Could Oven Automation Take the Joy Out of Cooking?
Would you hand off some cooking responsibility to your oven?
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This CES saw manufacturers turning ovens into sous chefs, equipping them with the technology necessary to follow recipes and adjust them for ingredient substitutions. While there's clearly a place for more technology in the kitchen, what remains to be seen is how well smart ovens can compute the cooking time for a low-fat version of Aunt Mabel's cherry cobbler recipe, and whether consumers will trust their ovens to do so.
Automating the cooking process is a bold strategy, especially as consumers reject processed and prepared foods in favor of "slow food" that's carefully prepared. It's especially risky since most consumers who can afford a high-end smart oven can also afford to go out to dinner—the ultimate in ease of preparation.
There's also the question of quality. Since smart oven tech is in its infancy, letting an oven or range do too much unsupervised may not yield the greatest results. We haven't put any smart ovens to the test, but we doubt any of them will be earning their first Michelin star any time soon. This man vs. machine competition is like the chess grandmaster vs. computer battles of the 80s. It wasn't until 1997 that Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, and it'll likely be many years before an oven can make better decisions than a James Beard Award winner—or anyone with a few strong recipes under his or her apron strings.
Considering this, Dacor is at least gearing the Discovery IQ wall oven's handholding smart features to help educate the cook. While this is a noble pursuit, what happens when the student becomes the master? The smart interface remains, and we have a hard time believing even a mildly interested home chef would be willing to hand off the reins to a machine.
Dacor isn't the only company interested in automated cooking. We also saw Whirlpool's new fireplace concept that the company hopes will be able to cook eggs, bacon, and toast automatically with infrared light on the same glass plate. Sure, it's a far-out concept, but it assumes that users want to hand the keys over and let the oven drive.
Even ranges without extensive electronics have features that require a leap of faith, such as Samsung's new induction range. Like other higher-end induction cooktops, it can detect a boiling pot and will adjust temperatures to prevent an overboil. As someone who has turned his back on a pot only to glance back to see starchy foam cresting the lip, I can attest that this is a useful feature. Still, it's unlikely that home cooks will let go of their (justifiable) fear of leaving ovens with extremely hot heating elements unsupervised.
Of all the smart appliances we saw, LG's SmartThinq range seems to offer the most useful smart features for chefs of all skill levels. The oven doesn't actually entrust any duties to the range: you boil your own water and use your range in the way it needs to be. If something goes wrong, however, it'll communicate diagnostic information with your smartphone so you can avoid a service call.
For the most part, smart ovens require a level of trust that we feel consumers aren't yet ready to offer. Since cooking appliances should never be left unsupervised, the benefits of a smart oven are its abilities to follow and tweak recipes. Unless you're a completely unskilled cook, however, it's unlikely you'd want to hand over those decisions to an oven—regardless of how smart it is.
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