For many, the heart of a home is the kitchen. It is the key feature that sells the home. It is command central:where family members are never too far away and where guests congregate.
So, not surprisingly, homeowners often say that their most important or expensive appliance is the range or the cooktop.
Until recently -- and regardless of whether you cooked out of enjoyment or necessity -- you had only two choices of cooking surfaces at home: gas or electric.
The debate between gas and electric has been simple. Proponents of gas like being able to raise or lower the temperature quickly and having an infinite number of settings. Electric proponents don't like having an open flame and are concerned about CO2 gas generated from the burner, plus they feel the smooth glass top available on new stove tops is easier to clean.
However, an alternative is beginning to take hold in the kitchen: induction cooking.
An induction cooktop combines the best of both gas and electric. Temperature adjustments are quicker than even gas, with numerous temperature settings -- from simmer to full boil. The smooth glass top is easy to keep clean, but without the residual heat that can burn unwary fingers. Induction generates no gas flame or carbon monoxide to be concerned about. It really takes an actual demonstration to show the more subtle benefits in energy efficiency and safety.
With a conventional stovetop, whether gas or electric, heat travels from the energy source, to stovetop, to the cooking vessel and the air around, and finally into the food.
Induction eliminates all those middle steps; heat travels directly from the induction element into the pan via an electromagnetic field. The heat is created by interaction between the localized magnetic field and the metal pan.
Bypassing all the steps in conventional heating makes the induction cooking process much quicker. Since energy is not wasted heating around and outside the pan, an induction unit is more than 80 percent efficient compared with only 40 percent in a gas appliance.
The localized magnetic field provides another benefit of safety: The induction element turns itself off as soon as the pan is removed, because heat occurs only through interaction with a metal pan surface.
Also, even after immediate use, the heating element is comparatively cool; it is not hot enough to burn food droppings or skin if your hand touches it briefly. This feature alone should help eliminate a parent's fear of a toddler accidentally burning his fingers by reaching up to a hot stove top.
As with all new technology, induction brings a few negatives.
For example, cookware must be steel or iron to work with an induction element. A simple check with a magnet to the bottom of your current cookware will let you know if you need to buy new pots and pans.
Additionally, because cast-iron pans can be abrasive to the smooth cooktop, special care must be taken to prevent scratches. A possible solution is to place a silicone baking mat, such as Silpat, between the pan and the cooktop; these baking mats can handle high temperatures yet won't disrupt the electromagnet field.
Second, food is the hottest only above the induction element, so using a griddle that spans two cooking elements means a cooler spot is left in the center gap between the elements. To correct this, a larger element or "zoneless" section still needs to be perfected in the induction stovetop design.
Third is cost. Induction cooktops can be more expensive than electric or gas. However, the development of combination induction stove/range units that slip easily into existing spaces has opened the market to the average homeowner who doesn't have space or cannot afford a standalone induction cooktop. As demand increases, prices for induction units should continue to come down.
As more people become familiar with induction, some of the negatives will be worked out. Any time a product can make meal preparation faster, easier and safer, it will get people's attention.
Clair and Barbara Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every fourth Sunday. Their e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.