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Sous vide cooking raises its profile

Over the past few years, appliance manufacturers have made sous vide cooking, once the exclusive domain of high-end restaurants, available to anyone who wants to add the unique technique to their cooking repertoire. Sous vide involves sealing food in a plastic bag and cooking it in heated water. This allows the food to be cooked at a constant, precise temperature.

While sous vide is beloved among steak aficionados for its ability to produce precisely cooked cuts, it can be used on all types of foods, including other meats, vegetables, seafood, eggs and desserts.

We caught up with Derek Gaughan, who runs the product-review and recipe website Sous Vide Guy, for a talk on the growth in sous vide cooking, its benefits and how home cooks can get started.

“The process has been around for quite a long time, but for the longest time it was expensive to create and use,” Gaughan said. “Since about 2012, competition has been increasing, with more manufacturers coming out with products, prices going down, and features increasing.”

These days, sous vide cooking at home is most likely to involve one of two appliances: an immersion circulator that keeps water at a precise temperature, or an all-in-one sous vide machine that holds both the water and the food.

“The all-in-one machines take up a little more space, but you have everything you need,” Gaughan said. “The immersion circulators can fit right in a drawer.” However, you’ll also need a container for the water if you opt to use an immersion circulator. Gaughan recommends polycarbonate containers. When choosing a container, keep the size of the meals you’ll be preparing in mind.

Food is cooked in a sealed plastic bag, which allows it to hold on to its natural juices and flavor. While many opt to add a vacuum sealer to their sous vide toolbox, Gaughan says a heavy-duty sealable freezer bag will do the trick.

So what’s a good food to start with for those looking to dive into the sous vide pool? “You have to start with steak,” Gaughan said. “When you cut into the steak, it’s the same color throughout. My particular favorite is tri-tip. It’s usually cheaper per pound because it’s a tougher cut, but sous vide makes it more tender.”

The rise in popularity of sous vide has given way to new appliance features, including Bluetooth connectivity. “You can start cooking, turn on the device and monitor the temperature from your phone, look up recipes, or instantly set the temperature according to the recipe,” Gaughan said. “Some people fill their water bath full of ice in the morning, then turn their device on through WiFi when they’re about to leave work.” Other sous vide devices are now integrating voice controls, Gaughan said.

What’s the best way to get started? “Grab a cookbook,” Gaughan said. “When you first get a sous vide device, it’s odd, because you’ve never cooked something by just placing it in water. Read up on it before you do it. Read about the pasteurization temperatures. It’s a lot easier than you think.”

The Sous Vide Guy’s recipe for corned beef is a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Have you tried sous vide cooking? Let us know your favorite dishes to prepare.

Counterfeit water filters: Your health and property on the line

Not all replacement refrigerator water filters are created equal, even those that may appear from the outside to be exactly alike. Unfortunately, many counterfeit and deceptively labeled water filters manage to find their way into the U.S. It’s a stretch at best to call these knock-offs “filters,” and the tests show it. If you’re wondering what’s inside the phony filters, it varies. Some contain no more than shredded newspaper.

 

As part of AHAM’s Filter It Out campaign, experts conducted tests of legitimate replacement water filters versus a counterfeit. This photo hows the results of the testing, which was performed by NSF International.

Why it matters: The blue dye present in the water after it was run through the counterfeit filter represents the contaminants that would have made it into your body had the counterfeit been installed in your refrigerator. Those could have included lead, mercury, herbicides, pesticides, asbestos and pharmaceuticals. As if the risks to your health weren’t enough to worry about, the filter, since it wasn’t designed to fit your refrigerator, could also cause leaks, which can lead to serious and expensive property damage.

The good news is that since many of the counterfeits are sold online by independent sellers, you can reduce the likelihood a counterfeit water filter will end up in your refrigerator by purchasing your replacements from reputable sources. And remember to replace your filter every six months with a model from a manufacturer who will stand behind its products.

