would bend at the ends (because the potato was basically acting as the fulcrum), bleeding off some of the applied force instead of pushing more potato through. The Kuhn Rikon has plastic handles with similar issues, and because its extra discs are stored in the head, it’s top heavy and a space hog.
Industrial-size ricers like the Norpro Deluxe and Endurance Jumbo demanded an unreasonable amount of effort and strength to use, took up an enormous amount of room, and weren’t even able to mash more than regular-size models. -Winnie Yang
Ready-made puff pastry offers an easy and sophisticated solution for holiday entertaining. It’s a great staple to keep on hand for making quick hors d’oeuvres, fancy-looking desserts, special holiday entrées like beef Wellington, and even breakfast pastries.
Most people don’t want to make puff pastry from scratch, as it’s a labor-intensive process. The store-bought variety can be a real time saver, especially when prepping for a holiday gathering, and we found Trader Joe’s Puff Pastry Dough ($4 for two sheets) to be the best you can buy.
As the name suggests, puff pastry literally puffs up as it bakes. The resulting pastry should have an airy, flaky texture. The flavor should be buttery and have a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Good ready-made puff pastry should be relatively easy to work with, although if it gets too warm, no puff pastry is easy to handle—keeping it cold is the key to success.
Ready-made puff pastry dough usually comes in a sheet; it should roll out easily, without cracking where it was folded in the package. The dough should feel slightly moist but not wet, and no sections of the dough sheet should be dried or have freezer burn.
You will generally find premade puff pastry dough in the freezer section of the grocery store, near the pie crust and philo dough. After testing Trader Joe’s dough against the high-end Dufour Classic Puff Pastry ($12 for two sheets) and Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets ($6.50 for two sheets), we found the Trader Joe’s brand to be the best tasting and the best value.
We tested each puff pastry with two recipes, a savory leek-and-mushroom pie and a rustic apple tart. Although all three brands of puff pastry tasted fine with our recipes, in a blind taste test we found that the TJ’s brand best complemented both our savory and sweet fillings and toppings. TJ’s puff pastry comes thinly rolled in parchment, which makes it easy to unroll and work with immediately.
Although we like that the Dufour Classic dough is made with butter (which we could particularly taste in our apple tart), we also tasted the butter in the Trader Joe’s brand (which is made with a combo of butter and non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening made from palm oil). At a fourth of the price of the Dufour, Trader Joe’s puff pastry is a steal.
It’s only available during the holidays, so if you like it, stock up. It should keep in a steady freezer for about six months; otherwise, Dufour’s puff pastry is our offseason pick.
Surprisingly, we found only two editorial reviews of ready-made puff pastry, both in The Kitchn (one recommended the Pepperidge Farm dough and the other preferred the dough sold by Trader Joe’s). We did, however, find a great comparison of the three brands we tested on The City Cook and multiple recommendations for Dufour on a Chowhound thread. We didn’t find positive reviews for any other brands of ready-made puff pastry. -CCC ↵
Cups (disposable, cold drinks)
A transparent, sturdy cup, like the Chinet Cut Crystal Tumblers, can go a long way toward promoting your party from “college” to “adult.” They hold 14 ounces, enough to serve most mixed drinks or a full 12-ounce beer, but not so large that a healthy pour of wine gets dwarfed in comparison. The cups look classy, and reviewers say they’re not prone to breakage—although with any hard plastic, don’t be surprised if they do crack eventually, especially if you’re using them repeatedly.
There’s not a whole lot of info out there about disposable cups, so we turned to trusty Amazon for our research. We pored through reviews of more than 10 models of clear cups, looking for ones that were sturdy, attractive, not too cheap, and big enough to hold a wide variety of drinks. Only with the Chinet Cut tumblers could we check all of these boxes.
We liked the Member’s Mark Clear Plastic Cups, but they seem a little flimsy and better for water and lemonade at a picnic than a nice indoor event. Bakers & Chefs’ cups hold 12 ounces, which isn’t sufficient enough for a beer, and like the Member’s Mark cups, they seem inappropriate for a holiday party. -JW ↵
Cups (disposable, hot drinks)
When it comes time to wrap up the evening, a cup of anything hot will do the trick.
Last year, the best simple, effective, non-Styrofoam cup was available only on a restaurant supply site. This year we tested additional cups available at regular retailers, and we found a new winner. Our favorite option for serving coffee, tea, cider, or cocoa is the Genuine Joe Insulated Ripple hot cup.
