THE GREAT GAS DEBATE
We ask our chef friends for their thoughts on induction.
Last year, while wrangling a portable cooktop around our kitchen, we thought it might be time to pull together a primer on induction. In our quest to gauge the likelihood of its longevity—and the degree to which we’ll need to acclimate—we sought to better understand the pros and cons of these flame-free appliances.
But back then, we couldn’t have fully foreseen how big of a talking point this would become in such a short matter of time, as a great debate would soon emerge over the future of our beloved gas stoves.
Not only does it turn out that our affinity for them is at least partially a byproduct of aggressive lobbying and advertising campaigns from the natural gas industry, dating back to the 1930s, but they’re also not good for us—their blue blazes emitting greenhouse gases into the environment, as well as noxious fumes around our own homes.
So much so that the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering regulatory action against gas-fueled gadgets in the face of growing research about the hazards that they pose to human health.
Which earlier this year sparked a noticeable uproar as politicians pushed back—not unlike in the early 19th century, when the rise of cookstoves as a replacement for open hearths was deemed literally sacrilege, as if taking the soul out of the kitchen. With a perhaps unintentional food pun, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia tweeted, “This is a recipe for disaster. The federal government has no business telling American families how to cook their dinner. I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.”
Not that we completely disagree. As cities and states propose and enact gas-stove bans across the U.S., we’re increasingly forced to reckon the reality that it’s going to be a gray day if we have to pull the plug on our vintage 1946 Garland. And while we don’t know when that might be, we decided to get a jumpstart by turning to our chef friends—aka those folks who have been using induction more often and for a lot longer than we have—for their two cents.
For the most part, they like them, much like food writer Alison Roman, who made headlines when she tweeted that “I have an induction stove by choice,” also noting that she usually uses it with cast iron and doesn’t do much wok cooking anyways. (The rounded cookware bottom poses a problem for induction’s electromagnetic power, which requires a physical connection between the pan bottom and power source.)
“We use them a lot—they’re quiet, they’re fast, they’re easy to keep clean, they’re portable, and when you get a good unit, they’re very dependable,” says Harley Peet, executive chef of the fine-dining Bluepoint Hospitality Group in our local Easton, Maryland, whose Ward Room restaurant is pictured above. “What’s not to like?”
And still, we can’t help but feel somewhat wary of the steady march—from campfires to hearths to stoves to microwaves to induction—to a more mechanical, standardized, and somewhat dehumanized experience of cooking.
But for now, here are some of their takeaways:
Induction creates a more hospitable cooking environment.
Humans have long had a love-hate relationship with the open flame, and gas stoves are no different. Chefs and home cooks relish their speed, adjustability, and perhaps their primal connection to our past.
But whether we like it or not, gas stoves release the likes of methane, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide into the air around us, increasing the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease in those who marinate in them.
On top of that, they’re not efficient, losing some 60 percent of their heat between burner and cookware, compared to electric’s 25 percent, and induction’s mere 10. This also makes our kitchens hotter, especially in restaurant settings, where chefs have been known to need to cool off in their walk-ins.
“For a professional chef, a kitchen full of induction is the difference between saving or shaving seven years off your life,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock, whose flagship restaurant Audrey features roughly a dozen CookTek induction units, in addition to a live-fire hearth. “The comfort and temperature difference are night and day.”
Hoods help alleviate some of these issues, but not all kitchens are created equal, and induction offers an alternative for those without proper ventilation, which can be expensive to install.
Meanwhile, their glass-ceramic surfaces, though susceptible to scratching or cracking, are also easier to clean than the grates and gullies of a gas or electric-coil stovetop.
“We wipe them down and scrub them with soap, water, and Brillo,” says David Guas, chef-owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, who uses Iwatani units in his gas-less kitchen.
Portability affords flexibility.
Current induction units range from portable burners to built-in stovetops, with the former being especially common in professional kitchens, providing chefs a certain amount of adaptability throughout their prep time or meal service. Many options are both compact and lightweight, and in some cases, all you need is an outlet (but more on that later).
“In professional kitchens like mine, where the menu changes often, we use a lot of single-burner induction units that you can plug into the wall and move all around the kitchen,” says Brock, who has both portable and built-in options. “At any given time, there are several induction burners scattered throughout our building.”
Which in many ways makes a chef’s job easier.
“It really has opened up a door as far as a whole new way of time management,” says Peet, who uses portable CookTek and Vollrath units across six of his company’s nine restaurants. “If somebody’s making something that requires constant attention, instead of having to keep walking over to the stove continuously, they could be in the back prepping, fabricating a fish or other protein, and also have a stock or sauce or consommé or reduction reducing on an induction burner right there next to them.”
Not all units are created equal.
In general, induction cooktops ain’t cheap, ranging from a hundred to a few thousand dollars and on upwards, with high-end built-in units peaking five digits, and most all being more expensive than their gas and electric alternatives.
“Some restaurants have stoves that cost as much as new cars, and some of the best induction options are pretty expensive for the average consumer, unless they’re avid cooks,” says Opie Crooks, culinary director for the FARM Hospitality Group in Savannah, who has used CookTech units and The Control Freak by PolyScience.
