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Monday, April 15, 2024

Scared of Induction Cooking? It’s Going to Be OK

People love cooking with gas, whether it's in a restaurant, where gas stoves are ubiquitous, or in home kitchens, where they range from extremely basic to quite tony. If you're looking for something that's considered a fancy and sexy performer, a gas stove can feel like the only option.

Thing is, a set of laws are slowly moving through the United States that aim to sunset the use of gas stoves for environmental and health reasons. And while few people will miss their gas ovens, they're kinda grieving the potential loss of their gas burners. I see this in the course of my work as a kitchen tech reviewer, where I'm regularly asked something like, “Should I get a gas stove while I still can?” The FOMO is weirdly palpable, but as someone who's been using an induction stovetop for the last five years, I'm here to tell you that if you switch to induction burners, it's going to be OK. In fact, you might be amazed at how well induction works. You might even come to love it.

Most of us cook on what we know, what we grew up with—or like me, what was there when we moved into a new place. In the US, that's usually gas or electric. But if we want a fancy new range, something we aspire to, something the pros use or something our trendy friends use, it's gas. When I was a kid, Mom cooked on a yellow GE stove with the electric coils that glowed orange when hot. She graduated to a fancier Jenn-Air with those solid French-style burners that were trendy but slow to heat. When that stove fizzled out, she upgraded to a nice gas range that, especially compared to its predecessor, was fast and fun.

Induction never really got the star treatment in the United States. The technology—which uses electromagnets to transfer energy directly to your pots and pans, causing them to heat up—was introduced on American shores in the 1970s. While induction has certainly caught on in Europe, we've done a good job of ignoring it, which is perplexing, considering that it has almost all of the qualities chefs love: It's flat, easy to clean, powerful, incredibly efficient, and heats fast and even. Put on a pot of pasta water, and you will be astonished at how quickly it comes to a boil. Comparing induction and natural gas stoves is a little like a movie mashup where a Tron light-cycle pulls up next to a smoke belcher from Mad Max. Natural gas certainly has a lot of momentum. Almost all restaurant chefs use it, which gives it street cred; the heat is instant; and what would a cooking show be without frequent cuts to the exciting whoomp! of a burner being lit? There's also the allure of the flame and the clang of sauté pans on the grate. If you are having a midlife crisis, expensive brands like Viking, Wolf, and many others have the gas stoves to scratch your itch.

Here's the problem with gas stoves: We probably shouldn't use them anymore. Like cars with combustion engines, gas stoves emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Many, particularly older models, leak gas into our homes when they're not on. State laws are beginning to chip away at the problem, banning gas hookups in new buildings, for example. While there are often bigger air quality offenders in homes—most notably gas furnaces and water heaters—if the opportunity presents itself, why not take it? (Author and New York Times columnist Ronda Kaysen does a nice job of illustrating how gas stoves are the thin edge of the wedge when converting your home from natural gas to electric.)

Somehow, gas is still the trendiest option, likely because it’s sexy and works well, even if it isn’t the most ecological choice. That's too bad, because despite induction’s marketing problems, it has no performance issues.

Burn, Baby, Burn

For this story, I did a quick head-to-head test with the equipment I had available to me, boiling two liters of water on two stoves. One was my induction stove, which has one small element, two medium-sized, and one big one that can “boost” up to 3,700 watts; naturally, I used it. The other was my sister's gas stove with a 21,000-BTU burner. For both tests, I used the same volume of water in the same pot—my All-Clad d5 Essential Pan—and made sure the water started at the same temperature, 56 degrees Fahrenheit. At home, I got out my probe thermometer, turned the induction burner on full blast, and started a stopwatch. Induction's impressive energy transfer capabilities were immediately, impressively visible. The water hit 100 degrees within a minute, and steam started rising at the 2:30 mark. It made that pre-boil agitation noise at 3:20, and at 4:44 it hit a rolling boil. A watched pot has never delivered such excitement. I then took the pan to my sister's very nice GE stovetop, and put it on that big gas burner … and all of those stages took almost twice as long, with the water hitting a steady boil at 8:30. I will modestly say that is an appreciable time difference and made for some pleasing myth busting.

Induction might just have a marketing problem. If I worked for its lobbying group, I'd push for a rebrand with a name like Rocket Electric or Eco Rocket. I'd tout the nice, even heat, and compare it to the way a gas flame might gutter in a breeze or if the burner cap is askew. I'd talk about how most days I just clean the cooktop with soapy water and a Scrunge, as compared to lugging the heavy gas grates over to the sink to scrub, then attacking the gas cooktop, with all its nooks and crannies. In the age of the countertop appliance—hello sous vide and Instant Pot—I'm also happy to have the induction cooktop as a nice, flat bit of extra counter space.

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There is a drawback to induction that people never fail to mention: Non-magnetic pans like aluminum and copper do not work with it. But how many pans in your set is that? For me, I lost one saucepan. It was a bummer, but the blow was cushioned when it felt like many of my old pans, particularly my very magnetic cast-iron skillets, Dutch oven, and carbon-steel pans all got big performance upgrades on induction. Plus, manufacturers, particularly the global ones, are cottoning on to this growing need and tout how their offerings are “induction ready.” Induction cooktops are still pretty expensive—less than $2,000 for a good range is a true deal, and double that price is not uncommon—but so are high-end Viking and Wolf gas ranges.

For now, a lot of the built-in induction available in the United States is in the form of a cooktop/drop-in, and not a range/stove which has an oven below it, but that is slowly changing. If you just want to give induction cooking a whirl, good single-burner countertop models cost around $100.

Most of my beefs with my induction stove are specific to the model I own. It's hard to see exactly where the burners are on mine, for instance. The touch controls are fiddly; I'd much prefer the knobs found on a few other models, a wish I’ve also heard from friends and culinary colleagues. Sometimes when I set a sheet pan down over some portion of the control panel, it does a beeping and flashing flip-out. Once in a while, I'll walk past at night and, for reasons I've never bothered to sleuth out, some or all of the burner indicators will be flashing with a low light that I find almost charming.

On the other hand, there are also tech advances with induction that I look forward to seeing trickle down to less expensive models. GE and Hestan, for example, have models with to-the-degree temperature control, and I hope that level of precision gains traction. For manufacturers looking for nerdy inspiration, the gold standard is the Control Freak countertop burner from Breville PolyScience, and Hestan's countertop Cue and its full-size cooktop are two of the few smart-kitchen appliances that I really like.

When it's time for a new cooktop for your home, I can't make the decision for you. You're going to buy what you're going to buy. But I will say that I started cooking on induction several years ago, and since then, I've never wanted anything else.

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