Are Combi Ovens The Future Of Sous Vide?

Is This The Future?
I was reading about Shola's post about the possible impending obsolescence of immersion circulators, when I read:
One thing I will confidently say is that the domestic immersion circulator market will be NON-EXISTENT in 48 months or less and IF sous vide cooking makes it into mainstream domestic cooking, it will be in the form of steam/vapor ovens similar to combi technology. Products like sous-vide supreme or sous vide magic are silly novelties at best and the only thing keeping them from zero sales is the lack of an affordable home combi oven.
I am not sure if he has the timing right, but I think that when low temperature cooking hits critical mass, there will be a shift away from immersion circulators/water baths and into something more like a combi oven or CVAP.  Here is what I find compelling:
  1. Elimination of plastic bags.  They are annoying and not green.  Not being green doesn't really bother me.  But, the consumer market is buying the green thing, so who am I to argue.  
  2. Crazy precision not required.  While temperatures can't range too much that they cause safety issues, sous vide in the home does not require  +/- .5º accuracy.  Most home cooks don't have anything close to this and are blissfully happy.
  3. Water management.  Similar to plastic bags, consumers will consider the water management annoying and wasteful.  Even if water or energy usage turns out to be greater with a combi oven or CVAP, consumers don't see water in, water out the same way.
  4. Space management.  If your conventional oven could be replaced by one of these, well then, we won't call them conventional, we'll call them antiques.
It does seem like water immersion may have an uphill battle inside of the home kitchen.  If the world does go this way, immersion circulators and water baths will still have their place in professional kitchens and with the prosumer crowd.   Even for the home, an SVM or SVS setup can act as a small second cooking device.  Lest we forget, American's love us some gadgetry.  Look at the Ronco Rotisserie Oven or the George Foreman's grill.

Shola continues:
If cost issues are adressed in both the Combi Oven and Blast Chiller market, I predict immersion circulators will lose at least 75% market share in professional sous vide cooking and have ZERO market share in domestic sous-vide.
I am unsold on the blast chiller for the home market as being part of the tipping point.  The costs would have to drop so rapidly on both that I have a hard time imagining it being an affordable option in the next four years.

Counterpoint: Whirlpool seems to be dipping their toe into the water bath with the Chef's Touch, which is a combination blast chiller, combi oven (with a chamber vac).

Counter-counterpoint: Said Chef's Touch's pricing: the combi-oven was 2500$ while the 7000$ blast chiller.  If you can cut the combi-oven's price in half, you are now in range for a consumer appliance.  Not so much with the blast chiller.

WrapUp
I think it is fascinating that Shola's insights align with the Whirlpool's direction with the Chef's Touch.  While I certainly can't claim to know the future, I do think that his long view is probably how things will go, although I am unsure of the timeline.  Although, I have also thought that: Betamax and laserdisks would win, that Internet Explorer would lose, and that FireFly wouldn't get cancelled after one season.

Finally, You should read his full piece on the subject (and really his entire blog).
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10 comments:

D said...

Interesting observation. My thoughts:

vacuum bags have shelf-life implications that the consumer market seems to like a lot (I'll bet more people have those dinky tabletop foodsavers than circulators).

I use a CVAP sometimes at work, though always for holding and never for cooking (we have circulators for that); I don't love it, don't hate it. I feel like it does worse things to proteins over an hour+ of holding than the circulator does, probably because the proteins aren't protected by a bag, but also maybe because of temperature fluctuation. It's also much nastier to clean and seems to warrant much more thorough cleaning than a circulator and its accompanying lexan - just the thought of that pleasantly warm, steamy environment makes me want to reach for the bleach.

I've also honestly never understood how most people would get a lot of use out of low-temperature cooking equipment at home, but maybe I'm just short-sighted. Again, the food-saver seems like the much more applicable side of the sous-vide equation.

Pablo Escolar said...

@D:

Not sure whether we can compare a 100$ foodsaver with a 1000$ immersion circulator, but point well made. There is definitely a convenience element to the bags. Vacuum bags also bring up botulism and plasticizer fears, which are usually overblown, but definitely a barrier to purchase.

Yah, i'm not convinced there will be a CVAP in every home, but the combi oven seems like a safer bet.

As far as most people getting use, I think that its potential for home use is pretty significant. It reduces a lot of the risk of overcooking, has some of the 'set it and forget it' properties. Also (and this is definitely a plus for bags), you can cook in advance and reheat easily. I think that works well for families.

shola said...

Sir Pablo.
Good points and great blog.
We are discovering that meat cookery still needs a good stable water bath.
Vegetables on the other hand are much better efficiently done in the combi in high volume.

Pablo Escolar said...

shola:

Thanks... I wouldn't even be writing if it wasn't for pioneers like yourself. Is that a function of stability being better at higher temperatures or that less precision is necessary for vegetables. The cookingissues team mentions some stability issues in their low temperature primer. Specifically:

"Studies by Chris Young and Nathan Myhrvold show that while a combi oven’s average temperature can be accurate to within a couple of degrees centigrade, at any one moment it can be tens of degrees off"

Ramiro said...

I've been using a PolyScience circulator and a VacMaster vacuum machine for some time now and I see other benefits of this technology not well covered in the review.

First of all, extreme convenience. Tthe fact that you can cook multiple things at once in different bags, chill them on ice, and store them directly either in the refrigerator or in the freezer. A busy person can cook things on Sunday and reheat food daily during the week and cook gourmet every day. Even if things are in the freezer, its a snap to take them directly into the circulator for reheating. Storing food in bags is also a huge space saver, and in most cases with proteins, you get instant sauce if you save the juices.

