The last year has been a challenging experience for us in several respects, including forced isolation from our friends, family, and co-workers, but it has also increased the time many of us have spent in our kitchens and preparing meals.
Meal preparation can be therapeutic, but it can also be tiring. And it can be frustrating when the results end up very different from what we intended due to the lack of precision we may have in cooking proteins, vegetables, and baking.
There’s nothing worse than overcooking a nice piece of beef or fish. So, how do you know when something is done, or as it is referred to in restaurants, “à point?“
The development of sous vide
In recent years, that answer has become “Sous Vide” (or, the more scientific term, “immersion circulation”). Precision in cooking expensive proteins such as high-end cuts of beef or delicate seafood is paramount.
Sous vide immersion circulation is a cooking technique developed in the early 1970s in France by the French culinary scientist and inventor Bruno Goussalt. It was later used for the French national railway system, SNCF, during the 1980s to prepare first-class meals for many passengers — up to hundreds at a time. It was then adapted for use in other institutional food preparation scenarios and fine dining in Europe and the US.
The principle is simple: A protein, such as a beef filet primal or individually cut steaks, is placed in a waterproof bag — typically, vacuum sealed — and immersed in circulating, hot water that is set to a specific target temperature (such as 126 degrees F) to reach doneness such as medium-rare. After several hours of cooking in the water bath, the protein is then quickly seared in a pan (to create a crust) and then plated along with the other dish components such as vegetables and starches.
The beauty of sous vide is that, once the target temperature is set, it doesn’t matter if the protein in the bath sits there until the moment it reaches doneness (such as two hours) or if it sits in the circulator all day. Because the water bath is thermostabilized and never exceeds that target temperature, the protein never goes past that level of doneness. So, you can prepare your steak, chicken, or fish, immerse it first thing in the morning, and come back and sear it in the evening.
Enter the combi
Companies such as Anova Culinary (and its countless knockoffs, such as Instant Pot, Breville, and Inkbird) have innovated in the immersion circulator space. What used to cost thousands of dollars are now microcontroller-based small appliances that attach to regular cooking pots, the size of a small hairdryer, for under $100 and up to $400, depending on the wattage needed to circulate and heat the volume of water.
There’s a limit to what you can do with a traditional immersion circulator, though; it’s only for cooking a protein or a meal that will be slow-cooked in the bag. And while the requirement for vacuum sealing has been lifted through the use of re-sealable and reusable silicone bags, you still need to use traditional pots and pans for other steps of the meal-cooking process, such as for searing and creating pan sauces.
Additionally, small home immersion circulators tend to work best with smaller, pre-cut proteins, such as individual steaks and filets — not entire primals like whole turkeys, briskets, and standing rib roasts.
Restaurants can get around that problem with “combi” ovens — which use a combination of convection circulation and steam injection to perform a “bathless” type of sous vide. But restaurant combi ovens can cost over $10,000, and home versions are still very high-end (in the multi-thousand dollar range), such as those made by Miele, Jenn-Air, and Wolf.
Having brought sous vide down to price levels any family can enjoy and recorded over 100 million cooks with their app — Anova is yet again innovating in the home appliance space by introducing the first affordable combi oven: The Anova Precision Oven, which retails for $600.
Testing the Anova Precision Oven (APO)
We had a chance to put the Anova Precision Oven (known affectionately by its fans on Facebook as the “APO”) for the past few weeks. We cooked a wide variety of dishes, including pork roasts, pork bellies, beef briskets, and seafood. Additionally, a lot of baking was accomplished. We also used it for mundane tasks such as meal reheating, as the device is supposed to replace traditional appliances such as toaster ovens, conventional kitchen ovens, and air fryers.
Out of the box
The APO resembles a large microwave and takes up a lot of counter space. It is 22.4 inches wide x 17.7 inches deep x 14.1 inches high. The interior cavity has a capacity of 1.2 cubic feet.
The oven comes with two wire grate racks with five adjustment slots for spacing. It also comes with a single grooved 15 ⅞-inch x 12-inch sheet pan that is of a proprietary size — a standard half-size sheet pan is about an inch too wide, so you will need to clean the supplied sheet pan regularly — Anova doesn’t currently sell extras, although this is coming soon. In the meantime, this manufacturer on Amazon has 16-inch x 12-inch pans known to fit. Here’s a thread on Reddit where various other third-party accessories have been tried that fit, as well.
The oven uses a refillable reservoir — similar to the kind you might find on a coffee machine like a Keurig — to load water for the steam/sous vide function. Although the manual recommends using distilled water, any filtered water can be used without damaging the machine, as the equipment can be descaled of any accumulated minerals. When the reservoir is in use, and the steam function is activated, steam vapors can typically be seen escaping from the machine’s lower-right corner. While this was alarming, it is entirely normal and why Anova recommends not installing under upper cabinets.
We noticed one minor issue with the reservoir after about a week of heavy use: The development of tiny hairline cracks in the tank. These are internal stress fractures in the tank material caused by the thermal stress of the heat of the oven and escaping steam. It’s a known issue with its transparent BPA-free material that usually doesn’t affect the tank’s water-tightness, and Anova’s team is working on solving the problem. It will send you a replacement if it happens.
