Do people MacGyver Alton's cooking contraptions
September 18, 2013 12:38 PM   Subscribe

I've been watching a number of old Good Eat's shows and one thing that's really struck me is how over-the-top some of the contraptions he designs seem to be. Some almost bordering on the point of unnecessarily complicated. Are these truly something that people replicate?

Mainly the issue is that it seems a bit unnecessary and over complicated for the particular problem he's looking to solve. The one that immediately springs to mind is his root vegetable keeper with is playground sand in a largish container. Sure it may solve the problem of vegetables going bad after 2 weeks, but it seems to only hold very few items for more space than 2 milk gallons. Similarly the turkey frying contraption was certainly complex for problem it was solving. There are more, from the meat dryer to lumber as a cake cutting guide, but this seems to be a general trend rather than one or two specific items.

Many of his custom builds seem to be this to my eye, though I'm not certain if it's because of I have a tolerance for tedium than he does, or if I'm truly missing out on a wonderful cooking contraption that would ease a lot of my work. Does anyone know of anything that would support the effectiveness of his custom tools? I've always dismissed them but would certainly like to know if I'm missing out!
posted by Carillon to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure plenty of people do build these things, but I've always been a big fan of AB without going to the lengths that he goes.

My impression of AB/Good Eats is that he's mostly trying to get you think outside the box, to get you to realize just what it is you're trying to accomplish, and showing you one possible way of accomplishing it.

For example, I like his ravioli method, but I'm not about to set up the ironing board to do it. That's ok, since what he's showing is you need a long, unbroken stretch of counter top in order to do this. And what's a perfect example of something long and unbroken? An ironing board! Perhaps you can use a coffee table, or even a kitchen counter that you might not normally use. But hey, not a lot of people have long countertops but almost everyone has an ironing board!

The turkey fryer was way too elaborate for me to build (and deep frying a turkey is probably something I'm not gonna ever do, even though everyone assures me it's worth it) but he's showing you that you need a safe way to lower this giant, cold bird into a vat of oil that can severely injure you and that you need to make sure you're nowhere near it in the event the oil overflows onto the flames.

His meat dryer (I assume you mean the jerky episode) was showing you that the goal isn't to cook meat slowly, but to dry it out, and this can be accomplished without applying heat! Brilliant!

I'm not going to tear apart three vegetable steamers in order to make Buffalo wings, but I can appreciate that he's shown me one possible way of accomplishing what needs to be accomplished.

And remember this: The man is not right about everything. He made pot roast with raisins in it.
posted by bondcliff at 12:48 PM on September 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

I know someone who MacGyvered a sous vide cooking setup. Some people enjoy going overboard. His turkey fryer is vastly safer than an un-MacGuyvered one, but deep fried turkey is stunt food, and not interesting to me. It may be that Alton Brown goes a bit far in order to be geeky.

You are correct; raisins do not belong in pot roast. Blasphemy!
posted by theora55 at 12:59 PM on September 18, 2013

I made his flower pot smoker a few summers ago. I never really got it to work as advertised, but I think that was mostly my fault - I don't think the electric burner I bought was powerful enough. Otherwise, it went together more or less exactly as he described and was not difficult to build. The flower pot has flower in it now and I smoke meat on my Weber charcoal grill.

I think, more than following his plans exactly, the lesson really is that everyday household objects can be used in the kitchen if you have a little creativity.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:02 PM on September 18, 2013

Some of his contraptions are silly. Some of them are great. They fall into each category based on how much you want to do the task he's presenting, and how much money you have. If you have little desire, or lots of cash, his contraption is going to seem silly.

For example, His DIY meat smoker is brilliant, and works incredibly well. It's also HUNDREDS of dollars cheaper to make than to buy one. I built one, and have the time and inclination to do so...I also don't have hundreds of dollars to spring on a new smoker. Hence, AB's solution rocked my little world.

