There’s a long-running column in Cook’s Illustrated called “What is it?” where we track down the origins of kitchen gadgets that our readers find in their attics or on dusty antique-store shelves. A recent favorite: the Acme Rotary Mincer, vintage 1935, a handheld device featuring 10 stainless-steel rotary blades, which promised to mince herbs and vegetables with “lightning rapidity.” (Spoiler: it didn’t.)
This section of the magazine is essentially an obituary column for kitchen technology. And we never seem to run out of tools to pay tribute to. It makes sense: for as long as humans have toiled over dinner, we’ve worked nearly as hard at finding ways to make that cooking easier, faster, safer, better. Many of the forgotten gadgets that end up in the column were in fact perfectly good at the task they were designed for, but what we’ve asked of our home kitchen technology—and what ultimately ends up in our homes—has changed over time.
In the second half of the 20th century, the poster child of kitchen innovation was the microwave oven. Borrowing tech designed for use in radar in World War II, it offered a truly novel way to cook food. A magnetron creates an electromagnetic field that reverses polarity billions of times a second, showering food with waves that cause its water and fat molecules to constantly reorient themselves. That vibration heats neighboring molecules, resulting in speedy cooking … sort of. Since microwaves can’t penetrate very far into food, and the waves don’t contact the food evenly, only certain parts heat quickly. Anyone who’s zapped a slab of frozen lasagna and taken alternating bites of magma-hot cheese and ice-cold meat sauce knows this all too well. The microwave is fast, convenient, and imprecise.
In her 2005 New York Times Magazine story “Under Pressure,” Amanda Hesser posited that sous vide—at the time a technique used almost exclusively by top and experimental chefs—would “probably trickle down to the home kitchen someday.” How right she was. Today you can buy an affordable sous vide circulator, the shape and size of a Maglite flashlight, that can hold a container of water at a temperature accurate to a tenth of a degree. Let a ribeye steak, sealed in a plastic bag, swim in a 130 °F bath and it’ll emerge medium-rare from edge to edge. Sous vide trades on qualities nearly antithetical to the microwave: it is slow (an hour and a half to two hours for that perfectly cooked ribeye), relatively inconvenient (you need to plan ahead and often finish the job with a final sear), and highly precise. The fact that sous vide found a real following suggests that for many home cooks today, precision is at least as important as convenience.
Do cooks in 2021 really have to make that binary choice? A clutch of sleek tech-forward appliances would have us believe the answer is no. Many promise precision on par with sous vide cooking, but with more robust capabilities—such as the ability to brown food—while providing convenience through copious smart features like apps and pre-programmed recipes. Like their predecessors, a number of them rely on impressive-sounding technology to do the cooking.
Take the Brava Oven, which cooks using visible and infrared light. According to the manufacturers, inside the toaster-oven-size, windowless box are “six high powered lamps that get hotter than a wood fire pizza oven.” But brute-force heat isn’t the intention here. Instead, the oven targets those lights in different areas of the oven, such as the underside of the tray your food sits on, or at the food directly, to concurrently cook two different foods—say, a steak and some asparagus—on the same tray and produce an ideal version of each.
Cooking with light certainly has a futuristic sheen to it, but solid-state, or RF, cooking may be more interesting. Michael Wolf, who publishes The Spoon, a website that reports on trends in food technology, describes solid-state cooking as “taking the high-precision radio frequency technology from your phone and essentially putting it in a microwave.” Comparisons to the microwave are apt in that both technologies use electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than infrared light. But whereas a microwave’s magnetron emits just one frequency, a solid-state module can vary the frequency and amplitude of radio waves it emits, which makes for far more even heat distribution. These waves also provide feedback to the oven, allowing it to sense colder and hotter regions and direct energy where it is needed. RF technology is starting to show up; it features in Miele’s Dialogue oven, among others.
One of the most exciting cooking appliance technologies isn’t new at all—or sexy. It’s steam: or more specifically, the ability to control humidity within a convection oven. Professional cooks know that the key to precise cooking has to do with the relationship between heat and humidity, and having relied on combi (combination) ovens for decades, they know what is possible when these devices hand them fine control over both. A combi oven can mimic sous vide one minute, dehydrate beef jerky the next, and handle tasks as disparate as proofing bread and roasting meats. Home wall combi ovens are available from many big-brand appliance manufacturers, but it’s the countertop models, like the new app-connected Anova Precision Oven, that just might bring combination cooking to the masses.
It's easy to be wowed by bright lights and the promise of effortless beef jerky.
It’s of course easy to be wowed by bright lights and the promise of effortless beef jerky. Whether any one of these appliances succeeds will have a lot to do with the “smart” side of the equation—things like app usability and how well the pre-programmed recipes turn out—as well as with price. Still, with so many options converging at the intersection of precision and convenience, some could very well find a permanent home in many of our kitchens. And for the ones that don’t? We’ll be more than happy to write the obit.