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Cook at home like the pro chefs with cutting-edge culinary gadgets

Betty Hallock
What's cool? The smoke coming out of this hand-held smoker from PolyScience.

A hand-held smoker that looks like a toy pistol, a blender that heats or cools while it whizzes your soup or smoothie, professional immersion blenders, dehydrators, whipping siphons, induction burners, sous-vide machines and vacuum sealers.

As mainstream retailers such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma introduce tools not so long ago used by only adventurous professional chefs, it could be a bonanza holiday for kitchen geeks.

Grant Achatz, the chef of Alinea in Chicago who recently was in Los Angeles for an event, points to one of his immersion circulators, a device used for sous-vide — cooking food in vacuum-sealed bags at relatively low, even temperatures. "The fact that you can go to Williams-Sonoma and buy that now is pretty cool," he says. "It's a good gauge of the sophistication of the consumer. Three years ago, there were some chefs who didn't know how to use it.

"They say what shows up at the grocery store is five to seven years behind the restaurant business," noted Achatz, whose cutting-edge cooking garnered three Michelin stars last month and who has consulted with food companies on new products. "I think that the time it takes for appliances (to go mainstream) is the same."

And now that Nils Noren and Dave Arnold, the duo behind the French Culinary Institute's Cooking Issues technology blog, have appeared on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" demonstrating how to make cocktails with a vacuum rotary evaporator (for distilling and concentrating flavors), how long before Santa is inundated with requests? "Dear Santa, please bring me 'MMA' for PlayStation 3 and a rotovap."

A cook can dream. A Rotaval rotary vacuum evaporator goes for about $13,500 on gourmet retailer Le Sanctuaire's website. Expect more from the science lab to reach restaurant kitchens and maybe someday your own countertop. (Nathan Myhrvold, the polymath inventor who is publishing the six-volume "Modernist Cuisine" cookbook from his laboratory in Seattle, envisions high-powered rotor-stator homogenizers, or blenders, in kitchens. This means you too could get the particles in your purees down to a micron or two.)

Meanwhile, immersion circulators or other machines for sous-vide have been squarely targeted at the home chef. Williams-Sonoma started selling the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional immersion circulator in August for $799.95. Other PolyScience models start at nearly $1,000. (The exclusive Roner models available from Le Sanctuaire are more than $2,000.)

With their exposed heating elements, previous models of somewhat bulky circulators weren't particularly home-user friendly. The heater and pump now are encased in plastic for the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional — a sleek black box of a device that clamps onto the edge of your pot (or hotel pan) to warm and circulate water. It comes with a how-to guide written by Thomas Keller, whose 2008 cookbook "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide" might have marked the cooking-in-a-bag tipping point.

"We couldn't have done this in 2005 or 2006 or 2007," says Bradley Kleparek, a Williams-Sonoma electrics buyer, of the decision to start carrying an immersion circulator this summer. "Three or four years ago sous-vide was largely unknown to even some people who work here at Williams-Sonoma. \u2026 We took a leap of faith, if you will. It was the perfect marriage of there being enough awareness of what sous-vide cooking was and a user-friendly brand name to go with on the equipment side."

Last December, Sur La Table began selling the SousVide Supreme, a self-contained sous-vide water oven that looks like a bread machine, for $499. The first several hundred sold out immediately, says Anne Haerle, a corporate chef and spokeswoman for the retailer. "They just took off like crazy."

What else might be in the kitchen of your very near future? Retailers are betting on better blenders.

Williams-Sonoma is touting the Swiss-made Bamix immersion blender ($129.95 to $149.95) and this year began carrying Vitamix blenders, also carried by retailers such as QVC, Macy's, Amazon and Sur La Table. They cost as much as $599.95 — for the latest Vitamix Pro 500 series blender that has temperature settings for making soups, smoothies and frozen desserts while you puree. (It might be the next best thing to the Thermomix — a $1,400 German machine that chops, blends, kneads, weighs, heats and more but is no longer for sale in the U.S.)

"It's all about new ideas that people can use in their own homes," Williams-Sonoma's Kleparek says. Take the food dehydrator, for example. "It's been used for dried apples, apricots, the whole trail mix application. But what chefs are doing are these crazy things with food dehydrators. Take squid, dehydrate it, take the dried squid pieces then put them in the Vitamix so you have a powder, and reconstitute the powder into all kinds of textures."

So, what's hot in cook tops? Chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen have been opting for induction ranges (in which a magnetic field creates heat in iron or steel pots and pans) for fast, precise, even cooking. In the last few years, better technology has helped boost demand in the U.S., and more manufacturers have produced induction ranges for home kitchens.