After decades of only minor changes, the last few years have brought us an onslaught of high-tech updates to traditional cooking devices. Among those have been a variety of smart ovens and connected thermometers. As someone who cooks dinner almost every night, I can both appreciate how useful more technology can be in the kitchen, but also that it can sometimes just make life more complicated. So I set out to test the Cinder Grill ($429) and Meater’s completely wireless thermometers ($69-$269) with that in mind. Would they make life easier for a tech-enthusiast cook, and would they produce better results than the devices they aim to replace?
Cinder Is a Cool Name for a Grill, but What Does It Do?
When you first see a Cinder Grill it is hard not to think of the George Foreman grill. But the Cinder is light years ahead of the Foreman. Yes, it is a grill (technically, more of a griddle or “flattop” since it has flat surfaces), but it is a high-precision and versatile version. You can dial in just about any temperature, and use either one or both cooking surfaces. Speaking of which, the surface isn’t huge, so like the Foreman, you’re constrained to how much you can cook at once. I found I could cook four eggs or four burgers at once, but either filled the entire 9-inch by 10-inch grilling surface.
Cinder Promises Sous-Vide Without the Water
I’ve been using a thermal bath and vacuum-sealed bags to help get meat and fish cooked to a precise temperature for 15 years because the results are excellent. The trick is that the water bath is held at a specific temperature so that your food can’t get hotter than that — meaning you won’t overcook or burn it. However, it’s a bit of a cumbersome process, and the resulting texture and color aren’t typically appetizing, especially for steaks. So an additional step of patting the meat dry and searing it is needed (aka a reverse sear).
The Cinder grill replaces the water bath with carefully heated heavy metal plates. A set of three high-tech heating coils under both a top and bottom plate allows you to control the temperature of the grill surface precisely. At least that’s what Cinder and a control knob calibrated to the nearest degree promised. I wanted to check for myself, so I used my FLIR ONE Pro to measure the surface temperature of the grill plates when I had the control set to 350 degrees. While it wasn’t perfect, the Cinder did a much better job than most grills. The middle third or so of the lower grill was within a degree of 350 (at least as measured by the FLIR), and most of the rest — except for the extreme corners — was within about 10 degrees. That compares well with a typical grill or oven, where temperatures can vary 20 to 40 degrees with time or across the cooking surface.
For its next trick, the Cinder can also sear. So you can accomplish both the initial cook of your food to the correct temperature, and then sear it. Cinder makes that a simple process. Simply take your food off, turn the temperature knob to sear, wait for it to heat up, and then put your food back on. If you want both sides seared, as you would for a steak, close the grill so both the top and bottom plates will be used, and then press the knob. The Cinder will do a 45-second countdown for you, which is just about the right amount of time for searing most meat and some fish.
The Cinder Also Makes an Accurate and Convenient Griddle
While some stoves come with a grill/griddle burner, most of them aren’t that accurate. If you have room for it on your counter, Cinder is a nice alternative. You can simply dial in the temperature you want — I taped the temperature chart from the Hester Cue on a cabinet over my review Cinder — and cook up anything you can make on a traditional flattop. I had great success with grilled cheese sandwiches, Reuben sandwiches, Smashburgers (using Cinder’s recipe), fried eggs, toast, and bacon.
In this mode, you are back to the standard cooking practice of checking your food for doneness and making sure it doesn’t burn. If it is thick enough to tolerate a thermometer I found that the Meater wireless probes worked perfectly. I loved that I could use them even with the Cinder closed, and not worry about wire leads needing to snake out between the very hot plates.
Comparing the Cinder and the Brava
The Cinder reminded me initially of the Brava smart oven that I reviewed last year, in particular, because they both claim to make it easy to cook a perfect steak. But after using it for a while, it’s clear they serve quite different purposes (once you get past the fact that they both do an excellent job of cooking steaks). The Brava lets you cook several elements of a meal at once, and can often do that automatically, without you needing to do more than prep and load the food according to directions, and then use the touch screen to pick out what you’re cooking. So the Brava is without question an excellent labor-saving device.
