An induction cooktop uses electromagnetism to heat metal pots and pans to cook the food inside the pans. Unlike traditional gas or radiant ranges, induction does not use an open heat source for cooking but instead directly heats only the metal pan. This means that, with the exception of residual heat from the pan itself, the range top will remain completely cool. This has many benefits, including safety and making the surface easier to clean over time. This is possible because an induction cooktop is able to heat only metals that can be magnetized, such as iron or steel.
A traditional cooktop uses direct contact with a heat source to cook food. This means heat is generated from an element, such as a gas burner, and heat touches the pan holding the food. The pan becomes hot from the contact and heats the food inside. This method works well but can be inefficient, because some amount of the heat is not actually transferred to the pot but dissipates into the surrounding air.
The concept of an induction cooktop is different from cooking with direct heat. A coil under the flat surface of the range is charged and generates a strong electromagnetic field. The pan is charged by the currents generated, causing it to become warm and generate heat. The heat is moved to the food through conduction from the bottom of the pan. At no point does the electromagnetic charge cause anything other than the pan to heat up, including the cooktop.
Using induction means the heat generated is applied directly to the food and there is no heat loss to the surrounding area. The only thing heated is the pan itself. This increase in efficiency allows an induction cooktop to heat food and liquids much more quickly than gas or radiant stoves.
One of the aspects of an induction cooktop is the fact that the surface is never directly heated. This creates an environment that is far safer than that of a traditional range top. There is no risk of igniting a fire with the electromagnetic element, and anyone touching the area over the element will not be burned.
A flat induction cooktop also can be easier to clean than a traditional one. In addition to not having burner plates, there is very little chance that food will fall onto an element and become a baked-in stain, because there is no heat. An induction surface also can be cleaned immediately after and during use, unlike other types of ranges.
The one point that can exclude an induction cooktop from use in a kitchen is that all the pans used must be made from a ferromagnetic material. This means they must be steel or iron. Other materials, such as aluminum, will not heat on an induction cooktop.