Last year, we predicted some of the changes that we’d see in cooking over the next decade, including precision cookware. The Smart Kitchen Summit, which was held this week in Seattle, brings together device makers, chefs, and other experts to discuss the future of food. And based on some of the items that were featured at the annual event, we may be able to get precisely cooked, hyper personalized dishes from our ovens sooner than we thought.
Major appliance brands such as Kenmore and Whirlpool are on board with embracing the smart kitchen. Both announced Alexa-enabled appliances, including fridges, dishwashers, and ranges earlier this year. There aren’t a ton of ways for Alexa and these appliances to interact yet, but manufacturers see including smart technology as a way to continuously add new features to old machines. But even people who swear they’ll never talk to their oven will see a benefit.
Good as new
“We have troves and troves of failure data out of appliances that we have repaired, be it our brand or a third-party brand we also maintain,” said Chris McGugan, general manager of Innovation and Kenmore at Sears. “And what we’re doing with our smart-home technology is bringing that failure database to all the appliances we’ve had to maintain and real-time telemetry off of new appliances to make predictive analytics real and how we go about servicing those appliances.”
Most of the data a fridge is sending back to Kenmore won’t interest their owners, but it could lead to new product innovation and fix an issue before the whole appliance breaks.
Ideally, that would mean your appliances would last longer, but Brett Dibkey, vice president and general manager of Whirlpool’s Integrated Business Units, said the advent of smart technology could also inspire people to buy a new appliance sooner than they otherwise would.
“In today’s market, an offline refrigerator or oven, the product is the best it’s ever going to be on the day you buy it and put it in your home,” he said. Add an internet connection, and Whirlpool, Kenmore, GE Appliances, and others could deliver a software update that offers a new feature.
June is already doing this with its Intelligent Oven. The $1,495 countertop convection oven and $1,995 wall oven have cameras inside that are smart enough to tell what you’re cooking and presets that effectively let you press a button and walk away. As users cook in the oven, the June team is gathering data to improve the product. For example, it initially only had a single preset for bacon.
“Our culinary team was able to look at all the data and say, ‘OK, what are all the most important variables for bacon?’” Matt Van Horn, June’s co-founder and CEO told Digital Trends. The factors that were influencing how the meat cooked were number of slices and whether people preferred it crispy or chewy. Now, the camera senses the amount of bacon inside and users simply choose the doneness they prefer.
“We turned one bacon program into 36,” Van Horn said. People may not have even noticed there was a change until their bacon started coming out better. “We can modify our presets without even doing a software update.”
Not every smart oven has cameras or sensors, and that’s where smart accessories come in. GE Appliances’ FirstBuild introduced its upcoming Precision Bakeware at the Summit. It includes a temperature probe that communicates with connected GE ovens and alerts your phone when your cake is perfect according to your specifications.
“There are so many variables that will impact how long it takes to bake something: what temperature it started, what your altitude is, what the center oven temperature truly is, what rack you’re on, what kind of bakeware you’re using,” said Chris Naber, a FirstBuild product developer. “Monitoring the actual temperature of the baked good eliminates all that.”
But he also points out another theme that emerged from the Summit: It’s not just about perfection but personal perfection.
“There’s no perfect doneness,” Naber said. “If you get people talking about how they like their brownies, it’s going to be a battle.”
But even if you and your entire family like your brownies chewy, each member could make the same recipe and come out with different results.
“In theory, if you run the same ingredients through the same process, you should get the same meal,” said Jon Jenkins, director of engineering at Hestan Smart Labs, during a talk. He showed images AllRecipes users submitted of the same salmon dish, and not one looked like the other. In contrast, he pointed out that Yelp users’ photos of the croque madame from Bouchon restaurant were quite consistent, even when taken years apart.
“This is what we should be striving for in the home kitchen,” Jenkins said. The problem is that recipes use vague words like “brown” and “tender,” that could mean different things for different people. Stoves have wildly different temperatures for the low setting. Instructions for cooking a chicken breast in the oven range from at 350 degree Fahrenheit for 45 minutes to 425 for 30. Plus, people perform tasks differently.
The Hestan Cue smart cooktop and pan provided data that shows users take between a second and a minute to flip food. Jenkins thinks software can fix a lot of these problems by controlling temperature and making adjustments based on what the humans are doing.
There are some advancements that are too pricey for home kitchens, like robots. Miso Robotics’ Flippy, for example, is a robot that can flip burgers, chop vegetables, and perform other repetitive kitchen tasks. (Even if you hate cutting up onions, you probably don’t need an entire robot dedicated to the chore.)
“We say it gives eyes and a brain to the industrial robotic arm,” said David Zito, the company’s CEO. “It doesn’t just see what’s going on, but it actually is trained to understand, through thermal sensors, the delta between the temperature of the patty and the grill.”
It can also take into account the thickness of the patty, making sure it’s properly cooked every time. Zito knows the idea of a robot in the kitchen will make people nervous, but he said restaurateurs contacting him don’t have staff reduction mind. For them, it’s more about food safety and consistency. One chef wanted to teach Flippy to do sous vide so customers could watch a livestream of the robot putting wagyu steak into a water bath set to cook the meat to their specifications.
Zito also said some places are feeling the crush with new delivery services like UberEats and Doordash bringing in more customers.
“Restaurants that I talked to that used to only have takeout five to 10 percent,” he said. “Now it’s 40 to 50 percent of the food they’re producing.”
Flippy could help them meet the demand while also freeing them up for the more enjoyable, creative aspects of cooking, he said.
Meanwhile, Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio wants restaurant owners and delivery services to have better communication. Restaurants should be able to set parameters to maintain a level of quality control, he suggested. Maybe not every dish should be on the delivery menu, for example.
“If I freeze a dome that I have infused with burnt applewood as a semifreddo with liquid nitrogen and you order that from Postmates, you can’t hold me accountable for the fact that it’s a puddle of burnt wood when it gets to your house,” he said.
There’s some tech that’s still trying to find its way when it comes to cooking. Virtual reality and augmented reality might be useful when designing and remodeling kitchens, but people aren’t using it in a ton of other ways, yet. There are plenty of ideas out there, though.
“Therapy’s a big one for us, because it allows us to make you feel less addicted to certain foods,” said Jin An of Project Nourished, which provides fine dining experiences paired with VR. Similarly, he thinks picky eaters could learn to love vegetables by associating them with pleasant memories created via VR. While strapping on a headset is often seen as isolating, Google VR designer Basheer Tome thinks parents could use it to virtually eat dinner with a kid who’s away at college.
“You could even think of it as not just necessarily connecting you across distances but also connecting you across time,” he said. Film you and your mother making a pie, and five years later you could surround yourself in the memory and recall her secret technique for a flawless pie crust.
As more ARKit apps come out, we’ll undoubtedly see some kitchen-centric ones. Something that shows you exactly how to slice a carrot into ¼-inch half moons would be great — if only a robotic arm could hold your phone for you while you chop. Maybe in another decade.