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During my first attempt to pan-grill chicken breasts, I called my mother for some culinary advice. "How do you know when the chicken is done?" I asked. "Just cook it till it's done," she said. And that is how I learned to cook, with a hearty helping of guesswork and intuition.
I can only imagine what those first meals in my first apartment would have tasted like if I'd had the Pantelligent, a $199 smart frying pan that uses a built-in temperature gauge, Bluetooth and an iOS- and Android-compatible app to guide you to cooking perfection. The price converts roughly to £140 in the UK and AU$285 in Australia. The Pantelligent helped me produce perfectly seared salmon, buttery grilled-cheese sandwiches and a decent mushroom risotto by providing real-time feedback on the surface temperature of food so I could adjust my burner accordingly.
The connectivity also made cooking a lot of fun. The app talks you through each step like a gentle coach and sends encouraging pop-up alerts when you've gotten the Pantelligent to the right temperature for you dish. But the app's reminders can become annoying until you get the hang of adjusting your burner; this robotic assistant shifts from helpful to burdensome if the proper temperature isn't reached quickly enough.
Since I initially got my hands on the Pantelligent, its developers have added an Autopilot feature to the app that makes controlling the heat a hands-off experience -- as long as you have a WeMo Switch and a countertop electric burner.
It seems silly to want to put down 200 bucks for an aluminum pan, especially when you can snag this cookware for less than $20. But the Pantelligent is a good teacher for the novice newbies who need help with the basics and avid home cooks who want to add more precision to their meal preparation. It might be a little gimmicky and a lot of money, but I can't help but want a Pantelligent of my own.
The Pantelligent launched as a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014; backers pledged $83,206 toward the creation of the pan (the project's original fundraising goal was $30,000). The manufacturer began to ship units to supporters in October 2015, and it's now available for order on the Pantelligent website (there's a backlog until February 2016, but Pantelligent is offering $25 off for the delay).
At first glance, the Pantelligent doesn't look much different than cookware you already own. The pan is 12 inches wide and about 2 inches deep. It's made of die-cast aluminum and covered in nonstick coating that the company says should last about three to five years. The finish makes cleaning the Pantelligent easy, and that's a good thing: you can't put the pan in the dishwasher or submerge the handle in water.
The hardware that makes the Pantelligent smart is hidden inside the pan. A sensor embedded in the bottom of the pan measures the surface temperature of food. The pan then uses a Bluetooth connection in the handle to deliver data to the Pantelligent app (the handle is also where the two AAA batteries that power the unit are located).
The Pantelligent is safe to use on both gas and electric cooktops. The material, however, does not work on induction surfaces.
There are several ways that the Pantelligent app uses temperature readings from the pan to guide you through a meal. The best way to use the app is to select and follow one of the recipes available on the app. All of the roughly 50 recipes provide thorough lists of ingredients and things to remember while you cook along with any preparatory steps you need to complete before you begin to cook. When you're ready, you press the "Start Cooking" button at the bottom of the page and hold your device to the Pantelligent's handle to connect the cookware to the app.
From that point on, the Pantelligent app is the conductor of your meal. A Siri-like voice talks you through the recipe, which is also displayed step-by-step on your device. A chart at the top of the screen tracks the actual surface temperature of the pan and the set temperature you need to reach. Each step also includes an estimate of how long it will take you to get to that part of the recipe, which is especially helpful when cooking a recipe that requires you to add ingredients gradually.
The goal is to maintain a steady temperature, and the Pantelligent is accurate in its directions to turn the heat up or down. If the pan gets too hot or too cold, an alert pops up on the screen to let you know to adjust your burner accordingly. But the directions get annoying, especially when the surface temperature doesn't decrease as quickly as the Pantelligent would like. Several times while cooking steak and salmon, the Pantelligent would repeatedly tell me to turn the heat down, even though the chart showed that the temperature was dropping (albeit slowly) and the burner was already on its lowest setting.
Another downside of the Pantelligent app's instructions are its units of measurement by which it tells you to adjust the temperature. The app will tell you to turn the heat up or down "a lot" or "a bit," directions that could mean different things to different people using different cooktops. The ambiguity forces you to really get to know your appliance and how sensitive it is to burner adjustments. Be prepared to mess around with your burner knobs a lot until you get comfortable with the Pantelligent.
