I made my stand on the gas stove culture war at Ikea. Well, no in Ikea per se, but on the Ikea website, where I bought the Tillreda, a single-burner induction cooktop, for $69.99. It’s a hot plate, basically the size of two laptops stacked on top of each other, with the glossy black aesthetic of a control panel on the USS Enterprise. Its elegant glass top, I hoped, would offer me a glimpse of our electric cooktop future.
As you’ve no doubt heard, politically speaking, gas stoves are hot 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 slaves, all cooked on fire. It doesn’t matter that most Americans already cook with electricity. New York is considering banning gas stoves; The town where I live has already banned gas lines in new construction. Like it or not, induction is coming to a stove near you.
But the key to winning any war is logistics. In this case, that means answering a simple question: How well does induction really cook? Is it better than gas? Or is it like when everyone had to buy low flow shower heads and then secretly change them because they stunk? I bought the Tillreda to find out. But I am a competent cook at best. So I also called in a couple of experts on the science of putting dinner on the table.
You are no longer cooking with gas!
There are many ways to heat food. You can burn wood or coal, as humans have done for most of our history. May ignite a flammable petroleum gas such as propane or methane. You can push electrons through a metal coil, where the resistance to the flow of electricity is converted to heat. Or, and here’s what’s new, you can push electrons through a tightly wrapped coil of copper wire to create an oscillating magnetic field, which then heats the metal above it. That is induction.
For the sake of cost and speed, you want as much energy as possible going into the food rather than the air around it. The efficiency of a gas stove is around 28%, which means that less than a third of the energy from the methane burned actually heats the food. Classic electric stoves, the ones so ridiculed with the glowing super-hot coil, go as high as 39%. But on an induction cooktop, it’s a staggering 70%, which is part of what drives the switch from gas to electric. But once that heat is there? From a culinary perspective, it doesn’t really matter where it came from.
“Heat is heat,” says Harold McGee, author of the invaluable book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” “We have various ways of heating a cooking container to heat the contents of that container. But once the container is hot, everything else is pretty much the same.”
After unpacking my induction cooktop, 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 cooktop. This went wrong for me. The only winners in my kitchen were 50 year old cast iron skillets and two nonstick skillets. That meant he couldn’t do things on the Tillreda like boil soup and pasta, things that take a long time on an inefficient gas flame. “In cases like that, the heat losses from a gas flame really add up,” says McGee. “If you’re sautéing something really fast, that’s not a big deal. If you’re simmering something for hours, you’re wasting a lot of energy.”
I started cooking things with what I had. My first impressions were mixed. Simply finding a place to store the stove when I wasn’t using it turned into an epic multi-day unplanned reorganization of our tiny kitchen, taking a toll on the harmony of the home. Balancing the pans on the small glass dish was tricky. Controlling the heat level with a beep-bloop digital interface seemed distant and unintuitive compared to mechanically raising or lowering a flame. Also, the Tillreda grumbles a bit and runs a fan to keep its circuitry from overheating. It was loud, like, “Is your laptop broken?” high.
The genuinely strange part was the difference in where my pans got hot. Induction tends to heat the bottom of pans evenly but doesn’t heat the sides as much as gas stovetops do. It can be seen on the thermal image. And every cookware manufacturer layers aluminum, steel, and even copper alloys differently into their products, so the individual pot or pan makes a world of difference. In 2016, a couple of food scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Stout tested a bunch of pans on gas stovetops, electric coils, and induction. In general, the induction was faster and more uniform. But the variations in where and how they were heated were wild. Some of the pots took two minutes to reach their full induction temperatures; others took six. If you don’t care about the cookware you have, you can’t know how it’s going to perform until you mess with it.
My limited selection of pans and different heat distribution made my attempts at induction cooking a little hard to gauge, but I got used to it. The bacon I made for breakfast browned faster than fizzy, but the eggs seemed to cook a bit slower. The squash-style burgers didn’t brown as nicely as they did with gasoline, but maybe I should have squashed them harder or clicked the induction cooktop to a higher setting. Korean seasoned beef heated and cooled at lightning speeds. Sausages brown faster; a big pile of vegetables stir-fried evenly and easily. I even bought an induction ready stock pot. If induction is the future, after a week of basic home cooking, I’m excited.
On my signal, open fire
Kitchen professionals of course don’t use a small burner from Ikea like the one I got. “Most cheap induction units are big liars,” says Dave Arnold, a famous food-tech nerd who hosts the “Cooking Issues” podcast. “They give you that wattage for a little while, and then the internal circuitry gets too hot and they cut power. Ask any supplier. For whatever reason, they’ll shit on you.”
Arnold uses an induction cooktop called the Breville Control Freak. It’s twice the size of my Ikea and costs about $1,500. He calls it the “gold standard” for induction cooktops: “It’ll pull 1,700 watts from the wall with an efficiency all but the loudest home gas burners can’t compete with.” But you don’t have to be a control freak to make induction work. Overall, he says, induction is much better than the hard-to-control old-style electric, and it beats gas, too. “Nine times out of 10, induction is a dream. The fact that I can go from full throttle and then go full throttle and not have to worry about it? On gas, when you rev very low, you have to worry about flame It’s going to explode.”
And that other time out of 10? Those are cases that require an open flame. That’s where induction just can’t give you the results that gas does.
Take wok hei, the charred smoke flavor you get from a super-hot stir-fry. It comes, in part, from blobs of cooking spray that are ignited with an open flame and then mixed back into the food, which is hard to do if you don’t have a blazing fire. “People who do a lot of stir-frying, whether it’s pan-jumping motion or woks, those are the people I feel the worst for,” Arnold says. However, there is a solution to stir fry with induction. Blow torch on top of food; in other words, an auxiliary fire.
And then there are the tortillas. They are an important part of meals in my house, and we heat them by placing them directly over a gas flame until they puff up and char a bit. I tried one in a cast iron skillet on the induction cooktop. I only got a little char, localized in a poker chip sized spot, and no real puff or crunch.
Arnold offers a clunky solution: cook one side of the tortilla over an induction burner, flip it over, cook the other side, then flip it again, this time pressing down with a towel “for better heat contact.” He blows you up.
McGee, the author of “On Food and Cooking,” is preparing to make the move to an induction cooktop at home, except for two things. “One is tortillas,” he says, “and the other is peppers and tomatoes.” For dishes that require a flame, he plans to supplement his induction cooktop with a propane or butane-powered 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 a short-term option. Like most American homes, mine does not have an electrical panel equipped to deliver 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 footprint. And while the Biden administration is trying to incentivize all of those things through the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s unlikely to get an update from the panel anytime soon.
Still, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all cooking with induction. Arnold says that he believes high heat and open flame techniques will simply become part of outdoor cooking, the way most people think about grilling. And my brief time with my Ikea stove has helped me make peace with it. People tend to greet any change in technology in our homes with suspicion, until the next change, when the old one becomes a beloved tradition we mourn the loss of, be it wood stoves or gas lamps. Technology advances. It’s what technology does.
Arnold, for his part, is ready—or maybe just resigned—for the postwar era of home cooking. “There will be 1,000 TikToks and a subreddit, and people will discover new cooking techniques, and old people like me will complain until the day we die,” he says. “But we will die, and so will the gas.”
adam rogers is a senior correspondent for Insider.
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