A great disposable cup should be able to hold near-boiling liquid without burning your fingers, and the corrugated insulation on the Genuine Joe made it the clear front-runner. It holds 10 ounces, which is big enough for a medium-size coffee, but not so large that your drink will be cold by the time you get to the bottom. However, there are 8-, 12-, and even 16-ounce options if you prefer.
The corrugated outside adds a nice visual element and also eliminates the need for a sleeve. While they’re still a little hot to the touch, after filling them with boiling water and testing them side-by-side with non-insulated models, the difference was remarkable. I could pick it up almost immediately and carry it across the room to where I wanted to sit. In comparison, I couldn’t pick up the Choice Paper Hot Cup for almost 15 minutes. Since the corrugated exterior isn’t a sleeve, but rather an integrated part of the design, the cup itself acted as a lining and didn’t get soggy in spite of repeat uses, or when I let it sit full on the counter for several hours.
Though the non-insulated cups we looked at cost 7 cents each, the Genuine Joe’s are hardly expensive. They’re less than $3 for a pack of 25, which makes them 11 cents each. And since you can buy them in reasonable amounts and have integrated sleeves, you’re not stuck storing 100 unused cups when the party season is over.
Though I initially thought the print on the Office Depot 10 oz. Hot Cups might not be so bad, when I saw them in person they made me feel exactly like I was standing at a water cooler in an office—not what you want for a party. -GS ↵
Carving knife and fork
Whether slicing your holiday roast happens in the kitchen or on full display at the dining table, the Victorinox Fibrox 10-inch Granton Slicer ($47) is our favorite knife for the job. This professional slicer is sharp enough to cut paper-thin slivers of beef, pork, or fowl, and the Fibrox handle is comfortable to grip, even for large hands. The dimpled edge keeps food from sticking to the blade, ensuring smooth slicing.
We prefer the shorter 10-inch blade to the 12-inch slicer we recommended last year. While they are both good, sharp knives, in our tests, the 12-inch slicer was a little too much knife for the dining room table. After slicing a pork shoulder roast on a platter with both the 10-inch and 12-inch Victorinox slicers, we found the 10-inch easier to handle. Even though Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) prefers the 12-inch Victorinox slicer, we found it a bit unwieldy for carving at the table. This knife made fast, even, and smooth slices.
If you have about $100 burning a hole in your pocket and would like a fancy rosewood handle, there’s the prettier Victorinox Rosewood 10-inch Granton Slicer. The rosewood handle is comfortable and attractive, if that’s important to you. You can find the rosewood slicer cheaper here, here, and here.
To break down a turkey like a pro, we suggest the Victorinox 6-inch Flex Boning Knife. This was our pick last year, and it’s still a favorite. A flexible boning knife can help you maneuver around the tissue where the bones connect without mangling the meat. Chef Santoro told Esquire, “You definitely need a boning knife and a slicing knife.” The Cook’s Illustrated pick, also the top-selling and top-rated Amazon pick, is the Victorinox 6-Inch Flex Boning Knife ($24); if you don’t want to get one, the tip of your chef’s knife can handle this small task, albeit with less finesse.
The same goes for our top carving fork pick. When looking at carving forks, ones with curved tines are better. Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) points out, “Their offset tines, such as those on our favorite model, provided a better sight line and kept testers’ fork-holding arms at a closer, more comfortable angle.” Their pick, the Mercer Cutlery Genesis 6-inch Carving Fork ($27), is sturdy and has tines sharp enough to pierce the flesh and hold a roast in place while carving. It gets 4.8 stars across 20 reviews. If $27 is too much, we also liked the Winco Carving Fork ($14). While the tines aren’t curved, this fine, full-tang fork works if you’re just pulling it out for holiday meals. – LS & KL
Our top table last year went up in price, so we looked around for better options. Our pick for best table this year is the 6-foot, fold-in-half Banquet Table from Target. It’s sturdy yet lightweight and folds in half for easy transport and storage. Plus it’s very easy on the budget at $40.
A 6-foot table can fit six humans comfortably, eight if you put two unlucky (and hopefully short-legged) guests on the ends. (A 4-foot table fits four or six.) It’s made of molded plastic with steel folding legs, so it can be used indoors or out. Target doesn’t list a specific weight limit, but it will hold plenty of dinner plates or holiday presents—just don’t dance on it.
We found it to be as sturdy as similar tables at Office Max and Home Depot (as well as the tables we tested last year), and the folding mechanism is solid and easy to use. It’s held in a folded position by a simple plastic clasp that’s secure but can be opened with a flick of your thumb.