Pantelligent's user manual recommends that you cook salmon as your first dish with the smart pan. After I slid a beautiful, brown-crusted filet onto a plate, it was easy to see why the company pushes salmon as your introductory Pantelligent meal. The salmon had a seared crust and was cooked to medium throughout the filet. Two folks in the office who don't care much for salmon both admitted that it was a pretty good fish.
I used this recipe to cook salmon in a pan with similar specs to the Pantelligent: 12 inches across, nonstick and aluminum. Most recipes call for cooking a piece of salmon skin side down for the majority of cooking, then briefly cooking on the skinless side for a final sear. This is the exact opposite of the Pantelligent, which wants you to cook the skinless side for a longer period of time over a consistent temperature. With the regular pan, it was hard to tell when it was time to flip the fish because of the white albumin that started to seep from the sides of the filet. The salmon ended up being unevenly cooked -- nearly rare on the skin side, but medium on the other side.
The salmon illustrates how well the Pantelligent can take a simple recipe you might already know and perfect it. The app is also helpful in whipping up a new-to-you recipe. I used the app to make mushroom risotto, a dish I've always been too intimidated to try. The multistep recipe was pretty involved, especially the parts when you have to add beef broth every three minutes or so. The risotto had a great flavor, but was a little more al dente than I would've liked (there was some extra broth left after I had finished, so there may have been some user error on my part). The app gave me the confidence and guidance to try something new.
The Pantelligent app's other cooking settings are the Freestyle Mode, which enables you to track the pan's temperature and set your own preferred temperature goal, and Create Recipe in which you cook your own recipe and the app records the temperature for future reference. These both provide some great flexibility for cooking without the app's recipes, but they require you to learn more about surface temperatures in your recipe. I've never seen a recipe that tells you what the surface temperature of your food should be throughout cooking, so you'll have to do some experimentation.
If the Pantelligent app was the gentle cooking tutor, the Autopilot is the expert who pushes you out of the way to show you how it's really done. After you've enabled Autopilot in the app's preferences, here's how it works: Get an electric countertop burner (we used this one) and plug it into a WeMo Switch, a smart, Wi-Fi-connected power plug that lets you automate whatever you put into it. Place the Pantelligent on the burner and select a recipe in the app as you normally would. The app will ask you if you want to enable Autopilot, then remind you to connect your burner to your WeMo Switch and turn the burner onto its maximum setting. With Autopilot in play, you don't have to manually adjust the heat: the WeMo Switch will automatically turn the burner off and on based on Pantelligent's surface temperature readings.
I barely heard from the Pantelligent as I cooked multiple pieces of salmon. If the Pantelligent was too hot, the burner turned off. If it was too low, the burner came back on. I only stepped in when it was time to turn the salmon and remove it when cooking was complete. I've never felt more useless in the kitchen than when I used the Autopilot.
I was amazed at how accurately the WeMo Switch and the Pantelligent app worked together to regulate temperature. If you're a bad cook, this automated temperature control could be a godsend. It would also be useful if you need to work on other parts of your meal while your main dish cooks in the Pantelligent. But the need to buy extra equipment to enable this feature is a ding against Autopilot, especially on top of the $199 Pantelligent. And I'm concerned that such a hands-off style of cooking could encourage careless cooking behavior, such as folks leaving the kitchen entirely while their meal cooks. But this addition is promising for the future of automated cooking.
At first, it was a little unsettling to use the Pantelligent -- I looked at my phone more than I looked at the food I was cooking, an action that can usually spell trouble. Yet I felt pretty safe about the test kitchen not catching on fire because I was paying such close attention to the burner knob and making adjustments. The Bluetooth has a decent range, but I didn't want to venture too far away from the cooktop. The Pantelligent makes you want study every step of your cooking and learn just what makes this pan and its app work so well.
Though the improv and intuitiveness that cooking usually requires is missing when you use the Pantelligent, you are instead treated to a very precise cooking tool that teaches you the importance of maintaining a steady temperature no matter what you cook. There might not be any guesswork, but there's a lot of enjoyment in cooking with the Pantelligent.