AUSTIN, Texas — Can data improve even the most low-tech of cooking methods, the barbecue? GE thinks the answer is a resounding yes, and it’s brought a custom-built 14-foot smoker to SXSW Interactive to prove it.
In the storied history of barbecue in the South, there have been bigger barbecues, but never one as wired with technology. GE’s smoker is laden with sensors, letting it detect temperature throughout the inside to within a tenth of degree Fahrenheit. Importantly, the chef doesn’t need to open the cooker to check the heat, which can disturb the smoking process.
“We didn’t want to come in here and tell these chefs how to cook,” says Thomas Van Houten of Sheet Metal Designs, which built the smoker for GE. “We wanted to give them a good tool, give them more information … to get across this idea that you can take existing ways of doing things and make them better with technology.”
Besides connected thermometers, the smoker includes a “smoke velocity” sensor, which measures just how much smoke is inside, and a relative-humidity sensor, too. It’s powered by Arduino processors, which are often found in smart devices that are part of the so-called Internet of Things.
Here’s the dashboard the barbecue chef can see:
“The relative humidity sensor is a big plus,” explains Van Houten. “It can change a lot — particularly if you put new wood in and it’s got more moisture in it. The more consistent [the chef] can keep that humidity, the moister the meat is going to come out.”
The results speak for themselves: Trying some brisket fresh from the smoker, I thought the meat was perfectly moist and tender. It was harder to tell if all the data made much difference with a barbecued beet; the infused smoky flavor was definitely welcome, but it could have been cooked just as well in a “dumb” smoker.
GE’s goal of rethinking the barbecue doesn’t stop at smoking: The company’s BBQ Research Center has also broken down the process of creating effective sauce. It’s even used science to create elaborate barbecue-flavored ice cream, complete with cornbread cookie crumblings — a dish perhaps worthy of the cognitive cooking of IBM’s Chef Watson.
Without a doubt, the monster barbecue, which took several months to design and build, is impressive. But why do it at all — apart from the obvious goal of creating an attention-getting stunt for SXSW Interactive?
“Old-school barbecue people are kind of fascinated by using something that has this much data coming out of it,” says Sean Cusack, who worked with Van Houten to build the smoker. “It isn’t changing the way they’re cooking, but just knowing why they do things they enjoy — like, now I know why I always like this kind of wood, or now I know why I always use cast iron. So it’s not just magic anymore — there’s a reason behind it.”
And if it happens to inspire a generation of connected barbecue equipment, that would be just, well, extra sauce.
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