Technology Heats Up Cooking Appliances

As more and more people cook at home, the need for efficiency, easy-to-use technology and aesthetically pleasing cooking appliances increases. At the same time, the growth of non-traditional households means that flexibility is also a key consideration for today’s cooking appliances. That’s according to manufacturers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News who are seeing increased demand for cooking appliances that accommodate personal choice – whether that choice centers around healthy cooking options, multi-tasking, speed cooking, multiple chefs or simply designs that work for a very small, very large or unusually configured kitchen space.

“Today’s culinary enthusiast desires as many options as possible, whether it’s with the design of the kitchen, the appliances used or the actual cooking itself,” says Phil Springer, senior product manager for Thermador at BSH Home Appliances Corp. in Huntington Beach, CA.

The open layouts of many kitchens call for flexibility in both design and function, and appliances must offer the same features. “Multi-tasking appliances that are compatible with today’s open kitchen layouts should continue to be in demand,” says Juliet Johnson, brand experience manager for Jenn-Air in Benton Harbor, MI. She notes that products like the company’s duct-free downdraft cooktop, a microwave combination oven, and a warming drawer that also acts as a slow cooker “offer cooks several functions in a single appliance for more flexible design options.”

Melissa Haber, director of sales and marketing for Edgewood, NY, based EuroChef USA says that consumers are most interested in functionality when researching cooking appliances. “Savvy customers want products that will keep up with their busy lifestyles and help with multi-tasking,” she says. “Multi-function cooking enables chefs to switch fans and elements on and off to control where the heat is coming from, and to what degree, which means an oven is flexible and can do everything from making a pizza crisp or browning potatoes to defrosting leftovers to taste as good as they were the first night.”

Scott Davies, marketing manager for the Huntington Beach, CA-based Fisher & Paykel believes that performance and cleanability are the characteristics most in demand in cooking appliances right now. He explains, “Our customers demand control of their appliance to enable them to create culinary dishes.”

“With the increase in selection over the past 10 years, consumers are looking for all of the bells and whistles at a lower cost,” adds Joey Kitabayashi, v.p./engineering at Capital Cooking Equipment in Santa Fe Springs, CA. He notes that ease in both cleaning and operation of appliances is also important.

Convection & Induction

While not new, convection ovens and induction cooktops are both being elevated in consumer awareness, increasingly making their way into the North American market. From convenience and a better end result to energy-efficient benefits of these cooking styles, consumers are finding more reasons to request these elements be included in their design.

“Convection has become mainstream and we’re seeing much more consumer awareness of what it is and a demand for it,” says Tony Dowling, business development manager for Elmira Stove Works in Ontario, Canada.

“Convection cooking is still on the rise as customers become more educated and comfortable with the advantages of this technology,” Haber says. “The speed of convection cooking has dramatically decreased cooking time in kitchens across the world. Not only does convection decrease time spent in the kitchen, it also enables for more even cooking – what’s not to like?”

Johnson says that convection will continue to be a feature cooks expect in their ovens. “True Convection uses its own dedicated heating element and fan, instead of the traditional bake or broil element, for fast, even baking and roasting on multiple racks," she says. “Everything from breads and pie crusts to roasts and side dishes will bake, cook and brown more evenly in convection cooking mode.”

Michele Bedard, v.p./marketing for Sub-Zero/Wolf in Madison, WI, adds that dual convection technology is also increasing in popularity. Additionally, Wolf recently launched a convection steam oven, which couples the power of steam and convection technology into one appliance.

Up on the cooktop, there continues to be a demand for convenience and high performance, qualities which induction addresses nicely, manufacturers say. Dowling notes, “It appears that induction has reached the ‘tipping point’ in North America, after more than a decade of fits and starts, and is now at a price point where it is an easy step up for the mid-level consumer.”

Paolo Bertazzoni, president and CEO of Bertazzoni, based in Guastalla, Italy says, “Induction is also growing in popularity with the option of dual-fuel in cooktops, combining gas burners and induction heating zones. This way the customer can enjoy the advantages of induction while not having to give up the preferences for gas cooking.”

Johnson agrees. “Interest in induction continues as more American home cooks consider this cooking technology alternative,” he says. “Induction is extremely efficient and offers the responsiveness of gas. For those who may prefer gas but live in homes not equipped to install gas cooking appliances, induction is a great alternative.”

Technology Surge

Technology is being put to the test in cooking appliances, in both the functioning of the system and the controls available to the user. Pre-programmed features and digital controls can make operation of the appliance a cinch. At the same time, some are finding that less is more when it comes to technology.

“Technology that enables homeowners to do more is extremely popular right now,” says Malte Peters, senior product manager, cooking, Bosch brand at BSH Home Appliances Corp. “We are seeing an interest in programmable features, primarily because consumers want an appliance that delivers great results in as easy a manner as possible.”

“The ‘connected home’ is becoming more relevant in the kitchen,” adds Joseph Renteria, marketing communications supervisor for Dacor in Costa Mesa, CA. “Technology is definitely leading the way when crafting and engineering a new design for appliances. We saw with cell phones the industry trend of integrating smarter and faster hardware and software for better operating devices. The appliance industry is looking to follow the same trend.” Dacor will introduce its Discovery Wall Oven this month, which will keep cooks connected even while away from the kitchen through control functions that include communication between appliance and user, pre-set recipe cooking modes and personal recipe storage.

