The idea behind the first Thermomix was simple enough: It was a food processor that brought the heat. The Thermomix was invented in Europe in the 1960s, a time of social and political upheaval and, apparently, of great demand for blended soups. Et voilà, as they say: Here was a machine that could cook your soup and purée it. The product debuted in France in 1970.
Now the Thermomix, in its latest iteration, boasts “22 culinary functions and techniques,” including sous vide, slow-cooking, and fermentation. It will boil water for tea; it will whip up a meringue or knead a batch of bread. Rice? It can do rice. It can do lemon curd. It can cook a whole chicken or fish. It can do several things at once, mainly through the ingenious combination of three variables—time, temperature, and the speed of the blade at the bottom of its mixing bowl—and a system of stacking trays and other implements. The Thermomix TM6, which went on sale in the U.S. last year, is controlled via touchscreen. It is Wi-Fi-enabled. It costs $1,500.
The promise of the Thermomix, sold by the German manufacturer Vorwerk, is everything done in one pot. Last week I made lentil soup as follows: first by adding oil and onions to the machine, which chopped and then sautéed them in situ; at a much slower speed, the same blade that had just cut the onions stirred them as they cooked. Of course there’s a built-in scale, so you can measure precisely the amounts of ingredients you use. I sprinkled in spices, weighed in some lentils, tomatoes, and water, then set the device to cook while I went into the other room and read a book. The book I was reading was Jill Lepore’s These Truths, a theme of which is that history moves often by fits, starts, and devastating setbacks. A little while later the soup was finished.
The Thermomix is a big deal elsewhere, namely Europe and Australia, with some sources drawing parallels to a certain well-known American corporation. “No other German electrical appliance is so idolized by its owners, and so ridiculed by its critics as the Thermomix,” went one particularly breathless 2015 appraisal, which compared it to Apple’s iPhone: “Both devices can cause hatred or idolatry, admiration or ridicule.” Not just Germany, either. Quartz reports: “In Portugal in 2013, two years after the country defaulted on its debt, people purchased more than 35,000 Thermomixes, with price tags nearly double the monthly minimum wage.”
In the United States, it’s not particularly admired or ridiculed—because it’s still rare. In 2005, when Amanda Hesser tried to get her hands on one (available for only $945 then; they were practically giving them away!), she found that they could only be obtained through demonstration parties, like Tupperware. Today it’s easier to buy a Thermomix, but you can still arrange to take one for a “test-drive” with an “independent consultant.”
The thornier challenge of the Thermomix is that it represents an entirely new way of cooking, one which Europeans, anyway, have had decades to grow accustomed to. Recipes have to be retrofitted, if they can be fitted at all. Ever since Amelia Simmons jotted down some notes on roast fowl and mince pies in American Cookery, and Fanny Farmer formalized a system of kitchen measurements in the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, cooking in the U.S. has evolved around a certain predictable set of equipment and protocols: the tablespoon, the 350-degree oven, the gas or electric burner. The vast majority of recipes in the U.S. are written according to this culinary lingua franca. New technology requires a new form for recipes. Recipe demand drives, uh, supply, I think—what am I, an economist?—so American recipe writers who have quickly jumped on the bandwagon of devices like the Instant Pot haven’t yet gotten much similar inspiration from the Thermomix. Because nobody’s using it.
The Thermomix has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a blender that can cook soup. The best way I can describe its appeal is to tell you about a meal of Hainanese chicken rice I made the other day. This thing can handle a whole chicken, no problem. But first you have to make a sauce, which involves blitzing a few ingredients in the mixing bowl. You remove the sauce but don’t clean the bowl; rather, you add water, then place atop the mixing bowl a perforated plastic chamber called the Varoma, a portmanteau of vapor and aroma.
The Varoma is essentially a way of steaming food while infusing flavor. For an hour the chicken—snug within its Varoma, balanced atop the mixing bowl—sat cooking in the fragrant vapors wafting up from the bowl. Before it was finished, I filled a steamer basket with rice and put it into the mixing bowl—above the water and beneath the chicken. A while later I had a complete meal—chicken, rice, sauce—that’d been intricately designed to be cooked all in one place with one electric heat source, each little part complementing the other. The rice was rich and spicy and a little fatty from the chicken drippings. The chicken itself: perfectly juicy. Steaming that whole thing on the stovetop, by contrast? I never would’ve pulled it off so well.
There are not a lot of American Thermomix influencers out there—possibly only this guy—so if it’s Thermomix influencing you’re after, cast your eyes abroad. Australia, for instance, has grown a robust crop, including Sophia of Sophia’s Kitchen, the source of the Hainanese chicken rice recipe. The Thermomix corporation also has its own database available on the yearly subscription model. My two cents: If you have to lay down $1,500 for a piece of equipment that requires customized recipes, you should get a basically endless supply of free recipes. Anyways, it costs $39 per annum for the pleasure of encountering the word Cookidoo every time you use your Thermomix, because that’s what the online recipe database is called. Cookidoo! There are 40,000 recipes here and counting.
But there’s also something that feels less than exciting about getting your recipes from the very machine you’ll be cooking them in—like having a TV that gets only one channel, even if that channel is pretty good (like, a 24-hour X-Files channel). Part of the emotional appeal of cooking is in the satisfaction of curiosity, or the development of new curiosities: whatever happens when you seek out recipes from an author you admire, or leaf through a beautiful new cookbook, or learn to replicate at home what you’ve eaten somewhere else. I’d much rather make Hainanese chicken rice from Sophia the Australian influencer—a cook with a name and a face—than lentil soup from Cookidoo, but the most appealing scenario here involves some recipe that randomly caught my eye, paired with whatever piece of technology fits it best. Efficiency is overrated; so are the high-tech products often referred to as “smart.” The Thermomix might be as sleek and well-designed as an iPhone, but my iPhone is already ruining my life! But on the other hand, the iPhone can’t steam a chicken.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious