I often count my blessings when I remember that my cousin-in-law Erick owns a fantastic butcher shop. Erick himself was rather excited when I recently asked if I could have a new kitchen product to review shipped directly to him.
The two of us like talking shop, and we were both curious about the Cinder, a sort of space-age George Foreman Grill that sandwiches food between two heated griddle plates. It had arrived at his Portland, Oregon, shop, Block & Board, a few days before, festooned with yellow “HEAVY” stickers on the box.
Erick selected a bunch of food for us to cook, and it felt fitting to start with a nice, thick rib eye steak. We fired up the Cinder, threw the steak on, closed the lid, and both came to the same realization at the same time.
“It, uh, looks like it won’t be done cooking for … 100 minutes,” he said, sounding about as confused as I felt.
We suddenly had a lot of time to talk shop, but Erick, God bless him, didn’t skip a beat. He pulled a bottle of wine down from a shelf and grabbed two glasses.
The misunderstanding was partly our fault. The Cinder is something like a sous vide machine, where food is cooked in plastic bags in a water bath held at the desired cooking temperature, like 129 degrees Fahrenheit for a rare steak. Instead of bags and water, the Cinder heats its cooking plates up to the target temperature, and you set the food between them. It’s a long, precise cook at a low temperature. Tell the app what kind of food is in there, close the lid (which allows it to measure the thickness of the food), and it will tell you how long it will take to cook.
Typically, something cooked on a stovetop or a grill will have gray, overcooked bands at the top and bottom and, hopefully, your desired cooking temperature in the center. Cooked slowly in the Cinder, your food comes out evenly from top to bottom without those gray bands. After that, you remove it from the grill, crank the heat, then return it for a quick sear. (Food nerds will recognize this as the Cinder’s spin on what’s known as a reverse sear.)
With a George Foreman Grill, you expect to zap both sides at once and have dinner quickly. The Cinder can do that, but the device’s makers don’t really market it that way. I would come to realize that I should think of it less like a grill and more like a little sous vide machine that both cooks and sears your food. It can also cook with to-the-degree control. No more “low” or “medium-high,” which is different on every stove; here you can set the burners to 321 degrees if you like. In fact, once I started branching out from the suggestions and recipes in the cookbook the Cinder comes with, and the app you can connect it to, I started using (and preferring) time and temperature charts from sous vide and precision-cooking device manufacturers.
One hundred minutes and a bottle of wine later, Erick put the meat on a plate, cranked the heat on the Cinder, and returned the steak to the grill where, in a literal hot minute, we put an impressive sear on it.
Erick set the rib eye on a cutting board and cut it across the middle so we could inspect the quality of the cooking—a nice, even medium-rare from top to bottom, the thin brown of the sear, and impressively little in the way of those overcooked gray bands. It made for a great steak. All of Erick’s employees lined up for a bite.
As we ate, it sank in that this particular low-and-slow way of cooking with a quick sear at the end is the Cinder’s secret weapon and its forte, but the time it needs would take a lot of getting adapted to.
A slow cooker requires you to prep in the morning (or even the night before) but allows you to come home after work to a finished meal. A pressure cooker, or your oven and stove, help you scramble to do everything right when you get home, but the Cinder has different requirements. For many dishes, you’d get your meat cooking right when you got home, then do all of the other prep like boil potatoes or take the dog for a walk. It’s a different mindset, but one you could get used to.
At home with a bag of butcher-shop treats from Erick, I forged ahead by starting with thin, narrow Denver steaks (cut from a tender part of the chuck) that Block & Board markets as “perfect for breakfast.” Lesson learned, I put these on the Cinder so they could cook while I prepped the rest of the meal. When they were cooked through, I pulled them off and cranked the heat for a quick sear. Even a cut this thin got a nice brown exterior while the interior didn’t overcook. It’s very impressive.
I cooked a duck breast, which came out well, but ran into my first hitch when cooking sausage, where the machine bugged out a little and wouldn’t let me crank it up to sear without doing a sort of hard reset and unplugging it.
Next, I made two cauliflower steaks, those thick and trendy cruciferous cross sections, this version from Cinder’s cookbook with a nice brown butter and caper sauce that takes about 35 minutes. It came out so well, I made another batch. Then again, I had to; I still had a lot of uncooked cauliflower. Here I bumped up against a problem that I’d noticed in the periphery in previous tests. The Cinder can feel small, even though the cooking plates measure almost 9 by 10 inches. You can easily scale up dinner for a group with a sous vide machine, but four of those rib eyes Erick and I made would mean cooking in two batches, which would mean 200 minutes—more than three hours. If you’re having friends over or want leftovers, this won’t be the gadget of choice.
One thing you will enjoy it for is grilled cheese, which it cooks both sides at once. I even used Hestan’s temperature chart to select a perfect 350 degrees, which gave me a lovely browned exterior and the maximum ooey-gooey effect to the cheese.
Squish the Fish
As I got used to using the Cinder, I looked forward to something I thought it would be perfect for: fish. Where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, halibut and salmon abound, are revered, and are always a heartbeat away from being overcooked.
