Is this $600 countertop oven the future of cooking?
Sure, it takes the mess out of mealtime, but it also takes some joy out of cooking
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At first glance, the all-new Panasonic Countertop Induction Oven ($599) appears to be an expensive, glorified toaster oven. But Panasonic claims the little appliance's hidden magnetic coils can revolutionize the way you cook.
For a sale price of $600, it better. So we put the CIO to the test, and spent a few days cooking a variety of recipes in this unusual device. While this oven might be a technical marvel, it became increasingly clear during our tests that most home chefs won't need the latest technology to cook a decent steak.
What on earth is it?
The Countertop Induction Oven, or "CIO," is a programmable countertop oven that's about the size of a small microwave. But it's not a microwave. It's the first oven of its kind to cook using induction—we'll get to that in a minute—via a huge grill pan at the bottom of the oven cavity. There are also two infrared emitters at the top for browning the tops of whatever you're trying to cook—whether it's chicken, steak, or vegetables.
Induction cooking, as you may know, is an amazingly fast and high-tech way to heat up a pan on a stovetop. It uses magnetic coils to heat a pan directly, which is great for searing and bringing water to a boil.
However, baking and broiling both rely on radiant heat to warm up an enclosed space. That makes induction an odd choice for an oven—sort of like a modern take on hanging a Dutch oven over an open fire. In fact, the CIO's cavity is tiny—just five inches tall—for exactly this reason. That quite literally narrows down the kinds of foods you can cook with it.
Let's cook and compare
When we asked, a Panasonic representative named two recipes (from the hardcover cookbook that's included with every CIO) that users report the most success with. We wanted to see what the CIO could do, so we gave both recipes a chance.
First up: steak. We used two nice rib eyes of similar weight and thickness. The provided recipe was ridiculously simple, as steak should be: Pre-heat, five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other side, don't forget salt and pepper. We also made a chermoula sauce the night before, which is like a chimichurri but with cumin and paprika.
It was delicious. Beautiful dark brown sears on both sides, aromas filling the entire room. Panasonic's timing took the meat to medium-well, so we'd adjust by a few minutes next time, no biggie.
But at this point you may be asking yourself, "Couldn't I do the same thing in a pan?" The CIO is literally an induction burner and pan, surrounded by an oven enclosure with automatic controls, timers, buttons, programs, etc. So yes, you could do the same thing in a pan—and we did.
We seared our second steak in an iron pan using this method for smoke-free steak. For fairness, we took this one to medium-well, too. So five minutes per side, salt and pepper, simple.
Guess what? This one was delicious too. It's pretty hard to screw up a steak like this. And thanks to our induction hot plate, pre-heating was even quicker than the CIO.
We also tried the Family Chicken Dinner recipe, the very first recipe in the cookbook, with similar results. It came out delicious— juicy, and crispy on the top, with some decent caramelization on the accompanying vegetables.
But again, there's nothing here that couldn't be accomplished in an oven, even if you're a newbie following a recipe. The CIO's infrared heat elements only save you from crisping up the skin under your broiler for two minutes. Even an iron pan with a lid would work: just cook the chicken skin-side down.
And that's our issue with the CIO, and other products like it. Some kitchen gadgets claim to help newcomers, but only obfuscate how easy it is to cook certain meals from scratch. In this case, that's an expensive lesson.
Who should buy this?
Interestingly, user reviews of this product are overwhelmingly positive—but nearly all of them have phrases like "easy to clean" and "busy day." And it's true that some people just don't like to cook. For them, the thought of putting food on a dishwasher-safe pan inside of a magic box is indeed more appealing than defrosting a TV dinner in the microwave.
But if you don't have $600 to spare, you're not missing out. We tried to think of some other use cases, but always ended up with better alternatives.
If you already have a range but don't know how to use it, remember: "If you can read, you can cook." Just find an easy recipe. Nothing about the CIO is more or less challenging or convenient than your existing oven.
If you hate to heat up your full-size oven, Panasonic already manufactures the best toaster oven on the market: Buy the Flash Xpress for $130 instead.
If you have tons of counter space, don't want a range, and like cool gadgets, then sure, buy the Countertop Induction Oven.