The culinary school case for induction stoves

The culinary school case for induction stoves

A favorite country song of mine, Tim McGraw’s 2002 banger Red Ragtop, contains a line I hadn’t given much thought until recently. He croons about a long-lost love, “We were cooking with gas. We knew it had to last.”

The first time I cooked with gas wasn’t over a grill in the back of a pickup (sorry, Tim), but on my family’s stove in our house in Pittsburgh. I was in middle school, and we had just moved from Florida. Suddenly, all scrambled eggs, beans and rice, and pancakes happened not over an electric burner like I was used to, but over a blue flame. I felt it was a sure upgrade from the electric-coil burners of our stove in Florida. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew cooking with gas was better. As I helped my mom sauté onions for dinner, I swelled with pride. The click-click-click-flare meant I had finally joined, at the ripe age of 12, the ranks of real cooks. 

But I learned when I walked into Le Cordon Bleu’s Paris kitchens for the first time that I’d been wrong. Among these disciplines of Escoffier and Paul Bocuse and Julia Child, induction, not gas, reigns supreme.

At French cooking schools like the one I attended, and in many commercial kitchens across the globe, induction stovetops have been the standard for a while.

After a year at Le Cordon Bleu, I can tell you that the French chef’s case for induction goes like this: the burners heat up instantly (slashing waiting times), they release far less ambient heat into the kitchen, and they distribute heat around the pan evenly, which is critical for delicate work like candy-making where success or failure can be a matter of one degree Celsius.

In case you’re like I was pre-Paris and you don’t know how induction works, I’ll explain. Induction stoves are essentially the next, higher-tech phase of electric cooktops, with one major twist: they use magnets. Resting invisibly underneath the surface of an induction cooktop, there are coils of magnets that pass electric-powered heat to the pan above the cooktop surface. The pan gets hot, but the cooktop itself barely does. That’s big for chefs, because fewer heated surfaces means fewer places unwatchful cooks can burn themselves, and fewer hot materials to waft heat out into the kitchen – kryptonite for croissant dough.

We made these ganaches on induction burners.

A misconception I had about induction before moving to France is I thought they would require buying all new equipment. The reality is actually not that bad. Many of your pots and pans are probably in fact induction-compatible. Because of the magnetic heating mechanism, the bottom of your pot or pan just has to be magnetic to work. (You can check with a fridge magnet.) Many stainless steel pots and pans will work, as will carbon steel and cast-iron – although rougher cast-iron could scratch an induction cooktop surface, so you do have to be careful. Even some enamel pans these days are inlaid with an induction compatible layer. More on product recommendations in a moment.

Beyond working faster and better for cooking, there are even more reasons to prefer induction over gas. It’s also the better choice for our health and the climate. On the health front, there’s increasing evidence that gas stoves are poisoning the air in our homes even when they’re not turned on

Gas stoves also heat up the atmosphere more, which is a matter of their energy source. If you’ve got standard electric burners or induction, your stove runs on electricity. If you have a gas stove, it runs on natural gas. And while you might have heard natural gas is “cleaner” than the coal that is often burned to generate electricity, the evidence doesn’t bear that out. Methane leakages along natural gas pipelines make gas a more harmful energy choice even than coal – which is saying a lot. Coal blows. But this comparison assumes the electricity in question was generated fully from burning fossil fuels, when in fact a small but growing share of US electricity is generated from renewable sources like wind and solar. The net result is that today, electric-powered stovetops are the better climate choice, and their marginal benefit over gas stoves will increase as renewables continue to gain traction. Which they need to, pronto. 

The gas industry has been fighting the electrification of our homes for decades, and they decided to dig in on gas stoves, as this Climate Town video explores in more depth. They and their PR firms – not sweet, angelic Tim McGraw – were responsible for the phrase “cooking with gas.” They tried to make Americans love gas so we wouldn’t want to let it go, even as the energy economy goes electric around us. And clearly, they were successful! But as I learned in the kitchens at Le Cordon Bleu, they don’t have an argument. It doesn’t cook faster, or better, or steadier. I don’t see America’s (manufactured) fondness for gas lasting much longer, not when induction works better and is better for us. 

So if you’re sold by my case for induction stoves, what should you do? A couple options. If you’re in a position to get an induction cooktop, do it! If you’re not, call your local representatives and tell them you want them to follow in the footsteps of cities across the US that have moved to ban natural gas in new residential buildings. And another thing you can do: Whenever you need to add a new pot or pan to your collection over the next few years, buy one that’ll work with induction in case you can make the switch at a later point. This is called thinking ahead, and it is a glorious thing.

Below I’ve linked a couple of swoon-worthy pots and pans on my own dream-list that also happen to be compatible with induction. But there are lots more. Just remember the magnet rule.

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