Chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea or Thomas Keller of the French Laundry are modern day secular monks, dedicating the majority of the waking portion of their life toward the pursuit of perfect technique and sublime ingredients. They have something to teach and I’m intrigued by the techniques they’re using, especially induction cooking.
Induction cooking uses strong magnetic fields to vibrate molecules in iron based cookware which in turns heats your food. The theory is that induction cooking is faster, cooler, cleaner and more precise than traditional gas based or electric cooking. I decided to test whether the hype is real, or whether an induction cooktop would end up next to the Ron “It Slices, It Dices” Popeil gadgets in the back of my cupboard.
The Range and Design
I called the folks over at Cooktek, the same company that installed Alinea’s induction cooktops. They lent me a single hob MC-1800 for my experiments. The MC-1800, housed in durable sleek stainless steel with a black ceramic inline flat cooktop, is equivalent to a 16,000 BTU burner, and plugs into a normal 120 VAC home socket.
The controls are relatively simple. I loved the temperature modulating knob shown below. Since we all have Apple iPod’s, it’s nice to have a tactile coarse adjustment control that harkens back to classic stereo components.
“Smarttemp” allows you to set an exact cooking temperature in degrees, while “Powercook” is similar to the adjustments you would expect on a normal stove, except that instead of low, medium, and high, you can adjust from 1 to 20. Spinal tap would be jealous.
Flame gives a good visual indicator of heat, and you can look at your classic stove and feel your way to the right cooking temp.
On an induction cooktop, there’s no flame, so you have to use visual cues, such as the ripple of oil in the pan, or use the “Powercook” settings, adjusting between 1 and 20 as if they were low, medium, and hot.
The induction range excels in “Smarttemp” mode. Consider crème brulee, flan, or homemade ice cream. The optimal temperature for setting up a good custard is 172°F, which is perilously close to 180°F, the temperature eggs start to scramble. Now you can just set the induction cooktop to 172°F for grit free custards.
Normally you need to use a double boiler to avoid scorching while melting chocolate. With the induction range, you can set the temperature to 100°F and watch it get creamy in about a minute with no burning.
I’m no stranger to deep fried food, and so I knew to set the range to 375°F for some fat filled goodness. I wondered if the burner could actually maintain consistent heat over a few batches of sweet potato chips, fried chicken, and onion rings. I hooked up a deep fry thermometer on a Dutch Oven, and revved up the Cooktek unit to find out. What usually takes twenty minutes to bring to temp on a gas burner, took about ten minutes on the induction range.
After throwing in a batch of sliced sweet potatoes, the temp of the oil dropped only 6°F, which is as good as most self enclosed electric deep fryers I’ve used. Best of all, the tempura battered onion rings were super crispy.
With induction, the swelter of the kitchen is gone. The energy generated by the induction range is transferred to the particles in the pan and then directly to the food. You can place a sheet of paper between the pan and the unit, or place your hand on the cooktop a few inches away from the pan, and nothing gets burnt. David Blaine could get one of these, crank it up and tell everyone that he’s standing on a 500°F cooktop in Central Park for his next television magic extravaganza.
Finally, my favorite part of the cooktop is that there’s no grating or wiring for food to get trapped in or on. Cleaning is easy as wiping down the inline ceramic top with a soft wet cloth.
Challenges and Conclusion
So, what’s not to love?
You need induction compatible cookware. Chances are your old nonstick skillet isn’t going to work. You need cookware with a ferrous or iron metal core. The good news is if you have any cast iron pans or enamel Le Creuset style cookware, you’re already in the game. Many of the All Clad stainless steel lines are induction capable, and a there are some affordable wares available from Ikea and Revereware.
There is no flame on induction cooktops, and I like to roast chili peppers or corn directly on the open burner for flavor. Then again, I could just buy a $7 blowtorch for those moments.
If you want to replace your traditional range with an all induction cooktop, you’ll probably spend 30% more for a comparable range. This might not be an easy sell for utilitarian types, but if you love cooking, the easy cleaning, the precise temperatures, the speed of heating, the sleek design, and the prospect of no longer sweating behind a hot pot, it’s a pretty easy choice.
Next time I buy, I’m going induction.