Induction heating

In the world of food tech, induction burners and cooktops have an uncertain future, despite some of their obvious benefits. Known for their ability to save energy and offer precise cooking temperatures, the market is poorly differentiated and highly segmented.  This has confused consumers and led to slow growth and adoption in the home kitchen. For those looking to optimize their smart kitchen design, it’s difficult to determine whether an induction surface aims to be a platform for other devices or an intelligent loner. And for masses, the induction burner may be a costly, unnecessary luxury.

Induction cooking uses magnetic induction as opposed to the more common thermal induction used in gas and electric cooktops. Magnetic induction rapidly generates heat and is safer and more efficient than other heat sources. Restaurant and commercial kitchens have recognized the value of the burners, adding capacity when needed in peak order times.  Kitchen in revolving restaurants 50 stories up discovered the value of these burners, as have RV-ers and boaters.

It is important to note that not all cookware can be used with induction cooktops. The easiest way to determine if your pots and pans are suitable is to test them with a magnet. Many manufacturers of induction burners sell specially designed cookware to complement the overall purchase.

At issue is the confusing array of choices available, with variations coming among the options accompanying the burner itself. The entry level segment is those single burners that look to be fancy hotplates, often showcased on infomercials and home shopping shows. They frequently are on television cooking shows in food trucks or small kitchen operations. Because of general consumer unfamiliarity, a well-designed TV commercial can illustrate the benefits and versatility of the appliance.

The next segment is the market for standalone induction burners with some degree of IoT smarts. Offerings in this area are quickly “heating up” with products from established manufacturers (Salton and Hamilton Beach) to crowdsourced-based hopefuls and newcomers such as FirstBuid’s Paragon and the Oliso Smarthub. Cookware giant Meyer has bet on the pairing of induction heating with Bluetooth pan and app control and guidance to present a “guided cooking” system in the Hestan Cue, which the company plans to finally roll out to customers in the spring. Using Bluetooth or WiFi, a sensing probe and in some cases proprietary pots and pans, these induction burners can be controlled using apps on your smartphone tailored to individual recipes.

The move from standalone burner where the home chef provides the smarts to those controlled by sensors and apps adds cost. Entry level units, such as the NuWave (the one As Seen on TV), are priced as low as $70, but the addition of IoT features takes the price up to $500. For those on an unlimited budget, there is the Breville PolyScience model (with the apt name Control Freak) with a special probe and precise temperature control for $1,800.

Moving up in price, but down in intelligence, are the induction burner cooktops that are sold either separately or along with a stove. Whirlpool and General Electric, along with other major appliance manufacturers, are in on this part of the market with prices ranging from $600 up to $7,000 (for the Wolf induction cooktop and stove) and beyond. Many induction cooktops offer timers and precise heat controls but little more in additional functionality. The exception is the Samsung version which projects an artificial flame to show consumers the level of heat being generated. Samsung does have a few induction models that can be controlled with a smartphone app, but that functionality is limited to such features as a virtual on/off switch.

At CES 2014, Whirlpool showcased an interactive cooktop that functions as a platform similar to Samsung’s Family Hub which currently is baked into their newer refrigerator lines. The vision for the interactive cooktops is one in which the home chef can find recipes on a stove-top screen and use built-in heat-controlling sensors to facilitate culinary greatness.  The induction range in this scenario becomes an IoT platform to control and interact with other smart appliances. That was three years ago and now, with the fridge a more popular choice as an IoT hub, the cooktop may be reduced to a lesser role in the smart kitchen.

And finally, at this year’s CES Panasonic introduced a unique spin on induction with a countertop induction oven. Unlike other induction heating products, Panasonic’s Countertop Induction Oven (CIO) is a fully enclosed cooking unit that is the size of a microwave oven. According to Digital Trends Jenny McGrath, the CIO was able to cook a full meal of chicken cutlets in about 23 minutes.

There have been past concerns about adoption of induction cooking in the U.S., compared to its popularity in the European market with smaller kitchen spaces. That appears to be changing.  Poor uptake was based on the limited consumer choices and consumers figuring out how the burners fit into their personal culinary style. The smart induction cooktop will have a challenge finding its market niche, most likely needing to capture the imagination of architects and designers seeking low energy, smart kitchen functionality. The fastest growing segment, souped-up induction hotplates (with or without IoT functionality) appeals to the niche of those in search of nice-to-have gadgets like sous vide machines. For the massive Blue Apron recipe-in-a-box crowd, however, it’s a bright shiny object that looks cooler in a YouTube video than on a ceramic countertop. The most obvious appeal is to provide an extra burner when you have your friends and family over to cook together.