The Evolution of Cooking

Image: Ulrike Leone

It was not so long ago that every home thought it was living in the future with an electric stove.  Today’s kitchens have evolved so much more from then.  We have an appliance for everything, and cooking with several unique appliances is commonplace in most kitchens.  With our ever-increasing interest in restaurant-style cooking at home, a debate has arisen regarding the efficiency and safety of gas cooking versus other methods.  Is gas the better choice for our cooking adventures or do we have better options available to us?

A Quick Look Back

If we look back in history, the invention of the earliest stoves occurred in 1490.  Of course, they were just made of brick or metal casings and housed wood to burn for heat. They usually had cutouts that a vessel could rest in for more direct heat.  In the 1790s, Sir Benjamin Thompson developed the first flat-top cooking range that would later be the basis for future range designs.  However, it was not until 1802 that cooking took a huge step forward.    Zauchäus Winzler developed the first gas stove in Germany, although his experiments did not make it to market.    In 1826, James Sharp in Northampton, England took these ideas, developed them successfully, and patented them.  He opened the first stove factory in 1836 and marketed them with Smith & Phillips to the consumers.   He had no idea that his efforts would eventually revolutionize how we cook.  In the 1880s, when pipelines that carried gas became widespread throughout Europe and the Americas, gas became the cooking method of choice.

Image: Oberholster Venita

Electric stoves made their way into homes in the 1940s, primarily because of the decreased cost of electric power and the modern styles offered.  Gas, however, was not to be forgotten.  Over the last 100 years, gas companies have engaged in continuous campaigns to convince consumers that gas cooking is the superior method.  During the 1930s, the phrase “cooking with gas” made its way into Bob Hope skits and Disney cartoons.  In the 1950s they targeted housewives with commercials featuring A-list actors renovating their kitchens to use gas. Gas cooktops became a symbol of luxury, class, and sophistication, much like granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.

Induction was first introduced at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933 but did not make its way to consumers until the mid-1950s.  At the time, it was extremely cost-prohibitive.  Production did not start until the 1970s and, even then, only groups such as NASA could afford to purchase them.

A Step Forward

Today, cooking appliances are owned by more than 90 percent of households worldwide and generate annual revenue of more than 115 US billion dollars.  Major companies such as LG Electronics, Whirlpool, Robert Bosch GMBH, Electrolux, Miele Group, Sub-Zero Group, Samsung Electronics, and Panasonic dominate the marketplace.  The race is on to claim the largest piece of the consumer pie.  Technological advancements such as Wi-Fi connectivity and touch screens are now commonly incorporated into all marketed kitchen appliances.  Consumers are looking for all the bells and whistles in an energy-efficient product that will help minimize the ever-increasing utility bills, and the manufacturers are providing it.

Gas may be the consumer’s preferred choice for cooking, but electric stoves still dominate the market simply because of their lower cost and availability of a wide variety of models.  Induction, however, is making considerable dents into this market share, increasing at a rate of 8.5% annually.    The most popular choice is a slide-in range.  Not only is the unit cheaper, but also less likely to involve expensive installation.  Cooktop and wall oven combinations are usually purchased as they blend seamlessly into a kitchen’s design.  Or, you can opt for a high-end professional range that can set you back as much as $20,000 (one can only dream).

Then we get to the final choice – electric, gas, or induction?  If you love to cook, as I do, then this is an interesting question.  I currently use a gas cooktop that is slowly dying and will soon require replacement.   With this in mind, I wanted to understand my options better.  Cooking is an investment both in time and money, and the appliances you use are just as important as the ingredients.

Gas Cooking

Gas cooking involves a pilot light (gas or electric) that sits on one side of the burner and sends a small flame or spark to ignite an oxygen-gas mixture that flows through the holes in the burner.  By turning the knobs, you can increase or decrease the flow of the oxygen-gas mixture and thus increasing or decreasing the flame and heat. 

