Picture, if you will, this scene. You’ve planned a holiday dinner party, but perhaps have been too ambitious. Your ham is burning; your yule log cake is dried out. The roast vegetables are still raw, and your decision to make eggnog from scratch was ill-advised at best. Wouldn’t it be nice, you’d think, if someone could take over logistical tasks — or at least guide you through a recipe for two-ingredient brownies — while you weep into your crab dip?
If Google and Amazon have their way, that someone would be more like a something. Voice assistant speakers like the Google Home and Amazon Echo have been on the market for years now; this season, both companies are pushing voice assistants equipped with screens, the Echo Show and the Home Hub — like your phone but bigger, or your laptop but simpler. And in addition to showing the weather and the news, these gadgets want to help users become bosses in the kitchen.
Smart speakers have already been billed as tools for reading out recipes, quick-calculating measurement conversions, and setting timers. The Home Hub and Echo Show (the latter already in its second iteration) add to that access to instructional video clips (Google encourages requests like, “Hey Google, show me how to cut a pineapple”) and recipes from limited databases: Amazon’s version integrates with Allrecipes and Google’s with Tasty. And unlike their voice-only counterparts, when you pull up a recipe, both gadgets can read through the recipe step by step while it remains up on the screen.
But are they really the cooking game-changers they promise to be — and are they worth shelling out for this gift-giving season? It really depends how much help you need.
Plenty of professionals (most, probably) go without them entirely. Chef Yohanis Gebreyesus, author of the recently-released Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa, said he hasn’t yet invested in any of these gadgets. Naz Deravian, author of Persian cookbook Bottom of the Pot, is “usually late to the game” when it comes to tech, saying, “I love cookbooks. They’re so tactile.” The idea of having a recipe read by a robot is not for her.
“But I do go to my phone quite often for quick conversions,” she added. “I probably could have saved a lot of time to have a [voice assistant] do it for me while I was writing my cookbook.” She also likes the idea of using it to ask for spice replacements when she runs out of something essential. “It’ll save me the hassle of going down a rabbit hole on my computer.”
Indeed, in my own month-long experiment with both devices, I found they were best for performing rote kitchen tasks, like reciting ingredients or setting timers. And other pro chefs agree that voice-activated features — though not the newfangled screens — are helpful. Stella Parks, author of James Beard Award-winning cookbook Bravetart and senior editor at Serious Eats, uses an Apple HomePod for similar basics.
“I spend most of my time in the kitchen, developing recipes for Serious Eats, which means both of my hands tend to be covered in batters and doughs or otherwise occupied with spatulas and spoons,” Parks said via email. She finds the HomePod useful for scaling recipes — “Hey, Siri, what’s 75 percent of 9 1/2?”— and convert measurements or temperatures. “It may seem like simple math anyone could do in their head, but when you’re working on six or seven recipes at a time (as recipe developers do), it’s very easy to get your wires crossed. So saying the numbers out loud and having a computer do the math helps eliminate errors.”
Parks’ colleague and author of James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-Alt, uses both Siri and the screen-less Amazon Echo at home. “I use Echo mostly for music (it controls my Sonos system) and for keeping a shopping list,” he said via email. It’s also useful for the most high-tech chefs who want to control their “smart” appliances like smart coffee brewers or slow cookers via the speakers, like López-Alt: “I also use it as a timer [and] to control my Joule sous vide circulator.”
But López-Alt, like most other professionals, is content without a screen. “I don’t really need video or tutorial assistance in most recipes,” he said. “I can see the usefulness for home cooks, though!”
Indeed, the screen is most clutch for the non-professionals, as I found firsthand. “Google, how do I wash cilantro?” I asked while cooking curry. Without taking my hands away from what I was doing, I was suddenly watching a video of someone washing cilantro. As Gebreyesus said, he believes these screened assistants “can be of valuable use for home cooks or beginners in the field that are still lacking the basic skills.” The Home Hub, unlike the Echo Show, is also conveniently light, which makes it relatively easy to move from stove to counter to table (though it has to be unplugged and rebooted each time). It was actually useful to have when I brought it home to Vermont over Thanksgiving.
Still, there are limitations. Both the Home Hub and Echo Show can only pull up and dictate from a limited number of recipes, so if you’re hoping to cook that one specific side dish from Bon Appétit, you’re out of luck.
Ultimately, no matter your level of culinary skills, the most universally useful contribution smart speakers make to the cooking process may be setting a strong kitchen vibe. Echoing López-Alt, Anna McGorman, director of culinary operations at Milk Bar, said, “While I am not explicitly using my phone [to ask Siri] culinary-related questions, I am using it to play music and create a vibe in the kitchen... Putting on some Old Crow Medicine Show or some Otis Spann just makes whatever I’m cooking taste better, because I’m immediately more relaxed and not so crazed as the I’m-cooking-for-work-Anna version of myself.”
In that way, a voice assistant could simply function like your culinarily-lacking pal, said McGorman. “It’s like having a friend who doesn’t know how to cook but spends time in the kitchen with you and refills your wine glass — they might not know a lot, but they are definitely bringing something to the table.”