(Bloomberg View) -- Say you are struck with a sudden, whimsical urge to make hollandaise sauce. You could put on your frilly apron and, taking your whisk between delicately manicured fingers, gently combine eggs, lemon and butter over a low flame. Or you could drop all the ingredients into a bowl, push a button, and walk away to make yourself a martini, returning 10 minutes later to find a perfect, steaming emulsion ready to be poured over something delightful – say, asparagus that has been steaming in the fumes from your hollandaise.
There’s only one small problem with the second method: in order to employ it, you must first drop an obscene amount of money on a Thermomix.
This machine, a masterwork of German engineering, is a scale, blender, food processor and heating element -- all in one tidy countertop package. It will not do your grocery shopping for you, but it comes darn close to fulfilling most of your other kitchen needs. As you might imagine, the manufacturer feels justified in charging a hefty price for this miracle of modern engineering. Purchasing one will set you back four figures.
I own one of these largely because of a book proposal that I slaved over for months before finally shipping it off to publishers. Around draft 987 I grimly told my husband: “If I actually sell this thing, we’re getting a Thermomix.” I sold the thing. We got a Thermomix. And my annual holiday gift guide has regularly extolled its blessings ever since.
Longtime readers know this. In our comments section, one of them recently said: “I'm not convinced a Thermomix is all that useful. Can't a blender and a stove with a ‘low’ setting accomplish the same thing?” A summer Friday, when thoughts lightly turn to all the marvelous things one could do with fresh produce if only the kitchen weren’t so stuffy, seems just the time to field such a question.
For those who are already feeling the drowsy pull of their hammock, here’s the short answer: No, you can’t really replicate what the Thermomix does with a blender and a low flame.
And for those who still have a few more hours at the office, and need some sort of activity to simulate work, read on for the longer answer.
The miracle of the Thermomix is not in the fact that it purees the heck out of your ingredients (it does, but not any better than a Vitamix costing a quarter of the price), nor that it heats the food (so does a $20 hot plate). What a Thermomix achieves, that those other appliances do not, is doing both of those things at the same time.
You may have noticed that many recipes, particularly sauces, call for standing over the stove and patiently stirring something over low heat until your arms drop off and your panicked spouse calls 911.… This is tedious, but sadly necessary to make them smooth and lovely, rather than lumpy bits of starch or protein suspended in an oleaginous goo. In technical terms, “From a scientific point of view, a hollandaise sauce is a colloidal suspension of oil in an aqueous phase, called an oil-in-water (O/W) emulsion.” The authors go on to state that “The emulsion is created by mechanical treatment, where the oil phase is broken down to small droplets incorporated into the continuous phase.”
“Mechanical treatment” = your arm, stirring, lots. Just do your best not to add your sweat to the water part of the emulsion.
The Thermomix puts the machine back into the mechanical treatment. It also provides exactly precise heat. The definition of a “low flame” varies from stove to stove and cook to cook, which is why so many recipes prefer a double-boiler. Since the upper pot is suspended over simmering water, its temperature cannot get above 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which water boils. This is helpful because many sorts of emulsions will do unhappy things when they get uncomfortably hot. As can be attested by anyone who has started out to make hollandaise or lemon curd, and ended up serving lemon-flavored scrambled eggs instead.
The Thermomix also doesn’t get above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But it can give you exactly 60 degrees Celsius, or a range of temperatures in between, a feat that’s hard to replicate on a stovetop unless you want to add “fiddling with a thermometer” to your lengthening list of annoying steps.
In short, the machine takes away all the guesswork, and the labor, and the careful management; all you have to do is enjoy the results. My particular favorite is something my household calls “onion jam”: onions caramelized in bacon fat and just a tiny bit of sugar. After a couple of hours in the Thermomix they are a beautiful dark brown color, and do smashing things to burgers. They are also wonderful on toast with mushrooms and poached eggs. And when lovingly tucked into your brie-en-croute, they single-handedly justify the thousands of years our ancestors spent patiently domesticating the pig, the cow and the onion.
Could I do that on a stovetop? Yes. Caramelizing onions is not difficult, merely tedious. And in fact that describes everything I cook in my Thermomix: None of the recipes I make with it are things that I could not manage on my humble range -- or for that matter, with sufficient patience and planning, over a campfire. (Yes, I have prepared béchamel over a wood fire. That is a story for another day, but suffice it to say, the third batch came out splendidly.)
The correct question is not “Could I do that on a stovetop?”, but “Would I?” And the answer is often “Nope, I don’t have time.” (Or my feet hurt. Or I just don’t feel like standing at the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring …) I didn’t buy a Thermomix because it enabled me to cook things I couldn’t, but because it enabled me to cook things I could, but rarely bothered.
For others who have dabbled less in the kitchen, a Thermomix unlocks new possibilities.
I won’t say that those people need a Thermomix, precisely. Presumably, they have found some method of feeding themselves without resorting to raw hamburger scooped straight off its Styrofoam backing. But if they like to eat good food, they could certainly use one pretty badly.
So however technically unnecessary, a Thermomix is a godsend for people who can’t cook. It is also a godsend to people who can cook, but prefer to skip lightly over the tiresome bits and go straight to the table -- or who like to plan dinner party menus with the sort of complex last-minute timing that is hard to manage without staff. (Both descriptions fit me now and again.)
Is it a luxury? Yes. But for the past century, we have been living in an era of kitchen luxury, with our thermostat-controlled ranges and our in-home, on-demand ice-making. What our something-great-grandmothers did with mortar and pestle, wood and coal, we do with electricity and gas, in a sixth of the time. And a good thing, too, because otherwise we’d never have time for book club and Bikram yoga and that new episode of “Game of Thrones.”
I don’t know if I’ve convinced you, gentle reader. My readers often ask me whether you really need a Thermomix, and unfortunately this is a question -- like “Who should I marry?” -- whose answer must be left to the questioner. I can only ever provide the answer to a related question: “Do I, Megan McArdle, need a Thermomix?”
No, reader, I don’t. But I wanted one, and I am glad to have one.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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