A smartphone-operated countertop grill using satellite technology to achieve the Platonic ideal of steak has hit the market. Does it work? Our writer finds out.
It seems to me there are two types of people: hands-on and hands-off. The hands-off types like things to be easy. They cruise along, observing party invites and showing up if they feel like it. They get FreshDirect delivered, and love the idea of Amazon Go. They keep neither lists nor calendars. And if a robot could cook them a steak for dinner and all they had to do was click an app, they’d be stoked.
This is a huge generalization, sure, but I am not a hands-off person. If a project can involve a Google Doc, a Google Doc it will have. I like to map out car rentals six months in advance. I turn the oven light on while baking, and I hover expectantly. Do I waste valuable time measuring, checking, cooking, and being so hands-on? Perhaps. But in cooking, as in life, that’s how I am.
A new gadget called the Cinder will likely appeal to the hands-off set. It purports to use a patent-pending thermal technology to cook meat, fish, and veggies evenly. Its website trumpets that it is “a countertop grill that cooks food perfectly. No overcooking. No stress.” [Emphasis theirs. –Ed.] As of this writing, the Cinder has raised $187,000 on Indiegogo—almost quadruple its goal—and retails for $399 plus shipping and tax. Although I was a bit suspicious of a product that looks like a very glamorous George Foreman grill, I accepted the temporary loan of a Cinder when its makers offered one.
I didn’t want to be the sole judge of my new robot friend, so I asked Allison Plumer, chef de cuisine and co-owner of Brooklyn restaurant Lot 2, if she’d help me figure it out. “Hell, yes,” she replied. I picked up a slab of Coho salmon and a fat, boneless rib eye, and we were off to the races.
When you unwrap a Cinder, you spy a red ribbon that says “Remove before flight.” Were Plumer and I the Wright Brothers of beef cookery? The Cinder is certainly as heavy as a serious piece of machinery, at 30 pounds, and as hulking, clocking 13 by 17 inches and consuming a lot of counter space. Its design is fairly sleek, with an easily cleaned well for grease, and “smart” cooking plates that sense the temperature of what’s being cooked and proved easy enough to remove.
Ideally, once you plop food on its plates, you can sync the grill up with your smartphone and get your food cooking while you just hang out in another room. It’s a surprisingly smart app in some ways; when it knew there was no food between the two plates, it wouldn’t let me start Cindering. This is a good safety catch.
Observing its size, Plumer said brightly, “This could be the KitchenAid stand mixer of George Foreman grills!” We’d both used a Foreman before; I remembered inordinately difficult cleanup but a decently grilled burger with grill marks. Plumer—an avid meat cook known for her fantastic steaks and burgers—added, “Knowing what I know now, it goes against a lot of things I’ve learned.” But we agreed to be open-minded.
The Cinder folks would likely prefer that you call their gadget a “sous vide grill.” In sous vide technology, eggs, meat or fish are encased in plastic and cooked in slowly circulating water until they are cooked to a precise temperature. Many chefs love sous vide for its consistency, but those same chefs also often sear meats over high heat or under a broiler so they can get, say, a crackly crust for steaks. The Cinder boasts a searing function of 450 degrees, so we decided to give that a shot, as well. Plumer doesn’t use sous vide tech at Lot 2, so we decided to first do a side-by-side cook-off of our ribeye; the Cinder steak would battle one seared in a seasoned cast-iron skillet and finished in the oven.
Heating the grill proved to be a snap. I turned it on, opened my app, and plugged in “medium rare” for my rib eye. Turns out the Cinder only heats to 130 in order to deliver a medium-rare steak cooked to 133, so it’s cooking your food just above that food’s target temperature. (Think about how odd that is; when was the last time you cooked a chicken at 165 degrees?)
The Cinder took all of two minutes to heat, whereas my oven took 10 minutes to come to 400 for Plumer’s steak. But according to the app, it’d take 25 minutes to Cinder our steak, whereas Plumer’s steak would be done in about 10 minutes.
