The moment I hear that a new and notably different kitchen product is coming to market, I cringe. If the product proposes a new way to cook, it’s going to need to be very well explained. It needs to have clear instructions and provide a big set of fantastic recipes that cover everything from the basics, like how to cook a sausage, to more complex stuff for a big dinner.
Amazingly, many manufacturers struggle to understand that idea, or just don’t bother to make the effort to solve the problem. It’s as if they get 90 percent of the way to the finish line then just decide to crowdsource the last, crucial 10. It happens again and again, but it’s a choice I never understand. Why risk having people shelve your miraculous gadget just because they aren’t presented with the best ways to use it?
Manufacturers don’t need to do this for kitchen standbys like an oven or a cast-iron pan, but if they’re introducing a new style of cooking, here’s the important news: They do.
Take the recently released Vermicular Musui-Kamado, a $670 Dutch oven with its own fancy induction heater and to-the-degree temperature control, allowing you to braise, roast, sauté, make rice, and even steam. It’s a sophisticated and different enough setup that you clearly need their recipes to get the hang of it, and apparently I didn’t. Less than six months since I reviewed the Vermicular, I can’t remember any amazing food I made in it or any problem it solved in my kitchen. I had similar struggles more recently with the Cinder grill.
Every once in a while, a manufacturer does a great job and nails the content. See, for example, Philip Tessier’s outstanding work for Hestan’s Cue and the company’s Smart Induction Cooktop. Those are two exceptions, though, and not the rule.
Instant Pot has also struggled in this arena. Yes, its electric pressure cookers (aka multicookers) are incredibly popular. The company’s manuals and recipes, however, have been roundly mocked and its response to that problem has been intriguing. I’d argue that it truly took off only once longtime stovetop pressure cooker users began adapting their existing recipes to the new format and started sharing their recipes with the rest of us. (I emailed an Instant Pot representative a request for release dates and sales figures to back this up, but my emails went unanswered.) Instant Pot’s manuals have slowly become more passable, and while the official user guides still provide a few token recipes, the company has essentially farmed out the heavy lifting to the cookbook pros who put “Authorized by Instant Pot” on the cover of their own books.
Now, holding this idea in your head, behold the new Instant Pot Ace Blender, which not only blends but cooks, and which I absolutely implore you to buy with the Instant Pot Ace Blender Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. The only thing that could make this pairing more effective and useful is if the book arrived nestled inside the blender’s own styrofoam clamshell. (Alas, the book is only available separately, but it hits shelves this week.)
Cook By the Book
There’s a whole bunch to unpack here. Instant Pot is essentially introducing the cooking blender to the US market. For the low, low price of $100, you get a blender with a built-in heating element, allowing you to go from non-cooking blender standbys like smoothies, daiquiris, and gazpacho, and also make soups, sauces, and curries. Most of these recipes allow you to dump the ingredients into the blender jar, close the lid, and go about your business as it heats, stirs, and sometimes blends. The cooking functions are quick, too; those soups take about half an hour.
Per tradition, Instant Pot has punted on recipes, offering only a seven-recipe pamphlet with one recipe going as far as calling for store-bought pre-cooked pasta. The America’s Test Kitchen team, however, takes the machine and applies their own template, dividing the Ace’s capabilities into five areas: soups; mains and sides; dips, spreads, and sauces; drinks and smoothies; and desserts. This is far from their first rodeo, and ATK fans will feel right at home with their unimpeachable recipes. There’s the kind of stuff you’d expect in the cookbook like butternut squash soup, nut milks, curries, and frozen margaritas, but they’ve also figured out clever “hacks” that allow you to eke the most flavor out of chicken noodle soup, corn chowder, and even barbecued pork sandwiches.
If you want to know how the Ace works and understand the full range of capabilities of a blender that can cook, there’s no faster way to do it than with this book. (Full disclosure: I occasionally give talks at trade shows with America’s Test Kitchen’s executive tasting and testing editor Lisa McManus.)
My wife Elisabeth and I took the Ace and the cookbook along with us on a trip to Mineral, Washington, where our friend Jane runs the Mineral School writers’ residency. There, Elisabeth and I were “dorm parents” for four screenwriters who were also enthusiastic eaters.
In the school’s kitchen, I dove in, starting with butternut squash soup, where you put squash chunks in the blender along with chicken broth, a chopped shallot, a bit of butter, honey, and salt. I hit the “soup” button and—get this—didn’t touch the Ace again until the soup was done.
During that time, I watched through the glass jar as the machine gave everything a quick stir, heated the broth to boiling, stirred a bit more, kept it hot, stirred again. When all the squash had been submerged and softened, it gave a mighty, blenderly whiz, and beeped to signal that it was time to eat. The whole cycle took less than half an hour. (I asked the folks over at Instant Pot to break down the soup cycle and they demurred, citing algorithms and “secret sauce” which is a bunch of malarkey. I half-filled the jar with warm water and watched it go through smooth soup cycle which gives a quick stir every two minutes, heats the contents to boiling, then holds it there for 22 minutes and 44 seconds, still briefly stirring every other minute. With about two and a half minutes to go, it blends for eight seconds and rests for two over and over until the end of the cycle. I’m not sure you need an algorithm for that, but the soup comes out nice and smooth.)
