Dorkfood Sous-Vide Temperature Controller (DSV) review: Dorkfood offers legit sous vide, sans style
Sous vide is a trendy, foodie-supported means of precision cooking that suspends vacuum sealed ingredients in a water bath that's held to an ultra-consistent temperature. For decades, it's been the secret weapon in the kitchens of high-end restaurants, but a recent crop of affordable countertop contraptions promises to bring the technique into your kitchen, too.
At $100, the Dorkfood DSV is one of the most affordable of them. Clunky in appearance, the brick-like DSV is simply an industrial grade temperature controller -- stick its probe into a slow cooker filled with water, then plug the two in together, and Dorkfood will cycle its power on and off to keep the water precisely as hot as your recipe demands, for as long as you need.
That's a much more basic approach to sous vide cooking than other all-in-one devices that we've tested, and I had my doubts as to how well it would work -- but the results spoke for themselves. Test after test, Dorkfood delivered, keeping up with pricier competitors from Anova and Nomiku. If all you're interested in is the food, the DSV offers the most bang for the buck.
Since I started reviewing appliances last year, my bio has read:
...Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies, and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. He has a strong appreciation for nifty, well-designed tech that saves time, looks stylish, and/or helps him avoid burning his dinner quite so often...
Needless to say, sous vide kitchen cookers which promise precise temperature control, set-and-forget simplicity, and which are almost completely incapable of burning anything, would seem to be right up my alley. Dorkfood doubly so. At just $100, it's the most affordable such device to come through our test kitchen, claiming it can turn your old Crock-Pot or rice cooker into a bonafide sous vide super machine. I happen to own a cheap Crock-Pot that's compatible with Dorkfood, so I was eager to see how well the DSV worked.
The product doesn't go out of its way to make a great first impression. It's literally just a block of grey plastic with a few tactile buttons, a rubbery probe, and a dated LCD display. It looks like something you might find buried in the junk drawer of a long-retired IT professional. It looks like something you stick into a potato in order to tell the time and win fourth place in a middle school science fair. It does not look like a glamorous, high-end cooking device.
Sure, looks can be deceiving, but even eschewing the ugly design, the DSV looks the part of a compromise product. In addition to carefully heating your water to a precise temperature, sous vide cookers will usually also circulate the water with a small fan, which helps keep that temperature consistent throughout the pot. The DSV has no such fan. The only tools at its disposal are the temperature probe and its ability to turn your slow cooker's power on and off.
Using the DSV is about as simple as it gets. Dorkfood's plug has a socket on its back -- plug the thing in, then plug your slow cooker in behind it. You'll hold down the "Set" button until the display flashes, then use the "+" and "-" buttons to set the target temperature. Press set again, and Dorkfood will begin doing its thing. Just fill your cooker with water, drop the probe in, and wait for the DSV to bring it up to temperature, which can take anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes depending on how high you're cranking it up and how hot the water is to start. It's worth mentioning that both Anova and Nomiku were able to heat a lidless stock pot of water much faster than Dorkfood was able to heat a slow cooker with a lid on it, though your mileage may vary depending on the specific slow cooker or rice maker you're using.
Also worth noting: you won't be able to use just any slow cooker or rice maker. The DSV can't actually control the cooker, it can only cycle the power on and off. This means that you'll need to use a cooker that's capable of turning on to high as soon you plug it in. In most cases, this simply means you'll need a cheap cooker with a physical dial you can leaved turned to high.
If you're unsure if your cooker will work, turn it to high, then unplug it and plug it back in. If it resumes cooking on high without you needing to mess with it, then it'll work with the DSV. If it doesn't, you'll need to buy another one, but you probably won't need to spend much -- I picked up my Dorkfood-approved Crock-Pot in the appliance aisle at my local grocery for about $20.
The first thing I tried cooking with Dorkfood was eggs. I'm a big fan of cracking one into a boiling pot of ramen -- perhaps one time out of four I can time it just right to get a perfectly poached egg on top of my chicken-flavored noodles. With the precision of a sous vide cooker, you should be able to dial in to your preferred level of doneness each and every time.
A quick Google search turns up plenty of different recipes for sous vide poached eggs, but I decided to try one that instructed me to cook them at 167 degrees F (75 degrees C) for about 15 minutes. If I wanted my eggs a little runnier, 13 minutes would do it. For firmer yolks, I'd want to push it to 18 minutes.
I tried all three, and lo and behold, Dorkfood nailed it. At 13 minutes, my egg was lightly poached with a very runny yolk. At 18 minutes, the yolk held its shape even after cutting it in half. And 15 minutes did indeed seem to be the ooey-gooey sweet spot between runny and firm. On repeated runs, I got the exact same results, which means that with a few eggs' worth of experimentation, you could find your own preferred level of doneness, then dial in and enjoy the same results time and time again.
