With rising awareness about the risks of gas stoves, lots of home cooks are curious about induction. This method of cooking is not only touted as better for health and the environment, but many also claim it’s more efficient. But how does this seemingly magical way of cooking work? We learned a ton about induction cooking during our testing of portable induction burners. Here, we’ll be sharing what induction is, how it works, and its pros and cons.
What is Induction?
Induction burners aren’t like gas or electric; they don’t actually heat up. Instead, they cause your pan to heat itself up. Weird, right? When you turn an induction burner on, an electric current runs through a metal coil beneath the glass surface, creating an electromagnetic field. This creates atomic-level vibrations in your pan, which causes friction and heats the pan from the inside out (some low-level physics lessons going on here). But not just any pan will do—it has to be magnetic, which means it needs some iron in it. Cast iron (obviously), magnetic stainless steel, and carbon steel skillets are all prime candidates, but we advise checking the manufacturer’s specs if you’re buying a new pan and want to throw it on an induction cooktop (or you can check out our article on all of our favorite, induction-friendly cookware).
Induction Cooking Is Efficient
Induction cooking is really, really efficient. Traditional electric hobs and gas flames lose energy (a.k.a. heat) as it dissipates onto the cooktop surface and the air around the element. It takes a while to heat up a pot or pan this way, and more energy to keep it hot. The US Department of Energy cites that induction cooking is 5 to 10% more efficient than conventional electric stovetops and three times (!) more efficient than gas. Since the cookware itself is doing the cooking during induction (and it heats up almost instantaneously), there are a lot fewer opportunities for heat to escape before it gets to the food.
It’s Better for Our Health and the Environment
Brady Seals, an expert in household energy who works at RMI, a nonprofit organization focused on global sustainability, has spent most of her career working specifically on sustainably-powered cookstoves. She said that about 38% of US households cook with natural gas, while 60% use it to heat their homes. Gas-powered appliances can be big contributors to air pollution, as they vent methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Gas stoves in particular are known to leak methane, even when they’re turned off. “It isn’t a lot,” Seals says. “About 1% of the gas that’s delivered to the stove is leaking as unburned methane.” She cites a group of Stanford researchers, who estimate that if we added up all the leaked methane from gas stoves in the United States, it would show the same impact on our climate as about half a million cars on the road.
Gas-powered furnaces and water heaters are considered to be the biggest household polluters, and there are regulations requiring them to be vented outdoors. Gas stoves have no such universal requirements. In many areas, gas range hoods can circulate gasses like nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide back into the home, where they can build up over time and cause respiratory irritation. According to peer-reviewed research (co-authored by Seals), about 13% of childhood asthma can be attributable to gas stoves, which is on par with secondhand cigarette smoke.
Induction cooking is free of the combustion pollutants from gas stoves, making it a safer, and more environmentally-friendly option. Traditional electric cooktops are also a great option, although slightly less efficient than induction. For renters and people who can’t or aren’t ready to make the switch, a portable induction cooktop is a good option to reduce the time a gas stove is running, therefore reducing the overall amount of gas released into the environment (and our homes).
Induction Is Responsive
Induction is a direct heating method, and the temperature of a pan directly corresponds to how much energy is being directed into it at any given time. Changing that energy by adjusting power or temperature levels creates an immediate response. A traditional electric stovetop can stay blisteringly hot for several minutes as heat dissipates from its burner components, whereas lowering the setting on an induction cooktop instantaneously cuts heat and produces a visible effect within a few seconds. It also heats pans up really quickly. As soon as power is turned on, the entire bottom of a pot will start producing heat immediately, instead of slowly absorbing it from a gas flame or electric zone. During testing, induction burners were able to get pans smoking hot in less than a minute, compared to four to five minutes on a gas range.
It’s Also Very Safe
Induction burners come standard with a variety of features designed to prevent mishaps. Some induction models also have locking functions to prevent accidentally turning the machine on or changing settings, which can be helpful for homes with young children. Of course, no induction burners will heat anything unless there is an induction-compliant pan on top. The burner itself does become warm after use, but only from having a hot pan on top of it. During our tests, we found that all of the burners were cool enough to touch and handle within minutes of turning them off, even when they were on high heat. Since heat isn’t being radiated into the air as much as with gas or electric cooktops, pot handles also stayed cooler for longer (which could help prevent those burns that we’ve all gotten when taking something off of a scorching burner). Of course, don’t throw caution out the window. Both the cooktop and pot handles will still get hot during use, so have an oven mitt handy.
