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Culture+Society

Why some chefs are still loyal to gas stoves — and some aren’t

Phasing out natural gas might depend, in part, on winning over the professionals.

By Margaret Eby

Last year, I needed to replace the 75-year-old gas stove in my Victorian row house in Philadelphia. It wasn’t easy. Not just because the old stove was adorable — among its many quirky features was a little paper scroll with printed directions for how long different vegetables should be cooked — but because it meant wading into the debate raging in the culinary and environmental worlds about eliminating gas stoves in favor of electric.

Gas stoves made headlines this month after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission signaled an openness to someday ban the appliances, to reduce indoor air pollution and the use of fossil fuels. But the stove culture wars have actually been raging for years. In 2019, 13 cities and one county in California banned installing gas stoves in new construction. A wave of cities followed suit, including Los Angeles and New York.

While politicians have seized on the recent news, a longer-standing resistance has come from many chefs. Gas flames have long been the preferred cooking method for professional restaurateurs and serious cooks. Just imagine the opening credits of Top Chef without that signature click and whoosh of a flame burner. And the classic electric stove gets a bum rap for good reason: The 1970s-era metal coil stoves take much longer to heat up and cool down, and they often struggle to keep a consistent temperature. I remember standing in front of the electric stove in my Brooklyn rental apartment in 2010, struggling to properly cook an egg as it fluctuated rapidly between temperatures.

“I’m not ready to give up on my gas stove, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be,” says Ari Miller, the chef-owner of the recently shuttered restaurant Musi in Philadelphia. Gas cooking, Miller and other chefs point out, provides different results because it’s a different way of heating — which is especially key to certain ethnic cuisines.

“People care about how they cook, and the gas industry knows that, and has strategized around that for decades.”

Laura Kuhl, public policy professor at Northeastern University

The open flame of a gas burner “is so useful — for searing peppers, for controlling the heat more easily,” Miller told me this fall, waxing poetic, as many cooks do, about the virtues of a favorite stove.

If environmentalists truly want to phase out gas, they’ll need to win over the chefs. And that’s often more complicated than convincing home cooks — particularly when a chef’s cultural heritage includes a cuisine built on cooking with gas-powered flame.


I’m a food writer and editor, so I sometimes develop or cross-test recipes to check for errors and inconsistencies. In my own cooking experience, I’ve found the same thing as Miller: charring a pepper, puffing up a roti, and getting a tortilla to have that signature leoparding (toasted brown spots) aren’t as easy to accomplish on an electric cooktop.

For several cuisines, many from East and Southeast Asia, the switch away from a gas flame may mean a significant loss. In Chinese cooking, the gas flame is responsible for achieving wok hei, literally translated as “the breath of the wok,” the ineffable quality that a blazing hot wok adds to the taste of a dish. The flame from a gas burner evenly spreads heat up a pan, including to the top and sides.

Electric and induction stoves, by contrast, only heat the part of the pan that contacts the burner, preventing the food on the sides of the pan from getting the same contact with the heat. Oil aerosolizing adds crisp texture and smoky flavor — something that induction can’t achieve.

“The wok itself is really essential to Asian cuisine,” Leo Lee, who owns the Cantonese barbeque restaurant Ricebox in Los Angeles, told The Los Angeles Times last year. “By taking gas away, you’re telling us we cannot use woks anymore, essentially taking away our identity and heritage. It forces us to adapt to American culture.”

But while gas flame might be an ideal way to cook, few of us cook in ideal circumstances all the time. We work with what we have, and many chefs think sacrificing a few finer points is worth it for the overall climate impact.

“I grew up with electric cooktops — in Hawaii they’re more common at home — and only encountered gas as an adult,” says Kiki Aranita, a James Beard-nominated food writer and chef who split her childhood between Hong Kong, where open flame cooking is standard, and Hawaii, where most homes have electric ranges.

“I can make all my home recipes except for butter mochi on either,” Aranita says. “In my Hawaiian family, an electric range doesn’t hamper their skills.”

Last year, Aranita investigated the adaptations that chefs who rely on a wok are making on electric stoves. In an article for the website Fine Dining Lovers, she concluded that without the gas flame, you really do lose something.

“I’m Chinese, so gas is my preference,” she tells me. “I love a hot pan! The thing I like the most about cooking over gas is how I control a wok or large frying pan over it — working with hot spots, knowing where they are — that’s easier to control with gas.”

