The Jetsons knew how to cook: Ride the conveyor belt over to the kitchen console, press the Bacon button and—BOOP!—there’s breakfast, rising up out of the kitchen table. The animated 1960s TV series was right about some aspects of the future (video phones, for one thing), but for kitchens, well, we’re not quite there yet.
The idea of the smart—or connected—home, that is linking appliances to the Internet in order to make life better or easier by, say, allowing you to make sure your garage door is shut even if you’re at the office, or keeps your plants watered, is a good first step.
The latest thing on the menu in the connected home kitchen is something called ‘guided cooking.’ No, Gordon Ramsay doesn’t come to your house and yell at you. Guided cooking is where a heat source and a pot (or a sensor in the pot) communicate with each other through an app that walks you through a recipe and keeps everything at the right temperature as you cook your way to dinner. It’s no Jetsons food robot, but it’s got legs.
Early adopters who have the stomach for a little technological and culinary uncertainty have some interesting options available to them, but the entrepreneurs trying to make these magical kitchens actually happen are in for a slog—getting these kinds of products to market is harder than earning a Michelin star.
Why? Those entrepreneurs are doing two things at once: They’re launching a tech startup while also trying to figure out how to become an appliance manufacturer. Along the way, they might realize, say, that they need to provide boatloads of content for an app and a website, including recipes that need to be bulletproof, and preferably showstoppers. Add to it that these companies are often run by more than chefs, accompanied by businesspeople, investors, and visionaries, who are all hoping that their labor of love catches on with a big crowd. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and even more blown deadlines.
Talk Me Through It
One of the first models to officially make it to market is the $300 Paragon Induction Cooktop from FirstBuild. It connects an induction burner—a countertop device that uses magnetic energy to heat a pan—to an app to a Bluetooth-enabled temperature sensor that looks like a silicone-coated inchworm that crashed into a set of headphones. Fill a pot with water, clamp the sensor over its edge, and set it on the burner and suddenly, you’re cooking.
Paragon’s in-app recipes guide you through the basics of sous-vide cooking: Put the protein in a plastic bag, put the bag in the preheated water, wait, then sear manually in a pan on the induction burner. The app controls the burner and walks you through every step. I had good success cooking chicken breasts, a steak, and some ribs, though I wished for more power when it came time to sear. Paragon has higher recommended cooking temperatures and longer cooking times than I prefer—its version of doneness tends to be more conservative than many of its competitors. For meat-and-potatoes cooking, it’s great, but the app currently offers no fancy, multi-step recipes at all; look elsewhere for inspiration. (Without the app, the Paragon can be used like a traditional ‘1 to 10-style’ induction burner while sous vide cooking can be dialed in to the degree.)
It sounds like faint praise, but it’s easy to underestimate how difficult these undertakings are. One company executive recently told me, “Everybody watches their competitors struggle and says, ‘Yeah, we’ll be better than that’…then something else goes wrong.” Well-intentioned Kickstarter campaigns drum up a lot of excitement and sometimes a fair amount of money, then the device becomes vaporware, or the fledgling company gets gobbled up by a larger manufacturer, or it gets bogged down in the production process and has huge delays. (Look up the sagas of the Mellow or Meld cookers for two examples out of many.)
Set for release at the “end of 2016,” the Hestan Cue from Hestan Smart Products uses an app and an induction burner that communicate with proprietary pots and pans that have built-in temperature sensors, a setup that they say gives better control than competition like the Paragon.
Hestan chief scientist Darren Vengroff gave me a demo in the company’s Seattle office by making their version of chicken piccata. To do it, he fired up the app on an iPad Mini and followed step by step set of video clips and photos that are reminiscent of the overhead shots in Jacques Pépin’s books, minus the furry forearms. After each step, he tapped the app or a button on the side of the burner to cue up the next step. It made for a simple, tasty meal.
The Hestan offers a lot more guidance and visual cues than the Paragon. Which one you decide to use the end will be a matter taste and budget. If you’re looking for help nailing the sous-vide basics, then want to go your own way, the Paragon is a good bet. Want a richer app environment that will be released with (they say) 100-150 recipes? Try the Hestan. Remember the question of budget, too, as Hestan will likely cost between $500 and $1,000.
The smart kitchen field is certainly a work in progress. Manufacturers are making some questionable decisions as they slowly get these products onto the countertop. I like the Hestan Cue but am not fully sold on the fact that they’re making their own pots and pans, which forces cooks further into their ecosystem. Yes, the Hestan is owned by a cookware manufacturer, but I’d rather be able to choose my own pan. Then again, I love the idea of being able to set a sauté pan to a specific temperature like the Hestan.
Also, some manufacturers make or plan on making you unlock your phone, swipe to the app, fire it up, and fiddle around with its controls just to turn on the appliance. That’s just dumb. It’s fine for the app to guide you through a recipe, but otherwise, most every feature of these machines should be available on the appliance itself.
Where There’s Smoke
We’re going to see how things like this pan out for several appliances very soon. In the watch-this-space department: The Cinder, a George Foreman grill-like contraption which promises impressive doneness control and a ripping sear; the ambitious Mellow, which keeps food in an ice bath all day, then heats the water to cook it sous vide, finishing it just in time for you to arrive home from the office; and the Joule from ChefSteps, which is an app-controlled sous vide machine with lushly filmed, step-by-step instructions.*
For now, since I haven’t seen many of these companies’ finished products—they haven’t either!—I’m sticking with my preference for the beefier and not-so-connected machines like the original Anova sous vide machine (which was phased out in favor of its less-powerful, more connected little brother, the Precision Cooker). And Breville’s expensive but incredible Control Freak, which relies on an in-burner sensor to heat the surface of a pan to a specific temperature, or a hard-wired probe to control the temperature of a pot’s contents. In my kitchen, I used it to do things like slow-scramble eggs in a technique that instantly made my double boiler obsolete. Later, I used a tiny pot to slow-poach shrimp in butter, cooking them to a sous-vide style 55°C, something I’d always want to do but is only possible with a setup like this. Every time I speak to a chef who’s got their hands on a Control Freak, they talk about a new use they’ve come up with for it and how it extends their range in the kitchen; One realized they could use it like a fryer, not having to fiddle with the heat to keep the temperature where it should be. Another chef liked that they could just hold a sauce with perfect, precise heat until the rest of a dish was ready. To me, these are at the power tools of the modern kitchen, and the ones that really encourage creativity.
For now, it still feels like a time for “guided cooking’s” early adopters. If you are one and have the disposable income these products require and the tech savvy to make the (easy) Bluetooth and app connections when you take one out of the box, by all means, pick up the model that suits you and dive in head first. The best models will offer their own content and recipes, but more importantly, they’ll allow you to go app-free and get cooking quickly. There will almost certainly be a shakeout among these manufacturers and what their products can do, but if you’ve been looking to make the jump to sous-vide cooking, and needed a bit more handholding than a working with fully-manual machine, it could be time to take the plunge.
*Full disclosure: I wrote about food on a four-month contract in 2015 for ChefSteps.