If you don’t have a Target nearby, this Mainstays table from Walmart is identical to the Target table except for the carrying handle, which is made from a slightly different material. It’s almost the exact same price ($40), so either table will suit your party needs.
One of the worst problems to have at a dinner party is insufficient seating for your guests. That’s where folding chairs come in handy.
After four hours of research, we suggest going for the Mity Lite Flex One folding chair ($100 for four on Amazon or $20 each on Sam’s Club), 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 stuffed into 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. While the IKEA Terje folding chair got nods from several sources for its neutral, Scandinavian looks and excellent price, its durability is dubious.
On Amazon, the National Public Seating padded metal folding chairs got equally high marks from customers but aren’t as wide or flexible.
We eliminated metal folding chairs without covered seats because nobody needs that cold-metal-against-warm-thighs feeling at a party.
A quick tip: Make sure that all seats can be pushed in comfortably around the dining table—don’t try to crowd a guest into a corner where the table leg blocks their knees.
If you have a really big function, it may make more sense to rent (rather than buy) 50 chairs. Check your local listings for party furniture rental companies, which offer a variety of chairs for as little as $1 to $2 per chair, though frequently with a minimum charge alongside delivery and pickup fees. -GS↵
Glasses (most versatile)
The champagne educators we talked to all recommended a regular wine glass for making the most of champagne’s fleeting aroma. But for a festive occasion, it’s hard to beat the elegance of a flute, and a tulip-shaped one is the most practical and useful of any option.
Our favorite champagne glass, the Vinao by Schott Zwiesel, is lightweight, sturdy, and an absolute pleasure to hold. We looked at 66 different products and 28 different brands to find a great flute. We also considered several shapes to see how well they preserved carbonation, how easy they were to drink out of, and what sort of fun factor they could add to the experience of drinking bubbly (which is kinda the point). The $13 Vinao excels in all these areas.
It has tiny laser-engraved etchings on the interior, which regulate how the carbonation escapes your drink and help your bubbly stay bubbly longer. It holds 8.3 ounces, which means it can comfortably hold a full-size (5- to 6-ounce) pour of champagne without reaching the brim. It’s more durable than your average flute because it’s made out of Tritan crystal, Zwiesel’s fortified glass. You can put these in the dishwasher, and should they accidentally bump against a counter or tabletop, there’s a good chance they’ll stay intact. The Vinao is incredibly functional as well. If you fill it more than halfway, it doesn’t tip over or become difficult to hold, like a lot of tall tapers, and when you bring it to your lips to drink, you don’t awkwardly hit your nose, as is the case with every tall and narrow flute out there. Best of all, it’s lightweight and elegantly tall.
Practicality aside, if you love a classic flute shape, Crate and Barrel’s Viv Champagne glass is a crowd-pleaser. Currently, each one sells for $5, which makes stocking up more affordable if you’re expecting a lot of visitors and makes you feel better if one should get broken, the true hallmark of a good party. -GS ↵
With the input of a professional winemaker who blind-tested more than 30 glasses, we chose the Riedel Ouverture Magnum as our favorite wine glass. It’s made of dishwasher-safe, high-quality machine-blown glass and looks beautiful sitting on a table. It also has the desirable ability to make any wine, red or white, show well.
Riedel is a 250-year-old glassmaking company from Austria and makes stems in almost as many varieties as there are wines. In a widely repeated quote, wine authority and Wine Advocate editor Robert Parker Jr. said, “The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.” While all stemware is delicate, Nick Rood, the tasting room manager at Vintner’s Collective in California’s Napa Valley uses these in his tasting room and can attest to their general durability. “We go through dozens a day. We also run them through an 180-degree dishwasher and polish all of them by hand…and I think we only break maybe one a month.”
The Magnums can function as both entertaining workhorses and well-made tasting glasses for a wine-centric dinner, while options like this 12-piece entertaining set can’t. And stemless is not the way to go with wine glasses because your hand will warm up the drink.
The shape will complement both red and white wine. The bowl is not so large that your whites will lose their bright, crisp qualities, and it’s not so narrow that reds won’t have room to breathe.
It holds 12⅝ ounces, which is a great entertaining size—after the party is over your cabinets won’t be monopolized by large, 23-ounce glasses with towering stems and broad bowls. It’s 7⅜ inches tall, which we like specifically because it’ll fit in a dishwasher rack, unlike a glass with a much longer stem. And with Riedel you’re getting quality that reviewers consistently make these type of comments: “You notice that the rim is ground and polished and the seams are minimal,” and “This is the best everyday wine glass I have found. Good mouth feel and just the right size.”
Napkins (cloth) and tablecloth
A dining room set with cloth napkins and a neat tablecloth set an elegant tone for a big dinner. This year we placed a premium on table dressing made with natural fibers, as they drape nicely and are softer to the touch. After testing four top-rated cotton napkins, checking for softness, durability, stitching, and stain resistance, we recommend Pottery Barn Caterer’s 6-Piece Napkin Set ($29). They’re 100% cotton, and at just under $5 each, they are a great value. Second in quality to Williams-Sonoma, but only by a small margin, the Pottery Barn napkins are tightly woven with an elegant 1-inch hem all the way around.
We stained napkins from Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Hemstitch with wine, chocolate, barbecue sauce, and coffee, let the stains set in overnight, pretreated with OxyClean and washed in hot water with bleach (except for the Crate and Barrel, which is cream colored). Each napkin came out stain-free, with the exception of the Crate and Barrel napkin, which had to be soaked in a second OxyClean bath to remove the stain. After a tumble in the dryer, the Pottery Barn napkins had shrunk an inch on one side, which is actually not bad. In comparison, the Williams-Sonoma shrank an inch on both sides, and the Crate and Barrel and Hemstitch napkins both shrank 1½ inches on both sides. The wrinkling was minimal, with light puckering that isn’t offensive if you’re having a casual get-together and really simple to iron out for more formal occasions.
Even though the Williams-Sonoma Hotel Dinner Napkins shrank a little more than our top pick, they are still great quality, with thicker, heavier cotton and a tight weave. The per napkin price for a set of six is almost $6 per piece; for a set of 12, the cost comes down to about $5.30 per piece. They’re a great step up if you have a little more money to spend.
The soft Crate and Barrel Fete Vanilla Cotton Napkin is made of thinner cotton, so it doesn’t have the heft of the Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma napkins. Because they don’t come in white, they can’t be bleached. The inexpensive Hemstitch napkins feel cheap, with cotton so thin that you can almost see through them; the fabric feels rough and stiff, like a polyester blend.
A beautiful, versatile tablecloth shouldn’t break the bank. A high-quality linen tablecloth can cost more than $250. But spend too little and you end up with a polyester blend that looks more like a cheap hotel buffet than a warm gathering of family and friends. We tested three of the best 100% cotton tablecloths we could find, doing stain, shrinkage, and wrinkle tests.
For the same reasons we like the Pottery Barn napkins, the Pottery Barn Caterer’s Tablecloth ($45-$59) is the best value we found. Made of the same cotton as the napkins, the tablecloth feels sturdy and looks elegant. It has a 1-inch border and comes in five sizes.
If you want a slight step up in fabric weight, or Pottery Barn doesn’t offer the right size tablecloth for you, the Williams-Sonoma Hotel Tablecloth ($40-$72) comes in 11 sizes and two color options, but is a bit more expensive. The Crate and Barrel Fete Vanilla Tablecloth was a bit limp, and, like the napkins, the ecru color can’t be bleached. Speaking of stains, since these selections are 100% cotton, the best way to make sure all stains come out the first time is to pretreat while the stain is still fresh. To minimize wrinkling, remove promptly from the dryer, and lay the cloth flat or over a chair to cool, then fold. -GS ↵
Pitcher for water
If you’re having alcohol at your party, you must put water out for your guests. I once had a guest pass out at the dinner table because on a hot summer evening he’d had too much to drink and not nearly enough of it was water.
For a dinner party, including a water glass as part of your table setting reminds you and your guests to stay hydrated. You could use a pitcher, carafe, or bottle. We think glass is best because it doesn’t give off any flavors to the water and it’s clear, so people see that it’s water and reach for it when they need it.
We like the idea of recycling wine bottles, but if you also have wine on the table, it could be a tiny bit confusing. And since wine bottles aren’t stoppered, if you refrigerate them the water may absorb some refrigerator smells.
For an all-purpose water vessel to have on the bar, our pick is the Bormioli Rocco Frigoverre Jug with Hermetic Lid ($13). The lid should be removed for serving, but pluses are aplenty: 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 Italian-made glass pitcher can also moonlight as a mixed-drink or juice container.
The jug has an impressive 4.4 stars across nearly 1,000 reviews. The most common complaint is about the narrow handle, but many Amazon customers say it isn’t a problem.
