Nothing draws the attention of a party like a bartender, swinging open the doors of a bar cabinet and taking their place among the glistening bottles of brown and clear liquors, colorful spirits with foreign names, and sparkling cut glassware. Beer is a fine drink, as is wine, but they don’t match the spectacle of mixing a cocktail.
I’ve had more bad cocktails in my life than I care to remember, and it often comes down to the maker splashing in too much liquor or not straining their solid ingredients. You need a measure of knowledge, a splash of experience, and the right tools, which we’ve collected below. As we head into the holiday gathering season, the right cocktail tools and some basic bartending skills can make you popular with friends and family.
Be sure to check out our other buying guides and gift guides, like our Boozy Gift Ideas and Gifts for Coffee Lovers roundups.
Updated October 2023: We’ve added new books, glassware, a knife, ice crushers, and mixers.
Sam noted how since it would be extremely difficult to determine the weight of the beans the TrueBrew uses nor the original volume of water nor the temperature in the brewing chamber, it’s a bit of a black box in terms of figuring out what’s happening while it makes coffee.
He could, however, measure the total dissolved solids (TDS), the amount of coffee grounds that actually dissolve into your coffee and denote a sense of the drink’s strength. At 3.99 TDS, it was like a half-strength espresso.
From there, we made two consecutive 12-ounce cups, which both poured a little under 10 ounces, which Sam found acceptable.
“Room for cream,” he declared cheerily.
(Note: Some online sources have found the consistency of the TrueBrew’s pour sizes to fluctuate. We didn’t have this problem, but keep an eye on user reviews as more people buy the machine.)
The TDS for both cups was around 1.40, which Sam called “kinda ideal,” but it didn’t taste right.
“Big Truck has a lot of acidity. This is weak and bitter. I want it out of my mouth,” Sam said. “It could be any coffee. You know that workplace coffee that nobody likes? It’s like that.”
We switched from the gold to the bold brew setting, and things got a little better, but it still didn’t taste right. Looking for a culprit, Sam’s mind returned to the machine’s messiness.
“I wonder if we’re getting flavors of over- and under-extraction. It’s dirty in there, so you’re essentially getting a bit of grounds that are going through the brewing cycle twice or more, which can make it taste over-extracted and bitter,” he hypothesized. Then he went further. “It might also be not extracting enough, which could have to do with grind size, water, temperature, and the amount of time water is in contact with the grounds.”
It felt like we were zeroing in on the worst of both worlds, so we switched coffees to Olympia’s William Rojas Pink Bourbon Micro Lot from Columbia to see if we could learn more. We did, but it was not good news.
“This took a really good coffee and brewed a mediocre cup,” Sam said. “It brews what it brews, and I’m confused. This is essentially a one-touch machine, but it doesn’t default to the good stuff. You’re kind of stuck with what it can do. This coffee should be exciting, and it isn’t.”
We had tried espresso-style, regular-coffee-style, light, gold, and bold and even switched the coffee itself, with little effect. We’d run out of ways to tweak our way to a good cup.
A little less than two weeks later, I pulled out the infuser to see how it was looking. A gumdrop-sized mound of wet grounds had accumulated behind the arm that sweeps spent pucks of coffee off of the infuser and into the used-grounds container, along with a scattering everywhere else on top of it. That was enough unexciting coffee for me. I packed up the TrueBrew and sent it back.
Freshly ground and not capsuled? Yes. Convenient? Sure! Perfetto? Sorry, Brad. It should be more exciting, but it isn’t.
The eponymous wine preservation system made by Coravin has been transformative in the wine world, allowing you to extract wine from any bottle sealed with a cork without having to open the bottle or expose it to air. One of its few flaws, however, is that it doesn’t work with sparkling wines. In fact, piercing a champagne cork with Coravin’s needle would likely be catastrophic.
Coravin has finally remedied this issue, but fans of fizz will need to buy a whole new device that’s designed just for preserving sparkling wines. It will also mean mastering yet another wine gadget—the Coravin Sparkling—and as Coravin fans likely know, the company’s products aren’t the most intuitive devices to use.
To that end, the Quick Start Guide for the Coravin Sparkling is a solid five pages of text, and users are well advised to read every word of it and maybe watch a video on how the thing works. Like the original Coravin, the Sparkling is designed to insert gas into a bottle, but the mechanics of the process are entirely different.
Step one: Open the bottle. This may be anathema to Coravin users who can drink an entire bottle of wine without ever removing the cork, but it’s a necessity this time around. There’s just no other way to get to the juice inside unless the bottle is breached.
Step two: Drink all you want.
