Almost every day in my well-used home kitchen, I work with a double standard. I pop something in the oven and dial in a specific temperature, say 175°C. However, on the stovetop, I settle for the vagueness of low, medium, or high. When I go see my mother-in-law, and swap my electric range for her gas flames, is my “medium” the same as her medium? No, it is not.
Breville PolyScience Control Freak
A restaurant-quality burner that lets you control the temperature of the pan on it, or the temperature of the liquid inside. Allows some sous vide-style methods to be done without a plastic bag. Inspires creative chefs to up their game and improve their cooking. More kitchen applications than you can shake a stick at.
Being on the cutting edge doesn’t come cheap, especially with a restaurantgrade device. At $1,800, many users will want to wait for a home version to appear.
Set for release today, Breville/PolyScience’s Control °Freak is a restaurant-grade induction burner that allows a chef to dial in either the surface temperature of a pot or the temperature of the liquid inside it. As someone with the disposition to experiment with the options this presents, this gave me a little frisson, accompanied by the feeling I was seeing the future.
The setup of the Control Freak (OK, I’m dropping the “°” from °Freak now) is similar to a traditional induction burner, but this one has a spring-loaded nubbin that pokes a quarter-inch out of the center and reads the pan’s surface temperature. Fill a pot with liquid, mount a temperature probe to its side, and switch to controlling the temperature of the liquid. Cooks can also control how quickly a liquid approaches the target temperature, giving lots of control for something like tempering chocolate, which requires a fair amount of finesse.
Take eggs. I put a whole, large egg in water set to 65°C (French food scientist Hervé This’s favorite egg temperature) for 25 minutes and got a white that was just set, and a nice, runny yolk. I tried again, this time putting a dozen eggs in the water and heard the machine rev up to keep the water temperature where I wanted it. I ended up with a dozen perfect eggs. I watched superchef Heston Blumenthal poke a thermometer in a pot of water set to 80°C and poach an egg for four minutes that emerged with a nicely set white and runny yolk.
I put these ideas together for a test, setting the water to 70°C and cooked an egg in its shell next to one out of its shell, poached style. Twenty minutes later, I set the poached-style egg on a plate and gently broke the other one out of its shell. They both had a set white and a yolk texture that food folks like to call “fudgy,” but while the poached-style egg looked like fancy-restaurant fare, the egg cooked in its shell emerged as separate units—the yolk, a little orange golf ball atop the white. I showed them to my wife, who stared at both of them in silence before pointing at the poached-style egg and said, “Pretty.”
Next, I whisked some raw eggs and poured them into a small pan set to a constant 95°C, mimicking the slow-scramble technique that typically requires a double boiler, and created one of the richest, creamiest scrambles I’ve ever eaten. I made plans to convert my double boiler into a planter.
I thought about what this meant for something like poaching fish, but instead of poaching it at a temperature that approached boiling, cooking it in a court bouillon at the exact doneness temperature that I wanted for the fish itself. I also thought about using the same technique in a small pot and butter poaching lobster like top chefs Thomas Keller and Sam Hayward, then using that butter as part of a sauce. Hubba, hubba!
Are you feeling the love? Fans of sous vide (the technique of cooking low and slow in a water bath, typically with the food in a plastic bag), did you notice how we just cooked sous vide-style without a plastic bag?
The more I cooked with the Control Freak, the more I realized that this is an exciting version of the stovetop of the not-so-distant future. Indeed, a Kickstarter project last year called Meld proposed a widget that senses the temperature inside a pot and beams it to another widget that automatically adjusts that burner’s control knob (Meld recently “joined forces with a large kitchenware company.”) In Spain, Joan Roca, the first major chef to write a book about sous vide cooking, just put out a new book about “low-temp” cooking along with the Rocook, a device that looks quite a bit like a home version of the Control Freak. (In setting up this review, Breville mentioned a forthcoming home version of the Control Freak. Stay tuned.)
The machine made me pay attention to what I was doing, maybe even a bit more than I would have if I was working on a normal range. In exchange, I was learning more about heat and becoming a better cook as a result.
At home, I cooked shrimp and grits, taking advantage of the subtlety and high power of the Control Freak, whether bringing the water to a simmer quickly or leaving it for hours at 80°C, a temperature the hydrating grits seemed to like without cooking off too much water.
I took note that even in a big, thick Dutch oven, simply stirring the pot a bit made the temperature dip and that the temperature at the top and bottom of the inch-thick layer of grits varied by as much as 10°C with the lid off. The machine made me pay attention to what I was doing, maybe even a bit more than I would have if I was working on a normal range. In exchange, I was learning more about heat and becoming a better cook as a result.
I dry-brined the shrimp, put the grits aside and melted a lot of butter in a small saucepan. Using the probe, I brought the butter to 55°C, a fairly-perfect doneness temperature for shrimp. It also meant that unless I intentionally neglected them, they’d be hard to overcook. In the end, it wasn’t as seamless as I’d hoped, as the ratio of cold shrimp to warm butter was close to one-to-one. This meant it took a little while to come up to temperature, but it was the first time I’d done it, and in the end, they were freaking perfect. My wife enjoyed them so much, she joked that it was, “like her birthday.”
You’ll Warm to It
There are certainly some quirks. Temperature control isn’t quite as precise as you might think. One example is when I heated cast-iron pan heated to a specific temperature on the “fast” setting. The Control Freak hit it impressively quickly, then like Forrest Gump running straight through the end zone and out of the stadium, it just kept on going. A pan set to 55°C temporarily shot up to 80 before coming back down to 55—ditto for another pan set to 80 which peaked at 113. Plugging the probe in doesn’t turn on “probe control” or even prompt the option, something I only needed to realize once. Cooking while using the probe also meant that if I wanted to put a lid on it, I had to get creative, something the Rocook’s already got figured out.
I noodled around with several favorite recipes to see if I could get better and repeatable results with the Control Freak. Very often, I did.
It should also come with a cookbook or at least a long list of techniques on either the Breville or PolyScience website (Reportedly, there will be just a few). Yes, this is a model is made for restaurant kitchens—it’s scrubbable even though it’s got ports for an extra-deep USB and the temperature probe—but no chef is going to realize all of the applications a tool like this offhand. While I wondered how it might do making French fries or how best to use it for a braise, a chef at Breville mentioned stuff I would never have thought of, like bringing coffee or tea water to specific temperatures for brewing, or low-temp applications like making yogurt or proofing bread dough. Fortunately, cooks and chefs will be able to do some programmable cooking, which they can then save to the special USB stick that comes with the unit and swap those routines among themselves, and a Breville rep confirmed the firmware is updatable.
But one of the best things about the Control Freak is how it inspires this sense of experimentation. I noodled around with several favorite recipes to see if I could get better and repeatable results with the Control Freak. Very often, I did. In this spirit, I cooked the spuds for mashed potatoes right in the butter and milk (instead of the traditional water), making sure there was enough milk to submerge them, and I did it at 80°C, a typical sous vide temperature for spuds. I drained them, reserving the cooking liquid which had taken on some lovely potato-y flavor, riced the potatoes and added some of that cooking liquid back into them until I got the consistency and flavor I wanted. They were fantastic.
Some chefs might decry the lack of skill involved with this kind of tool, but my testing brought out the opposite effect; it’s the kind of tool that rewarded me for thinking of new ways to use it. If you’re a chef or a home cook that’s into this spirit of experimentation, it’s time to get excited.
Full disclosure: The author wrote about food on a 4-month contract in 2015 for PolyScience competitor, ChefSteps.