Pacific : Gas or Electric? - An introduction to induction cooking

My first real foray into cooking was on an electric stove. Not the sleek, stealthy modern variety with a continuous black glass surface, but rather a relic of the late 70s featuring those iconic glowing orange coils. The combination of its "car cigarette lighter" technology and analog clock (which continues to keep good time) seems so frank and honest, how could I not love this thing? Those twisting spirals looking not unlike those on a vinyl LP of the same era harkening back to a simpler time when both cooking and music reproduction were performed with flat, spiral technology?

As anyone who has cooked on both gas and electric can tell you, the biggest feature missing from those vertigo-inducing coils is immediacy. They can take a minute or so (literally) to heat up and must then, in turn, heat up the pan. In short, the time from "inspiration" to "a pan hot enough to do anything with" is enough to kill the moment.

Flame from a gas stove comes out around 2500 degrees (which, according to my quick research, is actually twice the melting point of my aluminum pans.) Fortunately for the pan, there isn't a 1:1 transference of that energy or the aluminum pans would be molten pools on my stove. Obviously some "diffusion" of the energy is taking place; it is, in fact, the first stage of the inefficiency in a gas stove. Gas is in the neighborhood of 30-40% efficient (electric coils are around 70%). However, since fire itself is at temperature immediately the pan heats up more quickly than it would on coils.

The other big factor I think people struggle with is variability; not knowing "exactly" how much heat is being applied. Unless the coils are visibly orange, it's tough to gauge how much heat is being produced. With gas, you can plainly see how much flame is licking the pan whereas coils only communicate by way of the little control dial; and it only has 8 increments (one of which is OFF.) I haven't tried placing the dial *between* two settings, say 6.5, to see if there are finer increments, but I sincerely doubt it.

Then there is the unavoidable fact that fire is sexy. People don't sit around a radiant coil heater on a camping trip or huddle near an electric furnace in a ski lodge with Irish Coffees. Fire is organic, primal, and since childhood, something powerful. A wood fire seems alive, snapping and popping, and responding to being poked and prodded; it must be fed and respected.

Flame is also handy for a variety of tasks such as charring peppers. If you're my grandmother, you warm tortillas directly on the flame. She'd lay them on the burners sans-pan, wait about 4 seconds, and reach down with her bare fingers and flip them over. Her ability to reach into an open flame was mesmerizing to a 6-year old. When I did it, I burned my finger. What magical power allowed her to reach directly into fire? This power helped later explain why my grandfather was at least a little bit afraid of her.

With all of the praise of fire aside, I have humbly been forced to cook once again on the coiled beast. This time, I'm seeing it from a fresh perspective. I've "had gas" for six years now and one thing I notice with the electric cooktop is the pan/pot handles don't get as hot. With a gas cooktop, the flame heats the bottom of the pan and then continues to rise on all sides heating the handle to finger-scalding temperatures. A stray kitchen towel left inches from the coils is less likely to catch fire than it would next to a blue flame, the flame itself is the same temperature whether it's set on simmer, or high.

Electric coils, however, share a flaw with a gas range - lots of places into which food can fall. The smooth surface of modern electric ranges leaves no place for errant pasta, rice, vegetables, and small chunks of meat to hide.

Which leads me to electric's mutant cousin.

I'd heard of induction cooking for years and dismissed it as an unnecessarily complicated technology. (I often do this with things I don't understand.) Gas is the ultimate, right? Electric was the bane of people forced, by building codes or ventilation limits, to use something other than Prometheus' gift.

It was an article about the top-of-Everest-level-restaurant, El Bulli, that made me pay attention to induction cooking. In the "Taller" (tai-yer for the gringos in the audience - the test kitchen for the restaurant), there is no gas cooktop (at least not in the coverage I've seen), only induction. Other than looking really cool, what was with the no-flame thing? What did they know that I didn't?

This is a clever, highly-efficient - if somewhat obscure - means of converting electricity into heat. Rather than electrical resistance causing heat in a coil, electricity is used to create a rapidly-reversing magnetic field (ironically, through a coil) and the magnetic field oscillating annoys the hell out of the iron in the pan, thereby heating it up. Thus the heat isn't generated by the cooking device and transferred to the pan, it's generated by the pan. This makes for a really fast heat-up time and when you turn it off, it's OFF. There are no coils to cool down. Even a gas cooktop has metal grates that hold some heat but it’s probably negligible so we’ll call that one a draw.

And then there is a BIG differentiator; even the "high-end" gas ranges don't allow you to set the temperature of a pan. Induction cooktops, on the other hand, come in a variety of levels and prices, but in the countertop model I purchased, you can set a desired temperature. Wait, did you hear what I just said? You can tell the device the temperature you'd like the pan heated to. This erases the "I wonder what 'medium' means on this cooktop" problem.

Okay, before I lead you too far down the path of thinking this is the promise land, let me assure you that this is not a dead-accurate, temperature-controlled device. It's "in the ballpark of" the temperature you set. It is not as accurate as, say, an immersion circulator. I would call it "accurate", but not "precise". It is, however, a fantastic way of accurately cooking vegetables, poaching fish, etc.

There is another drawback... it requires specific cookware. I mentioned the reliance on a magnetic field to heat the pan which means - you guessed it - the pan must be magnetic. Aluminum, solid copper, and most some stainless steel pans are not magnetic.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that several companies, All-Clad among them, make induction-compatible cookware. Their "Stainless" series is magnetic which is odd because my stainless-steel hood is not magnetic, nor is the door on my refrigerator, nor several other stainless steel gadgets in my kitchen.

Turns out, the "ratio" of nickel to iron/chromium determines whether or not stainless steel is magnetic. If you have nickel, no magnetism. The numbers such as 18/8 or 18/10 indicate the percentage of chromium to nickel (if any). 18/0 means there is no nickel in it which allows it to remain magnetic.

So why not leave the nickel out of all of them? Nickel is a healthy contributor to the "stainless" monicker. 18/0 pans are not as corrosion resistant.

(Note that the All-Clad claims that the "Stainless" series is the ONLY induction-compatible line, but it turns out that the Copper-Core line is sometimes magnetic. In a set of several pans of various sizes, a magnet stuck to one fry pan, but not the other, and they were identical. More recently, I've seen Copper Core pans stamped with "Induction Compatible" but I see no formal announcement from All-Clad as yet.)

A phone call to the All-Clad help line didn't enlighten much. They reiterated that the stainless line is the only one guaranteed to work with induction. (Everything written by a PR person contains the word "reiterated".) However, I found 4 Copper-Core "seconds" (imperfect) at a discount store and all of them are magnetic. This may have to do with the source of the stainless steel on the outside of the pan.)

You may have a tricky time going to a cooking store and asking about induction-compatible cookware. I went to 6 places and, in most cases, they had no idea what I was talking about. At first, I was simply trying to figure out which set I could use, then it became a game to see how well various cooking stores understood the technology. If they weren't sure, and I was still researching, I'd find a magnet in the store and hold it against the bottom of the pan. If it slid off, no dice. If it stayed, it would work.

There is another minor point worth mentioning that distinguishes gas from either of the other two methods - tilting the pan. Gas will still generate enough heat for a pan tilted at, say, 20 degrees. An induction cooktop will notice the missing pan and turn off, electric coils just don't carry heat that far. I'm a "pan tilter" so this is a consideration for me.

Ultimately, kitchen 3.0 will probably be 4 gas burners and a separate induction drop-in cooktop. Gas for roasting, boiling water for pasta, and for stir-frying, induction for more delicate tasks such as sauces and chocolate. My old pans can breathe a sign of relief knowing they still have a home.


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