Bedard says that Wolf recently introduced a Smart Appliance App and Smart Appliance Module available for built-in refrigeration units and E series wall ovens. “The development of this technology came out of the need for such a product in the kitchen appliance category, one that uses technology to help homeowners keep food fresh and have more control in their cooking,” she explains. In the oven, the app notifies users of pre-heat and timer completion, oven temperatures, and when the internal temperature probe indicates that meals are finished.

“Visual communication is important with our cooking appliances,” says Davies. “This is achieved through illuminated halos around temperature and function controls that glow depending on the status of the oven. Temperature probes enable the appliance to understand the internal heat of the produce and therefore produce perfect meals. Cooling systems also ensure the oven door remains cool to touch.”

Programs that remove the guesswork in cooking are also on the rise, manufacturers say. “Automated cooking guidance, such as the ASSISTANT feature in the new Bertazzoni ranges, enables the homeowner to tackle everyday cooking as well as more complex dishes,” says Bertazzoni.

Johnson adds that intuitive touch screens have carried over into cooking appliances as well. Jenn-Air offers a wall oven with 7" glass-touch screen that incorporates an interactive, image-driven Culinary Center, providing guidance for more than 50 food options.

Bertazzoni says that the market is moving toward digital controls, even on more traditional models such as commercial ranges. “The technology might not necessarily be visible (as consumers still prefer a round large knob on a restaurant-style range), but there are built-in sensors and processors that manage the cooking process,” he says. However, he adds, “pre-programmed recipes have not caught on, as cooking remains a very regionally influenced process and cannot be standardized.”

Other manufacturers, however, are seeing a move back to more straightforward, easy controls and technology. Kitabayashi says that there are two schools of thought – keeping it simple without the electronics, and offering gadgets with many features. “One area that has taken off in the rest of the world but will have a difficult time in the appliance industry is apps,” he says. “Major cooking appliances are considered to be attended products, not to be left alone.”

Dowling sees more requests from consumers wanting to opt for old-school reliability and simplicity. “This is being driven by concerns about the reliability and durability of ‘techy’ features, and by concerns about the impact of major weather events on appliance functionality,” he says.

Haber agrees. “We actually hear from a lot of consumers that they are trying to get away from digital controls due to frustration with failing technology and trouble with repairs,” she says. “Customers want controls that are user friendly.” At the same time, she adds, “Technology has sped up our lives in a drastic way that has become the expected speed of life. Appliances need to keep up with this speed.”

Aesthetic Appeal

When it comes to the outward appearance of appliances, stainless steel has long been the industry standard. While the appeal of stainless isn’t likely to fade anytime soon, there has been a steady rise in a variety of color finishes as well.

“Aesthetically, colors are coming on like gang busters,” says Dowling, who notes that, while Elmira has always offered a wide color selection, other companies are now offering more color selections and apparently doing well with them. “Perhaps the day of sterile (stainless) steel is coming to an end,” he says.

There is also a shift in the colors people are choosing, he says. “On the retro side, we’ve seen a trend to ‘safer’ colors. Where five years ago, Candy Red dominated our sales, we have seen red drop off, while white, bisque and Buttercup Yellow have been increasing.”

Haber has also seen a rise in the demand for color finishes. “We see more and more sales in color ranges, cooktops and ovens – about a 25 percent increase for 2012 thus far,” she says.

Kitabayashi notes, “The high-end appliances are trending more [toward] color, although stainless steel is still king. European manufacturers have come in with a lot of color, and we at Capital see a small but continuing market in color.”

Peters agrees that stainless is on top. “Stainless steel still remains the most popular finish because it’s sleek, sexy and makes a bold statement.”

Bedard says that along with stainless, integrated appliances continue to be prevalent, and adds, “The use of accent colors in appliances is also a way consumers and designers alike can add a ‘pop’ to designs.”

Renteria adds, “Personalization options such as color, door, knob and handle options are carving their way into the look and finish of appliances, but stainless steel is still the base.”

Healthy Lifestyles

Along with a rising awareness of health issues comes a need for appliances that can adapt to this desire for healthy living. While some manufacturers have seen more change in what people cook, rather than how they cook it, others say there are some appliances that are becoming more mainstream as a result of health choices.

Springer, for instance, thinks healthy cooking is on the rise, noting that growth, technology and awareness in the steam cooking arena is at an all-time high. Benefits of steam cooking, he notes, include no need for fat to cook, preservation of vitamins and nutrients in the food and an improved appearance of the food. “As culinary enthusiasts continue learning about the many benefits of steam cooking, that technology will continue taking shape in the American kitchen,” he adds.

On the other hand, Dowling maintains, “We haven’t seen a big change in demands for various features in response to health and wellness issues.” However, he adds that there is a major trend back to charcoal-fueled “keg style” outdoor grills, which may reflect a desire for more traditionally grilled foods.

Renteria believes that, “Health and wellness awareness has impacted the way home chefs cook their food with the ingredients they use. However, the way consumers cook their food hasn’t changed much.”

Another aspect of the health trend is spending more time home cooking rather than eating fast food or restaurant meals, which leads to a desire for as much efficiency and convenience as possible. “As more meals are cooked at home, more customers begin to re-think their kitchen and demand more efficient appliances,” says Haber.

Bertazzoni says that the public dialogue about the direct correlation between nutrition and well being brings healthy home cooking to the forefront. “The increased exposure of steam cooking is certainly a direct result of this trend. Manufacturers of cooking products now have the mandate to provide homeowners with the information on how to prepare healthy meals without the need for high technology upgrades.”

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