What Is An Induction Cooktop?

If you’ve ever used a gas or electric stovetop, then you probably know the basics of radiant heating. It’s pretty straight forward. Place a pot, pan, or anything else near a flame or electric coil and it will absorb some of the heat being put off (i.e. – radiated) by that “element”. 

Accidentally touch the same element with your finger or forearm, and you’ll probably never forget how radiant heating works.

Induction cooking, on the other hand, works quite differently. At a glance, it may not seem intuitive. After all, an induction stove doesn’t even put off any heat. Instead, it creates an electromagnetic field. When the field runs through an iron or steel pan, the cookware will actually heat from the inside out. 

Don’t worry. I’ll explain.

By understanding what an induction cooktop is and how it works, you’ll see that it can offer a wide range of benefits and only minor drawbacks.

I’ve cooked on a variety of induction cooktops in professional kitchens where they are often used for their speed and efficiency. I also spent hours researching how hundreds of kitchens have benefited from switching to induction, as well as the drawbacks that some owners have found.

In this article I’ll walk you through exactly what an induction cooktop is. We’ll explore it’s benefits, drawbacks, and how it compares to more traditional cooking surfaces. Armed with this foundational information you’ll have a good idea if induction is a good fit for your home.

What makes it an induction cooktop?

An induction stove may look identical to an electric glass top stove, but below the surface they are quite different. Without getting too sciency, here are the basics.

Underneath the glass-ceramic surface of an induction stove is a copper coil. When you turn on a burner, an electric current is sent through the coil. Together they create a fluctuating magnetic field.

At this point if there is nothing on top of the burner or a piece of cookware without any iron content, nothing will happen. It will remain completely cool.

Place an iron pan on the burner and the magnetic field will create electric currents within the pan itself. This energy is converted to heat and the pan will become hot to the touch while there is still no heat radiated from the coil below.

An electric glass cooktop on the other hand has a coil beneath the surface which gets physically hot. The coil radiates that heat up through the glass and to the cookware.

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Is induction energy efficient?

Whether you’re talking about electricity or gas, induction stoves are much more energy efficient because they don’t produce or waste heat. 

Efficiency boils down to the energy being transferred directly to food and the energy being lost and wasted. Based on a 2014 study, induction cooking can transfer up to 90% of the energy used directly to the food being cooked.

Traditional electric coil cooktops are up to 74% efficient, worse, but not too bad. Gas on the other hand is only about 40% efficient, actually losing more than half the energy it produces.

This makes sense when you consider the amount of heat generated and lost from radiant coils and even more so with an open flame. 

Are induction cooktops safe?

Since induction cooktops don’t actually produce any heat there is very low risk of ever burning yourself. Additionally it’s almost impossible for anything to catch fire directly on the stove top.

This can be a big relief if you have children that like to fiddle with the stove controls. Even if a burner is accidentally turned on, it will remain completely cool as long as there is no cookware on top.

During cooking, hot pots and pans will transfer some heat to the glass surface, but that will dissipate quickly once the cookware is removed.

It’s important to note that the electric currents emitted from an induction cooktop can interfere with the timing and settings of cardiac pacemakers. If someone in your home has a pacemaker they should maintain a distance of at least two feet when the cooktop is in use.

Is induction faster than gas or electric?

Induction cooktops heat cookware significantly faster than it’s gas or electric counterparts. Induction stoves have very little heat loss, and transfer up to 90% of their energy directly to the pot or pan being heated .

You can easily find water boil tests that demonstrate just how much faster induction is. The results often show induction hobs boiling water around 50% faster than a gas stove.

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What kinds of induction equipment is available?

Induction cooktops are available in a wide range of options. There are full size drop in units with various burner layouts that are installed directly into your countertop. Slide-in units like a traditional range, with the oven connected directly beneath. The oven portion of the slide-in options function just like a normal electric radiant heat oven.

There are also portable induction hobs available. These are lightweight and often quite inexpensive. It’s a great option to try induction cooking before going all in on a full size range.

Are there special requirements when cooking with induction?

The only special equipment you need is induction compatible cookware. Since induction relies on an electromagnetic field to heat cookware, your pots and pans must be magnetic.

You’re good to go with cast iron, and most stainless steel cookware, but there are some exceptions. 18/10 stainless steel is a common and very durable steel variety used in cookware. But, it’s high nickel content disrupts the magnetic field and so induction wont work.

One way around this is to use a different kind of stainless on the exterior. 18/0 stainless steel does not contain nickel, and its magnetic properties work really well with induction heating.

Solid aluminum, glass, ceramic, and copper are all out. If you’re ever in doubt, the simplest compatibility test is to place a magnet on the base of your cookware. If it sticks, you’re in business.

Why people love induction

Induction cooktops have features you can’t get from even the most expensive gas or electric ranges. They heat cookware much faster than any other option and cooking temperatures can be adjusted and fine tuned almost instantly.

On top of the excellent cooking performance, they are easy to clean, energy efficient, and safe to use. Especially important when curious toddlers are exploring the kitchen.

In the US, induction cooktops are much less common than traditional gas or electric varieties. In 2019 they accounted for about 15% of all built in stoves in US homes. This is due in part because it is a newer technology that people are reluctant to try, and also that there has been a severe lack of marketing on its behalf.

A few common drawbacks

Induction stoves and ranges are generally more expensive than electric and gas options (with some top tier exceptions). Over time you will certainly save money on your energy bill, but if you don’t have compatible cookware to start, that adds to the initial cost.

Since there are no visual heating cues (i.e. flame size, glowing coils), understanding how hot the various settings are can take some getting used to. Some manufacturers are getting around this by adding virtual flames and other lighting cues to help with the learning curve.

Should you be cooking with Induction?

As you can see, induction cooking offers efficiency, precision, and safety that can’t be matched by gas or electric ranges. Even though it’s not as common to find induction stoves in US kitchens, it’s numbers are definitely on the rise. We’re even starting to see induction technology offered in other small appliances like rice cookers.

If you’re on the fence about your next stove top, or just want to give it a try, these portable induction cooktops are an easy and low risk way to test the waters.

About the author

William is a classically trained chef, who spent years cooking in top NYC restaurants before bringing his talents home to Colorado. Now a stay-at-home dad, William has brought his passion for professional cooking home, where he continues to cook and bake for his wife and daughter.

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