Published January 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.
We wondered: Is a burner that promises to be faster, safer, and more precise too good to be true?
First there were induction ranges. Now there are portable versions, which come in handy when you need an extra burner in the kitchen (or a compact cooker in a dorm). Unlike traditional gas or electric burners, induction burners don’t get hot. Instead, they use a high-frequency electromagnet to create a magnetic field between the cooktop and the pan. The magnetic field penetrates the metal of the pan and sets up a circulating electric current, which generates heat.
The benefits? Induction burners are meant to be faster and safer than typical electric or gas burners and make it easier to precisely control your cooking temperature. On the downside, you can only use pans that contain iron, such as cast iron and stainless steel. Don’t even think about aluminum, copper, or Pyrex—and you can only use nonstick pans that contain iron material. (To find out if a pan functions on induction, try attaching a magnet.)
We selected six brands, priced from $124 to $499. After timing how long it took to boil 2 quarts of water in a 3-quart saucepan on a gas range (6 minutes, 30 seconds), we did the same on each induction burner. Despite claims that they operate “twice as fast” as a gas range, all of the portable burners were actually slower: The slowest took a whopping 12 minutes, while the fastest took a minute longer than the gas range. As it turns out, the power of these single burners can’t compare to a full-size induction range—the burners we tested had between 1300 to 1800 watts apiece, while a comparable induction range burner would be 3200 watts. Their power has to be limited because you plug them into an ordinary wall outlet, while a full induction range requires a special circuit.
Did they offer any advantage at all? Yes. With induction, it’s very easy to get precise control of cooking temperature, since the burner itself does not become hot—as a result, there’s little to no “carry-over” heat. We prepared heat-sensitive béchamel sauce and it was exceptionally easy to maintain the temperature just as we wanted. We also made macaroni and cheese on each unit, with good results. An induction burner is also much safer than conventional burners, because there’s no flammable surface. You can even touch it, because the surface never gets very hot, though it can become warm from the heated pan. We put a dollar bill between the pan and the burner; the dollar didn’t burn even with the power on and the pan’s contents boiling.
The top performers distinguished themselves from the losers with speed in the boiling tests and practical design. All of these burners had a “futuristic” look, but in lower-ranked burners, this worked to their detriment. Burners with overly slick surfaces didn’t offer traction, which meant pans of hot food slipped whenever we stirred them. And sleek touch-sensor controls made temperature adjustment a challenge. We much preferred user-friendly push buttons and dial controls.
In the end, we preferred our winner for its well-designed controls, efficient heating (just one minute longer than the gas stove), and reasonable cost. Should you buy it? It isn’t faster than a gas range and it’s pricier than your average hot plate or single-burner gas stove. But if you want a safe, relatively efficient portable burner, it does the job.