Step back, refrigerators, ranges and dishwashers. We're about to have a conversation about smart kitchen appliances, and you're not invited.
Manufacturers have gradually added Wi-Fi, cameras, touchscreens and other upgrades to large appliances, but these products are still a few steps away from having enough universal appeal and reasonable prices to become staples in the kitchen. This delay has given smaller, less expensive appliances the chance to step up when it come to kitchen technology and provide a more attainable point of entry for folks who want to add more connectivity to their cooking.
These smart small appliances do have some obstacles to overcome before they become kitchen staples. Many of these products aren't available yet or are just on their first edition, so their track record for success (or failure) is nonexistent. And these countertop appliances may not cost as much as, say, a range with a built-in tablet, but they are more expensive than the average toaster oven. In short, buying one of the latest smart small appliances could be a costly gamble.
Here are some small appliance categories that have become popular platforms for smart technology and some of the challenges they face in becoming must-have home products:
Manufacturers have added Wi-Fi, connected apps and interactive touchscreens to countertop multicookers so these versatile small appliances can also guide you step-by-step through recipes.
What works: Multicookers are already versatile without any upgrades (for example, check out all the functions of the Breville Fast Slow Pro, which include sauté, slow cook and pressure cook). The addition of interactive instructions could make these appliances even more appealing to folks with limited cooking know-how and scant counter space. Onscreen guides could also be useful when you're making a challenging or tedious recipe, such as the choux pastry we saw a chef make with help from the Gourmia GKM9000 multi-cooker kitchen machine at the International Home + Housewares Show last month.
What doesn't work: The instructional aspect of connected multicookers is something we've seen in smart gadgets such as the Perfect Bake Pro kitchen scale and the Pantelligent smart frying pan. If these multicookers are anything like those products, one of the biggest challenges they'll have to face is making it easy for users to add their own recipes to the multicooker and still receive step-by-step instructions.
There's an art to finding the perfect time and setting on which to reheat food in a microwave or toaster oven. New countertop ovens want to take the guesswork out of cooking a meal with food recognition technology that will tell the appliance what you're cooking and how to cook it.
What works: The $1,500 June Intelligent Oven, which is slated to ship this spring, includes a camera and processor enable the appliance to recognize foods you put in the oven and recommend the best cook settings for that item. The camera also provides a little fun -- you can live-stream your food cooking on a connected app. The Tovala Smart Oven, a fully funded Kickstarter project scheduled to ship at the end of the year, uses barcodes on packaged meals from the manufacturer's food delivery service to recognize meals and select the best way to cook them.
What doesn't work: Neither of these countertop ovens are available yet, so we don't know how well each product will be at food recognition and cooking. And the prices will keep a lot of people away from the products; there are ranges that cost less than the June oven, and the Tovala, which was priced between $199 and $279 during its Kickstarter campaign, will get more expensive when it hits retail.
Using a small scale to weigh ingredients adds precision to a recipe, especially when it comes to baking. Now companies are using weight to build appliances that walk you step-by-step through a recipe. There are a growing number of products in this category, including the Perfect Bake Pro and Adaptics Drop, but they all work in a similar fashion: The scales connect to an app that has a catalog of recipes. Once you select a recipe, you place a bowl on the scale and add ingredients per the apps instructions. The app tells you when you have the right amount of the ingredient based on the weight it detects on the scale.
What works: The scales we've tested have been accurate and easy to use. Plus, the scales' apps have thorough libraries of recipes from which to bake.
What doesn't work: As I mentioned above, it can be a convoluted process to add your own recipes to the apps, which gets in the way of making this product fit into your baking routine.
Induction cooktops use strong electric fields to create heat and, in turn, cook food. Now, manufacturers have built small appliances around this efficient cooking method and paired them with connected apps to give you more control over cooking temperatures and provide guidance while you cook.
What works: Apps can work with induction systems to give you precise temperatures, a boon if you're a meticulous cook. A German tech company called Cuciniale has developed built-in and portable induction cooktops that work with a Bluetooth-connected temperature probe and app to provide precise cooking instructions on your tablet or smartphone (the built-in cooktop will begin shipping in Germany late this year; the portable system debuted at the International Home and Housewares Show last month). A similar system called the Hestan Cue also connects a cooktop and app for guided induction cooking.
Manufacturers have also recognized the usefulness of induction for sous vide cooking, a method that involves cooking vacuum-sealed food in a temperature-controlled water bath. The $249 FirstBuild Paragon Induction Cooktop, for example, includes a countertop induction burner that heats a pot of water and Bluetooth-connected temperature probe that attaches to the side of your pot and communicates with the burner to control the temperature of your water bath.
What doesn't work: If you want to do multipot cooking, one induction burner just isn't going to cut it. And if you're cookware isn't induction-friendly, you're going to have to buy some new gear.
Sous vide machines
This method of cooking has gotten more popular lately as manufacturers rush to add connectivity to immersion circulators. For example, the Anova Bluetooth + Wi-Fi gives you the ability to control the temperature of your water with an app that also provides recipes and guides for sous vide cooking. FNV Labs, however, seeks to take sous vide a step further with the Mellow sous vide cooker. Designers say this product, which isn't due to ship until this fall, can keep your food chilled in a water bath until you tell the Wi-Fi-connected Mellow via an app that you're ready to cook your meal.
What works: Sous vide machines do much of the heavy lifting for you when it comes to cooking a meal, and their connected apps provide helpful tools that come in handy if you're still getting the hang of sous vide cooking.
What doesn't work: We're still waiting for Anova to make its Wi-Fi app as thorough as the company's Bluetooth app, and Mellow is still an unknown entity.
Slow cookers are the reigning rulers of set-it-and-forget-it kitchen tools. Now, manufacturers have started adding Wi-Fi to let you control heat settings and timers while you're away from home. Crock-Pot's parent company, Jarden Consumer Solutions, teamed up with Belkin's WeMo line of home-automation products to create the Crock-Pot WeMo Smart Slow Cooker, a $130 appliance that's the smartest slow cooker we've ever seen.
What works: You can change the cooking mode and timer from the WeMo app, which is handy if your plans change and you don't want your meal cooking all day.
What doesn't work: Connecting to the Crock-Pot WeMo while you're away from home defeats the purpose of setting and forgetting your slow cooker. It can't tell the difference between a Wi-Fi outage and a power outage, so you might get frequent error messages if your Wi-Fi is spotty. And this smart model is more expensive than a slow cooker without connectivity.