by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 13, 2013.
Cooking is one of the oldest of technologies—and for obvious reasons: humans would
never have survived (let alone thrived) without perfecting the art of
feeding themselves. The basic idea of cookery—heating food to kill
bacteria and make something tasty—is fairly prehistoric: "food
plus fire equals cooked food" is roughly how it goes. There's not
an awful lot of difference between roasting a hunted animal on an open
outdoor fire, as our ancestors would have done, and cooking it with
electricity or gas in an oven, as we do today.
That's not to say there's been no progress in cooking technology. In the 20th century
alone, ingenious inventors came up with two brand new forms of
cooking. One, the microwave oven, uses high-energy
radio waves to
heat food quickly and efficiently in a fraction of the time you need with a conventional stove. The other,
induction cooking, uses electromagnetism to turn
cooking pans into cookers (creating heat energy inside the pan itself,
instead of firing it in from outside),
which cooks food more quickly and safely with less energy. Everyone
knows about microwaves these days, but induction cookers are much
less well understood. Let's take a closer look at exactly what
they are, how they work, and whether they're better or worse than
more familiar forms of cookery.
Photo: Induction cooktops, made from easy-to-clean toughened glass, look much the same as other ceramic cooktops. It's important to know that only cookware with an iron base will work properly with a cooktop like this. Most new pots and pans are very clearly labeled and it's relatively easy to find cooking products that
What is induction?
Before you can understand induction cooking, you need to understand induction.
And the first thing you need to know is that "induction" is a
shortened way of saying "electromagnetic induction." In a
nutshell, induction means generating electricity using
magnetism. It stems from the simple fact that
electricity and magnetism aren't separate, unconnected things (as we
originally learn in school) but two different aspects of the same
underlying phenomenon: electromagnetism.
A handful of brilliant European scientists figured out the science of
electromagnetism—the mysterious relationship between
electricity and magnetism—in a period of roughly 40 years spanning
the middle of the 19th century. Their findings have proved to be
among the most important discoveries ever made: scientists had known
about electricity since ancient times, but understanding the science (and
technology) of electromagnetism made it possible to power the world
with electricity for the first time.
It all started in 1820. A Danish physicist named Hans Christian Oersted found that when
a fluctuating electric current flows down a wire, it creates an
invisible pattern of magnetism all around it (a magnetic field,
in other words). The next year, French physicist Andre-Marie Ampère
took this experiment a stage further: he found that two wires
carrying fluctuating electric currents, placed near to one another,
will either attract or repel one another—a bit like two
magnets—because the magnetic fields they produce cause a force
So far, the emerging science of electromagnetism was completely theoretical: very
interesting, but not much use. Things took a much more practical
twist when the brilliant English physicist and chemist Michael
Faraday figured out how he could use electricity and magnetism to
develop a very primitive electric motor, also in 1821. He placed a
magnet near a piece of wire into which he fed an electric current. As
the current flowed through the wire, it generated a magnetic field
around it (in the way Oersted had found), pushing itself away from
the magnetic field that the permanent magnet generated. Other
inventors (notably Englishman William Sturgeon and American Joseph
Henry) went on to develop practical electric motors, while Faraday
continued to experiment with the science. In 1831, he pulled off the
opposite trick: he showed how rotating a coil of wire through a
magnetic field would make an electric current flow through
it—inventing the electricity generator that would soon (in the hands
of pioneers such as Thomas Edison) bring electric power to the world.
The science of electromagnetism (how electricity can make magnetism and vice-versa)
was finally nailed down by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in
the 1860s. Maxwell summarized everything that was then known about
electricity and magnetism in four beautifully simple, crystal clear,
mathematical formulas. Maxwell's equations, as we now call
them, still form the foundations of electromagnetic science today.
