snarke (snarke) wrote,

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Kitchen of the fuuuuuture (part two: been there, did that)

IBM had the only "real world" products in their kitchen. One of them was the new Whirlpool Polara range. It's Internet-enabled and the oven has a refrigeration system. The idea is you can set up dinner in the morning and pop it in the oven, which will keep it cold until, say, 3:30, then kick over to baking, so that when you get home at 5:30, it's just finished up baking the lasagna. Running late? Use your phone's web browser to surf to the oven's web page and tell it to start baking 45 minutes later than originally programmed.

Too bad I work from home. But then, even if I did work in an office and had to have dinner ready, I still have no use for this thing. In the 12 months that the spousal unit lived with me in my condo, I used my oven exactly three times. Once for cookies, once for lasagna, and once for a pizza too big to fit in the toaster oven. So we don't even have a traditional oven in our new kitchen here at the house. Aside from saving a big pile of money, we have a lot more storage without it.

Those of you reading this who haven't toured said kitchen, don't freak out yet. I'm sorta cheating; we have a "microwave" that's really more cutting edge than anything they profiled on this show. More on that in a bit.

MIT was at least being more creative. Most of their demo time was spent showing off the spoon that tastes. It's laden with sensors for detecting pH, salt, sugar, temperature, and viscosity. It can tell you if you need more lemon juice in your salad dressing, or if your sauce is the right thickness.

I thought that was pretty cool when they first described it, but then Ted the researcher keeps running across the kitchen to the computer screen on the far side to find out what the spoon has learned about his dressing. Did we forget to have enough screens in our kitchen? I think so. And even I have not generally had that much difficulty figuring out when my sauce was thick enough just from looking at it or stirring it. I don't need a smart spoon to help me out there.

Another you-can-get-it-now thing that IBM had was a net-enabled kitchen appliance called the Icebox. It's basically a combination computer/entertainment system. Plays MP3 files, DVDs, stores recipes, blah blah blah. What makes it anything other than totally hum-drum is that it's designed to mount under your cabinets, and has a swing-down LCD touch-sensitive screen. Handy, but, um, did I mention earlier the whole "greasy fingers" issue?

Oh, yea, and about recipes. Everybody, I mean everybody, loves to come up with this idea of the recipe system figuring out what you should cook based on what you've got on hand. IBM's eFridge even considers if you've got stuff that's going to spoil if you don't use it soon.

Gee, y'know, when I go shopping, I get stuff for things I already know how to make. I don't spend a lot of time standing in my kitchen going "Now, what could I make with two chicken breasts, some spinach pasta, half a can of peas, and the guacamole left over from the party last night?"

Maybe it's just me, but I think the very concept of "thousands of recipes at your fingertips" is just so sadly misguided. Are all these researchers really going home and whipping up yet another gourmet treat that they've never made before? I don't think so. I think they're getting home late and microwaving something in a can, because for most people, cooking simply isn't "fun." It's a chore, like doing laundry or taking out the garbage.

Once upon a time, there were a lot more professional house managers, most of them going by the title "housewife." They were managing menus for a group of people (let's call them a "family" for convenience), and even if they didn't exactly enjoy cooking itself, there was certainly plenty of opportunity for pride of workmanship in presenting attractive, balanced meals, plus the advantage of being able to participate in maintaining the health of these family members.

But the number of meals that families eat together has plummeted, and family size has dropped. Lots of families are now just one or two people. The husband and I have different enough tastes and schedules that, even when we eat together, we're usually eating totally different meals.

I've gotten pretty good at making couscous. It's a fun, exotic side dish that's pretty easy to make and great for showing off. However, even though it's not technically difficult, it takes nearly an hour and a half to make it right. I'm just not going to spend that kind of time when I'm making dinner for myself. I just want to waste as little time as possible cooking, get right to the eating, and then do something more fun.

One very smart cookbook pointed out to me that most people have about 25 recipes that they really know. You know, like "Grandpa's Mac&Cheese" or "Mom's Special Potato Salad." These people are known for their signature dishes because they're of notably high quality. They got that good at making them because they've made them many many times, which also explains why everybody else associates them with their dishes.