Gas is extremely popular for several reasons.  It allows you total control over the heat and instant temperature adjustment.  It is more energy-efficient than electric and will work even during a power outage.  Not only does it transmit heat more evenly, but it offers you a better chance to cook the food to the right temperature.  You can rest a grill on the grates and can work with any shape or type of pan.  Gas is perfect for cast iron pans that allow for a higher heat ideal for searing meats. (You can also lift the pan to douse meat butter or sauce.)  Using a gas cooktop or stove does not use a lot of your natural gas bill – only 2.8% can be attributed to cooking.  It is also much cheaper than electricity.

Since world-renowned chefs such as Julia Child prefer gas, what is the problem? There are a few disadvantages to cooking with gas. More importantly, it has become a part of the debate against greenhouse gases.  Let’s start with the simple disadvantages.  When cooking with gas you must be careful not to spill liquids as the burner may turn off.  You need to take care not to burn yourself – it is a flame after all.  You should also not use it for heating food (keeping the stove lit for long periods may increase the likelihood of a gas leak).

Now we get to the big issue. In recent years, studies have shown that cooking with gas releases carbon monoxide as well as other harmful pollutants into the air. One study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2014 found that cooking with gas for one hour without ventilation added up to 3,000 parts per billion of carbon monoxide into the air, raising concentrations within the home by up to 30 percent. (This harmful chemical binds tightly to the hemoglobin molecules in your blood, preventing them from carrying oxygen.) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), homes with gas stoves have anywhere between 50 and 400 percent higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a chemical linked to increased risks of heart attacks, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Recent studies have shown that methane, a more potent, shorter-lived greenhouse gas, is also leaked. Using your gas stove for just one hour per day produces pollutants that remain in your house all day.

In response, the American Gas Association points out that emissions of concern can result from the smoke and grease resulting from cooking, regardless of the energy source.  Furthermore, with proper ventilation, most fumes are removed.  Gas proponents argue that there are no documented risks to respiratory health from natural gas stoves.

Regardless of their arguments, many environmental advocates and regulators are on a quest to ban natural gas.  In 2019 in Berkeley, California law was passed that bans the installation of natural gas lines into new homes and buildings.  In the UK, the government is banning gas ovens from new homes in 2025 and you will not be able to even purchase one from 2035.  With the increased awareness and discussions surrounding the effects of greenhouse gases, the future of our kitchens and our homes is changing.  Don’t forget, many of our homes heat with natural gas. According to statistics, burning natural gas in commercial and residential buildings accounts for up to 10 percent of all emissions.  This issue is not something that will disappear and, if you are a lover of gas cooking, you may be left unhappy.

Image: Samsung

Let’s Talk Induction

With the cost of electricity so high, and the issues surrounding gas, chefs and foodies alike are once again looking to technology for help.  Hello, induction!  Induction cooking is on a flat glass surface equipped with metal heating coils underneath.  These coils are powered by electromagnetic energy and activate when cookware rests on the surface.  The currents are activated by the iron in the cookware and cause the iron particles to agitate and heat up quickly. 

Induction cooking has several benefits.  Firstly, it offers a faster meal preparation. With induction, the heat is transferred directly to the cookware and not the surface of the cooktop.  You can boil water up to 50 percent faster than other methods.  Next, it is extremely easy to clean.  The smooth top does not allow any spills or splatters to burn the cooktop.  With high-end induction, you can control the temperature precisely in one-degree increments.  Its heat is as consistent as gas, and when turned off, the heat transfer stops immediately.  There is less chance of boiling or overcooking foods, resulting in consistent and delicious results.  Induction cooking uses 10 percent less energy than electric and does not emit any gas into the air.  There is no chance you can burn yourself, or any object can catch on fire, making it ideal for homes with small children.  The cooking surface remains cool to the touch (only the pan gets hot).  Some models can sense what is sitting on the burner and automatically adjust the energy output to the size of the cookware.   Induction cooking is also available in portable cooktops ideal for small spaces, cottages, and basement kitchens.

On the negative side, induction is still more expensive than other options.  It also requires specific cookware and only works with flat-bottomed pans or pots.  Cooking with induction is not ideal if you want to move your pan around; once the pan lifts, the heating element shuts off (you cannot tip your pan to douse a steak with butter).  You cannot use a digital meat thermometer as induction emits a magnetic field that interferes with the measurement.  Cooking with induction does involve a learning curve.  Because of its speed, it is easy to overcook your food. It is also noisier (the high energy transferring from the coil to the pan can cause a whirring sound), and if you slide pans across it, the surface easily scratches.

