Can Cinder, the World's Most Precise Griddle, Replace Sous Vide?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I'm predicting right now that, for the next decade, all of the new advances in home cooking are going to be geared toward precision. There was a time not too long ago when home cooks and restaurant chefs alike were perfectly content to play all loosey-goosey when it came to temperature control and heat output. We'd set our burners to "medium-high" or our power level to "40%." We'd set our ovens to 375°F and ignore the fact that it would swing all the way up to 425°F and down to 325°F in a sine wave-shaped path toward inconsistency. And we dealt with it just fine.

The truth is, with a little patience and skill, you don't really need much more precision than that when cooking every day meals. But if modern sous vide cooking has taught us anything, it's that precision sure helps when you want consistency cook after cook. Restaurants are already using ovens that hold temperature and humidity within a single degree or percentage point. We all know that a thermometer is our best weapon against dry turkey meat, and that it's the best way to achieve a perfect medium-rare steak.

Entering the fray next year is the Cinder, a countertop cooking device that promises to deliver sous-vide-level precision without the bags and the water bath. Think of it as the world's most precise and powerful George Foreman Grill. The question is, will it deliver?

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The project got its start on the mega-incubator Y-Combinator and is currently still in the prototype and production phase. I was treated to a demo of the prototype units a few months back and was impressed with the initial concept. The ability to precision-cook foods and sear them all in the same compact device is appealing to anyone who has ever felt like searing a steak simply isn't worth the spattering fat, or that cooking a chicken breast sous vide requires a little too much up-front effort.

That said, I have a strict policy of never writing about a product that I haven't had a chance to test in my own kitchen, unsupervised. The bad news is that there are currently no finished units available to anyone. The good news is that after some pestering, the Cinder folks agreed to lend me one of their prototype units. It's a far cry from the sleek all-stainless mockups they display on their website, but the electronics, cooking algorithms, and hardware are at least close enough to the final model for me to be able to get an idea of what it's going to be capable of.

Testing: Precision Cooking

Here's how it works: two ceramic-coated non-stick metal plates heat your food from the top and the bottom. The bottom plate is fixed (though it can be removed for cleaning), while the top plate lifts and pivots up and down, like a panini press. A temperature control dial lets you lock in any temperature from 70 to 525°F (40 to 273°C) with an accuracy of ±1.75°F.

While the final model will supposedly have computer controlled algorithms that predict internal temperature based on starting temperature and thickness (which it automatically measures), the tester unit I have requires the use of a temperature probe which I insert into the center of whatever I'm cooking.

Why that level of precision? Well, with traditional cooking, you cook at temperatures that are much higher than the target internal temperature of your food. A steak is medium-rare when its center hits around 125°F, but the pan you're cooking it in is closer to 450°F. Let it sit in that pan too long and you end up with overcooked steak. Your window for perfection is very small.

With precise temperature control, you're able to set your device—whether it's a sous vide cooker or the Cinder—to 125°F, place your steak inside it, and walk away. Once it comes up to 125°F in the center, it stays there. It becomes nearly impossible to overcook a steak (or a chicken breast, a pork chop, or a salmon filet, for that matter). Afterwards, all you've got to do is sear it and you end up with meat that's is evenly cooked from edge to edge with a nice browned crust.

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A steak cooked at 125°F, waiting to be seared

At these precision tasks, the Cinder excelled. I tried cooking steaks in it every way I could think of, including fresh steaks, steaks that I placed in it straight from the freezer, 2-inch thick steaks and 1/2-inch steaks, and steaks that were unevenly sliced so that one end was fatter than the other. In every case, I wound up with meat that was evenly cooked from edge to center.

It was also great for other meats: chicken breast, duck breast, and salmon filets all came out tender and juicy with minimal fuss.

I used an infrared thermometer to gauge the temperature of the surface at various points, both in the bottom and the top cooking surfaces. At low temperatures, it held perfectly evenly across nearly the entire cooking surface (the edges dipped a little).

