I made my stand in the gas-stove culture war at Ikea. Well, not at Ikea per se, but on the Ikea website — where I purchased the Tillreda, a single-burner induction cooktop, for $69.99. It’s a hot plate, basically, the size of two laptops stacked on top of each other, with the glossy black aesthetic of a control panel on the USS Enterprise. Its sleek glass top, I hoped, would offer me a glimpse of our electric-stove future.
As you’ve no doubt heard, politically speaking, gas stoves are hot right now. Democrats want to ban them to limit carbon emissions and childhood asthma; Republicans are defending them on behalf of the Founding Fathers, whose wives and chattel slaves all cooked with fire. Never mind that most Americans already cook with electricity. New York is considering a ban on gas stoves; the town where I live has already banned gas lines in new construction. Like it or not, induction is coming to a stovetop near you.
But the key to winning any war is logistics. In this case, that means answering one simple question: How well does induction actually cook? Is it better than gas? Or is this going to be like when everyone had to buy low-flow showerheads, and then secretly swapped them out because they sucked? I bought the Tillreda to find out. But I’m a competent cook at best. So I also called a couple of experts in the science of getting dinner on the table.
Now you’re not cooking with gas!
There are plenty of ways to heat food. You can burn wood or charcoal, as humans have for most of our history. You can ignite a flammable, oil-derived gas like propane or methane. You can push electrons through a metal coil, where resistance to the passage of electricity gets converted into heat. Or — and this is the new thing — you can push electrons through a tightly wrapped spiral of copper wire to create an oscillating magnetic field, which then heats up the metal atop it. That’s induction.
In the interests of cost and speed, you want as much energy as possible to get into the food instead of the air around it. The efficiency of a gas stove is about 28% — meaning less than a third of the energy in the burning methane actually heats the food. Classic electric stoves, the much-derided ones with the glowing superhot coil, come in at 39%. But on an induction cooktop, it’s a blazing 70%, which is part of what’s driving the push to switch from gas to electric. But once that heat is in there? From a cooking perspective, it doesn’t really matter where it came from.
“Heat is heat,” says Harold McGee, the author of the invaluable book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” “We have various ways of heating up a cooking vessel in order to heat the contents of that vessel. But once the vessel itself is hot, everything else is pretty much the same.”
After unboxing my induction plate I went to check my pots and pans. I got a magnet; if it doesn’t stick to a pot, the pot won’t work on an induction plate. This went badly for me. The only winners in my kitchen were the 50-year-old cast-iron pans and two nonstick skillets. That meant I couldn’t do stuff on the Tillreda like boiling soup and pasta, things that require a long time on an inefficient gas flame. “In cases like that, the heat losses for a gas flame really add up,” McGee says. “If you’re sautéing something really quickly, that’s not a big deal. If you’re simmering something for hours, you’re losing a lot of energy.”
I started cooking stuff with what I had. My first impressions were mixed. Just finding a place to store the cooktop when I wasn’t using it turned into an unplanned, multiday epic reorganization of our tiny kitchen, which had negative consequences on household harmony. Balancing pans on the little glass plate was tricky. Controlling the heat level with a bleep-bloop digital interface felt distant and unintuitive compared with mechanically turning a flame up or down. Also, the Tillreda whines a little bit, and it runs a fan to keep its circuits from overheating. It was loud — like, “Is your laptop broken?” loud.
Heat is heat. We have various ways of heating up a cooking vessel. But once the vessel itself is hot, everything else is pretty much the same.Harold McGee
The genuinely strange part was the difference in where my pans got hot. Induction tends to heat the bottom of pans evenly but not heat the sides as much as gas stoves do. You can see it in thermal imaging. And every cookware maker layers aluminum, steel, and even copper alloys differently in their products, so the individual pot or pan makes a big difference. In 2016, a couple of food scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Stout tested a bunch of pans on gas, electric coil, and induction cooktops. On the whole, induction was faster and more uniform. But the variations in where and how they heated up were wild. Some of the pots took two minutes to reach their maximum temperatures on induction; others took six. Without nerding out on your cookware you have, you can’t know how they’re going to behave until you mess with them.
