While in San Francisco last month for the Fancy Food Show, I sat down with Duncan Werner, inventor of the ICA Kitchen SideKIC. This is a gadget that combines three of the four requirements for sous vide cooking: a heating element, a water circulator, and a temperature controller. The fourth, a vessel to cook in, you supply yourself. (A favorite choice is a small Coleman cooler with the SideKIC hanging over its side.)
Duncan is a hardware and software engineer who loves to invent and play around with gizmos. (ICA Kitchen is a subsidiary of an umbrella ICA which produces completely non-food items, such as CNC machines.) He loves to cook and came up with the idea for the SideKIC at a hacker’s conference, then worked to refine it and bring it to retail. The current price is about $170 and he’s sold several thousand of them on Amazon where it comes in and out of stock; it’s also available (with generally better stock) at FatLaundry.com. [UPDATE: I’ve removed the link as the product is discontinued.]
According to Duncan, there are two reasons to cook sous vide. First is an easier way of doing something you’d do another way, such as cooking a burger. Sous vide the appropriate amount of time for the doneness, you want then torch (he uses an inexpensive crème brulee torch purchased at Bed Bath and Beyond) to brown it at the end. The second reason is to change the molecular structure of the food, something that happens after very long cooking.
In addition to burgers, Duncan likes to pre-cook chicken for Chinese recipes (he says sous vide gives it a very soft texture similar to fish) as well as tri tip, briskets and similar tough cuts of meat that take a long time to reach tenderness. I told him about my own experiments and he commented that not everyone likes foods cooked sous vide with olive oil and that some spices change their characteristics in the vacuum cooking process so you need to experiment.
We also talked about institutional chef Ron Cooke’s defense of sous vide and he agrees it’s an excellent method for the professional cook. Items can be prepared in a two-step process where they are precooked and held in their vacuum packaging until needed. And the results will be very consistent from one prep to the next.
We discussed other hacks to achieve sous vide cooking without a small Sous Vide Magic which costs over $500 or an institutional vacuum cooker that goes for many thousands. He’s heard about, but not tried, the DorkFood Temperature Controller
that turns a crockpot into a sous vide cooker. (A crockpot’s a lot smaller than the capacity the SideKIC can handle, so it may not work for large cuts of meat.) I told him about the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit that includes starter bags and a mini-pump for $3.29; he was interested but concerned that the vacuum might not be complete and any air residue would give bacteria room to grow.
Next up for ICA Kitchen is an inexpensive chamber vacuum (it will be priced about the same as the SideKIC, Duncan says) which is ideal for odd-shaped cuts of meat and preps containing liquid. For the overall ICA, he’s been working on “machines to build things” such as a pick-and-place device and a new CNC mill. “Each of these makes it a little easier to build other things, so hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can start tinkering with new products.”