If you thought gas and electric were the only ways to cook, think again. Induction cooktops are masters of the quick change—delicate enough to melt butter and chocolate, but powerful enough to bring six cups of water to a boil in just three minutes.
Although the technology is already popular in Europe, it's almost unknown in the U.S. However, it seems falling prices and ever-growing consumer awareness might finally help the superior technology gain a foothold.
What is induction?
Induction is fundamentally unique in that it uses electromagnetic energy to directly heat pots and pans. In comparison, gas and electric cooktops heat indirectly, using either a burner or heating element to heat cookware from underneath. That radiant energy is then passed on to your food.
Induction cooktops don't use burners or heating elements underneath the pan. Instead, they employ a series of magnets that excite the iron atoms in a pan to generate heat.
As you can probably imagine, it's far more efficient to heat cookware directly than indirectly. Induction is able to deliver roughly 80 to 90 percent of its electromagnetic energy to the food in the pan. Compare that to gas, which converts a mere 38 percent of its energy, and electric, which can only manage roughly 70 percent.
That means induction cooktops not only heat up much faster, but their temperature controls are also far more precise. "It's an instantaneous reaction in the cookware," said Robert McKechnie, product development manager at Electrolux. "With radiant you don't get that."
Induction cooktops can achieve a wide range of temperatures, and they take far less time to boil than their electric or gas counterparts. Additionally, the cooktop surface itself stays cool. You don't have to worry about burning your hand on a burner that's cooling down, and it's even possible to put a paper towel between a hot frying pan and an induction burner to keep oil from spattering on a cooktop.
In fact, on almost all counts, induction is faster, safer, easier, and more efficient than either gas or electric. And yes, we have exhaustive lab data to support that claim.
Why is it better?
At Reviewed.com, we've rigorously tested the majority of top-selling cooktops and ranges on the market—including most induction models.
In our labs, we record the time it takes each burner to bring 48 ounces of water to boiling temperature. Among all the gas ranges we've tested, the average time-to-boil is 8 minutes, 34 seconds, while radiant electric cooktops average 5 minutes, 47 seconds. But induction is the clear speed king, averaging a blistering 3 minutes, 7 seconds.
In the course of testing, we also compile data on the temperature ranges of gas, electric, and induction burners. On average, induction cooktops reach a maximum temperature of 665.5°F, compared to just 428°F for gas. While radiant electric cooktops can get hotter—741.8°F on average—they take a lot longer to cool down when switching from high to low heat.
Induction ranges have no problem cooking low and slow, either. Turn an induction burner down, and—on average—it will go as low as 100.75°F. Compare that to gas cooktops, which can only get down to 126.56°F.
While we've found that radiant electric cooktops can also get down to as low as 92.2°F, they lack the precise temperature control required for more delicate tasks. For induction, that's no problem.
See, while induction may not average the highest or lowest temperatures, its direct heating doesn't fluctuate, so you won't be surprised by burnt food.
You also won't have to spend much time cleaning. Since the cooktop itself doesn't get hot, it's very easy to clean. "You don't get a lot of baked-on food when you're cooking," said Paul Bristow, product manager for cooktops at GE Appliances.
Why is it so rare?
Induction is all the rage in Europe. In some areas—particularly Scandinavian countries—induction cooktops command more than 60% of the market. (Sweden takes the cake, with a 75% market share for induction.) It's no coincidence that these are countries with high electricity costs, where energy-efficiency is a must. In the U.S., where energy prices are lower, gas and radiant electric still reign. Still, interest is rising.
"If you go back to 2008, induction was around 5 percent of the electric cooktop market, but over time it's slowly grown to around 15 percent," Bristow said. (Note that since induction relies on electricity, cooktops using the technology are classified alongside radiant electric.) "I really do think that over time, and as costs come down, and as people become more aware of it, induction will grow to a much larger part of the market."
Cookware is one major reason Americans have been slow to adopt induction. Because induction relies on electromagnetism, only pots with magnetic bottoms—steel and iron—can transfer heat. But that doesn’t mean you need to buy all-new cookware. If a magnet sticks to the bottom of the pots and pans you already have, they'll work with induction.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding about special pans," Bristow said. "Yeah, the bases have to be magnetic, but there's a lot of cookware out there now that supplies that demand. And the fact is they're not specific to induction, so you can use those pans on other fuels."
Price has been another big stumbling block. Induction ranges have been notoriously expensive, though the gap to radiant electric has fallen in recent years. Built-in cooktops start around $1,300, while freestanding induction ranges—which include electric ovens—can be had for under $1,500. The Kenmore Elite 95073, for example, can be found for as low as $1,200.
While induction ranges still claim just a small fraction of the overall market, they are becoming more affordable, and that's helping to boost sales. For example, some manufacturers have found ways to improve the efficiency of their cooktops by offering just a single, high-powered induction burner with three or four less powerful burners on the side. This dramatically cuts down on both energy and manufacturing costs.
To capitalize on consumers' familiarity with visual cues, Samsung has introduced LED lighting on its induction range to create a "virtual flame." Vestel, a Turkish appliance maker, recently unveiled a hybrid cooktop that includes two induction burners and two gas burners (though it's not avaialable in the U.S.). Other manufacturers, such as Miele, have finally introduced their own induction ranges, signifying slow but sure adoption rates in the U.S. But that begs the question: How slow is too slow?
As McKechnie pointed out, microwave ovens suffered from a similarly slow adoption rate up through the 1970s, for precisely the same reason: People just didn't understand the science behind microwave cooking, or how it could benefit them.
Ultimately, it was the introduction of PR-friendly cooking demos, TV shows, and microwave dealerships that helped the technology take off. Induction cooking may require a similar strategy.
If that's the case, McKechnie thinks a bit of strategic rebranding might go a long way. "The word 'induction' doesn't help," he explained. "That's the scientific name—it's induction field technology—but a lot of people can't really relate to it. The nomenclature could probably use some help."