As to the turkery fryer episode, yeah, it's overly complicated, but mostly for safety reasons. He explains at the beginning of that show it seems like overkill, but anyone working with several gallons of hot oil in their yard should probably be doing so with a dose of overkill in the safety department.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:02 PM on September 18, 2013

I watched Good Eats from the beginning, and it was apparent early on that he realized he could differentiate himself from all other TV cooks by adding more and more Mr. Wizard-like elements and staging. It kinda became his thing after a while. He's currently doing a tour called "Alton Brown Live," and the marketing spots for it try to make it look like Mythbusters as much as any cooking show.
posted by jbickers at 1:03 PM on September 18, 2013

I have yogurt maker made from a stockpot, heating pad, and towel which I use weekly.
posted by BrashTech at 1:26 PM on September 18, 2013

Good Eats is a cooking show for nerds. A lot of those are nerd jokes.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:53 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not certain if it's because of I have a tolerance for tedium than he does

It's his job to do all these things, you might have more of a tolerance for tedium at work than in your leisure time. It's likely he also has other people helping off-camera with buying materials and putting things together.
posted by yohko at 2:16 PM on September 18, 2013

Watching those things be put together is a better demonstration of how the processes work than anything else. After watching the smoker episode, you can use a store-bought smoker knowing the principles it's based on.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:27 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suspect that most of his contraptions are more effective than the thing they replace. Whether or not that improvement is useful to you is a different story. When I watched a lot of Good Eats, I enjoyed his focus on refining techniques and improving tools, but I didn't rush out and build a salmon smoker. I did actually attempt to store root vegetables in sand after my fall garden harvest. Basically, every viewer is likely to have one or two of these contraptions that interests them, but that's it. There's no need for me to build a turkey fryer because there is no way I'm ever frying a turkey. I'm not going to be building myself a cake-slicing station either, BUT I've seen his demo, and if I happen to do a project that needs cakes sliced, I would 100% totally consider running down to the basement to see if we've got some right-size boards I could use temporarily. Similarly, I will probably ever smoke salmon once in my life, if ever, so there's no need for me to buy a smoker - but I could imagine that one of my friends would suggest it as a great thing to do just for kicks, and we'd slap together Alton's junkyard smoker, spend a weekend drinking beers while the meat smokes, and then disassemble the thing and put the parts back in our respective basements.

Hmmm, I notice I've used the word "basement" in both examples. That's a reminder that non of this makes any sense at all if you're an apartment dweller with limited space and no stash of large but semi-useful objects.
posted by aimedwander at 2:47 PM on September 18, 2013

It's a TV show. The vast majority of people who watch shows like this do it for entertainment value, not as an instruction manual. A lot of people take his more mundane advice to heart (his bechamel sauce macaroni and cheese changed my life), and some people probably do build his contraptions or more generally start applying engineering thought processes to the kitchen. But for the vast majority of the show's audience, they're just tuning in to see what crazy stunt food Alton will make next, and what kind of weird contraption he's going to do it with.

The great secret the Food Network figured out was how to make people want to WATCH cooking rather than actually cook.
posted by Sara C. at 3:38 PM on September 18, 2013

I made his flower pot smoker a few summers ago. I never really got it to work as advertised, but I think that was mostly my fault - I don't think the electric burner I bought was powerful enough. Otherwise, it went together more or less exactly as he described and was not difficult to build. The flower pot has flower in it now and I smoke meat on my Weber charcoal grill.

the trick is you have to take apart the hotplate and move the control element out of the pot. In the pot they get too hot and cycle off too much to maintain the needed heat. I find i get a much more evenly done piece of meat in my flower pot than i do in my grill and can control the heat much, much better.
posted by bartonlong at 3:59 PM on September 18, 2013

As much as he rails against single use implements he sure does want me to have an ironing board I probably only use for ravioli and a pit in my back yard I lined with bricks that I only use for kebabs and a flower pot I only use for smoking things, and so forth. No, I don't make any of these things.

However, almost any time I try a dozen recipes of something to see which one I like best, Alton Brown's comes out on top. He applies science to food, and I don't just mean the principles. Much like with America's Test Kitchen, he has a team of people trying endless variations on recipes and finding out What Works. His recipes are usually really good.
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:01 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Good Eats always struck me as a cooking show for people who can't pour water without five pages of instructions and a roll of duct tape. But, there's is a kernel of usefulness underneath the gadgetry.

The trick to watching Brown is to ignore as much of his geek-to-the-rescue shtick, and try to find the core idea he's trying to get across. Personally, I have little patience with his "if you don't do it exactly my way, all hell will break loose" message, but he does have a way of breaking things down so that you can glean the basic steps/ideas behind the geekery and overblown contraptions.

His basic recipes are good starting points from which you can improvise/expand and make something actually worth eating, and avoid all the unnecessary nerdgasm.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:43 AM on September 19, 2013

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