A spring cleaning appliance checklist

It’s tough to imagine tackling the various spring cleaning projects around your home without essential cleaning appliances like vacuums, washers and dryers. In fact, some of your appliances are so essential to keeping your home clean that it’s easy to forget that cleaning your appliances should also be part of the annual springtime ritual of scrubbing, polishing and purging. These regular maintenance steps are also essential for keeping your appliances in top shape. Here’s a quick checklist of spring cleaning tasks that will keep your home sparkling and your appliances in top shape:

  • Refrigerator coils: The dust, dirt and debris that builds up on your refrigerator coils can make the appliance use more energy to keep what’s inside cool. A coil brush and vacuum will help you with the coil cleaning and removing other dirt that has accumulated behind or under your refrigerator.
  • Clothes dryer: Your interior venting system, or the material that leads from your dryer to your dryer vent, should be cleaned once a year by a qualified service technician. Blockages can lead to longer drying times. Also, check behind your dryer and remove any trapped lint and debris, and remove lint from in and around the drum.
  • Oven and range: Spills and built-up residue can hinder your oven’s performance and affect the flavor of the foods you cook. Refer to your oven’s use and care manual for specific cleaning instructions, but warm soap and water or vinegar and water are unlikely to damage any finish.
  • Vacuum: Replace bags and filters and check your vacuum’s use and care manual for guidance on belt replacement.
  • Water filter: Replace your refrigerator water filter every six months, or on the schedule recommended by your refrigerator’s use and care manual. It’s extremely important to purchase replacements only from reputable sources to reduce the chances you’ll end up with a counterfeit model.
  • Indoor air: April showers may bring May flowers, but with those flowers, buds and blossoms come less welcome allergies. The EPA estimates that indoor air may contain double to five times as many pollutants as the air outside. Room air cleaners, vacuums and washing bedding in hot water can help you fight the main indoor allergens: pollen, mold and mildew, animal dander and tobacco smoke.

Rise of the Robots: Robotic Vacuums Now a Floor Care Fixture

Traditional vacuum cleaner with a hose, nozzle and brush versus a modern circular automated low profile unit, high angle view on a shaggy white carpet
Do robots live among your appliances? There’s a growing chance at least one type does. Sales of robotic vacuums and cleaning robots are expected to grow from $981 million in 2013 to $2.6 billion by 2020. And the innovations keep coming. New features like cameras, voice controls and improved navigation have taken robotic vacuums from a novelty to a fixture in floor care.

So what does one need to know before turning over vacuuming duties to a robotic partner? Robots have come a long way in floor care, but they’re still widely considered a supplement to, not a replacement for traditional vacuums. They can’t yet climb stairs, but they can sometimes reach areas that are hard to get to with traditional vacuums, like deep beneath furniture. They’ll take longer to clean a room—about 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the robot and the size of the room—but they can also do it on their own, whether or not you’re there to supervise.

Red robotic vacuum cleaner and smartphone. Smart appliances concept. 3D rendering image.
The hundreds of robotic vacuum models on the market offer different features. They use different methods to find their way around a room, using laser, cameras or infrared sensors. They may have different work capacities or perform better on certain surfaces. Some models use lithium ion batteries, others use nickel metal batteries.

Are you ready to welcome a robot into your home? Follow these tips to create a more hospitable habitat for your new cleaning companion:

Break down barriers: Take a look around the area you’re going to vacuum, and remove any potential obstacles. Even a sock or something smaller on the ground can interrupt cleaning, particularly if the robot tries to vacuum it. Remove any items that could get stuck in your robot’s rollers and cause an error.

Remove the cords: Just as you would with traditional vacuums, make sure the area being cleaned is free of plugs and power cords that the robot may try to vacuum.

Keep it confined: A robotic vacuum goes where you allow it to go. Close doors that might lead it to another area that does not need to be vacuumed, or use the technology features to keep it within a certain range.

Welcome it home: Many robotic vacuums will automatically make their way back to their charging station when their power starts to drop. Put the charging station in an area that’s easy for the robot to access.

Keep the robot clean: Keep your robot’s sensors and other navigation tools free of debris, as it can interfere with navigation. Empty the robot’s dustbin after every use. Make sure filters are clean and replace as necessary.