But she acknowledges that average Americans cooking at home probably don’t need an open flame to achieve their ends. Gas stoves are as much a status symbol for the food-obsessed as they are an actual tool for cooking.

“Maybe they can’t roast peppers or eggplant the same way,” Aranita says. “But most people will adapt.”


The uproar over eliminating gas stoves belies their relative rarity. Already, 84 million electric stoves in the U.S. outnumber the 47 million gas stoves, and only five states — New York, New Jersey, Nevada, California, and Illinois — have gas stoves in the majority of houses. Gas stoves make up 3% of household natural gas use in the U.S., a small share compared to home heating (69%) and water heating (29%).

Indeed, when it comes to climate change, gas stoves might be most important for their symbolic status — as a way to get people to focus on the form of heat that enters their home and to consider all-electric heat.

“People don’t care about their home and hot water heating, which are actually a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Figuring out how to break that relationship between home use of fossil fuels is actually the goal,” says Laura Kuhl, a professor of public policy at Northeastern University.

For years, Kuhl points out, fossil fuel companies have tried to exploit chefs’ attachment to gas stoves — ranging from taking out bus ads to microtargeting Nextdoor groups to a 1980s video, advertising the National Fuel gas company, in which five fresh-faced young people in chef’s hats do an extended rap to the refrain, “We all cook better when we’re cooking with gas!”

“People care about how they cook, and the gas industry knows that, and has strategized around that for decades,” Kuhl says.

So one way to tip the scales from natural gas to all-electric homes, some believe, is to build a buzz among foodies for electric induction. Electric cooking technology, after all, has come a long way since those red-hot coils. Induction stoves heat up quicker and cool down faster than most gas stoves, to the point that many cooks have begun to switch loyalties. During the recent uproar over the specter of a gas stove ban, several cookbook authors, food personalities and chefs immediately piped up about the benefits of their induction stoves.

“I have an induction stove AMA,” Nothing Fancy cookbook writer Alison Roman posted on Twitter, using the internet term for “ask me anything” and noting all the ways she found induction superior to gas. Her induction stove in her upstate New York home, she wrote, boils a pot of water in under two minutes, versus the ten to 15 that the gas stove in her Brooklyn apartment takes. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio also voiced his support, remarking that he now regrets installing a gas-based unit.

Detroit-based chef and TikTok star Jon Kung, a longtime advocate of induction cooking, focused on induction stoves’ utility in wok cooking, a specialty of his: “Reminder than most culturally important cooking methods predate gas stoves. The wok is 2,000 years old. The gas stove is 200,” he wrote on Twitter. “The ability to adapt and remain relevant is one of the things that prove a cultural practice’s utility. It stays in service to us for a reason.”

Currently, only 1% of American stoves are induction stoves. But Wolf, a high-end stove manufacturer, has seen an uptick in consumer interest in its induction ranges, according to Jeff Sweet, corporate manager of product marketing at Wolf’s parent company, Sub-Zero Group.

“Unlike gas cooking, induction technology is often best understood when it is experienced,” Sweet says. “To the naked eye, it looks like a regular electric cooktop, but in actuality, it’s … an ultra-efficient way to cook with precise control.”

For some home chefs, induction cooktops would require other adjustments. They only work with pans that have ferromagnetic molecules in them, which includes most cast iron, stainless steel, and enameled pans, but excludes many brands of nonstick cookware.

The cost of induction stoves has also been a factor in their rarity. But the federal government’s new climate-change program, part of the Inflation Reduction Act, includes $4.5 billion in rebates for people who buy electric stoves. People who invest in an induction model to replace their older stoves are eligible for $840 back, making induction as affordable as some gas models.

In my own kitchen, I ended up splitting the difference. My new stove has a gas range, an electric oven, and an infrared griddle in the center of the cooktop. For the sake of my family’s health, I made sure that the new stove has better retention systems to prevent carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide leakage, and I installed a serious ventilation hood in my kitchen, which I run every time I turn the burners on.

Still, Aranita reminded me that a creative cook with an electric cooktop — or even a plug-in electric plate — can still make delicious food. “Ultimately, chefs can work with anything,” Aranita says, “even just a toaster oven.”

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Margaret Eby is the deputy food editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her food writing has appeared in Food & Wine, Food52, Bon Appétit, and others.

 

Video via Getty Images

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