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Do You Need an Induction Burner?

By Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm Published

An extra burner may be useful during the holidays, but can it do enough to justify a place in your kitchen?

Update, June 2020

The maker of one of our top-rated induction burners, Max Burton, released a new model: the Max Burton Digital Induction Cooktop 18XL. It has a larger, 9-inch heating coil, can accommodate cookware that measures up to 14 inches across, and has a thermometer for monitoring the temperature of food as it cooks, among other features. To see how it compared with other induction burners we tested, including our test kitchen favorite, the Max Burton Digital Induction Cooktop, we ran it through the same tests: boiling water, toasting flour, searing burgers, making caramel sauce, frying zucchini sticks, and cooking and holding fondue for 4 hours. While this new model cooked most foods as well as our top-rated induction burners, it was a bit too powerful and scorched fondue even on the lowest setting. Its buttons and settings were also confusing to operate. We still prefer the Max Burton Digital Induction Cooktop and the Breville/PolyScience Control Freak to this new model by Max Burton. The story and chart have been updated accordingly.

Induction cooking uses magnetism to generate heat and cook your food. This may sound a bit more high-tech than your standard gas stove, but induction cooking is massively popular in Japan and Europe. In fact, induction cooktops accounted for 54 percent of stoves sold in western Europe in 2016, according to Allied Market Research, a global market research firm.

Why induction? Induction burners are known to heat up very quickly and hold a consistent temperature and are purportedly safer, since they are flameless and often have features such as automatic shut-off and screen-locking mechanisms. They are also easier to clean and are more energy-efficient than gas or electric stovetops. 

Although induction cooktops aren’t quite as widespread in the United States just yet, portable induction burners are a common option for cooks looking for a bit more burner space or for those with small kitchens that aren’t equipped with large stoves. Since we last tested induction burners, new models such as the Tasty One Top and the Breville/PolyScience Control Freak have come onto the market, with features such as built-in temperature probes that claim to dial in ultraprecise temperatures. Are induction burners the new “must-have” kitchen gadget? 

Assistant editor Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm prepares batches of fondue, seeing if the induction burners can hold the fondue for four hours without scorching it.

To find out which induction burner is best, we selected six models, priced from about $45 all the way up to about $1,600. We used each to boil water, sear burgers, make All-Purpose Caramel Sauce, deep-fry Fried Zucchini Sticks, and keep Cheese Fondue warm for 4 hours.

The magnetic field only produces heat when a compatible pan with a ferromagnetic bottom is placed on top and the power coil transfers energy from the electromagnet to the ferromagnetic pan. An incompatible, non-ferromagnetic pan will not heat up at all (see “How Can You Tell If Your Cookware Is Induction Compatible?”).

How Do Induction Cooktops Work?

An induction burner contains an electric coil that produces a magnetic field when it’s turned on. When a pan with a ferromagnetic bottom is placed on the burner, the energy from the magnetic field causes the material of the pan to produce heat (see “How Can You Tell If Your Cookware Is Induction Compatible?”). The induction burner won’t actually turn on unless there’s a compatible pan.

Since only the metal of the pan heats up, all the energy goes directly into the cookware, whereas with electric or gas stovetops, some of that energy spills over, heating the air and the surrounding stove area. This is one reason that induction burners are known as being more energy efficient than electric stovetops (and why they keep your kitchen cooler).

Discovering Power Differences

We began with the basics: boiling and simmering water. On each induction burner, we boiled 4 quarts of water and then reduced it to a simmer, timing how long the water took to boil and noting how responsive the burners were to changes in temperature by timing how long it took the water to return to a simmer. We compared the results with those of the same test done on gas and electric stovetops.

The conventional wisdom is that induction cooktops heat faster than electric or gas, but we did not find this to be true with the induction burners we tested. This is because they are plug-in countertop appliances, which means their power is limited, whereas a full-size induction cooktop is far more powerful. Interestingly, the only burners that could bring the water to a boil throughout the entire pot in 20 minutes—faster than a full-size induction stovetop—had the largest footprints and widest cooking surfaces (and one was the most expensive burner in our lineup).

