Why Flame-Free Cooking is Heating Up The Food Industry

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Remember the ‘wow’ factor of free-floating omelette stations at hotel buffets? Induction cookware has come a long way since then — and now it’s moved beyond trend and into everyday restaurant operations. As equipment prices have decreased and the need for an
efficient kitchen has increased, the prolifer-ation of induction-cooking options has made this technology a must-have for most food-service operations.

Induction — or heat-free — cooking might appear unintuitive at first. It works by a stovetop or cookware technology generating an electric current through a compatible cooking vessel. But there are many reasons top chefs are making the switch from traditional cooking methods to induction, including precision control, increased safety and reduced energy consumption.

Justin Tse, sous chef at Ottawa’s Atelier and Thru restaurants, says he’s a fan of induction cooking and uses nothing else. “The control of heat is extremely accurate and responsive,” says Tse. “And the speed of heating up is almost instant. Plus, the clean-up process is far better and faster with induction.”

This creates a consistency that makes training restaurant staff a cinch. “For example,” he says, “when I create a new dish and write the recipe for it for the rest of the kitchen staff, I will literally have steps that say ‘cook the onions at #8 power for 20 minutes and then lower the power to #4 for an additional 10 minutes.’ Meaning, once I’ve done the testing for a dish, I can ensure another staff member can replicate it exactly how it should be every single time.”

According to Edward Nunn, Business Development manager at Hatco Corporation, the newest trend in induction cooking — programmability — has been a gamechanger when it comes to kitchens with high turnover and low-skilled labour. “It’s like having another skilled pair of hands in the kitchen,” says Nunn. “Most commercial foodservice operations execute the same procedure over and over again — with the exact same portions. For example: cook a protein, then add a sauce, heat through and send for garnishing.” Nunn says having a pre-set program that follows a profile of time, plus power delivery or hitting a target temper-ature at a certain time, allows for the kind of precision that traditional cooking methods can’t deliver.

Chef Michael Perricone at Perricone’s: A Soup and Sandwich Joint in Fox Lake, Ill., uses Hatco’s products extensively. “The equipment is part of our everyday business now — starting in the morning,” says Perricone. “It allows for precision cooking because I can set the exact temperature for either cooking or warming. That’s not something that traditional gas can give you.” The restaurant has become famous for its hearty soups, such as loaded baked potato or tomato bread soup, and Perricone begins each day with a soup on the induction cooktop.

Then there’s the reduction in energy use — a huge expenditure in operations. Allen Boltik, executive chef at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee, says induction just makes better sense. “Hatco’s units allow us to produce food with significantly less exhaust and we don’t need to worry about gas fuel cartridges, over-heating or that a boil might injure someone with the consequent flare-up,” says Boltik. “Our pastry chef uses induction cookware regularly to achieve the consistent temper-ature required, for example, in the tempering of chocolate.”

Boltik says induction has also become a large component of his outdoor-event planning.
“The consistent, accurate heat means induction units dramatically out-perform solid-fuel units,” he says. “From making grilled-cheese sandwiches to bouillabaisse, I’ve achieved the best success with induction, despite the fact it took a bit of time for me to wrap my mind around the concept initially.”

As a classically trained chef, Boltik wasn’t sold on induction. “I was a sceptic,” he says, laughing. “After 30 years of doing things the same way — with traditional heat sources — you can get entrenched in your old techniques. But I saw the value in the switch in terms of guest safety and satisfaction.” He says when restaurants have transient employees, using butane burners carries more risks: “the alcohol flame sometimes used in a tableside show is quite dangerous when set into motion by a novice. Induction eliminates that.”

Mark Brotman, Ontario Sales manager at Vollrath, agrees safety is a top reason many chefs make the transition to induction cooking. “With the timers on certain units, you can program a piece of technology to shut off after a certain amount of time. There are also warming units that use a low wattage,” says Brotman. “That alone is so much safer than an open flame.”

He says safety also has to be top of mind when restaurants offer table-cooking options “We recently outfitted a Chinese restaurant in Scarborough, Ont. with 65 units that drop right into the table,” he explains. “Guests perform their own cooking and that’s a key concept of the operation. But you can imagine the potential safety risks with 65 open flames. Induction just makes the entire concept work better, faster and more efficiently.” The units cost approximately $900 per range.

But the most dramatic difference between traditional cookware and induction is the cost. Justin Carlisle, executive chef at Ardent restaurant, says induction allows for a
restaurant to set up even in a unique, quirky space. “You can go to any site and all you need to set up is a plug,” says Carlisle. “I had a restaurant before and the total cost to install a gas line and ventilation was more than the cost of opening the restaurant itself — including the furniture.”

Tse agrees, noting when he was executive chef at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island, Nunavut, gas and propane were much more expensive than gas. “For that specific situation, it would have been way cheaper to have induction rather than gas,” says Tse. One induction unit he says he simply can’t do without is the sous-vide circulator, an instrument that heats water and circulates it around the pot to keep temperatures even.

The only “con” to induction cooking? Tse says there really isn’t one. “The only problem would be if there were a power outage,” he explains. “Then the gas stovetops would still be operational — so I suppose that’s one situation where [gas] would be an advantage.”

That said, you can’t build a restaurant around the possibility of disaster — and the advantages of induction still far outweigh the possible drawbacks. “If I were to cook a pasta sauce on induction versus the gas stove tops,” says Tse, “four out of five times, the induction would bring the sauce to a boil faster.” He notes that depending on the type of induction and the power level of it (which corelates to the cost), an induction stove top can boil water twice as fast as a gas stove top. “With the reduction of time in cooking,” says Tse, “That’s energy saved plus time. The result is something every chef desires — an efficient kitchen.”

While induction sometimes takes a warm-up period for most chefs, once they make the switch, there’s no going back. “For commercial foodservice operators, reliability is key,” says Nunn. “When it comes to technology — there is nothing better out there.”

Written by Jennifer Febbraro

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