Due to its steam and sous vide function, the oven needs to be placed in a location where the surface is impervious to water (for example, a granite countertop). If you have a wood countertop, it is recommended to get a waterproof mat to protect the countertop from steam and heat.
The machine also has heavy power requirements, a total of 1800W peak draw, so you don’t want it to share a circuit with another high-wattage appliance.
Using the APO
The oven contains multiple independently programmable heating elements that, via the app, allow you to create and playback complex multi-stage cooking sequences using the top (1600W), bottom (700W), rear (1600W), and the steam boiler (1200W). These programmable heating elements are combined with multiple sensors: A thermocouple food probe, a steam boil sensor, an ambient temperature sensor, and a wet-bulb sensor for precise food cooking and oven temperature management. An onboard microcontroller computer using proportional, integral, and derivative (PID) algorithms regulates how fast the elements heat up and stabilizes overall cavity temperature within 0.5 degrees F of setpoint, just like its ultra-expensive restaurant counterpart does.
While the machine can be manually operated through its touch control system and a digital segment-style alphanumeric LED display on the oven handle, most users will interact with the system using the Anova Oven smartphone app.
Setup occurs through the app, which is also used to manage the firmware on the device when Anova issues updates or fixes. The oven itself has a 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi transceiver — there’s no provision for using it on a 5Ghz network. While I did not encounter this particular problem myself, since I have a dedicated Wi-Fi network for connecting legacy 802.11g devices, I have been told by several users who have either returned the product or gone through extensive debugging of their networks that initial connectivity to 802.11ac 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi networks with certain 40Mhz and 80Mhz channel width configurations, as opposed to the default 20Mhz used with embedded low-power Wi-Fi and other IoT devices, can be problematic with the unit.
Using the Anova Oven app, the initial account owner sets the device up and can invite additional users to set up their user profiles on Anova’s cloud service. The user profiles store things like cooking histories and saved recipes. Unfortunately, these cannot be shared across profiles in the same household (attached to the same oven), to another APO user across social networks, or exported or imported through a file or an email attachment. The company is currently working to facilitate better recipe sharing, which is expected in a forthcoming update.
Once setup completes, the oven can be programmed in three ways: Through recipes published under the search interface (such as “Crispy Pork Belly” or “Omelet 101” ) that have been curated and submitted by Anova staff members or customers through the company’s online forum; the “Oven” tab on the app UX, where every aspect of the device’s settings can be customized; or through a “Quick Start” UX, where commonly used cooking scenarios such as convection bake, dehydrate, broil, air fry, bake, proof, and steam are preset for quick execution and minimal data entry.
A typical recipe has several stages — usually, a preheat stage (where the oven cavity temperature is set) and then additionally timed and probed cooking stages (where the transitions between stages can be automatic or manual, requiring intervention at the app or on the oven controls).
The first recipe we made was Omelet 101. This entails cooking beaten eggs in a greased nonstick pan at 181.4 degrees F.
No, this is not the most time-efficient or labor-reducing way to make an omelet. However, as anyone who has gone through culinary school knows, making a perfect French omelet — with no browned edges and with uniform consistency — is not an easy thing to do on a stovetop; it requires a lot of practice to get right, and it is the sign of a well-trained chef if executed with skill. Eggs are very sensitive to temperature. It is, however, something that the APO can do with ease because of its ability to precisely set cavity temperature using its wet-bulb temperature measurement technology.
The resulting product was like something you would get in first class on an international airline flight — silky smooth, fluffy. The eggs were perfectly cooked. Was it a “better” omelet than what I usually make? Not necessarily, but I can see how this might come in handy if I had a couple or two over for brunch and I wanted to impress them with something fancy. This could easily scale up to the size of the Anova sheet pan to feed a larger crowd. You could stack two or three of these in the oven, no problem.
We then moved onto larger proteins. I decided I was in the mood for pork. So, I bought two loin roasts with intact fat caps. I marinated both overnight, one with soy and five-spice Asian combination, and the other a Cuban/Puerto Rican-style mojo criollo and sour orange. Both were approximately the same weight, about 2lbs each.
For reference, I used the pork tenderloin portion of the “Steamed BBQ Pork Bao” recipe published in the app, which calls for setting the oven to 175 degrees F and cooking until the internal temperature of the pork loin reaches 165 degrees F. Both loin roasts were cooked at once, but only one had the probe inserted. Probe cooking large proteins using the steam/sous vide is where the device shines, as it results in incredibly juicy meat. In a dry oven, 165 degrees F for a pork tenderloin, which the recipe initially called for, is closer to thoroughly done. Next time I do this in the APO, however, I will stop it at 150 degrees F internal rather than 165 degrees F, as I tend to prefer my pork more on the medium side. Still, the meat was quite moist because of the added steam injection, the slow cooking process, and the intact fat cap on top.