I don't have 25 good solid recipes yet. I've got, oh, maybe 15, although some of them are pretty dang good. I do make all (and I mean all) my own bread (with help from my Zojirushi bread machine), and after having made some 300+ loaves of bread, I can throw together some pretty yummy loaves. I've got a killer cheesecake. Although I don't serve it for others very often, one of my favorites is what I call "Créme de la Boeuff," based on a favorite recipe of my mom's which she called Creamed Chipped Beef. Some people are familiar with the rather dreadful military version colloquially called S.O.S. Mine involves a properly prepared roux as the base for the Bechamél sauce, basil, garlic and onion powders, a dash of cayenne, and black and white pepper, as well as the dried beef, laid over a bed of fresh homemade herb bread.

Nothing in the "kitchen of the future" that these guys are working on is going to make my Créme de la Boeuff any better. In fact, I wouldn't trade my current kitchen for any of the ones I saw, even if they included enough technicians to keep it all running perfectly. Which they won't.

I don't want to spend more time in the kitchen, boy and girl researchers. I want to spend less! An MIT graduate student commented that if you tell people at a party that you're a kitchen tech researcher, they all tell you to invent a self-cleaning kitchen. And yet, did any of these people demonstrate anything good for cleaning up messes? Why, no, I don't think they did! Hello? Hello? I do believe that the denial-of-service attack blocking your webserver is a cluestorm on port 80. Ding.

In fact, the most promising futuristic kitchen tech was seen in this month's Consumer Reports magazine. Top of page 9 features iRobot's Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner's new brother (sister?), the Scooba robotic mop. No shock, it had "trouble with corners and edges" and wasn't so good with stubborn stains. (Come to think of it, we don't often (ok, don't ever) have stubborn stains on our floor.) It's taken a few years, but the Roomba's now sophisticated enough and good enough that I'd seriously consider getting one if we had any carpets at all. (They finally figured out that it's a lame robotic vacuum indeed that isn't smart enough to recharge itself.) The current model can pretty much handle anything but an overly-cluttered floor and stairs on its own. Set it up right, and it'll wander out during the day to vacuum a different room every day, and hide back in its dock before you get home. Neat!) I'm sure the Scooba will also improve quickly over the next couple of years.

The other article (same page), unfortunately, just undercuts my respect for CU yet again. It's entitled "Induction Cooktop Are Promising, But Not Perfect." Based on the short text, apparently that lack of perfection has to do with the Kenmore cooktop's finicky controls and the generally excessive price of the Viking and Gaggenau they considered. The only real drawback, the need for cookware with an adequate amount of iron (i.e., cast iron, enameled cast iron, or pots with 18/0 stainless in the base, but not aluminum, copper, or 18/10 stainless), was only mentioned in the second to last paragraph.

Mind you, the lead sentence is "Induction cooktops are the fastest-heating cooktps we've ever tested." Damn straight. Our kitchen has an induction cooktop. You think you're cooking when you're cooking with gas? Ha. You can go get yourself the biggest, baddest Viking or Wolfe gas range you can lay your hands on. Go ahead, spend $5,000+ on one of those. My induction cooktop's gonna whup its ass baaaad. Max BTUs on home-rated gas ranges is about 18,000 BTUs. Stuff below $1,000 is more likely to top out at 15,000, or even 12,000. (Commercial units get hotter, but can't be installed in homes because they need to be installed next to fireproof walls; they get really hot on the outside.) Our induction cooktop does about the equivalent of 24,000 BTUs when cranked up to "9". It takes some friends of ours over 3 hours to bring a canning kettle full of water up to boiling. We were getting impatient because it took us 30 minutes to do that.

Aside from "more power than electric," the other reason usually cited for why "real cooks cook with gas" is that there's less retained heat when you shut it down. The pan's still hot, but the surface isn't. Modern electric cooking technologies like halogen or ribbon element (reddish glow below the glass surface) are pretty fast to cool down too, but the old coiled electric element is a lot of extra thermal mass.

