You know we love a good fire.

The primal call of an open flame. Our predilection toward putting a piece of cast-iron (then a big fat steak) on top of it.

We talk about it a lot, and we stand by our statements. But now we also want to talk about another cooking method that gets our gears going—one that, like the cast-iron ovens that once took live fires out of our homes, irrevocably changing the way we live, now seeks to do just the same in our kitchens.

If you’re reading this, “induction” is likely a buzz word that you’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

Introduced at the 1933 World’s Fair, induction cooking has been around for decades, particularly in Europe and Asia, but in the last few years, it has started to go mainstream at home here in America. That’s thanks in part to a growing trend in revered restaurants, such as Alinea in Chicago, The French Laundry in Napa, and now Audrey, pictured above, from our pal Sean Brock in Nashville, where iconic chefs are moving their commercial kitchens from the gas stoves of yesteryear toward the induction ranges of the future.

In some ways, it deeply pains us—no more perfect tortillas charred over an open flame—but we also can’t really blame them.

After all, this is not your uncle’s hotplate.  

More akin to the culinary iPad, these flame-free appliances have no burners, no grates, no impossible crevices to give away your late-night snacking escapades. Instead, they are glass-ceramic surfaces that—simple, sleek, easy-to-clean—look a lot like the other technology that you have in your life these days.

But how does induction work? And what makes it different than my current stove?

When powered on, a coiled copper wire located beneath the cooktop surface is charged with an alternating electrical current, which creates a magnetic field. This electromagnetic energy penetrates a compatible pan—and compatible pans only.

Luckily for us, that means any ferrous pan, aka containing iron, such as that found in many stainless steel, carbon steel, and of course, all cast-iron cookware options (even the enameled stuff).

If you aren’t sure, put a magnet on the bottom of your pot or pan and see if it sticks.

So long, copper and aluminum.

Sayonara, Calphalon.

This electromagnetic energy excites the molecules inside your cast iron, which produces heat inside the pan—not on the cooktop surface—and in turn, the water or food inside of it. The cooktop knobs adjust the heat by increasing or reducing the strength of the magnetic field.

But enough science: what difference does this make?

For starters, induction generates no ambient heat. Which means largely cool-to-the-touch cooktops (though be forewarned, your pan will still be hot). Which means no grease fires. Which means cooler kitchens in the summer months. On top of that—its biggest claim to fame—all of the energy being channeled into the pan, and the pan alone, means more energy efficiency.

Induction is being touted as the future of sustainable cooking, with the stoves transferring 90 percent of their heat directly into cookware, compared to the 75 percent of electronic cooktops, which we all know have crappy heat control, and the mere 40 percent of natural gas, which releases the rest, and its noxious fumes, into the air around your household.

That direct energy transfer also has other perks, and pitfalls—they’re powerful. Induction cooktops are said to cook your food faster, with some claims pointing to a pot of water boiling in almost half the time as other methods. They’re also more consistent, with the exact, repeatable settings allowing for precise and responsive temperature control, plus steady, even heat transfer and the enhanced ability to perfect a recipe over time.

Still, chefs have complained about the learning curves, not only in terms of acclimating to which numbered setting yields what level of heat, but also adapting the basic ways we move about our kitchens.  

No more lifting a saucepan for a good whisk, or shaking a pot of popcorn, or flipping an omelet in the air. As soon as you remove the pan from the cooktop surface, the power is cut off. Which also renders round-bottom woks virtually unusable. On top of that, one has to remember that iron is a slow, steady conductor of heat, meaning that induction’s responsiveness is curbed by the cookware material, and thus not as immediate as advertised.

Not all units are created equal, either, with power quality, design, and engineering varying product to product — so do your homework. Some rival professional gas cooktops, with sophisticated sensors and a broad temperature range, while cheaper options offer limited heat control, not unlike the all-or-nothing of electric stoves, leaving them known to cause hot spots, sending you back to easy adjustability of gas in no time. There are portable tabletop and built-in units, neither of which work during power outages. You can scratch or crack them.

While it’s up to the individual user to weigh the pros and cons, we know one thing: the imminent rise of induction seems undeniable. Demand is driving down prices, with current offerings ranging between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, and all the major appliance companies—Viking, Wolf, GE, LG, Samsung, KitchenAid, Kenmore, Miele—have gotten in on the game, even making hybrids. Pair it with cast iron’s ability to readily, evenly, and consistently transfer heat, and it’s surely a tempting match.

An increasing number of Americans say they will be converting to induction with their next kitchen purchase, and in some areas, they might be forced to do so. Since 2019, 23 counties in California have enacted bans on natural gas hookups in new construction. New York is considering one statewide. 

Of course, it is important to note that while induction is undoubtedly more efficient, it does still use electricity, which, compared to gas, is fueled by the less environmentally friendly coal and oil.

“Behind every electric outlet, even behind every microwave oven, there is somewhere a fire burning, probably of fossil fuel, but it’s hidden from us,” says best-selling author and investigative food journalist Michael Pollan in his Netflix miniseries Cooked, based on his book of the same name. With a flame, “It’s just right in front of us.”

In that same episode, experts share the ways in which fire made us human, with homo sapiens being the only species that cooks its food, and with the introduction of live fire to do so literally altering our evolution.

Of course, there is also the plain truth that nothing tastes better than when it’s cooked over burning wood.

The fat, the smoke, those ancient elements intermingling with something far bigger and older than all of us.

“One of the stories of progress is the disappearance of fire from our lives,” says Pollan. “But civilization really begins around that cookfire, and even now, fire does draw us together.”

We think we might just light one this weekend.

Opening image credit to Emily Dorio

March 17, 2022 — Dennis Powell