Panasonic gave a splashy introduction to its Countertop Induction Oven at this year’s CES, promising to get tasty dinners on the table in record time by blasting them with impressive-sounding technology.
Panasonic Countertop Induction Oven
Intriguing use of induction heat to power an oven that fits on your countertop.
It’s tiny, it costs $600, and it’s not the time-saver Panasonic wants you to think it is. Recipes in the cookbook are inscrutable and under-researched.
This oven, aka the CIO, pairs an induction burner—which uses an electromagnet to heat a pan on the oven floor—with more traditional infrared burners up top. At $600, the CIO is very pricey, but I’ve got a soft spot for induction burners, usually in the form of a stovetop or standalone plug-in burner, and the whole idea sounded like it had potential.
The oven arrived with a slim hardcover cookbook with “recipes created for Panasonic by the Certified Master Chefs of The Culinary Institute of America.” I flipped through it to see where to start. I quickly found a recipe for “Tandoori Lamb” and marveled that the Panasonic and a renowned cooking school would dare to go toe-to-toe with a traditional heat-blasting tandoor oven.
That was the high point of my enthusiasm for Panasonic’s little oven. I pulled it out of the box, set it on my counter and thought, “Wow! That’s small.” With its own removable grill pan tucked inside, the interior cavity is even smaller; while it is roughly a foot wide and a foot deep, a respectable footprint, the full height is a scant four inches—less than the width of my hand. There would be no whole roast chicken happening in this oven.
Weight a Minute
I cubed some leg of lamb, opened my spice drawer, and got stuck. The recipe called for cardamom, coriander, and cumin, which sounded great as part of a marinade, but neglected to mention if they were whole or ground. Another flag shot up right away when it called for the quantities of those ingredients as tablespoon of cardamom, three teaspoons of coriander and a half-ounce of cayenne.
Kitchen-phobes might not get tripped up on the weirdness of a tablespoon versus three teaspoons (they’re the same amount), but they’d certainly pause when confronted with a weight measure for the cayenne. Recipe writers and testers like myself cringe at this sort of confusion as it’s the equivalent of a sentence using three languages to get a point across. Normally, I wouldn’t fixate on something like this, but if you’re offering a new way to cook and flying the flag of innovation, you need to offer enough crystal-clear examples that home cooks feel confident when they start using the oven to cook their own recipes.
Lack of this sort of content is a perennial Achilles’ heel for manufacturers. With a slim and seemingly unedited cookbook combined with a collaboration with allrecipes.com, which, as I write this, features a total of four recipes by the likes of CoOkInGnUt, Chef Mo, and Cliff G, there’s a lot to be desired. No offense to those contributors, but Panasonic needs to provide more of a foundation than a half-baked cookbook before farming it out to the Allrecipes community.
Bringing the Heat
I winged it with those lamb spices, mixed them with yogurt and the cubes of meat, let it all marinate, then drained it, set the pieces on the grill pan, slid it into the oven, and dialed in Combo 1 for 20 minutes. The combos create different top/bottom heat settings that cater to what you’re cooking. It’s interesting, but Panasonic seems to like the culinarily unsound idea that you can load up the grill pan and pop it in the cold oven in an effort to streamline the dinner-making process. It counts on the typically speedy induction burner to heat up quickly, but fans of things like browning and searing should raise an eyebrow here. Similarly, Panasonic touts the oven’s tight seal, pushing the idea that it’s a bit of a steam oven, and while that can be a good thing when you’re baking bread, you pay for it when you want grill marks. This played out repeatedly in my tests.
Once the 20 minutes were up, I pulled out a tray full of gray lamb cubes. They were cooked through, but didn’t look appetizing. I poured the accumulated drippings onto some rice I’d made (an awkward maneuver, as the grill pan is hot, heavy, and not made for pouring out those yummy pan juices), then turned the grill function up to high and got a bit of a sear. It made for a nice dinner.
The next day, I tried pushing those grilling capabilities, pitting the Panasonic’s grill pan against a cast iron pan on my own stove, searing slabs of pork shoulder that I would later cut into cubes for a chili. The first thing I noticed was how long it took the Panasonic to bring the grill pan up to temp; a full 10 minutes, which is surprising considering that heating quickly is one of its stated strong points. My cast iron pan got smoking hot in less than half that time, searing each side of the pork quickly while leaving the center of each slab uncooked.
The Panasonic fared poorly here, made worse by the “feature” of having only an eight-inch circle in the center of its square-foot cooking area directly over the induction element (the heating element doesn’t take up the whole oven floor). That circle, which makes up less than half of the cooking area, is called the “high power area” and is like having a big pan on a small stove burner. Even in the high-power area, though, searing was wimpy. Meanwhile, that steamy heat in the oven gave the top of the pork cuts an unattractive gray pall. Fearing for my chili, I declared the fight over and finished the searing on my cast iron.