For serving water at the dinner table, 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 ($4). They’re really cheap. And as she told us, you can buy a lot of them and fill them ahead of time so you don’t have to refill the bottles during your dinner party. 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. The IKEA stoppered bottles were 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 ($10) is more expensive but equally attractive (available with Prime shipping). Amazon customers give it 4.5 stars across 46 customer reviews. -GS ↵
Plates (all purpose)
Unless you registered for china for your wedding or inherited a set from your grandparents, you’ll likely need more plates than you usually have on hand for a dinner party. While it’s acceptable to serve folks dinner in soup bowls when you’re in college, as an adult you’ll probably want to invest in extra plates.
After four hours of testing and research, we liked the IKEA 365+ 11” plate ($3) made of feldspar porcelain, available only in stores. At 661 grams each, its weight fell in the middle of the pack—heavy enough to feel substantial but not so heavy that a stack would be difficult to lift. We were surprised by how well it held up in our tests. A fork and serrated knife didn’t leave scuff marks on the glaze. We banged it against a metal pan to see if it would chip; it didn’t. It survived two drops from waist height. It also retained heat nicely after being warmed with a bit of boiling water.
It’s not perfect; all of the individual plates we looked at in stores suffered from dust particles marring the glaze. But they’re solid, neutral all-purpose plates that you can afford to buy in bulk.
If you don’t live near an IKEA, we recommend the Fiestaware 10½-inch Dinner Plate ($10-$19 per plate, depending on color and number purchased). They’re an American-made classic and they come with a five-year chip warranty. Not that you’ll need it—this was the other plate that passed all of the tests with flying colors. The plate is heavier (at 952 grams) and has a distinctive look that may not please all eyes.
Amazon customers adore theirs, including Arlington Anne, who said, “Well, if anybody every throws Fiestaware at you, duck! Good, strong, sturdy stuff.” We can vouch for that—the Fiestaware plate actually bounced when we dropped it on its lip. Fiestaware comes in a variety of hues, with most of the colors being cheaper than the white glazed plate we purchased. These plates also have a 4.5-star average across nearly 100 reviews.
Though the Crate and Barrel Aspen 10.5” Dinner Plates ($5) seem to be a common choice for registries and shoppers in search of plain white plates, our test plate was the first one to shatter on the simple flat drop test. The light Corelle 10” Winter Frost White Plate ($7) passed every test except for heat retention—heat dissipates from the thin material very quickly. The IKEA Färgrik ($3) plate took on scuff marks that couldn’t be rubbed off, and it shattered when dropped on its lip.
If you want to add a touch of restaurant style to your dinner party, warm your plates until they’re heated but comfortable to the touch before you serve your guests. It keeps your food warmer longer and that tiny bit of radiant warmth near your hands feels lovely. If you don’t have room in the oven (and who does around the holidays?), you can heat them up on the lowest setting in your toaster oven or run them through the dishwasher (with heat dry) before your guests arrive. -GS ↵
A good disposable plate should be sturdy, microwavable and (preferably) eco-friendly. Our favorite is the Vanity Fair Impressions, which Cook’s Illustrated is also a fan of. (Well, actually, they like the Vanity Fair Dinner Premium, but as far as we can tell the two are almost identical.) They said, “Loaded with food, it didn’t bend or crack, and with the largest surface area, it would be welcome at a buffet.”
Its plain white coloring is guaranteed not to throw off your decor, unlike the garishly ugly Dixie Ultra Strong plates, which took home The Daily Meal’s Overall Best Performer award. (They didn’t test the Impressions.) We tested the Impressions alongside the Chinet 10⅜ plates, which have the added benefit of being compostable. We piled both plates with soggy baked beans, then let them soak through. Nothing got through the Impressions—nothing. However, after 20 minutes, the Chinet wasn’t leaking but was definitely weaker. After a trip in the microwave, the bottom was even soggier, whereas the Impressions held strong.
Cook’s agreed, saying about the Chinet that “as soon as we introduced hot food, it buckled.” While the Chinet is compostable, and we appreciate its environmental pros, it’s not worth getting a pile of piping hot food poured into your lap. One other big plus for the Impressions: It’s available in smaller 12 packs, so you won’t be overburdened by 100 or 200 plates, like the Chinet and a lot of the other ones you’ll find online. (One negative: They do snap a bit at the edges if you fold them directly in half. Fortunately, that’s not an activity undertaken at many dinner parties.)
