Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cooking with Magnets

Induction stoves may be making their way into restaurant kitchens, but for home cooks their still a mystery. Fortunately, Wired product editor (and food geek) Mark McClusky volunteered to enlighten us:

It took me nearly an entire evening in the the kitchen at Alinea before I realized what was weird about it. Sure, there's the stunning intensity of the chefs as they prepare Grant Achatz' intricate dishes, and the nearly-operating room level of cleanliness. But that's not what struck me one night at the end of service. What struck me is that I didn't know where the stove was.

You see, in most restaurant kitchens—like most home kitchens—the stove is the focal point of the room, the place that all the action revolves around. If you're running the sauté station in most big restaurants, you're the man, the line cook who's banging out the most food in the hottest, most extreme environment. You're the alpha cook.

Not so at Alinea. Of course there's a stove, but it's much smaller than you'd expect for a kitchen that puts out a couple of thousand plates a night, just four burners and a flat top. Instead, the chefs at Alinea do the vast majority of their cooking using induction burners, portable ones from CookTek.

Induction is just plain cool. Instead of using a flame like gas, or radiant heat like standard electric burners, induction burners use a magnetic field. The field creates heat through the property outlined in Joule's first law—you do remember your thermodynamics, right?—in which current passing through conductive material generates heat.

So what? Well, a couple of things. First, induction is super-efficient. Induction burners convert about 85% of the energy you pour into them into heat, compared to about 70% for electric burners and 40% for gas. That means you'll spend less to cook on induction.

And since the burner itself doesn't create heat, it stays cool to the touch—take the pan off, and you can put your palm on it. That also means that they don't throw off ambient heat like gas or electric, so the kitchen stays much cooler.

Then, there's the responsiveness of induction. Like gas, when you turn it off, there's no residual heat from the burner, just the pan. Plus, there's the flexibility of portable burners like Alinea uses. Frying something smelly? Got an outdoor power outlet? Set up a portable burner, and you can keep the stink out of your house. Want to keep soup warm at a party? Throw a burner on the buffet, and you're good to go.

The one thing to keep in mind is that your pans do have to be magnetic. That might be a pain in the ass, especially if you're hip deep in anodized aluminum pots. But the good news is that some of the cheapest (and most fun to use) cookware around—cast iron—works amazingly on induction burners, as will all your fancy pots as long as they've got some stainless steel kicking around in them. If in doubt, grab a magnet from your fridge door to check.

As far as specific models to check out, Circulon makes a nice burner, and Spanish appliance giant Fagor has one. For the best combo of power and price, check out the Max Burton 6000, which puts out 1800 watts for just $125 retail.

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