Can smart kitchen devices actually make you a better cook?

IN THE kitchen of the future, it was time to make some salmon, and the reporter of the present day – that’s me – had several choices. I could put it in my smart pan, which would notify me via cellphone alert when it had reached the precise temperature – 375 degrees Fahrenheit – at which the fish should be cooked, and when to put it in the pan, and when to flip it, too.

Or I could cook it in my smart grill, selecting the salmon function in an app for the device. I’d set the fish’s interior temperature to “buttery soft” (104 degrees), close the lid and never have to check on the food because the grill would bring it up to the right temperature.

Or I could simply put the salmon on a pan and pop it into my smart oven, where the camera inside would recognise that it was salmon, and the oven would ask me what level of doneness I prefer. Then I’d go sit on my couch and drink a glass of wine while I monitored the salmon’s progress from my phone, which would stream live video of the fish turning opaque and sizzling in its juices.

My kitchen is dumb. I mean, it’s lovely, but the appliances are at least 10 years old. They do not connect to the Internet. I can’t turn them on from my office, two miles away, with my phone. They don’t tell me I did a “Marvelous!” job flipping a piece of chicken or warn me when I’ve added a little too much salt. I can’t control them with my voice. And they definitely don’t beam me live video of my food cooking.

So for two weeks, I stopped using them. When I turned my dumb kitchen into a smart one, cooking using only countertop appliances that were connected to my phone via WiFi or Bluetooth, I anticipated a future where I could come home from work, pop my food into my various devices, and let the algorithms take it from there while I kicked up my feet.

The Pantelligent pan maintains a precise temperature and tells you when to stir and when to turn foods over
The Pantelligent pan maintains a precise temperature and tells you when to stir and when to turn foods over

It didn’t exactly work that way. Picture instead: Me, standing in my kitchen, flipping among nearly a dozen apps, each of them sending me various alerts for temperature and time. Individually, many of the devices did make my life a little easier. Together? The smart kitchen still has some learning to do.

We cooked on fires, then hearths, then stoves, gas and electric. We made machines to do the hard work of mixing and chopping, and microwaves that could cook things in minutes. Throughout the history of home cooking, the goal has always been to do less of it. And the utopia – maybe we can thank “The Jetsons” – is a kitchen that would do it all, cleanup included.

“We’re very quickly approaching the time when every object, whether it’s an oven or a microwave, is connected to the Internet by default,” said Linden Tibbets, chief executive of IFTTT, a technology company that works to unite apps and services. Before long, every kitchen will be a smart kitchen. And that could forever change the way we live.

“All the ways that we produce and distribute and manufacture and shop for food were produced by industrialisation,” said Sarah Smith, research director at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, California, think tank. “The new era of intelligent objects, if it does transform things just as much, that will be very big change.”

That’s because whenever we encode automation or artificial intelligence into a device, we also encode it with our values. Often, the primary value is convenience, but “that efficiency . . . is expanding to include other values,” such as flavour, Smith said. The smart kitchen isn’t just about making your life easier; the other goal is to teach you to be a better cook.

Touch-screen fridges or WiFi- connected ovens are flashy, but we’re slow to replace our major appliances. Your first smart device will probably be a countertop gadget.

Start with a scale. Small, versatile and easy to set up, scales by Perfect Company and Drop eliminate the need for measuring cups: Just look at your phone as you pour ingredients in, and the scale will ping you to stop. It can also suggest substitutions, scale recipes up and down, and in some cases tell you how many calories you’re about to consume, assuming you used the suggested ingredients.

Still other devices take expertise out of the equation and aim instead to deliver you hands-off precision. One is Cinder, the aforementioned tabletop grill. The June oven takes it a step further. The oven recognises what food you’re cooking via an internal camera and knows exactly how to make it; you don’t have to set a temperature or timer. It couldn’t get any easier.

Or could it? The difficulty with the smart kitchen is the apps. Each device has one, cluttering up your phone. But the devices can’t yet communicate with one another.

“Most of these experiences are islands unto themselves,” said Michael Wolf, the founder of the Smart Kitchen Summit (where I am scheduled to moderate a panel in October) and publisher of the Spoon, a blog about the future kitchen.

