It's dinner time. You've prepped all the food, you've got all the cookware ready to go. All you need to do is wait for the stovetop to heat up. For years, many people have viewed gas ranges as the ideal way to cook, with the promise of fast heating and an even flame.
But electric and induction cooktops have caught up in capability and are starting to catch on in popularity -- and with good reason. These alternatives have come a long way from the days of exposed coils, and they're typically safer and cleaner than gas cooktops, too.
If you're buying a new range, you might be deciding between induction and electric cooktops. Both are great options, but it's important to understand the differences between them, and which will be the best fit for the specific meals you tend to cook most often.
The mechanics of induction and electric heat
While electric and induction cooktops produce the same outcome, the way they actually get there could not be more different. Electric cooktops use a centralized heat source. Underneath the surface of the cooktop, which may be made from glass or ceramic, there are metal coils that are heated with an electrical current.
As the coil gets hot, it starts to glow and transfers the heat to the surface through infrared energy. That energy heats the full surface of the burner to provide even heat while you cook. Once you put a pot or pan on the surface, the heat is transferred to the cookware, and then to the food inside. This process is known as thermal conduction.
Induction cooktops are electric as well, but they heat your food in a completely different way. Induction cooktops use copper coils, which create a magnetic current with the pot or pan on top of the surface. Instead of passing heat along from surface to cookware to food, induction cooktops heat the cookware directly. The result is an evenly heated pot or pan and much less heat energy lost along the way.
Cooking on an induction cooktop has plenty of benefits. Primary among them is the fact that they require far less energy to heat. Because they transfer heat directly to cookware, considerably less energy is lost through the cooking process. By some estimates, induction cooktops are capable of delivering as much as 90% of the electromagnetic energy generated to the food in the pan, compared to as little as 38% of the energy generated in gas ranges.
Another benefit of induction cooktops is the speedy cooking times. Induction surfaces can boil water in about half the time it takes for gas to do so, for instance. A faster, more efficient heat means that your meal will be ready to plate sooner.
Because of how induction cooktops transfer heat, the surface itself does not actually get hot. That means if you touch it, no worries. Spill food? You won't have to scrape it off after you're done, because it won't cook onto the stovetop. That's safer, and it makes cleanup a breeze.
If there's a downside to the induction cooktop, it's the cost. These ranges are typically more expensive, which can be limiting. If you're on a budget, it may be difficult to find an induction cooktop that's the size you want and meets your preferred price. The costs only increase from there, as induction cooktops require a particular type of pot and pan to use.
Induction stoves only work with cookware made of ferromagnetic material. Specifically, that means stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel. Pots and pans made from aluminum and copper aren't compatible. Most confusing of all, some cookware uses a combination of materials in its construction, so its induction status isn't always obvious.
To know for sure, give your pan the magnet test. If the magnet sticks, you're good to go. If not, then you may have to swap it for another one. Worse, you might have to change out all your existing cookware before your kitchen will be ready for induction.
Electric cooktops aren't quite as hip as induction cooktops are, but that's okay. They've been around for a while, and they're still quite popular for good reason: They get the job done.
Simplicity and reliability are among the primary selling points of an electric cooktop, and installation should be easy and straightforward, too. Don't concern yourself with special equipment or particularly steep price tags. Electric cooktops are common and functional, so there's no learning curve.
Another benefit of the electric cooktop is the ability to make use of residual heat. You may notice that the stovetop stays warm even after you turn it off. You can use this to help keep food warm, or use those final minutes of excess heat to finish off the cooking process before serving your finished dish.
Electric ranges are not without their downsides. Residual heat can lead to unfortunate situations if you happen to place your hand on the surface or spill something on it while it's still warm. They can also take longer to heat up, and the coils can sometimes provide uneven heat or waste lots of energy if you're using a pan that's smaller than the surface being heated.
There are still plenty of things to consider when deciding on the perfect cooktop for you, including your budget, the size of your kitchen, and how much you plan on actually using it. You might want to experience these cooktops for yourself before you decide, if possible. See how each one works and if you might like to cook on it.
There are plenty of great cooktops that use both electric and induction heating mechanisms, so if you do some searching, you're likely to find one that fits your needs. A thoughtful approach will also help you produce great meals every time you use them. Though remember, a stove only provides the heat. You have to do the rest.