The ultimate kitchen upgrade

A magnetic induction stove: It's a cooktop that cooks twice as fast - but won't burn the kids' fingers

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By Sally Schultheiss, Money Magazine contributing writer

power_of_induction.03.jpg
Instead of an electric element, an induction stove's powerful magnetic copper coil creates a high-frequency electromagnetic field that turns into heat.
What's cooking?
Induction stovetops offer big benefits, but with a big pricetag.
To boil 1 qt. of water Power to the pan Price
Gas 5 min. 40% $1,300
Electric 9 min. 52% $250
Induction 2.5 min. 86% $2,500
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(Money Magazine) -- Magnetic induction may just be the best technology to hit the kitchen since the microwave oven. In the past few years this style of cooktop, which turns magnetic energy into heat, has proved itself a worthy competitor to the traditional choices - gas and electric.

And while induction has only recently joined the list of options, some experts already predict it will soon become an essential value-adding addition for kitchen remodels.

After all, it's faster, safer and more efficient than anything before, says Francisco Migoya, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He cooks with it; maybe you should too.

What induction is

An induction cooktop looks a lot like an electric smoothtop, but what goes on beneath the surface is very different. Instead of an electric element, an induction stove is centered around a powerful magnetic copper coil, which creates a high-frequency electromagnetic field when electricity is turned on.

Put a pot made of a magnetic material - like iron or steel - onto that field and the energy gets transferred to it in the form of heat. Nothing else gets hot, only the pot, and you can adjust the field and the heat with the knob, just as with your old stove.

Where it came from

Even the greatest technologies take a while to catch on - though induction has probably taken longer than most. The science behind it was actually discovered back in 1831 by physicist Michael Faraday. It would be more than a century, however, before companies started using induction for anything other than industrial applications. (The same technology is used in generators and transformers.)

By the 1970s, manufacturers in Europe and Asia finally began experimenting with cooking uses, and the technology took off quickly on those continents. But American firms weren't as successful at marketing what was then an almost prohibitively expensive product. By 2000 all the induction stoves of that generation had been pulled off the U.S. market, says Eric Walker, a former electrical engineer who now sells cooktops via theinductionsite.com.

In the past two years, induction manufacturers have returned full-press with a different approach. "They seem to realize that the way to present the product is to the upper-market segment, rather than to storm the walls of the slide-in 30-inch ranges," says Walker.

At the Kitchen and Bath Show in Chicago this April, several new induction cooktops were introduced, joining the 65 or so already on the market from prestigious players like Bosch, Electrolux, Thermador and Wolf. Everyday brands GE and Kenmore are making them under their high-end lines; even gas king Viking is in the act.

"This is definitely an expanding product category," says Rick Demert, a buyer for Sears. Last year the retailer carried three induction models; Demert expects it will have 20 by year-end.

This time, induction is here to stay.

What's so hot about it

Induction offers several advantages over gas and electric:

It's more powerful. Some 86% of the heat in induction cooking goes to the pan - as opposed to 40% with gas and 52% with electric. Walker says a 2.4-kilowatt induction cooktop - a middle-of-the-road model - provides roughly the same oomph as an ultra-high-end gas cooktop with 17,000 BTUs.

Also, since induction cooktops emit less extraneous heat, no hood ventilation is required. (Still, don't expect major electric savings. Walker estimates $35 a year.)

It's faster and more precise. Because the unit heats up instantaneously and uses more of the energy, you can boil a quart of water on an induction cooktop in just over two minutes.

Also, "The temperature precision makes it better for delicate tasks like caramelizing sugar and melting chocolate," says Chef Migoya of the Culinary Institute. (As manager of one of the school's restaurants, Migoya outfitted his professional kitchen with induction.)

It's safer. Since the heat goes straight into the pot without escaping to the cooking surface, you can touch the element even when it's on, a nice safeguard for those with small children at home.

It's easier to clean. A common frustration with electric smoothtops is that bits of food become stubborn blemishes once they cook on. Because the induction unit stays cool, drips wipe right up.

What's not so hot

You need certain pots and pans. Only cookware that's ferrous - a fancy word for magnetic - conducts the energy. That means iron, steel and some types of stainless steel (a high nickel content will render it nonmagnetic); some All-Clad and Calphalon pieces are compatible.

The best test: If a magnet sticks to your pan, it's good. But if you're a ceramic cookware buff or you're wedded to your clear Pyrex saucepan, induction cooking is not for you.

You'll pay top dollar. Prices for built-in induction cooktops now go from $1,500 to $3,500, significantly higher than basic gas or electric stoves. "And this isn't like the plasma TV, where prices will plummet in the next few years," says Sears' Demert. Still, as he notes, the prices are comparable to those of top-of-the-line gas cooktops, which can go as high as $4,200.

You can't get the whole package. Right now induction is available mainly in cooktops, and that can make installation difficult. Only one full range (meaning oven included) has come out so far (price: $9,500). "So you see, there's a vast market waiting to be tapped," Demert says.

It's an adjustment from gas. Many gas users prefer the "style" of gas cooking, finding it easier to adjust the heat by looking at the flame level, says Mars Ileto, a sales associate at Bay Cities Kitchens & Appliances in Santa Monica, Calif.

The efficiency of induction can also throw off a gas cook's pacing; there's barely time to grate the Parmesan before the pasta water is ready. Ileto notes, however, that rarely does an electric-cooktop owner enter his store who cannot be persuaded to convert to induction.

How to shop

Think you're ready to be converted? First step, check out what's out there. Start at appliance retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's and Sears, which have growing selections of low-end and moderately priced units; for higher-end models, you may need to visit kitchen design centers.

Then determine what you'll want. The first choice is built-in or freestanding. If you already have a separate cooktop, you may be able to easily replace it with a built-in model; standard sizes for induction are 30-inch with four elements and 36-inch with five.

If you now have a full "slide-in" range, on the other hand, you'll need to invest in an undercabinet oven, and you'll need to whack out part of your countertop to make room for the cooktop. In that case, unless you're planning a full kitchen reno, it might make more sense to get a freestanding plug-in unit, which generally has one element and starts at $80.

Next, as with any stove installation, you must figure out what kind of wattage your wiring can support. (Though induction is more efficient, it uses the same energy input as a normal stove to achieve higher cooking power output.)

To calculate your potential cooking power, multiply the amperage of your circuit breaker (listed on the box) by 0.24, says Walker. If you have 50 amps, you can look at models up to 12 kw. Be aware that some units "power share," which means all elements cannot achieve highest power at once.

Finally, if you want to embrace the new technology but aren't ready to buy in all the way, consider a hybrid model - a cooktop that offers a combination of radiant electric elements and induction elements. These start at about $1,500 and will give you a taste of what's to come.

Are you prepared for a financial emergency?

With a recession and rising inflation, it's more crucial than ever to have a six to 12-month living-expense cushion in cash for an emergency. Don't have it? Drop us a line at makeover@moneymail.com. Include your name, age, city, state, marital status, occupation, how much you have in cash savings and retirement savings. Please send a photo of you (and your spouse, where applicable) too.  To top of page

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