I dug through dozens of plates researching this piece, many dismissed for poor reviews or ugly designs. Stalkmarket’s compostable sugarcane fiber plates seemed interesting, but the smallest amount you can buy them in is 180, and they’re 7 cents more expensive per plate than the Impressions (23 cents versus 17). Plus, reviews indicate they’re not so great with wetter foods. We also eliminated clear plates, like Hanna K’s Signature plates, because they tend to be brittle and non-microwavable. -JW ↵
The simple, polished WMF Manaos Serving Spoon ($9) is our favorite serving spoon. We like its elegant handle, and the bowl of the spoon is big enough to scoop up spoonable dishes like mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. 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 Grey Kunz spoon ($10). This spoon is an essential tool for chefs and line cooks in fine dining kitchens all over the world, where it’s beloved by the pros for saucing, plating, cooking and tasting. Developed by chef Grey 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 Grey 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.
We decided to ditch the serving fork for something more practical. Winco 7-inch Tongs ($4), while utilitarian and simple, are simply the best option for a true multipurpose serving tool. The scalloped tips grip most foods on the holiday table, and these versatile tongs can be used year-round for kitchen tasks and other entertaining. They also come in different lengths, but we find the 7-inch size works great for serving without being too big and bulky.
Other, better-looking tongs couldn’t match the Winco’s utility. These Rosle locking tongs ($55) are attractive and hefty, but the locking mechanism only worked 75% of the time, leaving us to struggle to get them unlocked. The Crate and Barrel Scissor Handled Serving Tongs ($15) are made for salad and not quite up to the task for much else. We also looked at the Norpro Deluxe Serving Tongs ($10), but the small scissor handles are cumbersome for large hands and the smooth paddles don’t grip very much. -GS ↵
In a tine-to-tine faceoff of three plastic utensil sets, the clear winner is Kirkland’s Crystal Clear Cutlery. They won’t break on you mid-meal unless you’re dining with the Hulk, and they come in a huge quantity for cheap, so one $20 purchase (even cheaper in-store at Costco) should last you through quite a few dinner parties, bake-offs, and picnics. The 360-piece set comes in real-world proportions of 180 forks, 120 spoons, and 60 knives.
It took two hours of research looking at all of the best-selling, best-reviewed models on Amazon, Walmart, and elsewhere on the web to come to this conclusion. We looked at 10 models, narrowing it down to Kirkland, Dixie Ultra Strong, and Reflections Heavyweight “Looks Like Silver”. We then ordered the cream of the crop to check out in person. The Kirkland silverware won or tied every test we gave it.
They’re noticeably stronger—the Reflections silverware broke immediately, with hardly any effort at all. The Kirkland knife cut cleanly and easily through a carrot, but so did the Dixie Ultra Strong. However, the tines of the Dixie fork were weak and had trouble effectively staking the carrot, something the Kirkland fork had no difficulty with. We also stuck all three of the spoons in hot soup, but they all fared about the same, without any meltdowns or weaknesses.
Dixie’s old-style white plastic forks receive good reviews for sturdiness, but unfortunately, reviews on the matching spoons point to sourcing issues and label inaccuracy. Though we like Preserve’s eco-friendly mission, they’re sold only in bright colors and sets of 24 (eight each of knife, fork, spoon) for about $7, so costs can add up quickly for a large party. -JW ↵
A pie server seems like a simple tool, but a well-designed one makes getting that first slice out, and every one after it, easy and mess free. While we’re generally happy to cut slices using a chef’s knife, a pie server should be able to handle cutting clean half-slices right in the dish. After testing three pie servers by slicing and dishing up both fruit pie and custardy pumpkin pie, we found that the OXO Steel Pie Server ($10) is at the top of its class.
The offset blade is a generous size, measuring 5 by 2½ inches (at the base), and is serrated on both sides. The rubber and steel handle is ergonomically shaped and really comfortable to use. Cook’s Illustrated recommends it, saying it “lifted intact slices easily, no matter the filling or crust.” The OXO Steel Pie Server has a sturdy weight and is substantial enough to neatly cut through thick double-crust pies.
We also tested the Farberware Stainless Steel Pie Server ($8) because it’s been given glowing reviews on Amazon. While it’s an adequate pie server, it has a serrated edge on only one side and the handle is thin and a little uncomfortable when bearing down on a stubborn crust. For $1 more, you can have a sturdy pie server that should last for years.
We considered 20 pie servers before deciding to test these three, but found that many of them were either too small or lacked a good cutting edge for divvying up wedges without smashing delicate crusts. -GS ↵
Originally published: November 21, 2014