While I'd be the first to vouch for cookbooks as great holiday gifts, there's something to be said for food magazines as presents - whether the recipient is an active home cook, someone who wants to start cooking meals more often, or the sort of eater who just loves to gaze at photos of food. You'll be in mind every time a new issue comes. Any of these magazines would make a fine gift, but which one should you choose for the food lover in your life?
For the wonk
Lovers of Cook's Illustrated are a devoted bunch. These people are interested in doing cooking right, and avidly consume the test kitchen's diagrams and precise directions to getting, say, really tender, nutty-tasting Brussels sprouts without parcooking (one pan only, please!) or the best way to build a really flavorful vegetable soup from pantry staples, or a really reliable Paris-Brest for dessert.
There's no full-color food-porn here - Cook's Illustrated readers are above that. The magazine has a text-heavy, almost 19th-century feel to it. It's printed in sepia and white, and recipe steps are broken down in line drawings, not photos.
More practical approaches come with rundowns for savvy consumers, like a usefulness test of kitchen-knife block sets (Rachael Ray brand, no; Wüsthof, maybe) and a taste test of butter brands (Plugrá, yes; Kerrygold, maybe).
PLUS: Quite useful for people who actually do cook.
MINUS: Lecture-ish; two-color presentation makes it not as fun for those who prefer to dream, rather than cook, over their food mags.
Subscription: $25 for six issues (one year). Gift special $25 for first subscription, $20 for all additional gifts.
For the armchair traveler
Saveur is perhaps the best overall mass-market food magazine published today, succeeding in balancing sumptuous photography, globetrotting features, in-depth looks at various national sub-cuisines, actual cookable recipes, and short, browse-able bits that make even casual cooks excited about going into the kitchen. Its theme issues, like the yearly "Saveur 100," of the editors' favorite finds, are compulsively flippable.
National cuisine-based cover features consume the entire issue. While they're not exhaustive, they're far from just a glance at a few dishes. This fall's Mexico issue zeroed in on the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, delved into homemade mole poblano, celebrated the Tijuana breakfast, profiled many Mexican soups, and more. Sometimes there are dish-centric issues, like the pesto issue, which expanded the notion of the sauce as being only basil, olive oil and pine nuts.
PLUS: Sprightly writing, appealing photography. Recipes are grouped together in the back of the magazine. Good for more than one read-through, too.
MINUS: Although there is an occasional how-to feature, that's not the emphasis here.
Subscription: Current website special $20 for nine issues (one year).
For the recipe collector
The emphasis is on food and recipes - not travel, restaurant trends or celebrity chefs. Those looking for narrative stories about farmers, chefs or restaurants will not usually find these here.
Oftentimes, Fine Cooking will focus on a familiar recipe and present variations on a theme (lasagna: fresh pasta, four-cheese and tomato, short rib and mushroom, butternut squash and goat cheese). There are also enough how-to features to make this the closest choice to "Cook's Illustrated with color photos."
PLUS: Cook's Illustrated with color photos.
MINUS: Cook's Illustrated with color photos.
Subscription: $30 for six issues (one year). Digital edition free with subscription.
For the gluttonous gazer
Although a year-old redesign seemed intent on blurring the design distinction between the editorial content and the advertising, there is still a lot to like about Bon Appétit, especially at its low subscription price. While some articles may seem like little more than a nice photo and a couple of recipes, the magazine does a fair job of staying up to date on national eating trends. One of its strongest issues is the annual "Restaurant Issue," which picks the restaurant of the year and identifies new trends in dining out. The staff's passion for food is clear in its yearly pick of America's foodiest town (renamed this year the "New Epicure's Epicenter").
The travel articles are more inspirational than anything else, but that might be okay. A greater attention to the celebrity chef, also, will either appeal to readers or rub them the wrong way.
PLUS: Lots of ideas, appealing photography, interesting short articles, an eye to trends.
MINUS: Those looking for practical coaching might not find enough instruction here.
Subscription: $12 for 12 issues (one year). Additional access to tablet edition for $5.
For the pairing fiend
Food and Wine
While Food and Wine does include wine-pairing suggestions with every recipe, the weight of the content in each issue is to food; wine might take center stage in one or two articles. This is to say that, if you're more interested in cooking than in wine, the name of this magazine should not scare you off. And the pairing suggestions can be quite helpful.
Recipes are plentiful, and identified in a handy index page as "fast," "healthy," "make ahead," "vegetarian" and/or "staff favorite."
The magazine is not likely to give over an entire issue to a single topic, as does Saveur. F&W has many columns, which cover food trends, restaurants, food travel, artisanal items, kitchen innovations and style, entertaining, wine, spirits and so forth.
One fun column is a "tasting exercise" tutorial, in which the cook learns about food through a series of experiments in, say, salting (through brining, through a dry-rub, and adding just before serving) to learn its effect on taste.
PLUS: Each issue is wide-ranging enough to appeal to cooks who are not even into wine.
MINUS: While the photography here is serviceable, it's not emphasized.
Subscription: $20 for 12 issues. Additional gifts $12 each
For the cheesehead
Recipes for foods with cheese, recipes for making cheese - yes on both counts. But Culture is more likely to profile cheesemakers and review various cheeses. There are articles on cheese pairings, cheese plates, new cheese stores across the U.S. and cheese-based travel (I can't believe I just typed the words "cheese-based travel"). All the photography is beautiful.
PLUS: If your loved one loves cheese, look no further.
MINUS: Nothing here for the cheese-averse.
Subscription: $30 for 4 issues (one year).
Eco-conscious gift idea!
Do you have a year's worth of a magazine that seems too good to send to the recycling bin after you are through reading? If they still look good (i.e., no crumbs, grease stains or notations), pack them up in an attractive shopping bag and give them as a gift. Bonus points if you've been keeping them around for a while and the year could be considered vintage.