The next robotic revolution

Robots are slowly making their way beyond vacuuming into areas like mopping and air purification. Automation is becoming part of appliances, with many new models incorporating voice controls and the ability to adapt to our habits. Are there any tasks you would be happy to hand off to a robot? Let us know in the comments!

Easy oven and range-cleaning tips

Even the most dedicated neat freak might cringe at the thought of cleaning their oven. But putting it off can make cooking more challenging.

Turkey for Thanksgiving Day in the oven

Over time, residue from cooking and spills can build up and become a drag on oven and range performance. And the “leftovers” that build up on the bottom and sides of your oven can also make the food you prepare taste different. (We’re guessing neither you nor your guests would appreciate the subtle flavors of the charred residue of several meals in their entree or dessert, but we could be wrong!)

Grease and grime can clog the burner and affect performance. Sugary spills on glass cooktops with traditional elements can damage the glass.

Fall behind on cleaning, and before you know it, your range looks like this.

A very very dirty kitchen!

Instead of waiting until it’s unavoidable, clean your oven and range after every use. That may sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between a guaranteed quick and easy job and one that could require significantly more time and elbow grease. Make cleaning a regular part of your cooking and baking.

Clean every part of your range. That means the oven walls, glass cooktop, burners, finish, and knobs. Each is made from different materials and therefore may require a different approach. Your appliance’s manufacturer will be able to provide instructions for each.

What to use: This is where it gets tricky. Appliance manufacturers test many cleaners on their ovens and ranges, but it’s impossible to test all of the options that are on the market. Your oven’s use and care manual may have some suggestions, as will the labels of the specific cleaners. You can’t go wrong, however, with warm soap and water or a white vinegar and water solution, which are unlikely to damage any finish. Avoid cleaners with abrasive qualities, as these could scratch the oven’s finish. Some manufacturers recommend carefully using a razor blade to clean stubborn dirt from oven glass.

Technique: Again, consult your appliance’s use and care manual for specific instructions. Avoid steel wool and similar products, which can damage the finish. Go with the grain (not in a circular motion) to avoid scratching, particularly if your oven has a stainless steel finish. Wait until the oven cools before you begin cleaning to avoid burning yourself. That could take a while, so be patient.

Self-cleaning: Many ovens offer self-cleaning features. Traditional self-cleaning means the oven will heat to an extremely high temperature—as high as 900 degrees—while the residue is burned off. You will not be able to open the oven during a self-cleaning cycle. Oven racks and all pans should be removed during the cycle. After the cycle is complete and the oven cools, you should be able to easily wipe out the ashes. Many manufacturers are now offering a steam cleaning option as well. These models heat water to a boiling point and utilize steam to soften anything in the oven for easy cleaning.

What’s your best oven and range-cleaning advice?

How to prevent odor, mold and mildew in your washing machine

Advancements in clothes washer technology have led to dramatic decreases in energy and water consumption and larger average tub volume. A new high-efficiency unit, compared to a 10-year-old clothes washer, will save more than 5000 gallons of water per year and nearly $135 in operating costs from decreased electrical consumption.

Like all household appliances, clothes washers require regular cleaning and maintenance. All clothes washing machines have the potential to have some amount of odor, mold and mildew after a period of use.

Potential causes of odor, mold and mildew may include:

  • Washing machines generally are kept in somewhat closed and damp environments, such as laundry rooms and basements.
  • The laundry that is put into them contains a wide variety of organic materials.
  • Modern high-efficiency washing machines use less water and are more tightly sealed when the door or lid is closed.
  • Over time, changes have occurred in consumer laundry habits including the use of less bleach, more fabric softener and more frequent cold water wash cycles. These habits may impact the accumulation of biofilm and other residues, increasing the potential for odor, mold and mildew.

Consumers can take several simple steps to control odor, mold and mildew:

  • Follow the instructions in your washing machine’s use and care guide.
  • Increased air flow greatly reduces the development of mold and mildew. Consult your use and care guide for additional instructions on this topic.
  • Always remove wet items from the washer promptly after the machine stops running. Wet fabric left in a closed space is particularly conducive to the development of odor, mold and mildew.
  • Use only the amount of detergent recommended on the detergent container. If your washer is a high-efficiency machine that recommends use of “HE” (high-efficiency) detergent, use only HE detergent, not regular detergent. Regular detergent may generate excessive suds in high-efficiency machines, and the excessive suds can leave a film that is conducive to the development of odor, mold and mildew. Excessive suds do not make your clothes cleaner.