Another point is the electricity you would spend with a combi oven vs. a regular sous vide machine. I put a kill-a-watt device to measure my consumption on my PolyScience circulator and I'm getting around 170W when I cook a steak at 131F. For some recipes like pork belly, that would be a 3-day process where numbers do add up. How much would that cost me on a 220V installation of a combi oven. I don't have the answer but I doubt it's less.

Finally, the overall cost. I paid about $1,700 for my circulator, cambro container, some insulation, and my vacuum machine with 3,000 bags. I can take my circulator with me when I go out of town on a road trip and attach it to any pot or outlet while I resource to a zip lock manual vacuum pump for those situations. I don't think I could do that with a combi.

The Modernist Cuisine books have a good coverage of the advantages and disadvantages of each method in volume 2. Net/net, they are complementary.

Pablo Escolar said...

Ramiro:

I think your points are totally accurate if this was solely a comparison between the two technologies. I was attempting to pontificate about whether or not the consumer market would choose one over the other. By this, I mean, which technology would be more likely to be the next microwave oven and find its way into the majority of people's homes. In that context, I would counter with:

1. You can utilize vacuum bags in a combi oven. It is actually how they position using the Whirlpool Chef Touch. My point was that a lot of consumers might object to the use of plastic bags.

2. I am sure you are correct in that it does cost more to use a combi oven, but I am unconvinced that it would be a factor in decision making. This comes up a lot in sous vide gear conversations, but I can't think of a lot of places in the consumer market where electricity usage becomes a obstacle to purchase.

3. Totally agree on overall cost. That was explicitly mentioned in my post. The cost would have to come down significantly.

4. Also agree on the value of portability (for today). But I think that value is only because so few people have low temp setups. My post is really predicated on the idea that one day, everyone will have a low temp setup.

All that being said, there are definitely differences that have been highlighted in other comments on this thread. For example, combi oven temperature instability is too great for certain applications.

Wish I had the MC books.

Thanks for the comment!

mike said...

Nice post and blog. Found my way here via Google.

When the price difference between combi-ovens and circulators gets small enough, switching costs may matter. Generalizing from my experience, I bet these switching costs are extremely salient for home cooks with families.

I love my immersion circulator, but I've had to reorganize my kitchen and cooking habits to use it on a regular basis. If I purchased a combi-oven, I don't think I'd have to make changes on a similar scale to put it to work. But I don't own a combi-oven. I could be wrong.

And right now, I think the price difference is still too large for this to matter.

Jack Hammer said...

I have a sous vide supreme and I love how the food tastes. If the combi oven could give me the exact taste, texture and tenderness Im all for what is the most convenient. The oven I bought recently contains a top smaller and bottom larger oven. I can see this replacing the top smaller oven. If an oven came with this option, i'd snatch it up in a heart beat. As far as sous vide, you can make a portable hook up you can take anywhere and snap into any cooler for $100 so I dont see it going away. Just a different paradigm in how it's used as. A nice adaptation for tailgating at games would go over really well. Just my two cents and I'm a genius so my two cents are made of gold.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think both have their place in the kitchen.

I have a commercial combi oven, chamber vac and a circulator in my home kitchen. For some reason I find that I get better results with tender cuts of beef with the the combi without sous vide. Somehow the vacuum bagging seems to make the end result less juicy. Cuts like roast beef of lamb, on the other hand, come out juicy and tender when vacuum bagged. I have really not been able to figure out when to sous vide and when not while low temperature cooking meat proteins. I thing the level of vacuum makes a difference as well. Chamber vacs can pull off up to 99% vacuum compressing whatever is inside.

I am cooking sous vide both with the combi and a circulator. A circulator is definitely more energy efficient than a 6kW 400V combi (Unox XVC 305E). Circulator is also portable and easy to store. You can use a circulator for low temperature cooking even when not doing it under vacuum (sous vide) by using zip lock bags and water displacement method.

So, both will have a place in my kitchen in the future as well. I have a separate water bath, which is complete waste of space and money. I will replace that with an other circulator. The combi really is the best single piece of kitchen equipment I have (not counting scales and thermometers). I is really versatile, fast, cleans itself, etc. I have a small regular Miele convection oven with grill, but use it only when I need the capacity. I would rather take a second smaller combi, like a Unox XVC 105 stacked with the 305 that can be controlled from the master oven. I was seriously contemplating getting compatible stackable blast chiller from Unox, but I simply did not have the space for that.

Most European main stream white goods makers have domestic steam ovens in their product ranges. The Wolf steam oven is made by Swiss VZug. Domestic steam ovens typically do not require a water and sewage connection like commercial ovens do. The domestic ovens I have looked at typically cannot provide steam at high temperatures or extract humidity from the oven cavity, like the commercial counterparts. I still think steam ovens are a major step forward in domestic kitchen technology and will be the next "microwave" of the future. Microwave becomes, by the way, completely obsolete once you have a combi.

Dominik MJ said...

A couple of years down the line of this post, I have to express quite some doubt. Combi-steamers were and are very expensive - and I guess, they still will going to be in a higher price segment. However the development of immersion circulators and other sous vide equipment [I have a PID kid in combination with a rice cooker] just drop in price.
Second: even though if combisteamers are used, you still might need to use a bag. One part of the sous vide "magic" is the cooking in a sealed environment. It is also possible to use reusable plastic bags as well [which are obviously less convenient but better for the environment].

Low temperature cooking is not necessary the same as sous vide cooking... hence the post is a bit misleading!

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