The other sous vide cookers I tried out did equally well with this test. However, Dorkfood's eggs seemed ever-so-slightly less done than theirs did. I suspect this is because with Crock-Pot-based sous vide, lifting the lid to drop the eggs in means an unavoidable sacrifice of about five or six degrees. It took the DSV nearly half of the cooking time to get back up to temp.
I experienced a similar result with my next test: salmon. After removing the skin and pin bones from a large filet and cutting it into three pieces, I vacuum-sealed each one with some salt, some pepper, and a slice of lemon. After cooking them for 15 minutes at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), all three came out great, though the Dorkfood's filet was slightly less cooked than the ones I prepared using the Anova and the Nomiku.
I wasn't too bothered by this -- it would be easy enough to make a habit of tacking 1 or 2 minutes onto recipes with short cook times. Still, it's a noteworthy concession for a product that sits in a category that's all about precision. If you're picky, you might want to splurge on a more exacting competitor.
As I expected, the effect of the initial lid-lift became more or less negligible once I started cooking recipes with longer cook times. Angus steaks cooked overnight for 16 hours came out evenly and equally cooked from all three devices, as did a delicious batch of pork spare ribs that I cooked over 48 hours. With all of it, my happy taste testers agreed that the vacuum-sealed sous vide technique definitely yielded results that were notably moist, tender, and flavorful.
This was perhaps most evident with my London broil test. For medium rare results, most recipes will tell you to cook your vacuum-sealed steak for at least a few hours between 131 and 139 degrees F (about 55 to 60 degrees C). I decided to test the Dorkfood by cooking at 131 for four hours, the bare minimum needed to get to medium rare. If it undercooked even by a little bit, we'd have rare steak.
In the end, however, the Dorkfood did just fine, producing a steak that was just as succulent and perfectly cooked as the ones I made in the Anova and Nomiku. My taste testers all agreed: this was some pretty excellent red meat. For even better results, you can give the meat a quick sear in a hot pan after cooking to crisp up the outsides a bit -- I skipped this step to keep my clumsy, uneven cooking technique from compromising the results.
The main takeaway from all of this is that the Dorkfood DSV was able to keep up with Anova and Nomiku test after test. There wasn't a single instance where Dorkfood's results seemed to lag significantly behind the others.
This isn't only a subjective observation based off of how delicious medium rare London broil tastes. We inserted thermocouples into each cooker during the 48-hour spare rib test to monitor how well each one was able to maintain the temperature. Since the DSV doesn't circulate the water within your cooker, I suspected that we'd see greater temperature swings during the cooking cycle.
However, that wasn't the case. The Dorkfood DSV was just as consistent as the Anova and Nomiku cookers -- though it did run about eight-tenths of a degree hotter than the 135-degree target. That makes sense, as slow cookers are built to retain heat, making it easier for the DSV to heat the water up than to cool it back down. As for the consistency, my guess is that the circulation isn't as important in a slow cooker like my Crock-Pot, which features fairly even heating on multiple sides. With Anova and Nomiku, the water only gets heated from the point where you stick the device and its built-in heating coil down into the pot.
Also, take a look at those big downward spikes in the graph above. Since you can't put a lid on your pot with Nomiku or Anova, and since both have a minimum water level below which they'll automatically shut off, you'll need to add more water during long cooking cycles, which will temporarily lower the temperature. The Nomiku's water level fell dangerously low early on in the cook, which is that first spike. Later, I needed to refill it again before leaving for the night, and went ahead and refilled all three. With its lid in place and the water held well below the boiling point, the water level in the Dorkfood's slow cooker had barely fallen at all.
The bottom line
Dorkfood doesn't have a touchscreen like Anova and Nomiku, and it definitely won't look as stylish sitting on your kitchen counter. But at $100, it cooks almost nearly as well as those two, and costs a lot less. That makes it a very easy product to recommend for any enthusiastic home cook with an old slow cooker stashed away. The new tricks Dorkfood will be able to teach it are well worth the cash.
More serious chefs will still want to consider Anova and Nomiku though, as both also did very well in our tests. Though it costs significantly more, Nomiku's design left me the most impressed of the three, along with the fact that -- unlike Dorkfood or Anova -- you can set it to a tenth of a degree. Larger, more expensive all-in-one cookers like the FNV Mellow might also merit consideration. Stay tuned for full reviews of those in the near future.
Also, keep in mind that both Anova and Nomiku have app-enabled smart sous vide cookers coming out soon. Surprisingly enough, both are slated to retail for less than the originals, though they'll each still cost more than the Dorkfood DSV. In the meantime, if you're eager to get started with sous vide now (and seriously, look at that steak -- why wouldn't you be?) Dorkfood looks to be a superb value.