Except for the innovation of the microwave, oven technology hasn’t changed much for decades. Sure, there has been a recent spate of smart ovens that nibble around the edges in an attempt to one-up conventional versions, but they basically cook the same way as ever. The Brava is different. Building on a technology first used in industry, the Brava oven ($995) cooks using an array of light sources (sort of really bright light bulbs that the company calls Pure Light) instead of more traditional radiant heating coils or gas flames.
The Brava smart oven is a beefy (around 50 pounds) countertop oven that can be plugged into a standard 110-120v circuit. Cooking is done on one of the company’s custom metal or glass trays, which give you about 8.5-inches by 12-inches of cooking area divided into three zones. Each zone has two dedicated heating elements — one above and one below — that feature variable power levels and focusing to allow for a wide variety of cooking options. You control the oven through a well-implemented touch-screen interface, which also features a view of what you’re cooking courtesy of a built-in camera.
An accompanying app lets you view the oven remotely, order meal kits, browse recipes, and look at your cooking history. Thankfully, you don’t ever have to use it to cook with the oven. A provided temperature probe is also used in properly-cooking meat and fish.
Cooking Meat and Fish in the Brava: 2 Appliances in 1
Cooking salmon so that it has crispy skin and is still moist, or a steak so that it is properly seared but not overcooked, is often done using multiple steps. For example, sear in a cast iron pan before or after a cook in an oven or with a sous-vide device. But because the Brava can refocus the energy from its lamps during a cook, it can do both in a one-recipe step. Yes, if you’re good you can do that in a pan or on a grill, but it takes both some experience and you need to be paying close attention. The Brava does all the work for you. Add in the supplied temperature probe and you can dial in the doneness level you want. I’m pretty skeptical about claims like this one, so I tried it out for myself. I cooked several different steaks to a perfectly seared, perfectly medium-rare doneness and some Atlantic salmon to the temperature I like it, and was amazed that the latter’s crispy skin was very similar to what I would have gotten from searing it in a cast iron pan.
At the risk of repeating myself, this is pretty amazing tech. As someone who owns or has used just about every type of cooking appliance available, I haven’t found any other approach that can do both the searing and cooking to the desired doneness of meat or fish in a single step, let alone in an automated fashion at the click of a button.
For Many Foods, Brava Really Is Faster, More Energy Efficient
Full-size conventional ovens require a long warm-up period and consume a large amount of energy. I can tell when we cooked dinner on any given day simply by viewing our hourly energy usage and looking for the spike. Even small things consume a lot of power. For example, cooking a few strips of bacon in a wall oven means 15 minutes of pre-heating and 20 minutes of cooking while consuming two to three thousand watts of power during much of that time. That means a total time of 35 minutes and at least a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity.
In contrast, the Brava cooks the bacon in about 8 minutes using 1500 watts, or about .2 kWh. Unless you cook a lot or have a limited source of electricity, the power savings aren’t going to be huge, but they are noticeable. And the saving in time definitely makes cooking more convenient. One caveat is that the preset recipes assume the oven is cool when you start. So if you want to make two items in a row, you’re warned to either let the oven cool down for a few minutes or babysit the next recipe to make sure it doesn’t overcook.
Learning to Live With Zones
For the Brava to cook ingredients properly, you need to place them in one or more of the three zones on a specialized cooking tray — either metal or glass depending on what you’re cooking. If you’re used to just dumping your vegetables or meat into a roasting pan, and not worrying about exactly how much space your food takes up, this may take a little getting used to. This seems to be a natural limitation of the way the cooking elements work. It’ll be interesting to see if over time the system can become more flexible, like Markov’s commercially oriented microwave oven that can steer its radiation to wherever you place the food items.
Most of Brava’s preset recipes do let you choose how many zones you’ve filled up, though, so you can cook a little or a lot. Ultimately I suspect heavy users of the Brava will invest in a second set of trays so they don’t have to clean them before they can cook anything again.
Brava also offers a clever “egg” tray, with four convenient depressions for either a single egg or a mini “frittata” or similar. I used the poached egg preset and the eggs came out nicely cooked, but the yolks weren’t as runny as I personally like. The company said it will be adding customizations for this and some of the other presets that don’t already offer them. In any case, it was already a lot faster and more convenient than making them on the stove.
Like competitor Tovala, Brava sells meal kits for those who want a no-brainer solution to cooking dinner. We made two of them, each one designed to serve two people — Vietnamese Noodle Bowl (with wild Gulf shrimp, $40) and Classic Chicken Tacos ($28). All the ingredients were excellent, especially the shrimp. The Brava did a perfect job with the shrimp but cooked the boneless chicken thighs for the tacos a little more than I would have liked. (However, we cooked chicken thighs by themselves in the Brava and it did an excellent job with them.)
The recipes seem fine, although I guess of necessity they are a little bland for my tastes (albeit easy enough to fix with some additional spices and sauce). They’re not cheap, but part of that is the high-end ingredients. They source top-of-the-line Ora King salmon, Snake River Farms pork, and so on. The good news is that the meal kits are really just a potential option, unlike with Tovala, where they are really the main attraction for the oven. So in our case, since we already cook from scratch frequently, I don’t think we would make use of them very often.
Geek Alert: Pro Mode (Beta)
If you like to fiddle with recipes and cooking devices, as I do, then Brava’s Pro Mode will be just your thing. It goes well beyond simply letting you pick a time and temperature. You can directly control the power levels of the six heat lamps (one over and one under each of the three zones). With that, you can extend the capabilities of the Brava to cook your favorite foods, or a combination of foods, almost as far as your imagination. One feature I’d like to see them add is the ability to load an existing recipe from their library into Pro Mode, to give you a template, or add two of their ingredient presets together to make a custom combo. In the meantime, they’ve been recording some instructional videos that are helpful in getting started.
Another fun thing about the Brava is that it’s evolving quickly. New presets, recipes, and features are pushed out through weekly updates. That seems like a much better reason to have an oven connected to the internet than sharing the video of what you’re cooking with friends, but yes, you can do that too.
Buying a Brava Isn’t for Everyone
Now we get to the difficult part: the price. At $995, a Brava is many times the cost of a typical “toaster-style” countertop oven. Yes, it can do quite a bit more, but you probably already have a full-size conventional oven and a burner of some sort that in combination can already do those things, albeit with more work and energy consumed. It is also more expensive than “smart” countertop ovens like the updated June at $600, although I’d argue that as a new and better cooking technology it is in a different league than the June. And if you don’t have an oven at all, the Brava may not be large enough to be your only oven, as it won’t cook a full-size pizza, a baking sheet of cookies, or an entire turkey. If you can afford it, though, the Brava is an incredibly versatile and fun new approach to cooking.
One more thing: It also makes really great toast.
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