As a home cook with a basic understanding of most of the culinary techniques one needs to produce “restaurant-quality” food at home, I have a tendency to look at crowdfunded kitchen gadgets with a fair amount of skepticism. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have become a breeding ground in recent years for cooking devices that continuously promise to either demystify home cookery or promote healthy eating, but the results too often fall far short of what is promised. In a sense, crowdfunded campaigns have become the new Ron Popeil-style infomercials.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued when I first started seeing videos of the Cinder Grill in action. Backed by a monumentally successful IndieGoGo campaign that achieved more than 500% of its original $50,000 goal, it promises to deliver a sous vide-style cooking device, without any need for water or vacuum-sealed bags. Although the price tag is steep, at $400-500 per unit, there’s definitely a market out there for people who want a simple device that can, at the push of a button, cook them a steakhouse-caliber piece of meat.
What I found in my own testing of Cinder was a mixed bag. I had both successes and failures making a variety of meat dishes, but I came to realize throughout that the key to getting the most out of the device was in recognizing what it actually does well, and what it does not. Suffice to say, a Cinder Grill can theoretically cook just about any piece of meat, but some are more appropriate than others.
How Cinder works
The Cinder is a bulky, heavy duty (about 27 pounds, and somewhat awkward to lift if you’re not a grown man) device, first and foremost, that works to precisely control the temperature of your food and thus cook it to an exact degree of doneness. It does this through constant monitoring of the two heating plates that surround the food being cooked when the lid is closed—humorously described as being “inspired by satellites” in the IndieGoGo pitch video, they are the key to replicating the gentle, slow-cooking that is likewise achieved through a water-immersed sous vide cooker. The added benefit of Cinder is that you get to do away with the pot of simmering water and the vacuum-seal bags that are necessary for sous vide—that, and the device also stands in for your cast iron pan at the end of the process, when it’s time to give your food a final sear for browning.
Operation is pretty damn simple, at least on paper. You’ll be doing most of your input through the Cinder’s complementary phone app, which lists optimal temperature ranges for various foods. If you want your steak cooked medium rare, for instance, it’s as simple as seasoning your piece of meat and laying it inside Cinder, then turning on the device, pulling up the app and selecting “steak, medium rare,” which begins the cooking process. The grill whirs to life with minimal noise, and remains almost completely silent during the majority of the cooking process. It also allows tweaks to customize your dishes—like if you want that steak 2 or 3 degrees north or south of the predetermined “medium rare.”
But of course, things are never quite as simple as just pushing a button. To achieve the classic browned exterior of flavorful crust rather than a sad, gray-looking slab of meat, you also need to finish that steak with a hard sear. And unfortunately, it’s not recommended to simply leave your steak on the Cinder while it’s climbing to a much higher heat, lest it quickly become overcooked or burnt. Instead, you must remove the piece of meat and then clean any resulting grease/liquid released during cooking off the heating plates before cranking it up to its maximum temp and finishing with a hard sear.
This middle process is capable of bogging things down a bit, depending on what you’re cooking. In some cases, a large amount of moisture was released during cooking, which was almost completely unaffected by the minimal grease trap. One wonders why the machine was balanced for the grease or liquid to sit flat (on mine, it actually appears to pool toward the back) rather than the front, where it’s meant to be channeled into the grease trap. It seems like a simple, slight incline of the cooking surface would solve this issue. Regardless, you’ll be sopping up fat and liquid off the cooking plate with paper towels before getting it dry enough to properly pull off your sear. It’s not a big issue, but it does make using the device a bit more labor intensive than the promotional videos would make it appear.
Clean-up, thankfully, seems to be relatively simple, as long as there isn’t too much liquid that splattered on the inside of the device’s lid. In my operation of the Cinder, I have found a quick scrub with a sponge after dinner has taken care of just about everything, no different from your pots and pans.
My results with Cinder
In a few weeks of regularly using my Cinder, I cooked a variety of items, mainly proteins. I should mention that there are other applications of the device that I haven’t yet explored, from making omlettes to cooking fresh vegetables. The press materials even boast of using it to home roast garlic, although it sort of begs the question of why precise temperature control would be necessary. Regardless, here are some of my results:
My first experiment with Cinder did not go smoothly. I was attempting to cook two previously frozen chicken breasts that I had thawed during the day. I attempted to dry them off as much as possible before starting the Cinder, but it would appear that the sheer amount of water still in them proved problematic for the device, as they ended up surrounded by a pool of liquid and white albumin (a coagulated protein you also see when cooking salmon), some of which was no doubt forced out by the heavy lid of the Cinder, which squashed them flat. I was also flummoxed by the cooking countdown as it displayed on the phone app, which counted down from 30-something minutes to zero, only to hold indefinitely at “...almost done…” for more than five minutes. This led to me removing the breasts too early, re-adding them and then eventually searing them, but by this point the moisture loss had been problematic. The result: Dry, tough chicken breasts far inferior to what I’d typically be producing in my conventional oven. However, you can chalk this one up at least partially to user error, and to the fact that I was trying to cook two chicken breasts of very different shapes/dimensions, which I believe confused the Cinder’s sensors. Regardless, this was the least successful item I tried to cook.
