Pros and Cons: The Dish on Induction Cooktops
While I'm known around the internet as a home improvement expert, I'm known to my family and friends as a pretty good cook — the principal cook in our family of four, I should add — since my wife neither likes cooking nor knows how to do it. She's got a steady 9-to-5 and spends her free time training to run marathons. The kids and I love her, so she gets a pass on meal prep. I'm happy to oblige.
The Best Laid Plans
I grew up cooking with gas, and when we recently bought what we believed to be an otherwise worthy house with an electric cooktop in the kitchen, I resolved to run a gas line up from the basement and replace it. But, we found during our first year there that it was actually the "House of 12 Plagues" — floods, pests, plumbing issues, mechanical breakdowns — all of which required a great deal of my expert attention in serial chunks.
The new gas line/cooktop kept getting shoved to the bottom of the list. To tell the truth, after dealing with all that, I didn't really feel like spending another afternoon with the spiders in the crawlspace below the kitchen running the supply line for a new gas stove, much less a weekend patching and painting the basement walls and ceiling, which would need to be opened up in the process.
The Benefits of Induction Cooking
As an expert on building and home improvement products, I have long been aware of induction cooking appliances and their conceptual benefits. Induction elements heat pots and pans with magnetic fields instead of flames or radiant coils. They've been around since the 1950s, but — if you believe what they say in the lifestyle magazines — induction cooktops are only now catching on with professional chefs and home cooks who aspire to state-of-the-art kitchens. They're an attractive alternative to conventional electric and gas stoves because:
- Induction elements heat cookware faster and can cut cooking time.
- The controls offer faster response and a more precise temperature setting.
- They're safer; the surface stays cool to the touch and the burners turn off automatically when the cookware is removed.
- They're easier to clean; spills don't get cooked onto their sleek ceramic surfaces.
- They're more energy efficient.
If there's been long-term resistance to induction cookers, it's because most people don't know much about them. The most well-informed have heard that you can't use just any old cookware with an induction cooktop. Others just know that induction cooking is a little different from cooking with conventional electric or gas. They're afraid they'll have to learn to cook all over again.
Yes, I had my qualms, but what really induced me go for an induction cooktop was this: With a dedicated 240-volt circuit protected with 40-amp breakers serving the electric cooktop in my house already in place, I wouldn't have to do any hard, dirty work to set things up for a better cooker.
Cooking with an Induction Cooktop
How's it working out? Well, I already had a full assortment of cast-iron pots and pans, so I didn't have to make any major procurements. I did have to spring for a magnetic stainless steel spaghetti pot—nothing fancy. I just took a magnet down to the store and bought the first reasonably priced 8-quart pot to which it was attracted.
Did I mention that my wife is vegetarian, and I'm a meat eater? Our tween-age girls still prefer chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and broccoli slathered with cheese sauce to virtually anything else. I usually end up cooking something for everyone every night—and that can be a lot of different dishes. Time is of the essence!
Reaching the Boiling Point
With my new induction cooktop, I can now boil water for pasta, which we have in some form four or five times a week, in about two minutes — that's six minutes less than it took with the old electric stove.
Better Béchamel Process
Preparing béchamel — which I use as the basis for cheese sauces — is faster and more predictable with the induction top. I never burn the butter, and the roux achieves that all-important bubbling state more quickly. Before starting to melt the butter, I heat the milk in a separate pot; I've found the right setting to warm but keep it from boiling. By warming the milk before combining it with the roux, I've cut the stirring/thickening time to about four minutes.
To satisfy my meat lust during the cold-weather months, I often make feijoada, a black bean stew with beef, pork, and Portuguese sausage. I've had to change my process a little bit here: I used to put up some bacon fat to heat while I chopped onions, garlic, and celery to sauté in preparation for browning the meats. But the induction element heats the stew pot so quickly that I don't turn it on until after everything is chopped.
Adjustments Under Pressure
Rajama — a kidney bean curry that I prepare for my vegetarian in a pressure-cooker — actually takes a little longer on the induction cooktop. I remember reading something about induction concentrating more heat in the bottom of a pressure cooker rather than distributing more evenly as with conventional heat sources. The bottom line: add a few minutes of cooking time to your favorite pressure cooker recipes when working with an induction cooker.
Yes, there's a little bit of a learning curve when you switch to induction cooking. You've got to learn to match the diameter of your pots and pans to that of the induction element you're using for the best results. You've got to get a flat-bottomed ferrous-metal wok if stir frying is your jam. Some people report of trouble charring chiles for fajitas on an induction top—not my experience.
I say that a world where our most basic survival skills now depend on mastery of smartphones, GPS, and online banking, is ready for better technology in the kitchen. If you can manage Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds, you're probably ready for an induction cooktop, too.
Michael Chotiner is a home construction expert who provides tips to other homeowners for Home Depot. Michael's advice for induction cooktops is based on his extensive experience as a carpenter, general contractor, and family cook. You can view Home Depot's induction cooktop selection online.