Luckily, demand is driving down price, with all the major appliance companies—Viking, Wolf, GE, LG, Samsung, KitchenAid, Kenmore, Miele—getting in on the induction game. Which naturally comes with a spectrum of quality.
“It’s like anything else: there are shit ones, there are good ones, sometimes they break—we did burn up a couple and had one deemed a lemon out of the factory,” says Peet, whose partner is a commercial kitchen designer. “But I think over the next year or so, we’ll have a lot more information, as more people get into induction and more options break into the market.”
Such as brands from Europe, where, as in Asia, this type of cooking has been commonplace for decades, with some all-induction restaurants earning three Michelin stars.
Making the switch sometimes can require updates to a kitchen’s electrical system, as most units require higher voltage outlets, which bring an additional expense. Increasingly, both restaurateurs and developers are building out their new spaces for this possibility.
Your pans need to be compatible with induction—meaning that they are conductive, aka ferrous, aka containing iron, aka innately magnetic—which includes many stainless and carbon steel options and, of course, all cast iron (including the enameled stuff). Put a magnet on the bottom; if it sticks, you’re good to go.
“Because we use so much induction, every pot or pan that we purchase has to work with induction,” says Brock, who relies on Made In stainless steel and Butter Pat cast iron.
To use non-compatible cookware—such as copper, aluminum, and Calphalon—cast-iron plates can serve as a go-between. Some companies have also incorporated layers of other metals into their products to make them induction-friendly.
Of note: though cast iron is a perfect pairing, it is also a slow, steady conductor of heat, meaning it’s less quick to respond than other metals, meaning it takes it’s time to both heat up and cool down, ultimately curbing the immediacy often touted about induction. But once the cookware does reach temperature, it holds it well, and for long periods of time, which will bring us to our next takeaway.
“The initial heating may take a couple of extra minutes,” says Peet, who pairs his induction with our cast iron, plus Mauviel stainless steel and Du Buyer carbon steel, “but it's well worth it to get that final result.”
It’s a decision for precision.
Accuracy, consistency, precision—these are a few of the words that often come up when talking about the wonder of induction.
Instead of low-to-high settings, the technology uses numbers to represent levels of heat, which are, with the twist of a knob, both exact and repeatable. And while this practice lacks the art of, say, building a fire or manipulating a coal bed, it does allow for precise temperature control and the enhanced ability to perfect a recipe over time.
“With a gas stove, you’re using intuition, but with induction, there’s no room for someone’s interpretation of low to medium to high heat—it’s an assigned number, so the consistency is there, every single time,” says Brock. “I can write a recipe: turn the knob to 20, do this, turn it to 11, and do that, then turn it to five, and do this. You can set an induction burner to whatever temperature you need, and it will hold it there.”
Which is why these cooktops are turned to for sous vide, simmering, and other low-and-slow techniques.
“It’s great for things that don’t need to be actively cooked but do need an exact, consistent, and constant temperature—things like stocks and reductions,” says Crooks, who saves searing for the wood fire.
“Boiling pasta, blanched vegetables, the start of our roux, soft-poaching eggs, etc.,” lists Guas as a few common uses, finding induction particularly helpful when cooking with sugar, such as making syrups, caramels, and desserts like Italian meringue or praline.
“We use it for a little bit of everything—heating, reheating, warming, hot holding, sautéing, braising, all of it,” says Peet. “My chef de cuisine is confiting duck legs on one as we speak.”
Practice makes perfect.
As you might expect, transitioning to induction does come with a learning curve, particularly for those using them technically as their sole cooking source.
For starters, there are the numeric settings. But even more difficult, there is a newfound lack of the visual cues that we’ve grown so accustomed to when cooking. No hot surface. No rise and fall of a flame. No red glow of an electric cooktop. In fact, this has posed such a problem that some manufacturers have started adding virtual flames and other lighting features to help indicate its heat.
“You cook with all of your senses—you might move things around or pull the pan off or to the side—but you can’t really see or feel the heat of the fire in the moment with induction,” says Crooks. “It almost takes the cooking out of it. You lose a bit of that human instinct. You have to rely on trusting the unknown.” (Aka the machines.)
And then there’s the fact that as soon as you remove the pan from the cooking surface—when shaking a pot of popcorn or flipping an omelet—that magnetic connection is broken, thus cutting off the power.
“We’ve combatted that issue by finding the units that are designed for a few-second delay, that way you can flip your pasta and set it back down without having to reset anything—it just picks right back up where you left off,” says Peet, whose Ward Room is run entirely on induction. “But it does takes some getting used to—you don’t get a new car and know what every button does, it takes a few months to figure out all the gadgets and gizmos.”
Or, as Brock puts it, not unlike how he describes cooking with cast iron: “If you don’t know how to drive a Ferrari, it’ll get away from you.”
For him, induction is just another feather in his culinary quiver.
“It’s an extension,” he says. “We still do 90 percent of our cooking in the hearth.”