Photo: James Clerk Maxwell, who described the science of
electromagnetism in four equations. Public domain photo by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Induction in practice
You don't need to know much about electromagnetism to understand induction
cookery—simply that a changing electric current can make magnetism
and a changing magnetic field can make electricity. When you hear
someone talking about induction, or something that uses induction,
all it means is that magnetism is being used to generate electricity.
A common use for induction is in electric toothbrushes,
which have one or two
rechargeable batteries packed inside. The trouble with electric
toothbrushes is that they get wet, so they need to have completely
sealed plastic cases to keep their mechanisms safe and dry. But that
creates a different problem: if they're completely sealed against water, how can you
get electricity inside to recharge them? A conventional charger
socket would be an open invitation to water as well. That's where
induction comes in. When your toothbrush battery runs flat, you sit
it on a little plastic charger unit to recharge it. Although there is
no direct electrical connection between the toothbrush and the
charger (both are made of plastic), electromagnetic energy flows from
the charger into the toothbrush battery by induction, straight
through the plastic that separates them: a coil of wire in the
charger produces a magnetic field that induces an electrical current
in a similar coil in the base of the toothbrush. You can find out more
(and see some diagrams of exactly how it all works) in
our main article on induction chargers.
Photos: Electric toothbrushes charge by induction: electromagnetic induction allows energy to flow from the (white) charger to the battery in the (dark blue) brush even though there is no direct electrical connection between them.
How does an induction cooktop work?
An induction cooktop (a cooktop is called a "hob" in European countries) is
simply an electromagnet you can cook with. Inside the glass cooktop,
there's an electronically controlled coil of
metal. When you turn on
the power, you make a current flow through the coil and it produces a
magnetic field all around it and (most importantly) directly above
it. Now a simple direct electric current (one that's always
flowing in the same direction) doesn't produce a magnetic field: one
of the laws of electromagnetism is that magnetism is produced only by
a changing electric current. So you have to use an alternating
current (one that keeps reversing direction) to make your magnetic
field. And that's all that an induction hob does: it simply generates
a magnetic field. It does not generate heat. You can put your
hand on top of it and you won't feel a thing. (Warning: Don't ever
put your hand on a cooktop that has recently been used for cooking
because it may have become dangerously hot from the cooking pan
that's been standing on top of it.)
When you stand a suitable cooking pan on top of an induction cooktop that's powered
up, the magnetic field produced by the cooktop penetrates the metal
of the pan. So we have a fluctuating magnetic field moving around
inside a piece of metal (the base and sides of the pan)—and that makes an electric current flow
through the pan too (that's all that induction means). Now this is not quite the same as the electric
current that flows through a wire, carrying electrical energy in a
straight line from (say) a battery to a flashlight bulb. It's a kind
of whirling, swirling electric current with lots of energy but
nowhere to go; we call it an eddy current. As it swirls
around inside the metal's crystalline structure, it dissipates its energy. So the
metal pan gets hot and heats up whatever food is inside it, first by
conduction (it passes its heat energy directly to the food) but also by
convection (liquid food rises and falls in the pan carrying heat with
it). Read more about heat transfer in our main article about heat energy.
How induction cooking works
Let's summarize all this quickly and simply:
- An induction cooker looks much the same as any other ceramic cooktop, usually with distinct zones where you can place your pots and pans.
- Inside each cooking zone, there's a coil of metal. When you turn on the power, an alternating current flows through the coil and produces an invisible magnetic field above, below, and all around it. Unless there's a pan on the cooking zone, no heat is produced: the cooking zone remains cold.
- Place a pan on the cooking zone and the magnetic field produced by the coil (shown here with blue lines) penetrates the iron inside it.
- The magnetic field induces whirling electrical (eddy) currents inside the pan (shown here as orange curved lines), turning the pan into a heater.
- Heat from the pan flows directly into the food or water inside it.
Advantages of induction cooktops
If you can easily cook with an electric ring or a gas-powered stove, why use an
induction cooktop at all? There are quite a few good reasons.
