Despite the Hype, It's a Good Investment
Regardless of what my long-suffering wife would have you believe, I am not an obsessive gadget guru. Yes, my kitchen is jammed and crammed to the point that she insists I throw something out before I buy something else. That being said, however, and in my own defense, I do not own a collection of useless junk and trinkets. For instance, I don't have a lot of unitaskers in my kitchen; nospecialty gadgets designed to do one thing. And I don't spend unreasonable amounts of money on the latest fads and trends. I don't have an antigriddle or an immersion circulator – yet. Everything I have serves a functional purpose. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
A few years ago, a friend who was an investor in a local restaurant asked me what I knew about induction burners. Seems his chef was all agog about them and was pushing to have them installed in the kitchen. I admitted to knowing two things about induction burners: the science behind the concept and the fact that the things were outrageously expensive.
So, what is induction cooking? It's really fairly simple. Your traditional cooktops, whether gas or electric, heat food via a process known as thermal conduction. This occurs when heat energy moves between two solids that are touching. Set a pan on a stove. The gas burner or electric element generates heat. The generated heat is conducted through the bottom of the pan and into the food contained within. But it's not just the bottom of the pan that's affected. Eventually, conduction spreads the energy into the sides of the pan and into the handle and into the surrounding air. The food gets different amounts of heat from different parts of the pan and everything involved heats up. There's a lot of heat waste in traditional thermal cooking methods.
In fact, cooking on an electric stove is possible only because of wasted heat. The reason electric burners work at all is because they are inefficient conductors of electricity. Electric “eyes” on stovetops are resistors, designed to interrupt the smooth conduction of electricity. The resultant waste from this process is heat. So, basically, when you cook with electricity, you're cooking with wasted energy. And I assume I don't have to explain the science behind cooking over a gas flame, right?
Induction cooking is a different animal, employing electromagnetic induction as opposed to thermal conduction to heat food. The pan itself becomes the heat source. It all starts with coils of copper wire located just below the cooktop's element. The coils are fed a supply of alternating electric current. Electromagnetic induction occurs when a circuit with an alternating current flowing through it generates current in another circuit simply by being placed nearby. Conduction happens when the electricity is flowing because something is directly touching it. Induction occurs when the current is flowing, but there is nothing in physical contact with it. In really scientific terms, conduction is the result of the transfer of electrons between the conductor and the charged body, whereas in the case of induction, no such transfer takes place. Only the realignment of electrons in the induced body. Got that? Not really, huh? Okay, let's boil it down (sorry, I couldn't resist): induction cooking uses an electromagnet to produce heat by exciting iron molecules in a pan, thus cooking its contents. The energy is supplied directly to the pan, whereas with “conventional” methods, the energy is converted to heat first, then transferred to the pan. The induction process produces more precisely controlled heat with virtually no waste. It is much more efficient than traditional conduction cooking.
As I mentioned, a walk through a showroom of commercial induction cooktops will leave you and your wallet weak-kneed and gasping. But, as is usually the case with expensive emerging technology, somebody came up with an affordable alternative. In this instance, it's the NuWave PIC. (PIC stands for Precision Induction Cooktop.)
I got mine as a gift. I had seen the infomercials and thought, “Uh-huh. Right.” If you swallow the advertising hype, you'll believe that the thing will replace every heat source in your house, eliminate your electric bill, and cook your dinner completely on its own in sixty seconds or less, all while whistling “Dixie.” You'll go from being an incompetent boob who burns water to being a master chef the first time you turn it on.
That's the hype. So, let's look at the reality: for what it is and what it's intended to do, the NuWave PIC is freakin' awesome! I'm crazy about mine and am planning on getting another one – or two. I do some professional cooking and I can see multiple uses for this great tool. And it's pretty handy to have around the home kitchen, too.
Before I go on singing all the praises, allow me to address the pachyderm in the procession: remember I said that induction cooking is based on magnetism? Well......you're probably gonna need some new cookware. In order for an induction cooktop to do its thing, the pots and pans have to be made of a ferromagnetic material. In other words, kiss all your copper and aluminum cookware goodbye. And some stainless steel may not work either. If a magnet won't stick to it, it won't work on an induction surface. That said, most good quality cookware these days will have a magnetic component in the base. Anything made of cast iron is a gimme. But you need to check anything else for compatibility. It'll either say something about being induction compatible on the labeling or there will be a symbol that looks kind of like a row of lower-case cursive “l”s stamped into the metal on the bottom. Or you can just swipe a magnet from your refrigerator and bring it along to the store for testing purposes.