Services such as IFTTT aim to bridge that gap. It’s a middleman that allows you to create applets, or commands that link apps or products, including a limited number of smart kitchen devices. For example, when your FitBit senses that you’re awake, IFTTT can instruct it to tell your WeMo coffeemaker to begin brewing.

But true interoperability, where devices can communicate seamlessly with each other, is the end goal of the Internet of Things kitchen. And for that to happen, we need a kitchen operating system. Drop, the maker of the smart scale, is one company working toward this and already has partnerships with GE and Bosch.

“There will be an evolution similar to what we saw with the app ecosystem in general. People had to learn to adopt apps, and then they got too many apps, and then the apps started interacting with each other,” said Marc Blinder, vice president of product marketing at Drop.

Besides, connecting smart devices will make them, well, smarter. Kitchen appliances “will work better when they can learn from each other,” Smith said.

At the same time, the more connected our devices are, the more vulnerable they are to hacking. Devices that are linked to your credit card and devices with video cameras are the most susceptible, Smith said.

Eventually, there may be no apps at all. Voice command is an elegant solution that solves another problem: the fact that you’re cooking with your phone, which is germier than a toilet seat.

Or, as Smith says, “The best interface is no interface.”

Some friends came over for dinner, and after I made us some perfect cocktails with my Perfect Co scale, we sat down for the evening’s entertainment: watching a tenderloin cooking in June, on my phone. The oven was 15 feet away from us, and it was ridiculous, but we didn’t care.

“I never knew I wanted that,” said one of my friends, about the video feature.

It took only a few days of use before I was referring to June as though it were a person. “I’m going to have June make us a roast chicken,” I told my mother, when she came to visit. It wasn’t the only ridiculous thing I found myself saying.

“Alexa, tell Behmor to brew my coffee,” I barked at my Amazon Echo, which connected to my WiFi-enabled coffee brewer. Another evening, as I huddled over my laptop, my husband asked me what I was doing. “Installing my fork software,” I replied. I had purchased a Hapifork and had to decide whether I was a “picker” – someone who stabbed my food with the tines of my fork – or a “scooper”.

Except: It didn’t really work as advertised. We’re still in a phase where the smart kitchen is weeding out the gimmicks – think of the music-streaming smart salt shaker or the much-maligned Juicero.

There were days when my Pantelligent didn’t feel very smart, either.

For one thing, it did not do well with our slow-to-heat electric stove. “Turn the heat to medium, remember to add one tablespoon of oil to the pan,” a robotic voice from my phone instructed. But the pan heated up slowly, and I got repeated alerts that the heat was too low. I panicked and turned it up more. “The heat is too high!” my phone told me, again and again. “Stop yelling at me!” I thought.

“Why do we need all of these stupid things? Why can’t we just cook?” my husband asked one night.

Back at the dinner party, June chimed when the tenderloin was done – in less than 15 minutes.

Now it was time to show off her best trick. I put asparagus in a baking pan, put the pan in the oven, and June’s camera recognition immediately knew what it was – and what temperature to roast it, and for how long.

“Shut up and take my money,” my friend said.

We might eat better food when all our kitchens become smart kitchens. But will we become better cooks? Drop thinks so.

“You get better at cooking as you use the app,” Blinder said. “The vision is not to someday replace everything with automation.”

Adam Blank, vice president of merchandising in the electrics division of Williams-Sonoma, agrees. “For this generation that is growing up on screens and on devices, this might be the version of sitting in the kitchen with your mother or grandma learning how to cook.”

Automation is coming into the home kitchen, too. Food tagged with radio frequency identification – a chip that communicates information to your device – can tell it exactly how the item should be prepared as well as its nutritional value (which could, eventually, be transmitted to your wearable fitness tracker – or your doctor). Teforia, a beautifully designed loose-leaf tea device I tested, uses it to communicate the brew time and temperature, which varies from green tea to black. Last month, Nomiku introduced convenience meals embedded with RFID to work with its sous-vide device.

And eventually our smart kitchen devices will connect to smart systems such as Innit, a platform launching this year, to help us buy groceries, suggest meals based on what we already have in our kitchen and prevent food waste.

The smart kitchen may not make us better cooks, but it will put better meals on our tables, with less effort.

“You still get this feeling, like, ‘I cooked this for you, I’m giving this to you.’ It’s an act of love,” Tibbetts said. “The technology doesn’t get in the way of that positive emotional experience.” – Text and Photo by The Washington Post