All induction burners are programmed to automatically shut off when the heat level gets too high, but it can be hard for a burner to accurately measure the temperature if the pan on top has nothing inside. During our tests, an empty cast iron left on the Mueller Rapid Therm Portable Induction Cooktop quickly rocketed upwards of 750°F within a minute and a half (according to an infrared thermometer) before its safety feature turned it off. Don’t try that at home—every induction burner warns against heating empty pans for this reason. Since induction is so fast and responsive, you only need to preheat a pan for a few seconds before adding food.
Induction Stovetops Are a Cinch to Clean
Like smooth-top electric ranges, induction burners have a flat glass cook surface that’s a breeze to wipe down after use. They can be cleaned with a damp soft cloth, and a drop of mild detergent can be added for grease and occasionally stuck-on bits. A dry towel will buff out any remaining streaks.
There Is a Learning Curve
For most of us, the hardest part of switching to induction after using gas or electric is getting used to a new system. Many induction burners include options for temperature settings as well as power settings, which can be confusing for traditional cooktop converts. Here’s the gist of it: power is (usually) a numbered setting that correlates to the low-medium-high scale of a traditional stove knob. Most burners will output a constant wattage based on the power setting.
Temperature settings, on the other hand, will try to maintain a certain level of heat at the base of the cooktop’s surface (not the temperature of the pan or its contents). For example, an induction burner set to 212 degrees would fluctuate the wattage and pulse on/off cycles to try to keep its cooktop surface at a steady 212°F. Whatever is happening inside the pan at that point is dependent on the cookware that’s used, the amount and type of food being cooked, and the specific burner’s efficiency at maintaining that heat.
You Need Induction-Compatible Cookware
As mentioned before, pots and pans must have a magnetic base to work with induction. An easy way to test if pans will be induction compatible is to hold a magnet to the bottom (any run-of-the-mill refrigerator magnet will do). If it sticks strongly to the base, then that pan is a good candidate for induction. Traditional and enameled cast iron and carbon steel will work, as well as some stainless steel (look for magnetic or fully-clad stainless steel). Using non-compatible cookware on induction won’t hurt anything—it just won’t heat up. Luckily, we’ve gathered a collection of our favorite induction-compatible cookware for you already.
The cookware must also have a flat bottom so it can make full contact with the burner. Induction is only really good at creating heat where the pot is in direct contact with the cooking surface above the copper coil. Cookware has to have a diameter that is big enough for the burner to detect and transmit enough energy to it, but small enough that the burner can still heat it evenly.
Induction Burners Are Surprisingly Noisy
While the electromagnetic exchange process is technically silent, these machines definitely are not. All induction burners have fans inside to keep their inner components cool. The fan usually starts running as soon as the burner is turned on and for several moments after cooking stops. All of the models I tested for this review had roughly the same noise level depending on their heat settings, similar to that of a microwave or low kitchen exhaust fan.
The fan isn’t the only sound, though. When pans are heated using induction, they can emit sounds including—but not limited to—popping, buzzing, humming, and high-pitched whining. It happens more with pans that are lightweight or not totally flat on the bottom, as well as multi-clad cookware, which has sandwiched layers of metal that vibrate against each other during cooking.
What’s the best way to clean an induction burner?
The best way to clean an induction burner is to wipe it down with a damp, soft cloth. You can use a little bit of detergent or mild cleaning spray if you’d like, just make sure to wipe it off and dry it thoroughly. We don’t recommend using any abrasive cleaners, since you might damage the surface.
What’s the best portable induction burner?
In our testing, we really liked the Duxtop Portable Induction Cooktop 9100MC; it displayed controlled heating abilities and was easy to clean. We also liked the Hamilton Beach Portable Single Induction Cooktop and IKEA TILLREDA Portable Induction Cooktop. If you’re looking to cook solely on an induction burner and want to invest in a truly great (albeit, $$$) one, the Breville Control Freak is the one we use in the Serious Eats’ kitchens.