Richard Perry/The New York Times
At Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn, all the cooking is done on five induction units in the basement
LISA SIMPSON had been a professional cook, so when she remodeled her kitchen she was counting on a big, powerful gas range. But that would have meant installing a huge propane tank on her rural property outside Seattle. It would have been expensive, ugly and, in an area prone to earthquakes, nerve-racking.
So Ms. Simpson went to an appliance dealer, cooked a few dishes on a six-burner induction range and fell in love.
“It was like I had driven a VW Beetle my whole life and someone suddenly handed me the keys to a Ferrari,” she said.
Induction cooking has been around for decades, but only recently has demand driven prices down and selection up. In the last two years, Viking, GE, Samsung and Kenmore have begun selling induction ranges.
With its energy efficiency, kitchen geek appeal and growing reputation for power and precision, induction cooking may be the iPad of the kitchen. Like Apple’s latest invention, induction technology could forever change everyday tasks, or it might never deliver on its promise.
The induction range, which relies on an electromagnet to heat iron or steel cookware, remains a mystery to most cooks in the United States. In an independent survey last summer by the market research company Mintel of 2,000 Internet users who own appliances, only 5 percent of respondents said they had an induction range or cooktop.
Standing at an induction range, even great cooks must rethink their basic moves. The heat comes on so fast that anyone used to pouring oil in a pan and chopping the last of the onions while it heats is making a big mistake. Learning to control heat levels with numbered dials is like trying to master a new language.
Explaining how it works is also a challenge. Ms. Simpson tried with her grandfather, telling him that an electrical current produces a magnetic field that excites iron molecules and heats the pan and its contents.
“He looked at it like it was devil voodoo magic and walked way,” she said.
Still, 22 percent of the people Mintel surveyed in connection to their study last summer said their next range or cooktop would be induction. The appeal is especially strong among younger people setting up their first serious kitchens, according to the report. Unlike their baby boomer and Generation X counterparts, the new class of cooks is less tied to the aesthetics of gas and more interested in environmentally sound choices.
Although cooking accounts for only a small amount of energy consumption in a home, induction cooktops are marketed as much more energy efficient than gas or electric because they cook food faster and lose less heat in the process.
Lately, price has been less of an obstacle. Although a Viking induction range can top out at $6,000, some models now cost a little over $1,500. LG recently introduced a cooktop hybrid with two induction and two electric elements for $800.
Not everyone is sold. After living with an induction range, Christopher Peacock, the kitchen designer, has his doubts about induction cooking. He installed one in his house in Cape Cod, drawn to its modern look, promise of performance and the ease with which the sealed ceramic top could be cleaned.
The problem? The actual cooking.
“What’s wonderful about it is that the pot heats up very quickly, but what I’ve had problems with is controlling it and understanding which setting will provide the right amount of heat,” he said. “The most basic forms of cooking, a stir-fry or searing, I actually find rather difficult to do. I’ve certainly had many a pot boil over.”
He also had to buy new pots. All that lovely copper and the Calphalon from your wedding? Out.
Companies that sell induction units sell pans specially designed to transfer the energy. But there are less expensive solutions. Cast iron, even enamel-coated cast iron, are suitable. So do many stainless steel pans.
Ms. Simpson’s fancy pans from France work as well as her Ikea stuff. Since induction is quite popular in Asia and Europe, it’s not hard to find pots and pans that work, but just to be sure Ms. Simpson takes a magnet with her when she shops for cookware. If it sticks to the bottom, it will work on her stove.
Wide acceptance of induction will likely come down to whether it makes cooking that much better and how fearful customers are of new technology, said Lynn Dornblaser, who studies new products for Mintel.
“New can be very daunting when it is something as integral as a cooktop,” she said. “Would you rather have something you understand really well or something that could be a real advantage but is unknown?”
The use of induction in restaurants might help its move into the mainstream. Because induction burners deliver the precise, consistent, low heat demanded by certain sauces and confections, higher end restaurants often have a burner or two at the ready.
For a new breed of restaurants with more culinary ambition than money, table-top induction units are an essential piece of weaponry. Unlike kitchens with open flame, induction-based kitchens don’t require elaborate and expensive venting or fire-suppression systems. And kitchens can be built in spaces where it otherwise would be illegal or impossible.
The cooks at Marlow & Sons, a 45-seat restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, work only on five tabletop units spread across a bench in a basement. Creating dishes that require less stove space and retraining the cooks was a challenge, said the chef, Sean Rembold.
“It can be quite intimidating,” he said. “We started referring to it as cooking by numbers.”
Still, he likes it. With the correct pan, he said, his brick chicken crisps perfectly over the high even heat, and his risotto is more consistent than when it’s cooked over gas. And the induction burners throw off so little heat that even a cramped basement can stay relatively cool.
In Los Angeles, it was induction or nothing for Thi and Nguyen Tran when they opened an Asian comfort food restaurant called Starry Kitchen. The former sushi bar had four induction burners, a fryer and a little electric griddle. Punching through the building to vent the kitchen for gas would have cost more than $200,000, Mr. Tran said.
They make do. They sear hoisin Chinese burgers and braise the caramelized Vietnamese pork dish called thit kho. But tall pots have hot spots on the bottom and cold sections at the top. And all the pans have to be perfectly flat. Traditional woks or rounded pots don’t work well. Pull the pot off the surface and the heat stops immediately, unlike gas, which allows a cook to count on the heat that rises above the burner and more residual heat in the pan.
“If you gave me a choice, I would definitely prefer gas, especially if I am making fried rice,” Mrs. Tran said. “When I do fried rice, I have to toss it around. With induction, you have to kind of stir-fry, and it doesn’t get that charred kind of charcoal taste.”
Still, induction is fast. It can boil water in a snap and shave minutes from the time it takes to cook dinner.
And that might be just the edge it needs to work its way into the homes of a nation reluctant to change its cooking habits but also pressed for time.
“If you get that water boiling faster, you throw the pasta in faster and get dinner on the table faster,” Ms. Dornblaser said. “That counts for a lot.”