Is Electric Cooking a Dinosaur?

Electric cooktops work when electrical resistance heats and generates a hot glowing metal coil.  This coil transfers its heat through the glass-ceramic via infrared energy. Heat convection moves to the glass-ceramic as the air around it heats up.  Although a good choice for ovens (most convection ovens are electric), electric cooktops are less versatile when it comes to cooking.

Electric cooktops cook food much slower than gas or induction.  If the power goes out, so does the stove.  It is much easier to burn yourself on an electric cooktop as it takes time for the element to cool down.  On the positive side, it does offer a consistent heat flow.  The kitchen also stays much cooler, and the glass-ceramic top is relatively easy to clean.

Technology is taking a closer look at electric appliances once again in the form of heat pumps, a core element that already exists in refrigerators.  It involves sucking heat from the interior and blowing it out into the kitchen.  (Research is also looking into this technology to replace your gas furnace and air conditioner.)  Not only is it a greener option, but it is also far more energy-efficient.  We are not quite there yet, as they have yet to match the speed and versatility offered with gas and induction.  

How Do You Decide?

It is a big decision between electric, gas, and induction.  Since I’m looking at cooktops, let’s focus on these.  There are some considerations to be made.  First of all, safety.  Do you have young children in the home?  Are you concerned about emissions or the chance of burns?  Induction seems to be the route to take.  Are you on a budget?  Electric is the most cost-effective choice.  Are you a lover of food or a pretend chef?  Then perhaps you should follow the lead of so many other chefs and stick to gas (if you do, ensure that your ventilation system is exceptional).      

To make it a little more confusing, over the past few years many high-end restaurants are opting for induction as they can increase the speed of their service and keep stocks and sauces at a precise temperature. Michelin-starred restaurants like Pidgin in East London and La Marine in Noirmoutier (an island of the west coast of France) are strong advocates. If we look to chefs to guide our culinary journey, we now find ourselves at a fork in the road.

Image: Gaggeneau

Key Components

When choosing your next appliance (whether a cooktop like I am or a range), you should consider a few things.  First, the cooking power or BTUs (the most powerful can reach 20,000 BTUs).  BTUs measure heat energy.  The higher the BTU, the higher the heat you can achieve.  Next is the range.  Your appliance should have a heating range from the smallest simmer to the high heat needed for a wok.  Let’s not forget the speed.  How fast does the cooktop warm up evenly?  A gas cooktop will heat up instantly, but an electric or induction will heat the up food faster.  Of course, reliability and reputation are important.  Since purchasing a cooktop or stove is an investment, you want to ensure that what you buy will last and is backed by a warranty that covers as much of the unit as possible.  Finally, you look at the bells and whistles and the design.  How well will it fit into your kitchen design, how big is it, and what extra features does it have.

Consumer reports offer top choices for both induction and gas, whatever your choice may be. High-end manufacturers are taking one step further and offering modular cooktops. Companies such as Wolf offer integrated and customized cooking stations. Create your dream cooktop with induction next to gas, or gas next to a steamer, or a steamer next to a fryer.  Miele ProLine offers individual units that fit side by side to create the desired cooktop surface.  Gaggenau offers two series of modular systems in various sizes. Knobs can be added both vertically or laterally on the surface. Minimalistic and innovative, it is a more expensive option that can retrofit into virtually any kitchen. The cost starts at $2,700 for each induction unit, $2,000 for gas, and $2,500 for an electric grill.

What To Do When It Is Time to Choose

That is the million-dollar question.   I am still looking at the various options, and even with the warnings about gas cooking, I am still a huge fan.  On the other hand, I have used induction, and it has benefits as well (making a sauce, boiling water for pasta, or simmering stews are much easier and faster).  As for electric cooktops, until technology takes its next leap forward, I’m leaving it out of the race.  Ideally, I would love the best of all worlds.  Time to start saving for those modular offerings.

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