The induction cooktop can kill its magnetic field even faster than a gas flame can go out. No advantage to gas there either.

And how low can it go? Not only is "9" way past the highest that gas can go, but "1" is lower than even most special "simmer" burners can get, and we can dial up a "1" on any of our four burners. (Since it's electric, they're not really "burners." The technical term is "hob," as in, "our induction cooktop has four hobs.")

The main reason gas is used in restaurants, by the way, isn't its "superior cooking qualities." It's because when you're running that many burners for that much time, your energy costs matter, and gas is (or was) cheaper than electric. Usually. That's not necessarily the case with induction. You see, all that cooking power does not require a power cable as thick as your leg. It actually uses a power feed about half the size of your typical range (albeit the range's includes an oven, too). That's because, since induction heats the pan itself magnetically, instead of making something else hot and then transferring that heat to the pan, it's more efficient. A lot more efficient. A gas burner, and most electric technologies, transfer 30-40% of the generated heat to the pot. The rest goes past the pot and into your kitchen. Gas burners are also, well, burning, so you've got combustion by-products (dust in the air, trace impurities in the gas) going up. Make sure you've got a good hood over that puppy!

Induction's generally around 90% efficent at energy transfer. Very cool.

"Cool" also makes cleanup extra-nice. It's already a solid glass surface, which is orders of magnitude superior to weird spidery metal grates to hold your pots over open flames. But even sealed glass cooktops can bake boilover into a difficult-to-remove hard, crusty, blackened nugget. Anything that escapes a pot on an induction cooktop falls onto cool glass. Consumer Reports commented on that, as well as the tested cooktops' ability to "simmer flawlessly."

They also note that all the tested cooktops "shut off automatically when the pot is removed, even if you don't turn them off. This reduces the chance of cooking fires, which are a leading cause of house fires."

Oh, and as for being expensive, well, try to shop smarter than CU did. The new Kenmore "Cool Heat" cooktop lists for around $1,800, street $1,500. We paid about $1,200 for our cooktop, including air freight shipping from New Zealand . (It looks like it might now be closer to $700.) That's more than a cheap gas or electric cooktop, but not more than a good one. Why New Zealand? Because we got ours two years ago, and nobody had "discovered" induction in the U.S. at that time.

That is to say, rediscovered. The CU article concludes with "Induction cooktops were mostly impressive. If you are willing to overlook the kinks, induction provides excellent cooking performance. Otherwise, wait until its reliability is proven." Proven? What kind of bullshit is that? How long do they think it'll take? GE sold an induction range back in '70s. Jenn-aire was offering a cooktop with an induction surface less than 10 years ago. This isn't new, kids. Google could have told you that. Why induction didn't completely replace other cooktop technologies years ago remains a mystery to me. Now that we've had a chance to cook with the induction cooktop, I, for one, have no intention of ever having to cook like a caveman over an open flame. Except maybe on a camping trip.

I also mentioned not having an oven, above. That's not exactly a lie; if you looked around our kitchen, you'd probably fail to spot it. That's because the microwave isn't a microwave. It's a GE Advantium Speedcook oven. Along with the magnetron (for microwaving), it also has radiant elements top and bottom, and a 'traditional' thermal element. If you include the combination fan/rotating microwave deflector, that means that this box can cook four ways: traditional time/temperature oven, convection oven, microwave, or combo micro/radiant 'speedcook.' The last one is awfully clever. The oven microwaves, say, my lasagna to cook the inside, while firing up a couple of 1000-watt halogen bulbs to radiate heat onto the outside, browning it. It's even faster than regular microwave cooking, and does the whole toasty/crispy thing that comes from more heat outside than inside. It makes absolutely perfect toasted cheese sandwiches, for example, and is very good with hamburgers.

Both the induction cooktop and the Advantium speedcook oven are improvements because they let me spend less time in the kitchen. I wonder how long it's going to take researchers trying to design "kitchens of the future" to figure that one out?
Tags: cooking, food, future, kitchen
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