I preheated the Cinder to the suggested 113 degrees, patted the salmon filet dry and salted it. Perhaps because the cooking surfaces are nonstick, the Cinder’s recipe did not call for oil, and the website even touts “no oil necessary,” likely in a nod to the George Foreman crowd. I dared to go without, which was dumb. The fish cooked through perfectly, but both the top and bottom were suction-cupped to the cooking surfaces—not burnt, but stuck. When I opened the grill, some fish stayed attached to the top element, and I had to use a thin metal spatula to peel it off. I nibbled on the scraped-off bits, then, since it was already a mess, I took a few nibbles right off the filet. It was still amazing fish. After that, I turned it to 11 (well, its impressively high-searing temperature of 450 degrees), waited for it to get hot, brushed some oil on the lower surface, and crisped the skin on the bottom of the filet. The omission of oil was a strange fault in the recipe and a mistake I wouldn’t make again.
Finally, I splurged on a pound of beautiful inch-and-a-half-thick halibut, cut it in two, and used a sous vide chart to determine the time and temperature and got it cooking. Later, when I lifted the lid, both filets were a half inch shorter. Worse, I realized that it was sitting in a pool of liquid—a combination of juice, fat, and protein that coated the entire lower heating element. It was full enough that I couldn’t pop the element off, but I was able to squeegee it down the drain into its little runoff tray. I poured the contents of the tray into a measuring cup, which filled up to the 1/3-cup mark. Frown face. On a whim, I threw some salt and a bit of lemon juice in there and drank it, momentarily enjoying an ersatz chowder until I realized I wished all that flavor and juice had stayed in the fish. How can Cinder’s creators have the wherewithal to offer three different cooking temperatures to cater to how you like your fish—tender, flaky, or firm—and completely ignore that the upper element is clearly too heavy for some foods?
The Cinder has exciting capabilities and lots of potential. It can cook to the degree, a sort of holy-grail skill that should be more common on everyday stovetops, yet its marketing and recipes fairly ignore a lot of the capabilities that could make it more useful on a daily basis. The grill also creates sous vide results without needing a plastic bag and has the power to sear well and quickly without overcooking the food. Those skills alone should make a skilled chef consider dropping $500 on it, warts and all.
For the rest of us, however, the Cinder feels a little too much like a beta release instead of a finished product. Yes, there are faults that would require a physical change to the machine, like the addition of something such as adjustment screws that could dial away a bit of the weight of the top element on delicate foods like fish. Also, the cool-down period after cooking both took forever and, with “gasping fan” noises and strange crackles, sounded like a dying hard drive.
So much of the Cinder, though, just needs some refinements. The company could start with the lack of a comprehensive set of basic and excellent tested recipes. You can offer “skirt steak tacos with salsa avocado crema” or “marinated pork chops with plum relish and sweet potatoes” like it does, but not without just skirt steak or a pork chop by itself, which as of this writing isn’t found in the cookbook but is included in one section of the app. Between the cookbook, app, and website, it’s all somewhere between a hodgepodge and a work in progress.
And while the slow-cooking method results are fantastic, how about promoting its ability to cook two chicken breasts on “regular” heat—around 375 degrees would work—because it’s Tuesday and I’ve only got 20 minutes, and “almost perfect” would be just fine?
The Cinder is far from alone in its problems with explaining itself well. Dozens of new devices, particularly in the smart- or connected-kitchen realm make this mistake. It’s one thing if you manufacture something like a new cast-iron pan or toaster oven—people already know what to do with those things, and there are plenty of recipes out there for them. But if you’re putting a new way to cook out into the world, you’ve gotta back it up with the all-in-one-place content to allow people to make incredible food, not force them to scrape bits of a pristine sockeye filet off of an inverted heating element. Nobody’s going to share that on social media.
There are other little faults with the Cinder. It works best on uniformly thick, flat food, and it’ll struggle a little with certain cuts with bones, while others will be a no-go. Applying cooking oil or butter is weirdly tricky; I ended up using a brush to apply it to the cooking surfaces, especially the top one, or brushed it on the food itself. You’ll also tend to fare much better if you wipe the cooking surfaces clean, pat the food dry, and reapply cooking oil between the cooking and searing stages. Cinder’s creators have the strange notion that the nonstick coating means there’s “no cleanup,” by which they suggest to “simply wipe down the grill plates with a moist paper towel.” I’m sure you could get away with that once in awhile, but mostly that sounds gross.
Finally, and this will be a deal-breaker for the tiny-kitchen set, it’s heavy and huge, weighing almost 30 pounds with a 17- by 13-inch footprint. It took up more of my counter space than I had to give, and at that weight most people aren’t going to want to move it to a drawer or shelf after they’re done with it.
So, if you see the potential and have counter space to burn, but also have very understandable misgivings, wait a year. See if the Cinder evolves into something a bit more polished. If it does, you’ll be working with an exciting new machine.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/review/cinder-grill