Head to Head
At this point, it felt like the best thing to do would be to try what appears to be the oven’s signature recipe, the “Family Chicken Dinner” that graces the CIO cookbook’s cover and is the first recipe in the book, essentially seasoned chicken pieces surrounded by roast veggies. There’s a picture of some leg quarters snugged up against some breasts on the grill pan in the cookbook, but the recipe doesn’t call for leg quarters, it calls for skin-on, bone-in breasts. I stuck with what was written.
The Panasonic’s small oven size necessitates breaking something like a whole chicken down into smaller pieces just to get it in the door. To have everything ready at the same time the chicken’s done, the vegetables get chopped into a half-inch dice; It’s clever cooking—“Hey it all cooks for the same amount of time in just one pan!”—but it felt like culinary sleight of hand, crediting the machine for the quick cooking, instead of the tiny dice.
I tested how long the recommended Auto Cook function would take for two pounds of chicken, which turned out to be 23 minutes and 30 seconds. (Heads up here for families and fans of leftovers, two pounds is the most you can do on Auto Cook.) The function certainly has potential, as it’s a programmed cook, so this recipe’s case, Auto Cook starts with induction from below and finishes with induction and the broiler elements.
That said, 23 minutes isn’t breakneck speed for a broken-down bird. Google “roast chicken in eight pieces” and you’ll find a host of all-in-one recipes that can be done in a half hour. Panasonic might tout that the CIO’s cook time includes a cold start, but the time it takes to dice vegetables and peel baby onions is plenty of time for a regular oven to come up to temp.
I kept up with the head-to-head theme, cooking the “Family Dinner” from the Panasonic cookbook and The New York Times‘ Greek-style chicken in my oven. The NYT recipe spreads the chicken parts across a sheet pan next to cherry tomatoes, garlic cloves and olives.
Thrown off by those leg quarter photos in the Panasonic cookbook, I’d bought two whole birds, so I took the extra legs and thighs, along with some potatoes that didn’t fit on the Panasonic pan, and expanded the Greek recipe to two sheet pans in my home oven.
For the Birds
While I prepped both recipes, I got confused by Panasonic’s first-step suggestion of “making some cuts on the skinless side of the chicken breast” to “allow the seasoning to penetrate faster and deeper.” Where, exactly, is the skinless side of a bone-in, skin on breast that the recipe calls for? Did the Culinary Institute of America just phone in the project? Was there a recipe tester for Panasonic? How about an editor? It began to feel like they were throwing around buzzwords like induction, infrared, and faster in hopes we might not notice that the oven isn’t as miraculous as it sounds.
I peered at the bird on the sheet pans in my home oven and it looked good, the chicken skin beginning to render, bubble, brown, and crisp. Inside the Panasonic, steam began rolling down the window. Still, they both looked good.
Both ovens finished within minutes of each other, but there was distinctly less browning on the bird pieces in the Panasonic and the skin was still thick and springier than I wanted. I switched it over to broil and let it brown for a few more minutes, which worked out well, but any time savings at this point were moot.
I put out dinner for my wife Elisabeth and I, setting the Greek chicken on a serving plate alongside the tomatoes and olives, and used a rubber spatula to squeegee pan juices to pour over it all. When I went to do something similar for the CIO’s Family Dinner, I discovered that along with no good way to pour out the juices, getting the tiny, cubed-up veggies out of the heavy grill pan was no fun at all.
At the table, I couldn’t help but notice how much Elisabeth preferred the traditional oven bird, referring to it more than once as “the moist one.” Admittedly, this could have happened during the extra time while I was crisping up the skin, or it could have come from the intense heat thrown at it by the oven.
As we ate, we tried to envision the target audience for this Panasonic’s countertop oven. The company’s reps say it’s for working single people, or health-conscious families, but we struggled with that idea. Something like this could make sense in a tiny apartment, but tiny apartments tend to come with tiny budgets (they also tend to come with ovens, for that matter), and if so, where’s the money come from for a $600 countertop oven?
Considering that price, I did some steaming of my own. A full-sized, well-rated gas or electric range can be found for about $600, a powerful plug-in induction burner can be had for just $90, and a great toaster oven for $150. In my mind, the math just didn’t work.
That phoned-in feeling became pervasive. There were other recipes to try—stuffed trout, something called “Shrimp in Silver ‘Purses,’” “Adult Macaroni and Cheese” (whatever those last two are), and, apparently, a toast function with Balmuda-like water pockets to take full advantage of the steam function. But I finished the last bites of “the moist one,” got up from the dinner table and put the Panasonic back in the box. I could have done more, but I ran out of steam.
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