A very hot topic: Everything you need to know about induction cooktops

Induction was first introduced to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. It was brought to market about two decades later and again in the 1970s, but was too pricey for most consumers. It later gained popularity outside of the United States. As the technology became more widely understood and energy efficiency increasingly relevant, induction returned to consumer radars. Style-wise, the sleekness of induction is part of its appeal. Are the days of clunky stainless steel gas ranges with chunky knobs fading into the sunset?

The science of induction comes from the magnetic energy field created when an electric current passes through copper wire coils under a cooking surface. Energy is transferred directly to magnetic cookware causing the cookware to heat up. The pan heats, not the surface.

What you’ve probably heard about induction is that you need special cookware. “Special” means the pots and pans must be magnetic, and you likely already have a few in your kitchen. (If a magnet sticks to the underside of a pan, it will work with induction.) Stainless steel and cast iron, including enameled cast iron cookware, such as Le Creuset and Staub, work fine. Materials not induction-compatible are aluminum, copper, glass, and ceramic. Also, the pan must have a flat bottom, covering about three-quarters of a cooktop element. (An induction cooktop has different size elements, also referred to as hobs.) A flat-bottomed wok works fine, but not one with a rounded bottom.

Jenny Tredeau, regional business development manager at Clarke, explains that induction is all about speed, performance, and safety. At the Clarke showroom in Milford, Tredeau demonstrates the boiling water test: She takes two large saucepans, each half-filled with water, and places one on an induction cooktop, the other on a gas burner, both set for maximum heat. The water in the induction saucepan comes to a rapid boil in half the time it takes on the gas burner. Think how much faster you can get pasta to the table! (The time difference is even greater with an electric cooktop.)

Besides minutes saved, induction is better for the environment. According to Consumer Reports (2022), induction is 5 to 10 percent more efficient than conventional electric stoves and about three times more efficient than gas. Induction may soon be the inevitable best choice, as some cities and towns in Massachusetts and other states are beginning to ban natural gas lines for new residential construction.

With induction, energy flows directly to the cookware. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Induction’s energy efficiency comes from both less energy used and less energy lost compared to gas and electric cooktops. Some of the heat generated by gas-powered flames and from red-hot coils under an electric surface heats the cooktop and dissipates into the air. With induction, energy flows directly to the cookware. “Heat comes from the pan, which cooks your food,’’ says Tredeau. With no residual heat created or lost, induction gives you lower energy costs and a cooler kitchen. Ventilation fans don’t have to work as hard.

Chefs’ attitudes toward induction have changed as the technology has improved. Matt King, chief culinary officer of PPX Hospitality Brands, which owns Smith & Wollensky, Legal Sea Foods, and Strega Italiano, cites improvements in durability and cost of repair. “And they’re more powerful than they used to be,” he says.

While King’s company’s kitchens around the country still utilize high-BTU gas burners, many have portable induction cooktops in prep areas. King says induction is used more widely in their London and Taiwan restaurants to both reduce energy costs and the heat output in the smaller kitchens.

King says one of induction’s greatest benefits is how quickly heat adjusts. “It’s very easy, fast, and very accurate,” he says. “Gas will turn down quickly but you have to constantly judge the flame and how hot it is. With induction, you use a setting and it’s the same all the time.”

Traditional gas burners. “Gas will turn down quickly but you have to constantly judge the flame and how hot it is,” says chef Matt King. “With induction you use a setting and it’s the same all the time.”Taras Khromushyn

Induction also wins points for safety. If there is no cookware over an element that is turned on, sensors will detect this and automatically shut off. (There needs to be the magnetic connection for induction to work.) This eliminates the safety risk of both gas and electric cooktops if a pan is removed and the cook forgets to turn off the burner. While the induction surface directly under a pan will become hot from the heated pan, the rest of the surface area stays cool.

Cleaning is a breeze. The smooth glass surface is easier to clean than the heavy metal grates over gas burners and the crevices around them. With hot electric and gas surfaces, foods that bubble over or splatter can burn and harden, requiring extra elbow grease to clean them. Induction surfaces just need a quick wipe with a sponge or towel.

If you’ve mostly cooked over gas, induction takes some getting used to. There’s no flame that screams: Now we’re cooking! You might worry that without flames you can’t get a good sear on a thick steak, but it’s not true. King reminds home cooks that, “Not every gas range is created equal, it depends on the BTUs. Same with induction. If you have enough wattage, foods brown well. I’ve been able to replicate everything I’ve done on gas with induction.”

What is true is that some of your habits will have to change. “You’re dealing with a more delicate surface,” says King. Aggressive pan shaking, as cooks happily do on indestructible metal grates, will be a thing of the past. King suggests lifting the pan to shake it (easier if you have strong arms and wrists) or shaking the pan on the surface more gingerly. Most glass cooktops, on both induction and electric, have shatter-resistant glass; they can still crack, but can be replaced.

An induction cooktop surface.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The downsides of induction are threefold. They are generally more expensive than electric cooktops. Prices vary by size of cooktop, manufacturer, power, extra features like boost (a superfast heating option), and materials. Generally speaking, a 30-inch induction cooktop might be about $500 more than an electric cooktop, depending on the brand and where you buy it. For example, a recent search on Home Depot’s website shows that a 30-inch Bosch electric cooktop starts at $1,049, and a 30-inch Bosch induction cooktop starts at $1,899. At Clarke, which carries the high-end Wolf line, a 30-inch induction cooktop is about $2,800 while a 30-inch comparable electric is $2,360.

The other two downsides: You’ll need induction-compatible cookware, like cast iron and stainless steel. And there’s a slight buzz or humming sound at higher settings, which comes from the vibration of the magnetic energy. (With the exhaust fan on, you might not hear anything.) You can also feel a slight vibration in the panhandle, but heavier, thicker gauge pans minimize it.

Induction vs. electric is a simple comparison. Performance-wise, induction rules: It heats and cools faster, is more energy efficient, there’s no residual surface heat, which makes it safer, it’s more accurate, precise, and responsive, and easier to clean. Tredeau says very few shoppers opt for electric once they learn about induction.

If you want to try induction before committing, you can buy a small portable cooktop. There are affordable models to experiment with, and having an extra cooking surface may come in handy when entertaining or to bring to a rental home. Better yet, borrow one. Many libraries lend “things” in addition to books. Brookline’s libraries currently have six kits, each including an induction cooktop, skillet, pot and lid, and instructions. (The organization Mothers Out Front initially partnered with the library to introduce induction cooking to the community.) Other area libraries lend induction kits as well.

You can also visit your local appliance store or a Clarke showroom (Boston, Milford, and South Norwalk, Conn.) where you can learn about various cooking appliances and watch how they perform on “live” equipment. Tredeau says you can even bring in your favorite pans and take them for a spin.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at [email protected].

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at [email protected]

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