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Cooked 100% on the Cinder

Precision cooking typically doesn't offer as many advantages to vegetable cookery as it does to meat, since vegetables don't really soften much until they reach close to boiling temperatures. But if you've ever accidentally burnt a batch of caramelized onions because the heat on your stovetop got too high, the Cinder is a nice way to ensure that it never happens again (that said, the volume of caramelized onions you can cook in one go is not particularly large, due to the short sides of the device).

Testing: Searing

During the demo I was given with the device's founder, I was told that you'd be able to set your device to 125°F to cook your steak and then jack up the dial to the "SEAR" setting to give it a brown crust, all without having to remove it in between. This sounded very appealing to me so I gave it a shot. At least on the tester unit, it failed. The unit simply took too long to heat up from 125 to its maximum, which meant that by the time the steak was nice and brown, it was also completely overcooked.

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I pulled out the steak, cleaned out the unit, and cranked it to max. Then I checked the temperature again. Though the makers advertise a 525°F searing temperature on the final units, the prototype maxed out at around 450°F and showed a pretty significant degree of variation from the center of the heating panels to the edges—around 25°F or so.

That said, precision isn't really needed when searing, just high heat.

Even at 450°F, it's pretty easy to get a nice sear so long as you aid the steak with a bit of butter to help it brown.

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The best part about searing in the Cinder is that it completely eliminates the smoke and messy oil splatter that traditional stovetop searing will leave you with. Man, I wish I'd had one of these when I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with no windows for ventilation. It could have saved my wife from complaining that our sheets smelled like a fast food restaurant all the time.

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I also used the Cinder to cook a dozen other foods. I seared broccoli rabe and mushrooms with great success (though mushrooms do tend to get a sort of flattened look since they're pressed between the plates). I placed a raw ball of beef on the preheated plate and closed the unit down hard, for nicely crusted smashed burgers that hit medium-rare in just about 45 seconds. I baked English muffins in it using ring molds (which I subsequently used to fry eggs, cooking them from the top and the bottom to make perfect Egg McMuffin-style fried eggs disks)

I tried to confit a chicken leg by slow-cooking it for 6 hours at 165°F. This was not quite as successful (the chicken dried out a little), but it was a good indicator of the machine's limitations.

It also makes an awesome grilled cheese sandwich.

Cinder vs. Sous Vide vs. Traditional: Which One is Best?

The makers of the Cinder are claiming that it's the "third generation" of precision cooking. By their logic, slow cookers were first, sous vide was second, and the Cinder is the most recent upgrade. I have to say, I disagree. Just as sous vide isn't a complete replacement for other tools in your kitchen, neither will the Cinder replace sous vide devices or other traditional cooking devices.

For one thing, it simply can't do everything that a sous vide device can. sous vide cooking excels at tenderizing typically tough cuts while maintaining juiciness through prolonged, often multi-day cooks that break down connective tissue while also conveniently storing released juices in its bag. These types of cooks are impossible on the Cinder. For one, its open surface (juices evaporate off of it) and direct contact heating doesn't conform to the shape of the food you are cooking in it. That means only foods that can be somewhat flattened on two parallel planes are able to make adequate contact with the plates (You can sous vide a beet or a lamb shank easily, but you can't Cinder 'em).

The Cinder also doesn't allow you to take advantage of moist cooking methods. Salmon poached in olive oil comes out flavor-packed with a sous vide device but can't be done in the Cinder. Add some fresh aromatics to your vacuum seal bag when you cook chicken breasts and the flavor will be evenly distributed over the meat's surface as it cooks. Not so with the Cinder.

That said, the Cinder offers clear advantages in certain arenas. Slapping a steak onto it and hitting go is way easier than bagging a steak and heating up a water bath. Because it cooks in the open air, you also end up with dryer surfaces on that steak, which means that searing will be more efficient, ultimately leading to better end results.

The Cinder isn't the magic bullet that's going to replace your stovetop or your sous vide precision cooker—it's a tool, just like any other, with its own advantages and limitations. I see two types of people buying and loving this device: those with lots of space who want another gadget to play around with (and perhaps eliminate some of the smoke and spattered grease problems they've had in the past), or those with very little space who want a single device that can cook a huge variety of foods (and some of them extremely well!).

You can preorder the Cinder from the Cinder website for $249, for delivery in 2016.