If you’re cooking a steak, or something similar, the Cinder can also save you a lot of labor (I don’t say time, because the process isn’t any faster than sous-vide and sear, and slower than the simple throw-it-in-a-skillet approach). But for most foods, the promise isn’t less work; it’s a better and more repeatable result.
Brava also has a very large array of recipes for ingredients and combinations, along with tons of videos. Cinder has a few recipes, a few videos, and a depressingly sparse food guide. That’s an area where I think they need to really step up their efforts, as I was often stuck with trial and error when cooking something they didn’t have instructions for. The Cinder also has more trouble handling either delicate fish (if you cook with the lid down to get the full effect, it squeezes the fish) and uneven-width ingredients (for example bone-in short ribs) as the top can’t heat them evenly.
On the other hand, the Brava is more than twice as expensive as the Cinder ($1,095 for the Brava versus $429 for the Cinder) and can’t be used as a traditional cooking surface. Both are fairly small and unlikely to replace the need for a traditional oven or stove or even microwave. However, either can certainly replace a toaster oven and take up about the same room on your counter. Note that both are heavy, so they are not something you’re going to want to pull out when you use it and put away afterward.
Meater: The First Truly Wireless Remote Food Thermometer
Whatever technology you use to cook perfect meat and fish — whether it is a skillet, a grill, a smoker, or a sous-vide bath — accurate temperature measurement is vital. If you’re a pro, like my friend who owns our local restaurant, you can tell the doneness of a steak by comparing it with the softness of the skin on your hand. But if you’re like most of us, a fast-reading digital thermometer is the way to go. It’s also your best option for getting consistent results with trickier foods like poultry and fish. And of course, if you’re cooking in a smoker, you need a way to know what’s going on without frequently opening the lid.
Traditionally, there have been a couple of types of digital thermometers for food. One is a hand-held probe that you can stick directly into the food. I keep one of those near our stove and another near our outdoor grill. They’re simple and don’t need any wires. Then there are thermometers that use wired probes. They range from entry-level models, such as Weber’s iGrill, to more sophisticated versions like the excellent Fireboard 6-probe model. These now offer internet connectivity, but you wind up having to deal with untangling and routing the wires each time you use them.
So-called wireless thermometers before Meater still required wires to their probes, and they required separate probes for measuring ambient and food temperatures. Meater addressed both of these issues with a unique wireless probe that measures the food temperature at the point and the ambient temperature at the back end where the electronics live. The probes use Bluetooth to talk to a nicely designed wood base. You can either read the temperatures directly from the base’s display or have it connect to Wi-Fi so that you can monitor it from your mobile phone.
Cooking With a Meater Thermometer
To be honest, I have put off looking at Meater because I really didn’t think it would work with the probes in a large Faraday cage as with my pellet smoker. Much to my surprise, the probes worked great in it. They also worked well when I sealed them up with a steak I was cooking sous-vide in a thermal bath, and when I stuck them into a steak I was cooking in the Cinder Grill. The probes are limited to an ambient temperature of 527F (higher temps can damage them), so I’ve been nervous about trying them in my Brava oven.
The Meater probes recharge by being placed in their base, and in turn, the base is powered by AA batteries. I’m used to similar devices recharging over USB, but it is easy enough to use rechargeable AA batteries instead. When I first got the Meater system for review, I found it hard to tell the probes apart (they have a tiny number 1-4 on their rear end), but shortly after that Meater sent out small metal number tags ($8 on their site), and now it’s easy. The only other small thing I found tricky is that the probes need to be inserted a couple of inches into the food. For large items, that’s easy. But in some cases like sausages or chicken thighs, it can take a little doing.
Overall, I really like the Meater system. When it first launched, Meater was pretty expensive, but the company has done a good job of providing some value-priced options. You can get a single probe plus a base without a display and with a 33-foot range for $69, or a 165-foot range version with a Bluetooth repeater for $99. The unit we reviewed has four probes, Wi-Fi, and a display, and sells for $269. So you’re definitely paying a premium over wired units like the iGrill, but you’re getting the convenience of no wires and having two sensors in each probe.
[Image Credits: Cardinal Photo]
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