I almost always keep a bunch of frozen, thin-ish (about half an inch) pork chops in my freezer, as they’re cheap, thaw quickly and are ideal for weeknight meals. Typically, I would either cook them in a pan or simply throw them on a George Foreman-style grill, but I hoped that the Cinder might be able to aide me in cooking them to a juicier medium rather than a tougher “well done.” This is ostensibly one of the biggest advantages of a Cinder in terms of food safety—you can cook pork and chicken to a lower overall temperature than recommended by the draconian FDA guidelines, because you’re acknowledging the science of bacterial reduction via not only temperature, but time. Which is to say, your out-of-date cooking textbook may say that your pork needs to reach 160 degrees, but in reality you can safely enjoy it at medium-rare to medium (140-145), as long as it’s held at that temperature for a little while—10 minutes or so is more than safe. And with Cinder, you can hold a piece of meat at any temperature almost indefinitely.
The results I got here were much better than the sad chicken breasts. Each time I tried variations of pork chops they turned out tender and juicy, although considerably less so if seared. I’m thinking this must be a factor of thickness—the chops I was using were simply too thin to finish with a hard sear, as it served to overcook the interior too rapidly. This made me aware of one of the realities of Cinder: If you want to be using the sear setting, this machine is intended for thick cuts of meat.
This is where the Cinder really shines, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. Being able to cook a restaurant-quality steak at home is its biggest single selling point because it’s a skill that many home cooks don’t feel they possess, owing precisely to the Cinder’s main advantage: Temperature control. I purchased a nice-looking New York strip, seasoned it well and set Cinder to work. Setting, medium rare. Moisture loss was quite minimal this time around, perhaps owing to a lower temperature, but it was the work of only moments to remove the steak, wipe off the cooking surface and crank it up to 450 for a sear. A few moments on that smoking hot surface gave the steak a nice, browned crust, but I was much more impressed with its interior—beautiful medium rare. Topped with a little brown butter, fried garlic and thyme that I whipped up, I can honestly say that it’s the best steak I’ve ever cooked at home, and a fine substitute for most steaks I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant. Once again, I believe that the substantially thicker steak allowed for a hard sear that I didn’t have to worry about overcooking the interior. You can see the results below.
The seafood cooking settings on the Cinder are interesting, ranging from 104 to 140 degrees, with descriptors from “buttery soft” to “light flakes” to “very flaky.” I staked a spot in the center for the sake of establishing a baseline, cooking my filet to about 123 degrees and holding it there for a while before giving it a very quick sear. The results were fine—flaky, but on the denser side compared to the last time I pan seared a salmon filet, with flesh that was slightly more subborn in removing from the skin. I might still use my pan in the future rather than the Cinder, if only for the sake of speed, but there’s still much more experimentation that could be carried out here.
Overall impressions of the Cinder
— This is a device designed for convenience and hands-free preparation, rather than saving time or making dishes you couldn’t otherwise produce. Cooking things on the Cinder takes a while—at least 25-30 minutes for smaller items, and about 60 minutes for the single steak I cooked. This thing isn’t for instantly producing meats; it’s for less experienced home cooks who don’t feel comfortable trying to make a filet mignon on a cast iron skillet. This is the demographic to whom Cinder will be the most valuable.
— Although you can technically use the Cinder to make just about anything, it thrives most when producing thick cuts of meat that are best served at specific temperatures.
— At $500, or $400 at the very cheapest, the Cinder is a very expensive countertop grill. There are numerous home sous vide devices on the market these days that are half as expensive, or even a third as expensive, which will surely give some consumers pause. It might be slightly more complicated, but you can produce the same results with a sous vide and a cast iron skillet.
— One aspect of sous vide cooking that the Cinder can’t really replicate is cooking an item within a bag with added aromatics, such as fresh herbs or garlic cloves. So keep that in mind—you’ll have to infuse such flavors another way.
— When used right, it produced the best steak I’ve had at home. That’s gotta be worth something.
In the end, the value of a Cinder boils down to a cost analysis of what its features are worth to you. It certainly does put the reality of “perfectly cooked” (or close enough) meat into the hands of a novice home cook, although there are myriad cheaper ways to achieve similar results. As with any product where the major selling point is convenience, it’s up to the consumer to decide what convenience is worth.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and inveterate carnivore. You can follow him on Twitter.