The NuWave PIC sometimes comes with a piece or two of induction compatible cookware, depending on where you buy it and what promotional deal is being offered. Mine came with a 9” fry pan. Fortunately, my overstocked kitchen is replete with appropriate cooking vessels and I didn't have to go out and buy a lot of new stuff. My wife was happy about that.
One of the cool things about this device is its coolness. If you've ever lugged out one of those portable gas burners or an old-fashioned electric hot plate, you know that “hot” is the operative word. When you heat them up, everything heats up and you have to be especially careful about having flammable objects nearby. Not so with the NuWave PIC. The only thing that gets hot is the pan. You can touch any part of the burner surface or assembly without worrying about getting burned. The only exception is the part of the surface that has actually been in contact with the cookware. That area will remain hot for a few minutes after you've removed the pan. Kind of like the eye on an electric burner. Unlike the old electric or gas burners, though, there's no danger of fire with an induction burner. You couldn't set something on fire with it if you tried. I've seen demonstrations where a dollar bill is placed on the cooking surface and then the pan is set on top of the bill. The pan heats up, the food cooks and the bill is unscathed. Another demo that is convincing is the one where they put water in a special pan that covers half the cooking element and put ice cubes on the other half. The water boils in the pan, but the ice right next to it doesn't melt. How's that for cool? And safe.
The NuWave is lightweight and portable. I can move it anywhere in the kitchen where there is an electrical outlet nearby. And it doesn't have to be chained to the kitchen. The NuWave saved my fanny when I was cooking at a relative's house and the breaker controlling the kitchen blew. It didn't just trip; it blew out and had to be replaced. So, while somebody was scrambling down to the hardware store for a new breaker, I set up my NuWave in another room and kept right on cooking.
Temperature is always guesswork with conventional burners. How high is “high” and how low is “low?” And what exactly is “medium?” The NuWave gives you precision temperature control. You want 350 degrees? Set it and you get 350 degrees. And it's programmable. You can set it to cook at a certain temperature for a certain period of time and then automatically raise or lower the temperature as desired. The temps range from 100 to 575 degrees. And it's great for simple timed cooking, too. Say you need your rice to simmer for fifteen minutes. Just set the appropriate temperature and put fifteen minutes on the timer. That's it. Perfect rice.
One of the more easily exaggerated claims involves cooking speed. If you believe the hype, your water will boil in seconds and your food will cook the minute it hits the pan. Not quite. But induction cooking is substantially faster. A couple of tablespoons of butter will go from solid to bubbling in a matter of seconds and, while water won't boil instantly before your wondering eyes, the NuWave will shave a couple of minutes off the process, depending on the size and weight of your cookware and the amount of water involved. Professional cooks who are accustomed to the heat produced by those big honkin' gas burners may not be as impressed by the difference, but the average home cook will be amazed. Just for fun, I dumped two cups of cold water in a pan and set the temperature on the unit to “high.” The water reached 100° in less than thirty seconds
As for cleanup, no sweat – literally. Except for the area directly covered by the pan, the rest of the surface stays cool as can be. You can rest your hand right next to the sizzling pan or boiling pot. This means that if something spatters or boils over, you can just grab a cloth and clean it up while you're still cooking. If you don't and the cooktop's a little messy when you finish, a wipe with warm soapy water or a spritz from a bottle of spray cleaner and you're done. Polish the tempered glass surface with a soft towel and it looks like new.
One more downside; you can't saute on the older model NuWave PIC. Well, you can sort of, but not in the way a professional cook does it. If you “saute” by moving the food around in the pan with a spoon or spatula, you're okay. But if you lift that pan a half an inch for a half a second to give the contents a shake or a flip.......the heat shuts down and an error message displays. But, on the good news side of the equation, the manufacturer figured that out and built the newer units with a ten-second delay feature. This feature is available on the Gold and Titanium models. Mine's an “old” model, so I guess I'll be upgrading soon.
As I said, I got my NuWave PIC2 as a gift. But I saw one just like it – complete with frying pan – for $100 at Walmart. They're always running specials on the TV infomercials or you can log on to the NuWave website at http://www.nuwavepic.com for all the spiels and deals. Just so you know, as of this writing, the Gold and Titanium models are only available direct from the manufacturer and the price is a bit higher. But not prohibitively so. And the top of the line Titanium unit not only features the ten-second delay, but also allows temperature regulation in five-degree increments rather than the ten-degree adjustments allowed by the other models. If you're serious about it, I'd get one of those. Otherwise, the lesser.....and cheaper......models are fine for most purposes.
Now, there are more expensive brands and models of induction cooktop on the market.......much more expensive. If you're a pro looking to outfit a pro kitchen, you may find what you're looking for in a more professional model. But if you're a home cook looking to catch the new wave of cooking technology, catch a NuWave PIC. In spite of the hype, it's a good investment.