I was 15 when I attended my first opera: Gioachino Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Memory is reconstructive, but I will never forget that second scene in Act I, when the waif of a mezzo-soprano playing Rosina belted out “Una voce poco fa” – clearly delighting in her coloratura runs before rattling the chandelier with her crescendo finish. I was in awe at how someone so tiny could produce a sound that immense. I joined the audience in thunderous applause, repeating, “Brava! Brava! ”
This teenage flashback was triggered by the arrival of the Brava, a behemoth of smart oven that my Shondaland editor suggested I try out. Full disclosure: I had hitherto zero knowledge of the Brava. Apparently, I missed all the fanfare that titillated tech writers to no end when this space-age device burst onto the scene a few years ago. (A new white rendition recently joined the previously released silver- and black-colored versions.)
Is it a convection oven? An air fryer? A toaster? It’s actually all of the above – with even more bells and whistles. My curiosity was piqued. As a lifelong epicurean, I’ve incorporated the gamut of appliances into my cooking repertoire. I bake wedding cakes with commercial ovens, barbecue ribs over grills, sous-vide lamb loins, Instapot lentil curries, slow-cook Provençal stews, and flip some mean cheese sandwiches in my cast-iron pan.
The ultimate difference from those methods is that Brava cooks with light. Six powerful lamps – three long strips on the bottom mirrored by another three above – act like spotlights that emit searing heat to a targeted area. This configuration produces three distinct zones and allows users to simultaneously cook different items, arriving at ideal doneness. Your steak, potato, and broccoli dinner at the touch of a button in just one pan.
That’s just the beginning of the spiel. Brava takes the guesswork out of cooking with preset programs that direct you to use either the provided glass or metal trays, cut ingredients to a particular size, then place them in a specific area before sitting back and watching the meal transform through your phone. That’s right. No need to open the door for a check or peer through the glass (because there isn’t one). Two cameras inside the oven capture a live video of the Maillard-reaction action, displaying it on the device’s touch screen and in the Brava app on your smartphone. This baby monitor feature basically lets you spy on your sweet potatoes to ensure they don’t misbehave and burn, which, thanks to Brava’s AI technology, should technically never happen.
Still, a steep learning curve to mastering the oven’s multitudinous smart functions awaits, along with the accoutrement, such as a clunky thermometer crucial to not overcooking slabs of protein. Fret not. Like the supertitles on a Ring cycle performance to help one understand Wagner’s genius, there are instructional videos aplenty. You even have the highly recommended option to join a live, virtual onboarding session. I chose the YouTube route, all 40-plus minutes of it. And once I got over the eye-roll-inducing corporate speak of “pure light cooking” or how the appliance is consistently referred to as just Brava, never the Brava, I felt ready to conquer my new smart oven.
For an entire month, I committed myself to using the Brava. The results oscillated between infuriating and infuriatingly spectacular. Roasting and searing score the highest marks. I can’t remember more beautifully charred homemade asparagus or tofu cubes achieving a golden exterior in less time or without the oil-splattering mess. I experimented with back-to-back trays of brussels sprouts, opting for roasted the first go and air-fried the next; both yielded gorgeous, wildly different textures. The former was crusty on the outside, a cocoon for tender flesh inside, while the latter had the lightness and shatter of a cracker. Quite stunning. Salmon skin crisped. Chicken breast browned and stayed moist.
Amazing outcomes aside, the limitations are irksome. Quantity is an issue. The roughly 12-inch-by-10-inch trays struggle to accommodate vegetable portions that would feed two. One sweet potato cubed pretty much hits full capacity. Kale chips? I had to make four batches to yield an ample snacking bowl when my folks came over. And cookies bake three at a time, which is about as practical as doing eight loads of laundry after every trip to the gym. Adding to the fuss, the Brava needs to cool down in between each cooking cycle – and it isn’t quiet about it either. The rapid, unfussy gains are offset when cooking for a crowd, rendering it impractical.
On the subject of impracticality is size. The Brava is much larger than the average oven toaster or countertop appliance. It’s so bulky, I actually have no permanent room for it on my countertop. Thus, it resides on the floor, resembling a dormant laser printer, until I’m ready to plug it into the closest GFCI outlet, which I sometimes avoid because the lamps flicker whenever the Brava is in use. It uses 1,800 watts of power, significantly less than my conventional oven. Yet I’ve never experienced strobe lighting when baking biscuits in my GE, so who knows?
I must admit, though: I happily endure this inconvenience for the wood-fired-like pizza. That crust! A color so golden and a snap I’ve never been able to achieve before – all hail pure light cooking.
After a month, the novelty of the Brava hasn’t quite worn off. There are functions and tomes of recipes yet unexplored. I use the baby monitor function more than I care to admit, sometimes transfixed while watching my eggs turn from runny liquid to fluffy frittata on video. I even take screen grabs as I moan about how there should be a record function, if only to time-lapse the whole process and share on Instagram. Just imagine the hashtags!
So, I’m forced to reckon: Does the Brava warrant its nearly $ 1,300 price tag? Will it truly revolutionize the way we cook? Is it worthy of a standing ovation? Or does it appeal to only a select few, enamored with the bravissimo state-of-the-art trappings? I suppose it depends on whom you ask. Even opera, for all its majesty, isn’t for everyone.
Gerald Tan is a Washington, DC-based food writer, TV host, and author of Tok Tok Mee: A Portrait of Penang Street Food. Follow him on Twitter @GeraldoTan.
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