If specific cleaning instructions are not included, it is good practice to use a cup of chlorine bleach or a commercially available washing machine cleaner and hot water without any laundry once a month. This will help you maintain a clean machine.

Always use precaution if children are present in the household, as children should never play near or on appliances.

5 questions to ask before buying a used appliance

Has a bargain price on a second-hand portable appliance at a thrift shop or yard sale caught your eye? The price may be right, but it’s important to research your purchase just as you would when buying a new appliance. Otherwise, it may end up costing you more in the end. Ask these five questions before buying or selling a second-hand portable appliance:

  1. How old is the appliance? While appliances tend to last for years, their age can affect how well they function.
  2. Is everything intact? Inspect the appliance for frayed or damaged power cords, switches and parts.
  3. Has it been repaired? Ask the seller about the appliance’s repair history, and look for signs of any home repairs or tampering.
  4. Is everything there? Don’t buy a secondhand appliance if the operating manual and all parts that came with the original aren’t included. The owner’s manual will contain important use, safety and repair tips.
  5. Has the appliance been recalled? Check with the S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to see if the appliance has been the subject of a safety recall, and check back throughout the life of the appliance.

If you’re still in doubt after asking these questions, look into buying a new appliance instead. Follow AHAM’s advice to find the one that’s right for you.

Avoid Kitchen Redesign Regret

You thought you had built the kitchen of your dreams. Then you started to notice you were running out of storage space. Or that there isn’t quite enough space on your counter for your portable appliances.

That flashy, trendy style you loved in a magazine might look great, but more important than style is choosing a kitchen design that really works for your needs.

Taking the time to plan properly is the key to avoiding redesign regret, said Alana Busse, lead designer and remodeling specialist for Westside Remodeling in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s Central Coast & Valleys chapter said. “There are many people who tell us they want to start next week,” she said. “We tell them we need the proper planning time. Those are the people who later say they should have planned more. They have regrets because they really didn’t think things through. The more time people can spend planning, the happier they are in the end.”

Busse offered these tips to help homeowners plan their kitchen redesign and avoid “redesign regret:”

  • Build in organizational space. Pull-outs for pots and pans, roll-outs for kitchen tools and easily accessible storage areas for your favorite portable appliances should be part of the design, Busse said. It’s one of the areas homeowners might overlook to cut costs, but they sometimes regret that decision, she said.
  • Focus on what you need. “Normally, people redo a kitchen to improve the functionality,” Busse said. “Sometimes when people are trying to follow a trend versus what’s timeless or what they love, it’s not really something they like or what goes with the house. Ultimately, it’s the homeowner who will be using it. If it doesn’t fit their style or needs, they can develop resentment toward it.”
  • Think about your future lifestyle. When planning your redesign, consider how your needs and lifestyle might change. “People who remodeled when their kids were young, or when they didn’t have kids, end up regretting not building in enough storage space, or remodeling just for a look,” Busse said. “Now, their lifestyle has changed to ‘How quickly can I clean this and have two bowls of cereal before sending the kids off to school?’”
  • Know what’s cooking. Cooking habits are a major consideration when planning a redesign. Will you be cooking five-course meals daily, or do you tend to reheat prepared meals? Do you like to bake? Your design should reflect how you cook and include the right appliances for your needs.

Appliances are a major part of both the functionality and look of any kitchen. “Everything has to be designed around the appliances,” Busse said. “They’re what’s going to be used every single day,” Busse said. “Your fridge is on constantly. Your range is the main area you’ll be cooking. Appliances are the whole point of making the kitchen a gathering place.”

