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Joule proves sous vide cooking doesn't have to be intimidating

Chefsteps' co-founder likens his product to the iPod of sous vide machines.

Despite the recent rise of affordable sous vide machines, the cooking concept has always skewed a little nerdy. Preparing food in vacuum-sealed bags in a temperature-controlled water bath sounds like something only culinary geeks would do, even if it results in perfectly cooked meats. By and large, these devices look and feel like scientific equipment: They're bulky with large dials. They look like they belong in a lab, not a kitchen.

Chefsteps, a company best known for its online cooking school, aims to change that image. They've invented the Joule, a slim, stylish immersion circulator its leaders hope will finally take sous vide cooking to the masses. Chris Young, co-founder and CEO, likens it the original iPod. There were MP3 players even before that, he said, but it was the iPod that made digital music mainstream. "We want the Joule to be a thing that people actually cook with," he said. I've been using a beta version of the Joule for the past few weeks (the final version of the Joule will have minor cosmetic differences), and while I can't say it's completely analogous to Apple's iconic music player, it's certainly a step forward in sous vide cooking.

The design is a big part of that. The Joule is by far the most attractive sous vide machine I've ever seen. In place of a large display, the temperature controls are relegated to Joule's companion app, which results in more elegant-looking hardware. Shaped like a cylindrical tube, the Joule is sleek and minimalist, with seamless, white plastic housing and a stainless-steel top. There's a curved indentation on the top that works as a multifunction key while a lone status light sits on the front.

The Joule measures 11 by 1.85 inches -- about the size of the tube in a paper towel roll. Compared to the Nomiku WiFi, which is 12 by 4 inches, or the Anova Precision Cooker, 14.75 by 2.75 inches, the Joule is slimmer and smaller. It fits easily in a crowded kitchen drawer, which isn't something I can say about its competitors. Seriously, that might sound like a minor detail, but as someone who's played around with (and owned) various sous vide gadgets over the years, I can say Joule's size is a big deal. The fact that I can just open my drawer to get it instead of fumbling around for it in the back of my closet means I'm much more likely to actually use it.

I also like that the Joule has a neodymium magnetic mount at the bottom. It attaches firmly to any magnetic surface (these pots are usually sold as "induction-ready") just by setting it in the pot, which felt really secure (plus it's fun to do). But if you want to use it with a non-magnetic vessel instead, it comes with a handy wire clip on the rear as well. Another nice feature is a unique 360-degree water inlet at its base. This pulls cool water from the bottom of the pot and then redistributes it evenly throughout, resulting in a more consistent temperature. Even better, this means the minimum water level is only 1.5 inches high, which is a lot lower than on most other sous vide machines. If I wanted to, then, I could use the Joule in a shallower pot. That's good for cooking smaller amounts of food without wasting as much water.

The brains of the operation, however, are all in the companion app. By default, the hardware connects to it over WiFi connectivity, but you can always pair it via Bluetooth in a pinch. Setup is pretty easy: Just plug in the Joule, go through a tutorial in the app and it'll connect immediately.

The app also functions as the Joule's command center. There's a series of step-by-step guides for cooking everything from chicken breasts to steak, so that even novices can make the perfect meal. Chefsteps, which is already known for its polished video tutorials, has imbued the app with several short clips that show you exactly how to prepare and cook certain foods. There's even a feature called "Visual Doneness" that lets you see, in video form, what the food would look like when cooked at a particular temperature. So, for example, you can see the difference between a medium-rare and a medium-well steak before tapping the appropriate setting. The app also helps you figure out how long to cook the food based on how thick it is and if it's fresh or frozen. If you'd rather not do the step-by-step guide thing, you can set the temperature and timer manually instead.

Once you figure out the various settings, hit start and the Joule will immediately begin circulating the water, heating it to the desired temperature. Put in your bagged food -- I just used Ziploc bags that I sealed using a water displacement technique, but you can use a vacuum sealer if you like -- and you're good to go. And since the app also has notifications and timers, you can go about the day without having to babysit the pot; it'll let you know when the food is done.

As much as I like the Joule, there are a few downsides. For one thing, using the app is mandatory, not optional. There's no other way to set the temperature. Also, once you set the temperature using one of the step-by-step guides, it's difficult to change it. You'll have to stop the machine, set the new temperature and then start it again. So changing your mind mid-process is not ideal. If you do want to be able to change the temperature in the middle of cooking, you'll have to go for the manual option to begin with. That said, don't worry if your smartphone shuts down after you've set the temperature; Joule will keep working regardless.

As far as the food goes, I followed the app's instructions and ended up with perfectly juicy chicken breasts, along with molten slow-cooked eggs. I could probably do the same on a traditional stovetop, but sous vide removes the guesswork.

Before Young created Chefsteps, he was the principal co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. He was also the founding chef of Heston Blumenthal's experimental kitchen, which helped create dishes served at the Fat Duck in England, one of the best restaurants in the world. A graduate in theoretical mathematics and biochemistry, he had a scientific approach to cooking that includes molecular gastronomy and the use of unusual ingredients such as xanthan gum and calcium chloride. It's this unique take on cooking that has earned Chefsteps a loyal following of food geeks and, interestingly, the backing of Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve. In fact, Newell was an early investor and advisor in Chefsteps and made it possible for the company to develop Joule over the past three years without the help of venture capitalists or crowdfunding.

Late last year, Chefsteps unveiled the Joule and made it available for pre-order for $199, with a retail price of $299. But sales were so good that the company announced earlier this month that it was going to drop the price. Now, Joule will retail for $199, not $299, and the new pre-order price will be $149, not $199. Because of that $50 discrepancy, Chefsteps says it will refund almost $1 million to pre-order customers. It hopes to deliver the first shipments starting next month.

"If we make it expensive, fewer people can afford it," said Young. "Our goal is to get this in your kitchen, to keep making you happy for years to come."