Why Do Induction Cooktops Have Such Small Heating Areas?

To take a closer look at the burners’ heating patterns, we dusted a layer of flour onto the surfaces of skillets and placed the skillets on the induction burners over medium heat. We observed a similar pattern: On most burners, the heat was concentrated in the center of the pan—the flour in the middle toasted to a golden brown, while the flour around the edges remained white. We measured the diameter of the heating elements, and they matched the toasted circles. Most of the induction burners had coils that measured about 6 inches across— much smaller than the 9-inch bottoms of our full-size pots and pans. Only the largest burners, with 8.5- and 9-inch coils, could toast the flour evenly across the entire cooking surface.

A larger heating coil meant more evenly toasted flour, and less scorching in the center of the skillet.

We wondered why some of the heating coils were so much smaller than the bottoms of our full-size pans. One factor is that a smaller coil is cheaper to manufacture, so the less expensive units tended to have coils about 6 inches in diameter, while the priciest and most powerful unit's coil was approximately 9 inches.

An induction cooktop also needs a fair amount of space around its coil: space for the electronics, for a cooling fan, and—as David Perreault, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told us—space that provides a path for the magnetic flux generated by the coil to return to, as well as room for airflow to cool the coil. The bigger the coil, the more space needed. The burner with the largest heating coil was almost twice as tall as the other models. That vertical space was mostly dedicated to its extensive fan system (one fan to cool the coil and another to cool the underside of the glass, a company representative told us). The large coil is likely why this burner toasted flour the most evenly and why it was the only model able to bring water to a boil faster than the stove.

While strange boiling patterns and unevenly toasted flour aren’t major issues, smaller heating coils also caused uneven cooking. Models with the smallest heating coils produced burgers with burnt patches on the parts of the patties that were toward the center of the pans and undercooked patches on the parts near the edges of the pans. Burners with larger heating coils were able to cook the burgers evenly, with no over- or underdone spots. 

Testing Temperature Extremes and Responsiveness

Most of the burners’ temperatures also couldn’t go as high or as low as our recipes called for—and we found them to not be as responsive to their temperature controls as we would have liked. When we made cheese fondue, only two of the burners could keep fondue warm for 4 hours, as you might want for a party. Even on their lowest settings, three of the burners were much too hot, causing the fondue to break and scorch on the bottom of the pot in as little as 45 minutes. Curiously, despite having burned fondue, two models weren’t powerful enough to bring 2 quarts of oil to 375 degrees when we tried deep-frying. In fact, one of the burners was still 35 degrees shy of the desired temperature after an entire hour of heating. Our favorite induction burners were able to dial in very precise heat settings—low enough to keep fondue warm without scorching but high enough to accurately heat a pot of oil for deep frying.

Adjusting the Temperature on an Induction Burner

On an electric or gas stove, power is usually indicated by markers noting low, medium, and high. Three of the burners allowed us to switch between “power mode”—which corresponds to the low, medium, and high of traditional burners—and “temperature mode,” which sets a specific temperature, such as 200 degrees. This sounded nice in theory, but we didn’t find it very useful in practice. The temperature mode is actually a measure of the temperature of the bottom of the pan (not its contents), so it wasn’t helpful for deep frying or making temperature-sensitive caramel sauce. Most stovetop recipes are also written using traditional temperature settings—not specific degrees—so we found ourselves relying on power mode much more often than temperature mode when cooking. 

That said, two of the burners came with temperature probes, which allowed us to set the temperature based on the probe, making the burners easier to use and more accurate. 

A Cooktop Should Be Easy and Intuitive to Use

Most electric and gas burners are dead simple to operate: just turn the knob to the desired power setting. However, two of the induction burners we tried were far more complicated. 

