Food tech entrepreneurs and appliance manufacturers have tried to answer the same question for years: How can we use the Internet of Things to make it easier to figure out what's for dinner?
At first, the answer came in the form of adding Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and near-field communication to appliances so you could control them while you were away. Preheating your oven before you leave work, for example, so it's hot and ready for your meal by the time you get home.
Then startups entered the kitchen in an attempt to build cooking platforms that would let you find a recipe based on your preferences, show you how to cook a dish and connect to your appliance so it could automatically set cooking temperatures and timers. Now smart kitchen tech manufacturers are on a roll with products that handle the heavy lifting of cooking: Immersion circulators to sous vide, induction cooktops you control with app, countertop ovens with cameras and temperature probes.
Consistency and precision have become the main focus of new cooking products as we saw at this year's Smart Kitchen Summit, a tech show that focuses on the food tech industry. Companies want you to be able to cook your favorite meal and know that it will taste the same every time you prepare it. No more undercooked pasta or chewy chicken — the small kitchen appliances fighting for a space on your countertop want to give you a line cook's ability to replicate a meal. And in a growing number of products, such as the Suvie Kitchen Robot and the Tovala Smart Oven, this perfection comes with a meal plan to get the most out of your appliance.
These advancements have introduced fun, new ways for enthusiastic cooks to expand their skills. There's the instructional videos that walk you through cooking on the Hestan Cue and the breadth of cooking tasks you can perform with the Paragon Induction Cooktop. Some appliances, such as the June Intelligent Oven or large appliances with Wi-Fi connectivity, have made it quicker to cook a meal in that they'll let you know when your food has reached the right temperature so you don't have to stand watch over your dish.
But we still have a long way to go before the kitchen evolution makes it into the majority of American kitchens. Here's why.
Smart kitchen appliances are still a relatively new category, which means many of them haven't been around long enough to prove that they're worth the investment. And an investment is what many of these products are — smart countertop ovens cost $500 or more, internet-connected large appliances have four-figure prices and some of the meal kits that come with these smart appliances cost around $12 a meal.
There are connected products with a lower cost of entry, like immersion circulators or small versions of small speakers that are helpful in the kitchen. But the most innovative appliances won't fit into the average person's budget. This cost barrier isn't surprising. New technology is often expensive — for example, the first popular home microwave cost about $500 in the late 1960s, or about $3,600 in today's dollars. We won't see widespread use of smart large and small appliances until we see more products in these categories and the prices start to decrease.
Much of the innovation we've seen in the kitchen in the past few years has happened with countertop appliances. They're generally less expensive than large appliances and easier to welcome into your existing kitchen setup. But at some point, you're going to run out of counter space. So you have to ask yourself whether you're ready to get rid of your microwave, blender, toaster, or whatever gadget is eating up valuable real estate in favor of a new appliance.
Countertop ovens often claim to do the job of multiple devices, but many still have problems with the most basic of cooking tasks (toasting, for example, is apparently harder than it seems) that will make you want to hang on to your tried-and-true, not-smart gadgets. Other gadgets, such as the Paragon Induction Cooktop, have shapes that make them hard to stow away when you're not using them. To become more universally adopted, companies need to make devices that can do a variety of tasks well so you can streamline the number of products that need to be on the countertop.
Many smart appliances pride themselves on teaching you to be a better cook, whether it's with a video that shows you the proper way to sear a steak or a step-by-step guide to make eggs Benedict. And as we saw at the Smart Kitchen Summit, appliance companies have paired up with different recipe platforms to connect their products to the dishes you want to make. But I worry that many of these platforms concentrate too much on making restaurant-quality, weekend meals rather than the Monday through Friday, comforting-but-quick dishes most of us eat. Smart kitchen appliances don't always need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they need to make it easier to make your favorite go-to meals — those dishes that we know from memory or have written down rather than saved in an app.
Each platform assumes that its behemoth collection of recipes will meet everyone's needs. But what if you don't like what you've cooked? You've wasted groceries and time on a meal that you or your family has to choke their way through. An unpopular recipe happens without kitchen technology, but I wouldn't be happy if I chose to use a new appliance and recipe to create something that pales in comparison to what I could make on my own. And after a long day at work, you want a meal that you know will be good. The weeknight is not the time for experimentation. There should be more of focus on integrating people's own recipes and being available to teach them something new — when they have the time.
So what does all this mean?
I still believe that the innovation will make an impact on the way we interact with food. And if you have the money and the space, now is the time have a lot of fun exploring what it means to have a connected kitchen. But you'll still need to wait a few years before we see a lot of technology roll out at a price that won't feel like donating a kidney. That doesn't mean you're completely out of the current smart kitchen sphere — decide on the one thing you want to improve in the kitchen, and research the products that will best fit your need. It doesn't always have to be an $8,000 smart oven. A $50 smart speaker that lets you use voice commands to set timers could be the tech you need to make getting dinner on the table a little easier.
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