Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.
How do you imagine the kitchen of the future? Chances are, you visualize something high-tech and Jetsons-glossy. In discussions of future food, we keep hearing that someday soon we’ll all be cooking like modernist chefs such as Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià, sealing meat for hours at ultra-low temperatures in sous-vide vacuum baths, pacotising ice-cold mousses, and making weird foams using whipped cream canisters. But will we?
In 1944, more than 1.6 million Americans saw a prototype kitchen on display in department stores across the country, created by Corning Glass Works, inventors of Pyrex. It was called “The Kitchen of Tomorrow.” Among its futuristic elements was the striking detail that all the cooking was done in recessed removable units set into the countertop, eliminating the need for pots and pans. When the cooking was finished, the units could be cleaned, replaced, and hidden away with clever sliding devices. For a nation still embroiled in a devastating war, this kitchen seemed to promise a better tomorrow.
Yet here we are in 2012, nearly 70 years later, still happily cooking with pots and pans. Some of the most desirable pots in the fancy cookware shops continue to be the enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens made by Le Creuset, created in 1925 and widely used in 1944. Except for the fact that we have a lot more electric sockets and a ton of lime-green chopping boards and spatulas (what’s with that?), kitchen technology is remarkably similar to that of 50 or 100 years ago—in some cases, thousands of years ago. Cooks still pound mixtures in mortars like the Mesopotamians and fry things in frying pans like the ancient Romans. We still use wire balloon whips to beat egg whites like an 18th-century French confectioner, and we still stir soups with wooden spoons like a Victorian chef. Cooks are conservative beings, masters of small repetitive gestures. For the most part, once we’ve found an invention we like—the steel knife, the colander, the teaspoon—we stick with it.
Based on past form, the sous-vide machine is unlikely to take over from the saucepan any time soon in the majority of home kitchens. It’s true that sous-vide cooking—which comes from the French for “under vacuum”—can produce extraordinary and novel results with the right recipes. Because you can accurately determine the temperature of the water bath in which the sealed food sits, you can cook it with far more precision than traditional techniques such as braising or boiling allow. New potatoes cooked in butter taste like the platonic ideal of a potato: waxy and deeply buttery. Cheap flank steak melts like fillet.
But a sous-vide machine is a bulky object and a major investment: $300 and up. Unlike the Cuisinarts that transformed the possibilities of ambitious cookery in the 1970s, sous-vide makes life more complicated rather than less. (If you want to eat large pieces of meat, you need to start two days ahead.) What’s more, all of the wasteful paraphernalia of modernist gastronomy—the heavy duty plastic bags, the nitrogen canisters, and so on—seem to go against our intention, however imperfectly realized, to be slightly greener. A home chef who is taking the trouble to compost vegetable peelings and cook more vegetarian meals to reduce the household’s carbon footprint probably wouldn’t acquire a sous-vide machine. In such a kitchen, the best technology might be a cast-iron skillet, which can be thriftily used for everything from toasting sandwiches to frying eggs.
Much of today’s cutting-edge cuisine is moving toward the low-tech rather than the high-tech. Look at coffee. Ten years ago, the action was all in huge spluttering espresso machines. Coffee obsessives endlessly finessed the physics of the process—the grind, the tamp, the pressure—in their quest for the “God shot”: the perfect crema-topped espresso. But now, the coffee culture has moved on. The world’s greatest coffee experts—whether in Melbourne, New York, London, or Berlin—are moving beyond espresso; indeed, largely beyond electricity. They found that with the most delicious and complex beans, the simple pour-over method was a more effective brewing technique to deliver the aromas than espresso. Another new-wave coffee tool is the AeroPress, a cheap plastic device that uses air pressure to force coffee down a tube into a mug. All you need is a kettle and strong arms. This, to me, looks more like the future than a pricy, high-maintenance bean-to-cup cappuccino maker.
I’m not saying that nothing will ever change in the way the world cooks. Refrigerators, which over the past 100 years have taken over from stoves as the single focal point around which kitchens are designed, look set to become ever more avant-garde. We’ve already seen smart fridges, with touch screens offering weather reports and Twitter feeds as you get yourself a glass of ice water. Now researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom are working on the concept of a self-cleaning refrigerator that would scan the shelves and move products that needed to be eaten to the front.
Arguably, however, the two most important kitchen devices of the future will be rather more basic and familiar: the microwave and the rice cooker. The reason for both is China. The most significant creation of the postwar “made in Japan” electronics boom was not the Walkman or the video recorder but the electric rice cooker, which changed life in millions of households in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. Previously, the whole evening had been tied up by the need to produce steamed sticky white rice, which needed careful washing, soaking, and cooking in an earthenware pot. Now, the same rice could be produced with the flick of a switch. Rice cooker sales continue to gallop apace in mainland China, where in remote peasant kitchens, a rice cooker, once acquired, may be the only stove. If the rice cooker industry could find a way to go mass-market in India as well as China, then it truly would be the dominant kitchen gadget of the future, but thus far rice cookers have not been so effective for cooking the fluffy long-grain rice of India and Pakistan.
Another technology that China has embraced is the microwave, which can seem like a dated ’80s relic in the West. In addition to making most of the world’s microwave ovens, China now buys them, too, in ever greater numbers. In the early 1990s, Galanz, a leading manufacturer, was selling just a few hundred thousand units a year in China. By 2000, they were selling 7 million, and production continues to grow, helped by special models aimed at the Chinese market designed to function more like traditional steamers.
The microwave turns out to be a surprisingly good fit with Chinese cuisine, used for steaming fish or bean curd as well as reheating family meals. And yet, for all of its inroads, the microwave cannot displace the more fundamental tools of Chinese cooking. The bedrock of every Chinese meal remains the tou, the cleaver-like knife that has been in continuous use since the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 B.C.), and which looks set to stay at the heart of Chinese cooking in the future, too.
My prediction? In the future, if there is a future, we will slice ingredients with knives, cook them in pots over heat, stir them with spoons … and eat them with our mouths.
Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; the United States and Europe switch perspectives on GMOs; celebrating the inevitable decline of the cookbook; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.