One of the burners had a frustrating minimalist interface of 10 light-up dots instead of a control panel. To turn the burner on, you had to tap the power button, tap the plus sign repeatedly to select the power level, and then tap the power button again to set the power level. We found all the tapping tedious and the lack of information frustrating. This model did have a phone app that had a clearer display of power settings, but the app often quit on us, shutting down the burner and stopping the cooking in the process.

Another low-ranked induction burner left us guessing about how its power levels, called “P1” through “P8,” compared to more conventional settings such as low and high. Its manual didn’t provide any answers; it lacked any chart explaining how the various settings correspond to temperatures or power levels. We favored burners that had control panels that clearly displayed the power level or temperature settings. 

How Can You Tell If Your Cookware Is Induction Compatible?

  • To cook with induction, you need compatible cookware. So, how can you tell if your cookware is compatible? If it’s made of iron or magnetic gauges of steel, you’re set. But if you’re not sure, grab a magnet. If a magnet sticks to the base of a pot or pan, it’s compatible. If not, you can use an induction interface disk—our winner is the Max Burton Induction Interface Disk, which costs about $30. When placed under an incompatible pot or pan, the disk transfers heat by conduction. And if you’re buying online, check the cookware manufacturer’s website, which usually specifies whether the cookware is induction-compatible. As a general rule, most cast-iron (including enameled) and many kinds of stainless-steel pans are compatible, while glass, copper, and aluminum are not.

We also paid close attention to how loud the induction burners were. Induction burners emit a high-pitched whine and whir, some worse than others, because of the frequency generated by the vibrating magnetic coil. Fortunately, all the burners in our lineup proved to be fairly quiet; only one was loud enough for testers to find it distracting. 

Finally, we liked induction burners that were easy to clean. While most of them required just a quick wipe down to remove any grime from their surfaces, one of the burners collected grease in between the burner’s front panel and cooking surface. 

Do You Need an Induction Burner?

For most people satisfied with the cooktop in their kitchen, an induction burner isn’t a necessity, but we did identify a couple of scenarios where one might be helpful. Induction burners are a good option when your living space doesn’t have a stove, such as in an RV, on a boat, or in a small apartment. They can also be useful for catering. But by far the biggest reason to get an induction burner is that it offers a portable, powerful, and safe heat source when burner space is at a premium, such as during the holidays, or for dinner parties when you’re serving fondue or soup that needs to be kept warm for hours at a time. Since they don’t heat up the surrounding area, they’re safe to keep on the table. If you like to entertain or frequently find yourself cooking for large groups of people, an induction burner can be a saving grace in an otherwise crowded kitchen.

The Best Induction Burners: Breville/PolyScience Control Freak and Max Burton Digital Induction Cooktop

In the end, we found two induction burners we liked—at two very different prices. The Breville/PolyScience Control Freak, which costs about $1,600, is not for everyone, but if you have the budget, this is a next-level induction burner. It was the most accurate of the burners we tested and the most powerful, boiling 4 quarts of water in 20 minutes. It helped us make silky-smooth caramel sauce, kept fondue at the correct temperature for 4 hours, and seared burgers perfectly. The Control Freak allowed us to program our desired temperature to the exact degree for either the pan or the pan’s contents. Since it can hold an exact temperature, it's the only burner that is capable of sous vide cooking. We tried it out by preparing sous vide poached eggs, which emerged perfectly tender and creamy. 

We also recommend the Max Burton Digital Induction Cooktop, which costs about $90 and has an intuitive interface and helpful extra features, such as incompatible-cookware detection that alerts you if a pan does not work with induction. The burner was powerful enough to hold frying oil at a consistent temperature (and get it there within a reasonable amount of time) and accurate enough to keep cheese fondue warm and creamy for 4 hours (this model does automatically power off after 3 hours; however, we didn’t find this to be too problematic and simply turned it back on). It’s the new version of our former favorite induction burner, and we enjoyed its helpful features (such as a “boil” button, which automatically sets the temperature to its highest setting) that made it the easiest of all the induction burners to operate. 

Equipment Review Induction Burners

An extra burner may be useful during the holidays, but can it do enough to justify a place in your kitchen?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.