We also cured a pork belly for two days in an Asian spice brine, and sous vided it for eight hours at 155 degrees F, followed by removing the fat cap and crisping that separately at 482 degrees F (the maximum internal cavity temperature of the oven) using the top heating element. The settings we derived from the Anova Precision Oven User Group on Facebook, which is a very active and helpful community. The result was phenomenal: Perfectly juicy pork bacon, with crispy crackling. We served this on baguette sandwiches with Vietnamese-style pickled vegetables and a chili garlic crisp mayo, and it was a huge hit.
I also wanted to see how the APO handled more delicate proteins, so we cooked shell-on, Florida farm-raised jumbo shrimp with heads from Sun Shrimp in a New Orleans-style BBQ style presentation, with butter, chopped garlic, black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, using the Sheet Pan Garlic Butter Shrimp recipe in the app. All we did was mix those ingredients, toss them in an oval Pyrex casserole dish, and hit start on the app after selecting the recipe. I can’t remember having more perfectly cooked, on-point shrimp, even at one of my local South Florida restaurants.
But the recipe that may have convinced one of my house guests to buy their own APO was the steam phase of our homemade pastrami, a brisket point that had been previously brined for a week and then smoked for 12 hours over charcoal and fruitwood outside in my Big Green Egg. The meat was allowed to refrigerate and rest overnight, and then reheated in the APO at 212 degrees F with 100% steam, and sous vide until the internal probe temperature hit 200 degrees F (about two hours). The results and the reactions of those who consumed it were, shall we say, downright indecent.
The APO underwent a significant amount of baking use, as we had a semi-professional baker staying with us for a week testing her recipes for her upcoming gluten-free pastry business in Houston. So, a wide variety of buns, cakes, brownies, muffins, and scones were baked in the unit in addition to my wife’s usual runs of sourdough bread.
Usually, my wife bakes her sourdough in a cast-iron dutch oven inside the regular oven. This captures the steam from the dough to help with the bread’s oven spring (or rise). In the APO, a similar result is achieved by lining a rack with unglazed tiles (some in the APO User Group use third-party steel plates) and baking with 100% steam during the first phase. In the second stage, she inserts the probe set to 206 degrees F and finishes the bake without steam.
The Anova doesn’t really improve sourdough bread results, but it does save you the bother of messing with a 500-degree cast iron dutch oven in the middle of a bake. However, we recommend that you don’t use the in-app Sourdough Boule recipe, as we’ve discovered that the heat is too high.
We also baked cookies, knishes, and various other baked goods with minimal adjustments to the original recipes. Everything came out very well, but usually faster than in a conventional oven. The User Group helped adjust recipe times and temperatures and when and how much steam to use. There’s a definite learning curve to using the APO, no question, and you’ll have to adapt your cooking techniques.
Maintenance and cleaning
After a while and four different fatty meat dishes, we realized the APO was getting pretty filthy due to the heavy aerosolization of grease from convection and steam injection. Following the directions recommended by an Anova employee on the User Group, we picked up some Easy-Off Fume Free Oven Cleaner, steamed the oven for a bit, sprayed on the cleaner, and allowed to sit for several hours. The significant accumulation of grime was wiped right off with only a little elbow grease and many paper towels.
So, is it worth the money, and can it produce excellent results? Yes. Is it a product for every household that can afford it, as the immersion circulators? At this point in the product’s development, no. This is a first-generation product for food geeks who will gladly endure minor software glitches and heavy online interaction with fellow users to determine optimal settings and use and who can overcome a significant learning curve in adjusting cooking techniques to replicate the nirvana of achieving fine restaurant-quality cuisine. In essence, those willing to be very early adopters with emerging home kitchen technology.
Although Anova is continuously improving the app, and bugs are being squashed weekly, it is still too complex and is the weak point of this product. Although all recipe data entry occurs in the app, logic is split between the smartphone, the oven, and Anova’s cloud service, so glitchiness during program execution can occur in three different places. Because the app is designed to work from anywhere, most of the problems arise due to the communication between the smartphone and the cloud — sometimes sequences will get stuck or don’t start. Additionally, the oven doesn’t stop cooking after the final sequence is completed, even though it alerts you that it is done — this is again yet another thing the company is working on adding in an update.
Although the product has a “Quick Start” section in the app, ideally, we would love to see a “simple” version of the app that mimics the operation of a toaster oven broiler (like a Breville) for rudimentary cooking tasks (such as reheating a pizza or takeout). If this product is supposed to replace a traditional oven, an air fryer, and the trusty toaster oven, it shouldn’t require conjuring my system integration expertise at 8am to toast a bagel. For big meals with large proteins, the detailed settings and programs are great, but the APO is overkill for everything else unless they can figure out how to make it easier for the average person to use.
We’d also like to see the company provide a developer API so that the community can work on better third-party apps (such as the “simple” app described above). Someone who cooks meat and seafood, for example, might want a more optimized UX than someone who bakes. Anova’s strength is clearly in hardware design, evidenced by the results of the food we cooked in the Precision Oven.
Overall, we feel this is a product category that can ultimately be very transformative for the home kitchen, such as the sous vide circulator or the microwave oven. But it is a product of high technical complexity and will take several iterations until all aspects are perfected, especially the software app.