I took sides in the gas stove culture war at Ikea. Well, no TO Ikea per se, but on the Ikea website, where I bought Tillreda, a single burner induction cooktop, for $69.99. It’s basically a hot pot, about 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 into our electric stove 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 are defending them on behalf of the Founding Fathers, whose wives and chattel slaves are all cooked with fire. Never mind that most Americans already cook with electricity. New York is considering banning gas stoves; the municipality where I live has already banned gas pipelines in new buildings. Like it or not, induction is coming to a hob near you.
But the key to winning any war is logistics. In this case, that means answering a simple question: How well does induction actually cook? Is it better than gas? Or will it be like when everyone had to buy low flow showerheads, and then secretly traded them because they sucked? I bought the Tillreda to find out. But at best I’m a competent cook. So I also called in a couple of science experts to get dinner on the table.
Now you’re not cooking with gas!
There are many ways to reheat food. You can burn wood or charcoal, as humans have for most of our history. You can ignite a flammable petroleum gas such as propane or methane. You can push electrons through a metal coil, where the resistance to the passage of electricity is converted into heat. Or — and that’s new — you can push electrons through a tightly wound coil of copper wire to create an oscillating magnetic field, which then heats the metal above it. This is induction.
In the interest of cost and speed, you want as much energy as possible to get into the food instead of the air around it. The efficiency of a gas stove is about 28%, which means that less than a third of the energy from burning methane actually heats the food. The classic electric stoves, the much derided ones with the incandescent super hot coil, reach 39%. But on an induction cooktop, that’s a staggering 70%, which is part of what drives the switch from gas to electric. But once the heat is in there? From a culinary point of view, it doesn’t matter where it comes 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 to heat a cooking vessel to heat the contents of that vessel. But once the vessel itself is hot, everything else is pretty much the same.”
After unpacking my induction hob, I went to check the pots and pans. I have a magnet; if it doesn’t stick to a pan, the pan won’t work on an induction hob. This went bad for me. The only winners in my kitchen were 50-year-old cast iron skillets and two nonstick skillets. That meant I couldn’t do things on the Tillreda like boiling 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 skipping something really fast, that’s not a big deal. If you’re simmering something for hours, you’re losing a lot of energy.”
I started cooking stuff with what I had. My first impressions were mixed. Just finding a place to store the hob when I wasn’t using it turned into an epic, multi-day, unplanned rearrangement of our tiny kitchen, which took a toll on domestic harmony. Balancing the pans on the small glass plate was tricky. Controlling the heat level with a beep-bloop digital interface felt distant and unintuitive compared to mechanically turning a flame on or off. Also, the Tillreda whines a bit and runs a fan to keep its circuitry from overheating. It was loud, like, “Is your laptop broken?” strong.
The really weird part was the difference in Where my pans got hot. Induction tends to heat the bottom of cookware evenly, but not heat the sides as much as gas stoves. You can see it in thermal images. And every cookware maker layers aluminum, steel, and even copper alloys differently in their products, 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 variety of pans on gas, electric and induction cooktops. Overall, the induction was quicker and smoother. But the variations in where and how they heated up were wild. Some of the pans took two minutes to reach their maximum temperatures on the induction; others took six. Without messing with your pans that you have, you may not know how they will perform until you mess with them.
My limited selection of cookware and varying heat distribution made my attempts at induction cooking a bit difficult to gauge, but I got used to it. The bacon I pan-fried for breakfast browned faster than over gas, but the eggs seemed to cook a little slower. The smashed style burgers didn’t get that nice sear they do on gas, but maybe I should have smashed them harder or clicked the induction plate to a higher setting. Korean seasoned beef heated and cooled at lightning speed. Browned sausages faster; a big pile of vegetables stir-fried evenly and easily. I even bought a pot ready for induction. If induction is the future, after a week of basic home cooking, I’m all excited.
On my signal, open fire
Professional cooks, of course, don’t use a tiny burner from Ikea like the one I got. “Most cheap induction units are huge liars,” says Dave Arnold, a popular food tech nerd who hosts the “Cooking Issues” podcast. “They give you that wattage for a while, and then the internal circuitry overheats and reduces the wattage. Ask any restaurateur. For some reason, they make fun of you.”
Arnold uses an induction hob 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 will pull 1,700 watts out the wall with an efficiency that all but the screamiest domestic gas burners can’t compete with.” But it doesn’t take a control freak to make induction work. In general, he says, induction is much better than hard-to-control old-fashioned electric, and it even beats gas. “Nine times out of 10, induction is a dream. The fact that I can go from full power and then accelerate all the way without having to worry? With gas, when you’re really idling, you have to worry about the flame going to explode.”
And that other time out of 10? These are cases that require an open flame. This is where induction cannot give you the results of gas.
Take wok hei, the charred smoke flavor you get from a super hot stir-fry. It comes, in part, from aerosol oil droplets that are ignited by the open flame and then mix back into the food, which is hard to do unless you have a blazing fire. “People who do a lot of stir-frying, whether it’s with pan-flicks or woks—those are the people I feel worst about,” Arnold says. There is a solution to induction frying, though. Use a blowtorch over the food—an auxiliary fire, in other words.
And then there are the tortillas. They are a significant part of the 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 hob. I have only a little char, located in a poker chip sized spot, and no real puff or crunch.
Arnold offers a clumsy solution: Cook one side of the tortilla on an induction cooker, flip it over, cook the other side, and then flip it again, this time pressing down with a towel “for better thermal contact.” He blows you away.
McGee, the author of “On Food and Cooking,” is preparing to switch to an induction cooktop at home, except for two things. “One is tortillas,” he says, “and the other is hot peppers and tomatoes.” For dishes that call for a flame, he plans to supplement his he induction cooktop with a propane or butane-fueled picnic burner. It will be all electric in the kitchen, with a small gas burner on the side.
But for most of us, this really isn’t a short-term option. Like most American homes, mine does not have an electrical panel equipped to supply the 220 volts required by induction. This is the same reason I don’t have an electric dryer or a heat pump, or any of the other electrified technologies that could make a real difference in my home’s carbon footprint. And even though the Biden administration is trying to incentivize all of these things via the Inflation Reduction Act, I’m unlikely to get a panel update anytime soon.
However, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all cooking on induction. Arnold says he envisions simmering and simmering techniques becoming part of outdoor cooking, the way most people think of grilling. And my brief time with my Ikea cooktop helped me make peace with that. People tend to view any change in the technology in our homes with suspicion, until the next change, when that old one becomes a cherished tradition we mourn the loss of, whether it’s wood stoves or gas lamps. Technology moves forward. That’s what technology does.
Arnold, for his part, is ready—or perhaps just resigned—to the postwar 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 be amazed until the day we die,” he says. “But we will die – and the gas too.”
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent for Insider.
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