I’ve taken my stand in the gas stove culture war at Ikea. Well, not bee Ikea per se, but on the Ikea website – where I bought the Tillreda, a single burner induction cooktop, for $69.99. It’s basically a hot plate, the size of two laptops stacked on top of each other, with the glossy black aesthetic of a control panel on the USS Enterprise. I hoped the sleek glass top would give me a glimpse into the future of our electric stove.
As you’ve no doubt heard, gas stoves are hot politically right now. Democrats want to ban them to limit carbon emissions and childhood asthma; Republicans defend them on behalf of the Founding Fathers, whose wives and chattel slaves all cooked with fire. Never mind that most Americans already cook with electricity. New York is considering banning gas stoves; the city where I live has already banned gas pipes in new construction. Like it or not, induction is coming to a cooktop near you.
But the key to winning a war is logistics. In this case, that means answering one simple question: How well does induction actually cook? Is it better than gas? Or will this be like when everyone had to buy low flow shower heads and then secretly switch them because they were bad? I bought the Tillreda to find out. But I am a skilled cook at best. So I also called some experts in the science to get food on the table.
Now you don’t cook on gas!
There are plenty of ways to heat up food. You can burn wood or charcoal, as humans have done for most of our history. You can ignite a flammable oil-derived gas such as propane or methane. You can push electrons through a metal coil, where resistance to the passage of electricity is converted into heat. Or – and this is the new thing – you can push electrons through a tightly wrapped coil of copper wire to create an oscillating magnetic field, which then heats the metal on top. That’s induction.
In the interest of cost and speed, you want as much energy as possible to go into the food rather than the air around it. The efficiency of a gas stove is about 28% – meaning less than a third of the energy in the burning methane actually heats the food. Classic electric cookers, the much mocked ones with the incandescent superhot spiral, top out at 39%. But on an induction hob, it’s an astounding 70%, which is part of the reason for switching from gas to electric. But once that heat sets in? From a cooking perspective, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from.
“Heat is heat,” says Harold McGee, the author of the priceless book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” “We have different ways of heating up a cooking pot to heat up the contents of that pot. But once the pot itself is hot, everything else is pretty much the same.”
After unpacking my induction hob I went to check my pots and pans. I have a magnet; if it doesn’t stick to a pot, the pot won’t work on an induction plate. This went bad for me. The only winners in my kitchen were the 50 year old cast iron pans and two nonstick skillets. That meant I couldn’t do things on the Tillreda, like cook soup and pasta, things that take a long time on an inefficient gas flame. “In cases like that, the heat losses for a gas flame really add up,” says McGee. “If you’re sautéing something really fast, that’s okay. If you let something simmer for hours, you lose a lot of energy.”
I started cooking things with what I had. My first impressions were mixed. Simply finding a place to store the cooktop when I wasn’t using it turned into an unplanned, multi-day epic reorganization of our tiny kitchen, negatively impacting household harmony. Balancing pans on the small glass plate was tricky. Controlling the heat level with a blip-bloop digital interface felt distant and unintuitive compared to mechanically turning a flame up or down. Also, the Tillreda whines a bit and runs a fan to keep the circuits from overheating. It was loud – like, “Is your laptop broken?” noisy.
The really strange part was the difference in Where my pans got hot. Induction tends to heat the bottom of pans evenly, but not as much as gas stoves. You can see it in thermal imaging. And every cookware maker puts aluminum, steel, and even copper alloys into their products differently, so the individual pot or pan makes a big difference. In 2016, a pair of food scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Stout tested a number of gas pans, electric coils, and induction cooktops. In general, the induction was faster and more uniform. But the variations in where and how they warmed up were wild. Some pans took two minutes to reach their maximum temperature on induction; others took six. Without being too nerdy on your cookware you have no way of knowing how they will behave until you mess with them.