That whole time, it was pretty weird watching the blender robot its way through several different cycles while I did nothing but watch and listen. Once the prep was done, I did exactly zero work. In fact, over the course of my testing, that automatic progression from one cycle to the next made me realize that the kitchen appliance the Ace reminded me of most was my dishwasher.
There is no dedicated Ace app, no Bluetooth connection, yet the Ace is far more helpful and smarter than the vast majority of connected products that market themselves as being part of the smart kitchen. Blenders are a bit of a fringe item in many kitchens and giving them another function—heat!—makes them much more useful.
Before you get all excited about how innovative this is, I’d like to point out how the Ace essentially parrots the capabilities of the decades-old Thermomix. In Europe, and many other corners of the world, the Thermomix is a cult-like object, comparable to an incredibly well-built luxury car. By comparison, the Ace is a cheap but capable knockoff. Then again, a new Thermomix costs almost $1,500, and the Ace one-fifteenth of that. The Ace also made the “unhappy blender” noise and started getting bogged down when a mayonnaise I was making got a little thick. Furthering that car analogy, I might say that the Ace occasionally felt like a 3-cylinder Geo Storm.
That said, the ATK cookbook takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of the Ace and works backward from there to create excellent recipes so you can make the most of the machine.
In the Mineral kitchen, I made a soup-y smorgasbord, putting together a corn chowder, Mexican chicken soup, chicken cacciatore, an Indian veggie curry, green goddess dip, and hummus. The book even features a drop-dead easy applesauce recipe, which you cook using the soup program.
I plowed through recipe after recipe, prepping one while the machine cooked another. Get your act together on a Sunday and you could prep a bunch of meals for the coming week in short order.
If you’re into alternative milks and frozen drinks, I made a few batches of each in both the Ace and a high-powered Breville blender. Want nut milks? The Ace has a button for that. You press it and it runs through a cycle that takes four and a half minutes. Slightly superior results in the Breville take about 30 seconds. The Ace is also a capable smoothie maker. In more personally exciting news, neither machine had trouble turning five cups of ice, Grand Marnier, and a bunch of Sparkle Donkey reposado tequila into lovely, slushy frozen margaritas.
Everything that I cooked in the Ace turned out very well, thanks to the expert recipes custom-made for the machine by people with good palates. Bear in mind, this isn’t fancy dinner food but good, solid fare. Or, as the ATK team puts it on page eight, “We realize that if you are making a meal in the blender, you are looking for an easier option—not a recipe with a laundry list of ingredients and a ton of prep work.”
The machine itself is far from perfect, most notably in the way you control it. Eight buttons run eleven preset cycles (a couple of buttons have two presets like soup, which can be smooth or chunky). The blender has only three speeds: low, medium, and high. What’s weird is that there are no other manual controls. You can’t customize the presets, there’s no temperature control, and any soup recipes have to be shoehorned into one of the Ace’s two soup cycles. ATK has worked within those parameters and occasionally has you do something like hit the pause button two minutes before a program is done to sneak in ingredients that need less cooking.
Many folks will eventually yearn for a bit more latitude than the Ace gives you, but the company has other Aces up its sleeve which will come out in the coming year, all costing less than $200.
Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel. His stories for WIRED explore how technology is changing the way we cook and eat.
One surprising flaw is the inability to submerge the blender jar in water or toss it in the dishwasher to clean it—both things you can do with the Thermomix jar. There’s a clean function that’ll loosen up caked-on crud by whirling soapy water around in there, but you’ll still end up spending quality time with it and a bottle brush at the sink.
What’s a bit maddening about the Ace is that, despite all of the buttons, it’d be difficult for it to simply replace a mid-powered blender. It’s such a peculiar oversight. Who’d want a blender with only three speeds? Plus, every button you press has an annoying couple-second lag time before the machine fires up, which is atypical in Blendertown.
Finally, I never found the vortex—the whirlpool of liquid that forms in the jar when the machine is on—terribly convincing in the Ace. A good one, which is a function of the blades, their speed, and the form of the jar’s interior, will quickly suck un-chopped ingredients on the surface down into the blades, assuring a nice, quick, and even blend. The Ace tended to get the job done over time (remember how long it took the almond milk) but often traded finesse for frequent gurgles and splurts.
It’s hard to make a compelling case to buy the Ace without the ATK cookbook. Compared to other non-cooking blenders, it’s staunchly middle of the pack, even at a relatively affordable $100. Plus, there aren’t a ton of other recipes for it, let alone cookbooks, out there. Page two of a recent Google search for “Instant Pot Ace Blender” recipes features a smoothie that should be called “cascading failure,” a peculiar concoction containing strawberries, peanut butter, kale, and collagen peptides.
Part of the lack of recipes is likely due to the pre-programmed nature of the Ace: not only do you need to figure out a recipe, you have to reverse engineer it so it gets done in the preset amount of time. The recipes in the pamphlet that come with the Ace are so basic and dumbed down that you might miss the point of the thing.
So, if you’re interested in a blender that cooks, I highly recommend the Ace, but only if you buy it with America’s Test Kitchen’s book. It not only gets the point, but also makes a strong one about the importance of a comprehensive set of tested recipes to accompany with a new kind of machine.