We sat, chatting, trying to emulate the devil-may-care folks in the Cinder ads, when we noticed the temperature of the Cinder had slowly started to drop. That seemed odd. I suddenly realized the app had disconnected from the grill, and had to close the app and start over. As the app wound up and the Cinder perked back to life, I wondered whether the plates that could sense the meat’s temperature would accommodate, time-wise, but instead was told there were still 25 minutes left on the cooking time. A few minutes later, my phone beeped; the meat had finished in about 9 minutes, total.
We flipped up the lid, and saw… a gray slab of steak that had been squashed by the heavy grill plates. I pulled it off to test its temperature using an instant-read thermometer, and indeed, it was evenly medium rare throughout. But we wanted to sear it, so we dried the steak thoroughly for a better crust and pumped up the heat—the knob was a little tricky to get right—while we eyeballed Plumer’s steak, fresh off its sear. It was gorgeous, and the two together were night and day. But we then sat there for 45 seconds as the steak seared on the Cinder. And it emerged just as pretty, and done to 145 degrees, more like a medium, and with a crust nearly as pretty as Plumer’s own.
Fat had rendered out of the Cinder steak as it cooked; Plumer noticed that there were no juices pooling after it had cooked the first time, which she found disconcerting. We sliced it, and voilà; Plumer’s steak was medium-rare, though unevenly cooked, and the Cinder steak was medium, with a compressed texture and a more even color.
“I like theirs,” said Plumer, munching thoughtfully over asparagus and steak. “I prefer the char on mine, but theirs is more consistent.” And, she admitted, “their fat is softer.” Because the plates completely clamped together, we surmised, the steam had essentially softened all the fat.
But in terms of texture—that plush, meaty, medium-rare that is often compared to a slightly soft part of the hand—Plumer’s steak won hands-down. Not only was hers actually cooked to the proper temperature—the sear function caused the Cinder steak to overcook, which its instructions don’t accommodate—but it was juicier and more flavorful. The salt and pepper we’d applied were sealed into the crust when we seared it on the stovetop, as opposed to the Cinder steak. (We should have re-seasoned that steak after wiping it down.) Both were tasty, but the techie steak was lacking in texture; it had been compressed by the upper plate of the machine, and it didn’t deliver on the sultry texture a good steak does.
We moved on to salmon, and this time the app didn’t drop the connection, but told us it’d take 24 minutes to cook through, which terrified us. No half pound fillet of fish should take that long. Nine minutes later, the app beeped, early again: Done.
And when we lifted the lid for salmon with “light flakes,” as the app promised, we saw a piece of fish that looked downright uncooked. I like my salmon just short of medium, with a bright pink center, but this just looked raw. It wasn’t—it was cooked—but the texture was distressing, since the fish had been compressed. We changed the Cinder directions to “flaky,” and waited—and the fish emerged thoroughly overcooked. Worse yet, the fillet was like a panini, and much of its fat had pooled in a white, milky puddle next to it, which was terrible to see: The best part of salmon is its luscious texture—what Plumer poetically called “its ribbons of fat.”
Was it a consistent temperature throughout? Yes. But we sat down to eat, and it was the saddest piece of salmon I think I’ve ever had. “There isn’t any other method of cooking that would give you this consistency,” Plumer said thoughtfully, “but that’s not what you’d want in a piece of salmon. It’s correct, but not necessarily delicious.”
It was such a poor quality, flavor-wise, that neither of us finished it. Plumer compared the process to boiling a piece of fish. She added that, to be fair, “Something like bacon would be really great on this [gadget].”
She’s right, but otherwise I can’t help but feel that the Cinder is solving a problem I don’t have. Sure, people who love gadgets would love it, as long as they have a whole extra counter and don’t mind the cleanup. (It’s easier than a Foreman, but not by much.) But the promise that you’ll cook a Michelin-star-level steak without leaving your couch? I fear that dream has yet to come to a reality.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.