Step three: Here’s where you’ll need to study up. While the beauty of Coravin is that it’s self-contained, Coravin Sparkling requires a bit more gear. The secret of Coravin Sparkling is found in its custom stopper, a bulky cylinder that clips onto the lip of the bottle. You’ll need to use some force to get the stopper attached; a locking handle slides down to ensure a solid seal, keeping air where it is supposed to be. Next, enter the Coravin Sparkling Charger, a lightsaber-looking device that is loaded up with compressed CO2, much like the original Coravin’s argon canisters. Press the Charger down on the top of the stopper and it dispenses CO2 directly into the bottle through a one-way valve. A small indicator (mechanical, like a tire pressure meter) changes from red to green when you’ve hit the appropriate level of pressure inside the bottle. Release the Charger and you’re done. Your bottle is now re-pressurized and can be stored for two to four weeks, depending on which page on the Coravin website you read, preferably in the refrigerator and on its side (a neat trick, as most aftermarket stoppers will leak if stored sideways).
I had never dreamed of attempting to make Sinaloa-style chicken. The citrus-marinated, charbroiled chicken that came to prominence in the city of Guasave is, for my money, one of the most delicious dishes in the world. But I’ve been to enough chicken shacks to know that the process involves an intricate dance of fire, followed by indirect heat, and then a little more fire.
After two months of cooking on the Yoder YS640S pellet grill, I found myself at a Hispanic grocery store searching for sour oranges and imported oregano. Having aced ribs, burgers, and brisket, I was hungry for a challenge, and I was confident this grill could actually give me a shot at making something so complex.
My go-to smoker for the past decade has been a Big Green Egg, an air-tight ceramic smoker modeled on a traditional Kamado grill. The Big Green Egg is ultra-efficient at retaining heat so that the lump charcoal inside can smolder slowly over long cooks. Everything about the process demands attention to detail, with the line between success and failure determined by how you arrange the charcoal chunks and a quarter-inch difference in the crack of the air vent.
Like other automatic-feed pellet grills, the Yoder dispenses with those challenges. Pellet smokers—first popularized by Traeger and often synonymous with the brand—allow you to dump compressed wood in the hopper, twist the dial, and stick a probe into your meat. The grill doles out pellets and air as needed, then sends you a text when the work is done.
Hardcore barbecue nerds will agree: It’s not very sporting. Is barbecue a worthy pursuit if you don’t have to wake up at 2 am to tend the fire and you live in constant fear of calamity? At a certain point, aren’t you just shooting farmed deer?
As a smoker, the Yoder is about as domesticated as they come. The 640S employs a built-in temperature control module made by Fireboard which connects via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. There’s a dial to set the grill temperature, three buttons to start or troubleshoot, and two ports for the included temperature probes. Fireboard makes standalone temperature control products and has a well-designed and intuitive app that allows you to configure minimum and maximum temperatures which trigger alerts by text or email. Yoder was wise to tap into this system rather than try to reinvent the wheel.
I haven’t used every pellet smoker on the market, but one common criticism is that they frequently end up off by 10 degrees or more. Not the Yoder, which is as reliable as my indoor oven. When you load up a rack of ribs and twist the dial to 225, the Yoder stays at 225. It doesn’t matter what type of wood you buy. Cheap pine dust pellets? 225. Fancy oak pellets? 225. Dumping rain? 225. Heat advisory in effect? You guessed it.
Hard to Steal
The consistent cook is a byproduct of the Yoder’s bombproof 10-gauge steel construction. It’s not quite a ceramic kamado, but at 3.2 millimeters, the steel sheets are roughly as thick as a stack of three CDs, providing excellent insulation once warmed to temperature.
There’s a reason why pizza is the menu choice of picky preschoolers, hungry teenagers, and discerning foodies alike. With enough cheese, tomato sauce, and arugula, homemade pizzas are a complete meal. They’re irresistible, easy to make, and customizable for a wide range of dietary preferences.
Until recently, an aspiring pizzaiolo had no choice but to crank up their kitchen oven to the standard 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, the best outdoor pizza ovens can heat up as high as 900 degrees—the perfect temperature for making a crisp Neapolitan pizza in minutes. For the past few years, I’ve memorized recipes, perfected my dough-tossing technique, and made hundreds of pizzas. You don’t have to limit yourself to pizza, either; I’ve seared steaks and pan-fried broccoli in ’em. Here are my—and my waistline’s—favorites. For those with limited access to outdoor spaces, I’ve included an indoor option and an oven that fits on a small deck, balcony, or patio.
Be sure to check out our many other buying guides, including the Best Portable Grills, Best Grills, and Best Camping Stoves.
Updated June 2023: We added the Ooni Volt and the Yoder Smoker Oven, added an honorable mentions slide, and added some toppings we like.
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