My limited selection of pans, and the different distribution of heat, made my attempts at induction cooking a bit hard to gauge, but I got used to it. The bacon I panfried for breakfast browned faster than over gas, but the eggs seemed to cook a bit slower. Smashed-style burgers didn’t get that nice sear they do over gas, but maybe I should have squashed ’em harder, or clicked the induction plate to a higher setting. Korean-seasoned beef heated up and cooled off with lightning speed. Sausages browned faster; a big pile of veggies sautéed evenly and easily. I even bought an induction-ready stock pot. If induction is the future, then after a week of basic, household cooking, I’m all fired up.
On my signal, open fire
Cooking pros, of course, aren’t using a tiny burner from Ikea like the one I got. “Most cheap induction units are huge liars,” says Dave Arnold, a famed food-tech nerd who hosts the “Cooking Issues” podcast. “They give you that wattage for a little bit of time, and then the internal circuitry gets too hot and they throttle the power down. Ask any caterer. For some reason, they crap out on you.”
Arnold uses an induction cookplate called a Breville Control Freak. It’s twice as big as my Ikea, and it runs about $1,500. He calls it the “gold standard” for induction cooktops: “It’ll pull 1,700 watts out of the wall with an efficiency that all but the most screaming home gas burners can’t compete with.” But it doesn’t take a Control Freak to make induction work. In general, he says, induction is way better than hard-to-control old-style electric, and it beats gas, too. “Nine times out of 10, induction is a dream. The fact I can go from full power and then throttle all the way down and not have to worry about it? With gas, when you throttle really low, you have to worry the flame is going to blow out.”
And that other one time out of 10? Those are cases that require an open flame. That’s where induction just can’t give you the results that gas does.
Take wok hei, the charred-smoke flavor you get from a superhot stir-fry. It comes, in part, from aerosolized droplets of oil getting ignited by the open flame and then mixing back into the food, which is hard to do if you don’t have a blisteringly hot fire. “The people who do a lot of stir-fry, either with jumping-pan motion or woks — those are the people I feel the worst for,” Arnold says. There’s a solution to stir-frying with induction, though. Use a blowtorch over the top of the food — an auxiliary fire, in other words.
And then there are tortillas. They’re a significant part of meals in my house, and we heat them by putting them directly atop a gas flame until they puff and char a bit. I tried one in a cast-iron pan on the induction plate. I got only a little char, localized to one poker-chip-size spot, and no real puff or crisping.
Arnold offers a kludgy fix: Cook one side of the tortilla over an induction burner, flip it, cook the other side, and then flip it again — this time pressing down with a towel “to get better thermal contact.” It gets you the puff.
Ikea depicts its Tillreda cooktop being used to prepare a stir-fry with a wok — the rare kind of cooking that experts say induction doesn’t do well.
McGee, the author of “On Food and Cooking,” is getting ready to move to an induction cooktop at home, except for two things. “One is tortillas,” he says, “and the other is blistering peppers and tomatoes.” For dishes that require a flame, he plans to supplement his induction stovetop with a propane- or butane-fueled picnic burner. He’ll be all-electric in the kitchen, with a little gas burner on the side.
But for most of us, that’s not really an option in the short term. Like most American homes, mine doesn’t have an electrical panel equipped to deliver the 220 volts that induction requires. That’s the same reason I don’t have an electric clothes dryer or a heat pump, or any of the other electrified technologies that might make a real difference in my home’s carbon-emission footprint. And even though the Biden administration is trying to incentivize all those things via the Inflation Reduction Act, I’m unlikely to get a panel upgrade anytime soon.
Still, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all cooking with induction. Arnold says he figures high-heat, open-flame techniques will just become part of outside cooking, the way most folks think about grilling. And my brief time with my Ikea cooktop has helped me make my peace with that. People tend to meet any change to the technology of our homes with suspicion — until the next change, when the old one becomes a beloved tradition that we mourn the loss of, whether it’s wood-burning stoves or gas lamps. Technology moves on. It’s what technology does.
Arnold, for his part, is ready — or maybe just resigned — to home cooking’s postwar era. “There will be 1,000 TikToks and a subreddit, and people will figure out new cooking techniques, and older folks like me will grouse about it until the day we die,” he says. “But we will die — and so will gas.”
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.