An equipment bonanza for kitchen geeks

A hand-held smoker by PolyScience allows for finishing foods with cool smoke.
(Kirk McKoy/ Los Angeles Times)

A hand-held smoker that looks like a toy pistol, a blender that heats or cools while it whizzes your soup or smoothie, professional immersion blenders, dehydrators, whipping siphons, induction burners, sous-vide machines and vacuum sealers.

As mainstream retailers such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma introduce tools not so long ago used by only the most adventurous professional chefs, it could be a bonanza holiday for kitchen geeks.

Grant Achatz, the chef of Alinea in Chicago who recently was in Los Angeles for an event, points to one of his immersion circulators, a device used for sous-vide — cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags at relatively low, even temperatures. “The fact that you can go to Williams-Sonoma and buy that now is pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a good gauge of the sophistication of the consumer. Three years ago, there were some chefs who didn’t know how to use it.

“They say what shows up at the grocery store is five to seven years behind the restaurant business,” notes Achatz, whose cutting-edge cooking garnered three Michelin stars last month and who has consulted with food companies on new products. “I think that the time it takes for appliances [to go mainstream] is the same.”


And now that Nils Noren and Dave Arnold, the duo behind the French Culinary Institute’s Cooking Issues technology blog, have appeared on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” demonstrating how to make cocktails with a vacuum rotary evaporator (for distilling and concentrating flavors), how long before Santa is inundated with requests? “Dear Santa, please bring me ‘MMA’ for PlayStation 3 and a rotovap.”

A cook can dream. A Rotaval rotary vacuum evaporator goes for about $13,500 on gourmet retailer Le Sanctuaire’s website. Expect more from the science lab to reach restaurant kitchens and maybe someday your own countertop. (Nathan Myhrvold, the polymath inventor who is publishing the six-volume “Modernist Cuisine” cookbook from his laboratory in Seattle, envisions high-powered rotor-stator homogenizers, or blenders, in kitchens. This means you too could get the particles in your purées down to a micron or two.)

Meanwhile, immersion circulators or other machines for sous-vide have been squarely targeted at the home chef. Williams-Sonoma started selling the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional immersion circulator in August for $799.95. Other PolyScience models start at nearly $1,000. (The exclusive Roner models available from Le Sanctuaire are more than $2,000.)

With their exposed heating elements, previous models of somewhat bulky circulators weren’t particularly home-user friendly. The heater and pump now are encased in plastic for the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional — a sleek black box of a device that clamps onto the edge of your pot (or hotel pan) to warm and circulate water. It comes with a how-to guide written by Thomas Keller, whose 2008 cookbook “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” might have marked the cooking-in-a-bag tipping point.

“We couldn’t have done this in 2005 or 2006 or 2007,” says Bradley Kleparek, a Williams-Sonoma electrics buyer, of the decision to start carrying an immersion circulator this summer. “Three or four years ago sous-vide was largely unknown to even some people who work here at Williams-Sonoma…. We took a leap of faith, if you will. It was the perfect marriage of there being enough awareness of what sous-vide cooking was and a user-friendly brand name to go with on the equipment side.”

Though the company won’t disclose sales figures, Kleparek says of the immersion circulator: “It is fair to say that it is meeting and exceeding our expectations.”

Last December, Sur La Table began selling the SousVide Supreme, a self-contained sous-vide water oven that looks like a bread machine, for $499. The first several hundred sold out immediately, says Anne Haerle, a corporate chef and spokeswoman for the retailer. “They just took off like crazy.” (Sur La Table already had been selling Julabo circulators, aimed at professional chefs.)

Next year Sur La Table plans to offer the Sous Vide Supreme Demi, a slightly smaller version with 60% to 80% the capacity of the original. It costs $299 (about the price of a Le Creuset 7-quart Dutch oven). For some eager cooks, this might mean no more scouring EBay for used circulators or trying to jury-rig a beer cooler to do the trick.

What else might be in the kitchen of your very near future? Retailers are betting on better blenders. Any chef who has attempted to hydrate and dissolve certain hydrocolloids (gelling agents that thicken liquids) doesn’t downplay the value of a good blender. The home chef may have other uses in mind.

Williams-Sonoma is touting the Swiss-made Bamix immersion blender ($129.95 to $149.95) and this year began carrying Vitamix blenders, also carried by retailers such as QVC, Macy’s, Amazon and Sur La Table. They cost as much as $599.95 — for the latest Vitamix Pro 500 series blender that has temperature settings for making soups, smoothies and frozen desserts while you purée. (It might be the next best thing to the Thermomix — a $1,400 German machine that chops, blends, kneads, weighs, heats and more but is no longer for sale in the U.S.)

“It’s all about new ideas that people can use in their own homes,” Williams-Sonoma’s Kleparek says. Take the food dehydrator, for example. “It’s been used for dried apples, apricots, the whole trail mix application. But what chefs are doing are these crazy things with food dehydrators. Take squid, dehydrate it, take the dried squid pieces then put them in the Vitamix so you have a powder, and reconstitute the powder into all kinds of textures.”

So, what’s hot in cook tops? Chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen have been opting for induction ranges (in which a magnetic field creates heat in iron or steel pots and pans) for fast, precise, even cooking. In the last few years, better technology has helped boost demand in the U.S., and more manufacturers have produced induction ranges for home kitchens.

All-Clad has introduced a portable $399 induction burner — an extra burner for the kitchen wonk who has everything or maybe for anybody who wants to cook at the table or tableside. Besides his immersion circulators, Achatz travels with CookTek induction burners — as well as his Anti-Griddle, the “cook top” that freezes instead of heats (available on the PolyScience website for $1,159).

On his Christmas list this year: a blast freezer. It’s a $17,000 piece of kitchen equipment that freezes food at extremely low temperatures, the better to shock-chill one’s chocolate foam or carrot gel.

Looking for a big-ticket gift for the ultimate kitchen geek? Here are a few websites to check out: Immersion circulators, rotary vacuum evaporator, Anti-Griddle, Smoking Gun hand-held smoker, chamber vacuum sealer, Blendtec and Dynamic blenders, digital scales and refractometers, Robot Coupe processors, nine-tray dehydrator, portable induction burners, printer for edible images. Immersion circulators, chamber vacuum sealers, rotary vacuum evaporator, PacoJet, infrared thermometer, Gastrovac cooker, Clarimax stock clarifier. Immersion circulators, Anti-Griddle, Smoking Gun hand-held smoker, chamber vacuum sealer, rotary evaporator. SousVide Supreme and SousVide Supreme Demi water ovens. SousVide Supreme water oven (SousVide Supreme Demi available next year), SousVide Supreme vacuum sealer, Vitamix blenders (including Vitamix Pro 500), food dehydrator, portable induction burners. PolyScience Sous Vide Professional immersion circulator, Caso VC200 vacuum sealer, Vitamix blenders, Bamix immersion blenders, iSi Gourmet Whip whipping siphon, portable induction burners.

— Betty Hallock