Take a two-inch thick boneless rib-eye steak. Coat with a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary, a quarter-ounce of dried porcini mushrooms (finely ground), a tablespoon of olive oil, and a sprinkling of black pepper. Vacuum-seal in a Ziploc bag and submerge in water heated at a constant 57°C (135°F). Leave for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Remove from bag, sear briefly on a skillet, and serve.
That’s the basic recipe for sous-vide porcini and rosemary rub steak. The idea that the meat will be tasty and melt-in-your-mouth tender, even though the water was never more than lukewarm, may sound completely foreign. And so, actually, is sous-vide—the French-derived idea of cooking food in airtight bags for long periods in a low-temperature water bath.
But today sous-vide is sweeping the kitchens of home gourmets faster than a Rachael Ray episode. That’s partly thanks to endorsements from celebrity chefs like Ferran Adrià and molecular gastronomy geeks like Nathan Myhrvold. And it’s partly due to a new wave of home sous-vide technology priced for real people’s kitchens.
The newest sous-vide device on the market is from Nomiku, a San Francisco startup that set out to create an “immersion circulator” that’s cheap enough for home cooks. The Nomiku device costs $359, and the company is distributing the first 500 units this week to supporters of its 2012 Kickstarter campaign. (Nomiku set out to raise $200,000 on the crowdfunding platform, and ended up with $586,000—a record, at the time, for a food-tech project.)
Interest in sous-vide is cresting these days, and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, because the technique is reputed to cook items more evenly, trapping juices inside and making food more flavorful. “Eating sous-vide is like tasting the brightest corner of heaven,” says Nomiku co-founder Lisa Fetterman. “After my first sous-vide food I said, why would anybody live the rest of their lives not eating it? It would be like seeing in black and white.”
The only problem is, few people have the equipment needed to keep a water bath at a constant temperature for hours on end. In the past, aficionados used repurposed laboratory thermal circulators; today, finally, a few models of consumer-grade sous-vide circulators are hitting the market. Fetterman says she and her husband, Abe, left their previous jobs because they thought they could build an affordable circulator that anyone could use.
“We wanted to fundamentally change the way people cook,” Fetterman says.
I first met the Nomiku team in June 2012, when they were finishing up a 111-day session as part of the HAXLR8R accelerator program for hardware startups. The program is based mostly in Shenzhen, one of the capitals of China’s contract manufacturing sector. The Fettermans and their co-founder Wipop Bam Suppipat, a Thai native with a background in cooking and design, had just spent several months in workshops there, using 3D printers and other rapid-prototyping technologies to perfect their model device. Even though they hadn’t figured out how to mass-produce the prototype circulator and their Kickstarter campaign had barely begun, they showed a drive and energy that convinced me they’d succeed in bringing the device to market.
And now they have—albeit a bit behind the original schedule (the company had originally hoped to distribute the first units by December 2012). Manufacturing delays are absolutely typical for small, crowdfunded hardware companies, which face the tricky task of translating their initial designs into something their Chinese partners can actually build at scale. “We ran into an obscene amount of problems,” Fetterman says. “It was a disaster every week, from different governments wanting different metals in the heating element—the Canadians wanted brass, we wanted aluminum—to communications issues in the factory.”
But this Monday the company finally reached a long-awaited milestone—clearing customs for the first shipment of 500 Nomiku circulators, which they call “noms” for short. You can pre-order a Nomiku yourself at the company’s website, but you may have to wait a bit for them to deliver it, since the first 1,500 units area all earmarked for Kickstarter backers who contributed $299 or more.
Fetterman says one of the attractions of sous-vide is that it’s easy—you just throw a bag of meat, fruit, or vegetables into the water for a few hours. Another is that the food comes out evenly and safely cooked (as long as you’re careful about the vacuum seal and holding the water temperature at a constant level above 52°C, the temperature that kills bacteria).
But could it really change the way Americans cook? That depends on how well Nomiku and its competitors can market the whole concept, and how quickly they can bring down prices.
Immersion circulators for professional kitchens can cost $700 to $1,200 or more. But Williams-Sonoma now sells a Chinese-made immersion circulator from PolyScience for $399. And this summer a second Kickstarter project to build a sous-vide circulator, the Sansaire, raised even more money than Nomiku. The Sansaire is expected to cost only $199.
Fetterman thinks Nomiku, despite its middling $359 price tag, will stand out from the growing sous-vide crowd in several ways. The Nomiku circulator is smaller than the PolyScience and Sansaire units. The heating element inside is made of PTC anodized aluminum, which is more expensive than other types of metal, but … Next Page »
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