Efficiency and speed
A traditional cooker generates heat energy some distance from the cooking pot or pan
and attempts to transport as much of that energy into the food as possible—with
varying degrees of success. If you've ever cooked food on a campfire,
you'll know that it's great fun but takes forever.
The main reason is that a huge amount of the energy you produce on an open fire is radiated out into
the atmosphere; great for ambience, but very slow and inefficient.
Even cooking at home can be quite inefficient: you're wasting energy
heating the cooktop and (in the case of a stove with a roaring gas
flame) the air all around your pots and pans. With induction cooking,
the heat is produced in the pan, not the cooktop, and much more of
the energy goes into the food. That's why induction cooking is more
energy efficient than most other methods (around 84 percent compared
to 71 percent for a traditional cooktop). Induction cooking also gets
energy to the food more quickly; typically, it's around 25–50 percent
faster than other methods.
Photo: Gas flames are easy to control, but waste energy by heating the surrounding air and the cooktop as well as the food in the pan.
Convenience, control, and safety
Induction cookers are usually built into wipe-clean ceramic or
glass cooktops (similar
to halogen cooktops). The magnetic fields they produce make heat
appear in the pan almost instantly—and they can make it disappear
instantly too. You can turn the heat up or down with as much speed
and control as a gas cooker (unlike a traditional electric cooktop,
which takes some time to heat up or cool down). There's no open flame
on an induction cooktop and (until there's a cooking pot actually
present) no heat to burn you. Heat appears only when the cooking pot
is in place. Electronically controlled cooktops can detect whether
pots are standing on them and how much heat they're producing, and
most will cut the power out automatically if they're left on by
mistake or if a pot starts to boil dry. Induction cookers built into
ceramic cooktops are only a couple of inches thick so they can be
fitted at any height (good for disabled people in wheelchairs who
might want a low-level kitchen).
Photo: Ceramic cooktops are easy to wipe clean in seconds.
Drawbacks of induction cooktops
Until recently, cost was the biggest disadvantage: a typical induction cooktop could be two or three times
more expensive than an ordinary electric or gas cooktop and, even
though you'd save energy, the energy savings weren't usually
significant enough to pay back the difference. The price of induction cooktops has now
fallen significantly and there's much less difference in cost compared to ordinary ceramic cooktops.
Even so, don't buy an induction cooker with the expectation that you'll see your energy bills fall:
cooking represents only a small fraction of the total energy most
people use at home and any savings you do make (though welcome and
important for the environment) will be modest.
Another drawback is that induction cooking only works properly with cooking pans
containing iron—the only metal that efficiently produces
electrical (eddy) currents and heat from magnetic fields. Copper and
aluminum pans and glass cookware don't
work. Iron-based pots and pans compatible with induction cooktops are
widely available, so the cookware issue is only really a problem if
you have a large collection of existing, unsuitable cookware you're
not prepared to replace.
Two other minor issues worth noting are that induction cooktops can produce a small
amount of noise (from built-in cooling fans) and radio-frequency
interference that might pose a very small risk for people wearing
heart pacemakers (no greater than the risk posed by other everyday
Should you buy an induction cooktop?
If you like the speed and control of gas, but prefer the wipe-clean convenience of a
ceramic cooktop, and the relatively high initial purchase cost is not
an issue, induction cooking might be worth considering. Don't buy to
make savings through energy efficiency; you probably won't. Check
your existing cookware before you buy; if you have to purchase an
entire new set of quality pots and pans, that could add significantly
to the outlay of switching to induction cooking.
Find out more
On this website
Articles about induction cooking
Books about electromagnetism
For older readers
- James Clerk Maxwell by James R. Newman. Scientific American, June 1955. This fascinating article explains how James Clerk Maxwell used his mathematical talent to visualize electromagnetism and then nail it down mathematically. Although more than a half-century old, it's still easy to find online, very readable, and gives a good idea of Maxwell's theoretical brilliance.
For younger readers
More to explore on our website...