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September/October 2018

Hestan Cue Smart Cooking System

This intelligent cooking set includes an induction burner that wirelessly communicates with specialized cookware, promising that you'll “cook better food, more often.” Does it live up to that promise?

How We Tested

In the future of home cooking, you won't have to worry about getting the temperature of your burner just right or setting a timer—your cookware will automatically do it for you. At least this is the idea behind the Hestan Cue Smart Cooking System, which is composed of three Bluetooth-enabled items: a 1,600-watt induction burner; an 11-inch tri-ply skillet; and a 5.5-quart saucier pan with lid. All three are connected to an app that has step-by-step recipes peppered with photos and short explanatory videos. As you make these recipes, the app automatically controls the burner's heat based on temperature sensors in the pan and burner. At the time of this writing, there are upwards of 100 recipes, but as with all “smart,” connected products, updates and additional recipes are forthcoming. You can also use the Hestan Cue to cook manually, without the app, by adjusting the heat of the burner (which is compatible with other induction cookware) using a swipe-style control panel set into its rim.

So can this smart cooking system really help you navigate meal preparation and make it easier? To find out, we purchased each component (the skillet and burner are bundled as a set for $499.95; the $299.95 saucier pan is sold separately), downloaded the free app onto a smartphone (and a tablet), and followed the step-by-step instructions to prepare a variety of recipes. In the skillet, we pan-seared chicken breasts and prepared tomato-balsamic vinaigrette, fried breaded eggplant slices and made a thick marinara to top them, and finished by making salted almond brittle for dessert. We tried three additional recipes in the pot: cacio e pepe, chicken noodle soup, and fried chicken wings. During our testing, Hestan (a Napa Valley–based company that bears no relation to the famous chef Heston Blumenthal) announced that it had partnered with ChefSteps, the maker of our favorite sous vide immersion circulator, so we fired up the app to try a recipe for New York strip steak that started using sous vide (in a separate container) and finished in the skillet. We also tested the skillet and burner without the app, manually cooking fried and scrambled eggs.

Evaluating Hestan Cue Recipes

All the food we prepared looked and tasted fresh and flavorful (recipes tended to call for generous quantities of fat and salt), and we liked that the step-by-step videos often included widely applicable techniques, such as prepping garlic or herbs. However, using the Hestan Cue didn't always feel like we were learning to cook: One tester turned out perfect corn pancakes but said she didn't feel that she had personally cooked them, a common remark from testers. As another put it, “I feel like I was the pan's assistant.” The process also sometimes felt chaotic, as we found ourselves anxiously jumping between the app, the pan, and what we were supposed to be doing with the food at every step. The recipes are clever, with short ingredient lists, but the system doesn't always have you prep all the ingredients first; instead it often abruptly weaves in chopping and slicing, which sometimes left us scrambling.

As cooking nerds, we loved that the system came with a small metal ruler for measuring food thickness; the app uses this data to gauge how long and at what temperature to cook certain foods properly. But the system isn't foolproof: The app told us to measure only the thickest portion of a chicken breast and input that number. That thick part cooked perfectly, but the rest of the breast was much thinner and emerged overcooked and tough, albeit under a beautifully golden crust. It would have worked better if we'd been instructed first to pound the meat into a uniform thickness, a common chef's trick. Trial and error helped: When we seared the second pair of chicken breasts, we deducted about 10 percent from the thickness measurement, the app shortened the cooking time accordingly, and the chicken came out much more moist. Even with this smart system, a thinking cook is still a must.

Another flaw that affected meal preparation time was the size of the skillet. It measures 11 inches from rim to rim but narrows to a 7½-inch cooking surface that doesn't accommodate much food (two chicken breasts, one large pancake, or a few slices of eggplant), often requiring multiple batches when preparing more than two servings. Similarly, when frying wings in the saucier pan, we could manage only eight wings at a time. However, this recipe also revealed a benefit: With the app controlling the oil temperature and the high sides of the pan containing splatter, we've never been quite so relaxed while frying—and the wings came out crispy and juicy, too.

