Meld, launching on Kickstarter today, is a new “smart” cooking system with a pedigree and approach that differentiates it in the crowded fields of Kickstarter gadgets and Internet of Things devices. Developed by the former head of engineering at Pinterest and an award-winning food scientist, Meld promises to solve a small annoyance that’s all too familiar for any half-decent home chef: cooking food at the right temperature.
Ask professional chefs and they’ll say that the secret to delivering consistently delicious food is precise temperature control. This is often accomplished by way of sous vide, a French cooking technique that uses meticulously fine-tuned temperatures (anywhere from 130 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit) to slowly and evenly distribute heat to meat, vegetables, and even eggs for several hours at a time using a plastic bag and water. Then, for example, when you’re ready to serve a sous vide ribeye that has been left to cook in warm water for an hour or two, you simply take the hunk of grayish-pink flesh out of its bag, quickly sear both sides in a cast-iron skillet (or if you really want to put on a show, with a blowtorch), and voilà: perfectly pink restaurant-quality steak, little to no guesswork necessary.
Ultra-precise temperature modulation is incredibly difficult to replicate in the home kitchen. Stoves are fickle, even if you have a thermometer. And a clunky sous vide countertop machine can cost hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of dollars. That’s just now starting to change, as the New York Times recently chronicled, thanks to the computerization of the home kitchen and a new range of simplified sous vide devices in the $200 range.
The Meld Knob+Clip is a new approach to precision cooking. The system was developed by Jon Jenkins, who grew the technology team at Pinterest threefold as the head of engineering until he left in December 2013, and Darren Vengroff, an engineer and food scientist who, a few years ago, developed the first app to estimate sous vide cooking times. (The two met in 2004 when they both worked for Amazon.) At its most basic, the Knob+Clip is a Bluetooth smart thermometer paired with a twisting, smartphone-powered knob that replaces the dial for one of the burners on your stove. Once it’s installed, the pair work in tandem, “talking” to one another to calibrate your stove’s heat on the fly.
It’s a clever solution that doesn’t just apply to sous vide–you can use it to slow cook a chili as if you were using a crockpot, or deep fry some flour-dredged chicken. Meld takes out much of the messy guesswork. For example, the devices will immediately detect that the cold chicken has caused the oil’s temperature to plummet, and will fire up the heat accordingly. To use it, you can either select from a preset recipe in the Meld app’s database that allows the Knob+Clip to attenuate temperatures accordingly, or manually control the heat yourself. What’s more, since no two stoves are exactly the same (even if they’re the same make and model), the Meld will learn a stove’s nuances over time.
Jenkins says that as a not-terrible home chef, he has long had an interest in cooking and knew that there was an opportunity to build something new in the connected kitchen–something beyond smart scales or silly Internet-connected refrigerators. (It’s okay that the egg tray is dumb.) “We sort of dabbled around with a couple of different cooking ideas, and then we settled on this in April 2014,” he tells me when we speak. “The first thing we actually built was a Bluetooth temperature transmitter, and the first thing we learned is that getting the temperature right is the most frustrating part ever. You crank up the heat, you overshoot; you crank it down, you undershoot. With our first prototype we learned, Holy crap! Controlling heat on a stove is hard. That’s what led us to build the knob.”
You don’t have to look very hard to find the parallels between what Meld does for the stovetop and what Tony Fadell’s Nest does for thermostats. Both are designed to regulate heat with certainty, and both help to smarten up a traditionally “dumb” part of your home. And like Nest, making the Meld as easy to install as possible was one of the main hurdles. From an engineering perspective, how do you ensure that the knob would be compatible with all stoves, both gas and electric, which can vary dramatically from kitchen to kitchen? “Initially, we were a bit naive,” Jenkins admits. “We thought that all stoves would have the same underlying shaft. It was a little more complicated than that.” To solve the problem, the Meld team drew inspiration from the August Smart Lock, which includes tiny plastic adapters to ensure the lock can interface with a variety of doorways. It’s not the most elegant solution, but the Meld comes with seven different plastic shaft adapters designed to fit the most common types of stove knobs out there.
Safety, of course, is the other big concern. As a precaution, Meld will never turn the stove on for you–you have to do that manually. (And if you’re so lazy that you need a device to turn on the stove, please go back to putting Lean Cuisines in the microwave.) “We always make you turn it on,” Jenkins says. “The reason is that for any modern stove, you have to push in the knob to turn it on. We didn’t want to override that [safety measure]. We could have technically, but we didn’t want to.” Under certain circumstances–the water in your pan evaporates, for example–Meld can and will turn your stove off. Jenkins warns that, as with anything you throw on a stovetop, some degree of attention is still required.
As Pinterest’s engineering lead, most of the problem-solving revolved around using data to make the pinning site as addictive as possible, like using machine learning to track and predict usage patterns. If Meld meets its curiously modest $50,000 fundraising goal, the device could have broad and useful applications for the reams of data it gathers. “Over time, we can shorten a recipe by five seconds or extend it for five seconds,” he says. “We can look at the ratings for that recipe and over time learn that recipe A is in fact better, kind of exactly the way an Amazon listing can do that.” Although Jenkins was careful not to tease out his vision too far into the future, he notes that the Knob+Clip is but the first product in the company’s plans to build a truly connected smart kitchen.
At a selling price of $129 (or $99 for early-bird funders), if it delivers as advertised–and the gadget is pretty much ready to go, I’m told–the Meld could certainly help bring precision temperature cooking a little closer to the mainstream, and maybe even help dispel some of the mystery that may be confusing for the amateur chef. “The part that’s fascinating to me as an engineer is that cooking can be broken down into engineering-style concepts,” Jenkins says. “There’s no disagreement that medium rare is 54.4 degrees Celsius. It’s fun trying to distill the parts out that can be science.”