Microplane grater, $13 Every list starts with a microplane grater, because there is nothing that makes such a big difference at such a little price. Box graters are OK for cheese, but there’s nothing more irritating than scraping your knuckles on the fine grater when you’re trying to zest a lemon or grate a bit of chocolate on top of your cocoa. That’s where the microplane grater comes in. It’s basically impossible to hurt yourself, and it does a superior job of zesting and fine grating, taking just a very thin layer off the surface. I like to use it to make fluffy clouds of parmesan on top of a salad or chocolate on top of a cake. And it pops in the dishwasher and comes out clean.
I’m usually not much of a gift guide person, but I liked Megan McArdle’s gift guide for kitchen things because of how sensible it is (a $13 microplane grater is affordable and is something I actually would be happy to get). I also have a close friend who seemingly has everything, so my gifts to her are usually to take her out to dinner, but I once bought her a fish spatula for her birthday after remembering the one night we made dinner together where we ruined the fish using a regular spatula and it was kind of perfect. Plus, you could always get a nice oven mitt for the person who doesn’t like to cook, but likes frozen pizza.