The Hestan Cue's Electronics Are Fragile

One notable downside to the Hestan Cue system is its fragility when compared with traditional cookware and heat sources. Its pans come with a 3-inch-long metal pod containing electronics that you push into a hollow in the handle and secure with a tiny screw; these electronics cannot get wet, so you have to be sure never to splash or immerse the handle while you wash the pans, which are not dishwasher-safe. (Removing the pod isn't easy, so you wouldn't want to do it every time.) The pans also can't be used on any other heat source (such as your stovetop) and can't go into the oven (as you might do when finishing a thicker steak after pan-searing it or to keep food warm until serving). As we followed the Hestan Cue's recipe for cacio e pepe, the first step was to cook the pasta “in a large pot.” We were confused about which pot to use, and although the app didn't automatically turn on the burner, it also didn't explicitly say not to use the Hestan Cue. So we filled the Chef's Pot saucier pan we had in front of us and used the burner manually. Unfortunately, the water (to which we had added flour, as the recipe required) boiled over. The thick starchy liquid flowed into the burner through the numerous vents on its sides, and it shut down—permanently. After we worked to resuscitate it, texting back and forth with customer support staff at Hestan, they instructed us to return it for a free replacement. The lesson: The Hestan Cue System doesn't eliminate the need for other tools in your kitchen.

Limited Recipes, Hard to Search

Another limitation of the system is its recipe database that is primarily designed for browsing, making it a struggle if you want to use ingredients you happen to have on hand. We tried searching for common ingredients, including “pasta,” “blueberries,” “ground beef,” and “hot sauce,” but none had any recipe results. We eventually found three pasta dishes listed under “starches.” We found more than a dozen recipes for steak, but only for specific, expensive cuts including filet mignon, rib eye, and T-bone; we had only cheap steaks on hand, and there was no indication of how to adapt these recipes to cook them. However, one of the benefits of a smart product is that it can evolve, and more recipes have been added since we began testing.

Is the Hestan Cue Worth Buying?

Overall, the Hestan Cue fulfilled its promise of guided cooking within its limited selection of recipes. It made meal preparation into a game, which was fairly enjoyable, as were the Instagram-worthy results, since the app is good at teaching how to plate and garnish for maximum visual appeal, though it was unclear whether the system really could teach someone how to cook. As for the pans themselves, we wish they were a bit bigger to accommodate family-size portions, didn't have fragile electronics in their handles, and worked in ovens or on stovetops. That said, the pans are fully clad and otherwise sturdily built: Whacking them with a metal spoon and cutting in them with a knife barely left marks. Cleaning them was not overly difficult once we mastered keeping the handle out of the water, especially since food resisted sticking to the smooth stainless-steel cooking surfaces. We expect that the system will continue to evolve and improve over time, and in the meantime, we can recommend it with reservations.

Methodology

We tested the Hestan Cue Smart Cooking System ($499.95 for burner and skillet) and Chef's Pot ($299.95 for saucier pan), using the Hestan Cue app to guide us as we prepared a variety of Hestan Cue recipes; we also cooked manually without the app. We rated the system on pan performance, food quality, ease of use, and cleanup, as well as durability. We purchased the product online, and the price shown is what we paid.

Rating Criteria

Pan Performance: We rated the skillet and saucier pan on how evenly and dependably they cooked food as we prepared recipes.

Food Quality: We sampled the food and evaluated its appearance, texture, flavor, and overall palatability.

Ease of Use: We considered whether using the app, pans, and burner made it easy, intuitive, and unambiguous for testers to complete recipes with good outcomes.

Cleanup/Durability: We washed the pans by hand after each test, rating them on how easy they were to clean. We hit each pan hard with a metal utensil and cut inside the pans with a chef's knife to see if they became dented or scratched. We also examined the pans and burner at the conclusion of testing for wear and tear.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.