Let's get the obvious out of the way -- the $500 Cinder Precision Grill reminds me of the George Foreman Grill. They're both countertop grills geared toward cooking meat, paninis or anything else you want to cook on both sides with minimal effort.
But the Cinder takes more of its cues from sous vide cooking than from the infomercial phenomenon. Rather than appealing to the health-conscious home cook, the Cinder is going after folks who want to cook their food at precise temperatures so they can get the same results with every meal.
Like a sous vide device, the Bluetooth-connected Cinder lets you dial in an exact cooking temperature. But instead of a water bath, the Cinder uses two nonstick plates that heat to your desired temperature. The manufacturer's first batch of Cinders sold out during an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, but the company expects to launch another campaign soon so people can order more grills.
The Cinder cooked dishes that rivaled the quality we've seen from sous vide devices such as the Anova Precision Cooker and the Joule. It cooked meat evenly and to the set temperature, and you can sear your meat right on the Cinder after it has cooked.
My beef with the Cinder comes down to little annoyances that become big issues when you consider its $500 price. The Cinder takes up a lot of space. Grease doesn't make its way into the drip tray. The accompanying Cinder app is sparse, and it only gives you broad estimations of when your food will be ready. And the heavy Cinder lid manhandles simple grilled cheese sandwiches.
The Cinder is a worthy competitor to sous vide devices. But I can't recommend the Cinder when there are products that take up less space, cost less money and cook food with the same amount of precision, such as the Paragon Induction Cooktop and immersion circulators like the Anova or Joule. Just suck it up, and get a pot of water ready.
The Cinder looks like a more hard-core version of a panini press or other countertop cooker, like the T-Fal OptiGrill. It's 13 by 17 by 7 inches, which takes up a lot of room on a kitchen counter, and heavy enough to make moving it in and out of a cabinet a hassle. Inside the grill are two removable ceramic-coated aluminum plates. The lid adjusts to the thickness of the food that you put between the two plates. A grease moat surrounds the bottom plate and leads to a drip tray built into the Cinder's base. You use the knob on the front of the base to manually adjust the temperature, but you can also control the temp with the Cinder's iOS app (it's not available for Android yet).
The Cinder's design has some problems. For example, the base of the Cinder is flat rather than tilted at an angle to let juices flow, so when I cooked meat none of the grease emptied into the drip tray. The plates are easy to remove and clean by hand, but they're not dishwasher-safe. And it's irksome to clean the tight corners of the Cinder lid.
The Cinder is easy to set up and use. You download the app, turn on the machine and pair the two via Bluetooth. Then, you can use the app to set your cooking temperature. The most helpful component of the app is the food guide section. This is where you can choose from a list of meats, fish and vegetables, select how you want that item cooked and send the correct temperature from the app to the Cinder. You can also mark on the app if the food you will cook is frozen, and the Cinder will add a longer cooking time.
The grill uses sensors to measure the thickness of your dish to figure out how long it will take to cook it, and the app gives you an estimate of when it will be done. Unfortunately, the estimates are pretty broad. For example, the app said a steak I had put in the Cinder would reach medium doneness in 49 to 76 minutes. That's a big range that makes it hard to plan out when you'll get to eat.
The app is also limited in the number of food guides that are available. I expect Cinder to add more foods through software updates, but it currently pales in comparison to the robust apps that accompany the Anova and the Joule immersion circulators.
When it came to food, the Cinder knows its way around a cut of meat. I cooked multiple steaks to medium at 136 degrees through the app, then turned up the dial on the Cinder itself to 450 degrees to sear them. The steaks teetered on the medium-rare side of medium, but the meat itself was juicy and flavorful. Chicken cooked to 167 degrees was also a success.
When it came to precision, I found that food would sometimes reach a temperature 1 degree above the target temperature. The food never tasted overcooked, and the discrepancy didn't impact the flavor of the food, but that 1-degree difference is in opposition to Cinder's claim that it will bring food within 0.1 degree of the target.
Though meats were a success on the Cinder, more delicate items didn't do so well between the two plates. The lid is heavy, and it smashed grilled-cheese sandwiches into pancakes. A heavy lid is perfect for a panini, muffuletta or Cuban sandwich, but keep plain ol' sandwiches away. Now, you could just keep the Cinder open and cook the grilled cheese on the bottom plate and flip it halfway through cooking. But that defeats the purpose of having two temperature-controlled plates working simultaneously.
Precision is the hallmark of sous vide cooking, yet the Cinder makes a strong case for other methods that bring the same consistent results. But this countertop grill is too expensive and too big to completely give up on sous vide devices, especially when immersion circulators like the Anova continue to decrease in price and become more widely available. If you want high-quality cooking for less money, hold off on the Cinder and invest in an immersion circulator.