Keep these tips in mind when you’re planning a kitchen redesign to make sure you choose the appliances that meet your needs, now and in the future:

  • Give appliances a test run. “I recommend clients test appliances as much as they possibly can,” Busse said. Many manufacturers have showrooms to allow shoppers to try appliances. Take advantage of those opportunities.
  • Build a refrigerator in to the design. Busse has had clients buy a refrigerator before they have their kitchen redesigned. It’s important to choose one that fits with your plans. “People tend to think every fridge is the same, so they buy one first,” Busse said. “That can hurt the design.”
  • Consider your dishes. Do you wash a lot of Tupperware and plastic dishes, or do lean more toward fine china? Choose a dishwasher that’s appropriate for the dishes you use.
  • Make room for portables. If you have a favorite portable appliance, your designer may be able to build a space that gives you easy storage and access. “People should think about their portables,” Busse said. “If you’re going to wind up using the toaster, we’ll design a space for it. Be honest with yourself about which portable appliances you’ll keep. Bread makers you might use only a few times a year, so we don’t need to store it on the counter. But maybe there’s a specific cabinet design we can do for it.”

Keep your freezer frost-free


As the weather becomes hotter and more humid, frost is usually no more than a memory. But it can occasionally make an off-season appearance in your freezer. There are reasons why it happens, even in frost-free models.

Newer refrigerators retain colder temperatures than their predecessors. When the refrigerator or freezer doors are opened—especially in hot, humid weather—moisture can enter the door and cause freezer frost. This may also cause moisture to form in parts of the refrigerator. Defrost heaters in newer models also have shorter run times to meet current efficiency standards.

But don’t let the frosty winter throwback put a chill on your summer. Take these steps to keep your freezer frost-free:

•Arrange shelves and food items in a way that allows air to circulate.
•Don’t overload your freezer full or leave it empty. Both can encourage frost formation. It should be at least half full.
•Make seasonal control adjustments. Your user manual may have recommendations on the appropriate settings for hot and cold weather.
•Seal liquids and high-moisture foods stored in the fresh food section of your refrigerator. This will reduce the chance that the moisture will escape into your freezer.
•Open refrigerator and freezer doors as few times as possible.
•Clean your condenser coils twice a year. Check your user manual for proper cleaning procedures. Cleaning the condenser coils can also save energy.
•Check and maintain door gaskets. A good door seal will help keep the warm, moist air where it belongs—outside of your refrigerator and freezer.

Stop throwing away food

Organic waste


We’ve already looked at how you can dispose of food scraps without sending them to a landfill. But what about the food that goes bad, or those leftovers you simply didn’t get around to eating? Putting them through your food waste disposer might be an option, but wouldn’t you rather they hadn’t gone bad in the first place?

While we aren’t advocating that you eat spoiled food, there are steps you can take to consume more of the food you purchase and cut down on wasted food in your household. A lot of it comes down to planning and preparation:

  • Watch the calendar: Are you heading out of town soon for vacation or business? Scale down your shopping as your departure date gets closer so you aren’t buying food that you won’t have time to eat, or that will go bad while you’re out of town.
  • Have a backup plan: Power outages can happen in any season, and they’re unpredictable. Know in advance what you’ll do to preserve your food if the power goes out. It might mean asking friends or family to store your food until the power comes back on. If you’re expecting bad weather, placing bags of ice in your refrigerator or freezer can help keep things cool if the power is only out for a short time. If it’s winter and temperatures are cool enough, consider storing your perishables outdoors or in an unheated garage where the temperature is at or near freezing.
  • Can’t find a backup? Donate the food to a local food pantry or shelter. You may need to arrange this in advance, as not every organization will accept every kind of donation. Know where you’ll take the food as part of your emergency plan.
  • Take the temperature: Keep the doors to your refrigerator and freezer closed if you lose power or your refrigerator stops working. Keeping a thermometer inside your fridge can let you know if the temperature inside is staying at or below the recommended 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Call a service provider immediately if the temperature is running high. Follow AHAM’s advice on keeping the bill under control if you need to call for repairs.

Appliance manufacturers know that keeping track of expiration dates can be tricky. A new generation of refrigerators uses cameras and touch screens to help you attach expiration dates to products and see what’s inside the fridge without opening the door. Some can help you keep a shopping list or even order groceries for you.