My limited choice of pans and the different heat distribution made my attempts at induction cooking a bit difficult to gauge, but I got used to it. The bacon I cooked for breakfast browned faster than on gas, but the eggs seemed to cook a little slower. Smashed-style burgers didn’t sear as nicely as they would on gas, but maybe I should have crushed them harder or turned the induction plate up to a higher setting. Korean spiced beef heated up and cooled down in no time. Sausages browned faster; a large pile of vegetables baked evenly and easily. I even bought an induction cooker. If induction is the future, then after a week of basic cooking I’m all excited.
Open fire on my mark
Of course, chefs don’t use a small burner from Ikea like the one I have. “Most cheap induction appliances are huge liars,” says Dave Arnold, a famous food tech nerd who hosts the “Cooking Issues” podcast. “They give you that wattage for a short time, and then the internal circuit gets too hot and they throttle the power. Just ask any caterer. For some reason they let you down.”
Arnold uses an induction cooktop called Breville Control Freak. It’s twice the size of my Ikea, and it costs about $1,500. He calls it the “gold standard” for induction cooktops: “It draws 1,700 watts from the wall with an efficiency that all but the most screaming gas burners can’t match.” But it doesn’t take a Control Freak for induction to work. In general, he says, induction is much better than hard-to-control old-fashioned electric, and it beats gas, too. “Nine times out of 10 induction is a dream. The fact that I can go from full power and then go all the way on the throttle and not have to worry about it? With throttle, if you’re on really low throttle, you have to worry make about the flame going to blow out.”
And the other time on 10? Those are cases that require an open fire. That’s where induction just can’t give you the results that gas does.
Take wok hei, the charred smoky flavor you get from super-hot stir-fries. It comes in part from aerosol droplets of oil being ignited by the open flame and then mixed back into the food, which is hard to do if you don’t have a sweltering hot fire. “The people who do a lot of stir-frying, pan-skipping, or stir-frying—those are the people I feel the worst for,” says Arnold. However, there is a solution for induction stir-frying. Use a burner over the food – in other words a pilot fire.
And then there are tortillas. They are an important part of the meals in my house, and we heat them by putting them directly on a gas flame until they puff and char a little. I tried one in a cast iron pan on the induction plate. All I got was a small mark, located in a spot the size of a poker chip, and no real puff or crispiness.
Arnold offers a clunky solution: cook one side of the tortilla on an induction burner, flip it over, cook the other side, then flip it over again—this time pressing down with a towel” to get better thermal contact. ” That makes you hungry.
McGee, the author of “On Food and Cooking,” is getting ready to transition to an induction cooktop at home, except for two things. “One is tortillas,” he says, “and the other is blistered peppers and tomatoes.” For dishes that need a flame, he plans to supplement his induction cooktop with a propane or butane picnic burner. It will be all electric in the kitchen, with a small gas burner on the side.
But for most of us, that’s not really an option in the short term. Like most American homes, mine does not have an electrical panel equipped to supply the 220 volts that induction requires. That’s the same reason I don’t have an electric clothes dryer or heat pump, or any of the other electrified technologies that could make a real difference to my home’s carbon emissions. And while the Biden administration is trying to push all those things through the Inflation Reduction Act, I’m unlikely to get a panel upgrade anytime soon.
Still, it’s only a matter of time before we all cook on induction. Arnold says he thinks high-heat and open-fire techniques will just become part of outdoor cooking, the way most people think about grilling. And my short time with my Ikea hob has helped me make peace with that. People tend to view any change in the technology of our homes with suspicion – until the next change, when the old one becomes a cherished tradition that we mourn the loss of, be it wood stoves or gas lamps. Technology moves on. It’s what technology does.
Arnold, for his part, is ready — or maybe he’s just resigned himself to it — for the post-war era of home cooking. “There will be 1,000 TikToks and a subreddit, and people will discover new cooking techniques, and older people like me will grumble about it until the day we die,” he says. “But we will die — and so will gas.”
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.
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