“I’m embarrassed,” she admits as she dips her fingertips in the salt cellar, her voice barely perceptible over the breathy drone of the stainless exhaust fan, her brow shiny with a film of perspiration. She pinches the seasoning at eye level above a half-sheetpan on which six chicken thighs have been arrayed. She inclines her head. “Like this?”
“Yep,” I confirm, hovering close to the pan responsible for the condition of her forehead, checking the viscosity of the oil it contains. Typical kitchen newb that she is, she scatters the salt with a little more care than necessary, then reaches for more. I tilt the pan (it’s warped).
When she finishes seasoning the skin side, she moves to flip the thighs, and I caution her. “Wet-hand -- dry-hand, remember?” She nods and resumes, tucking her right arm behind her.
“Embarrassed about . . . ?”
“I don’t have one of these,” she explains, turning toward me and holding her hands apart, fingers splayed, to indicate the cooktop: five high-output gas burners, two of them blazing beneath iron grates as thick as my thumb and ensconced in an expanse of brushed steel.
“Is your fat ready?” I ask. She peers over the rim of the pan; I fear that the tiny drop of sweat depending from the tip of her nose will fall, splatter and send her running from class.
I teach at a local cookware store. For the most part these are two-hour avocational affairs -- how to throw a cocktail party, main–dish salads, that sort of thing. But the most popular course I direct is anything but frivolous: a three-day marathon for “beginning” cooks. The students range from complete novices whose expertise ends at mixing the cheese powder into the microwaved macaroni; to widowers and recent graduates with a sudden need to feed themselves; to experienced cooks looking to fill holes in their repertoire. But these students are hardly empty vessels even when they report for class. A majority of them carry a burden of fear: fear of heat, of sharp pointy objects, of making something that tastes awful. They’re also jam–packed with myth and misinformation.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story (versions abound on the internet) of the woman who grew up knowing that to prepare a pot roast for cooking, you trimmed an inch from one end. It’s what her mother had taught her; her mother had learned it from her mother. After a few years of propagating this custom, the woman grew weary of the chore, not to mention the waste. So she confronted her mother, who referred her to her mother.
“Because otherwise it wouldn’t fit in the pan,” the lady disclosed, solving a three–generation mystery while simultaneously delighting fans of Occam’s Razor.
If you cook or eat, you will trip over misinformation and misrepresentation in every direction. These are rarely the result of malice; rather they evolve as folk “wisdom,” errant utterances that are repeated often enough to become indistinguishable from the truth, or specious customs of dim origin that are nevertheless too stubborn to dislodge.
That’s why people cook in cast–iron pans encrusted with Grandma’s crud; how people end up spending more than they need to for equipment and appliances; and what might explain greasy fried chicken, a broken sauce, lumpy gravy, overdone chicken, underdone pot roast, exploding potatoes and gray asparagus.
People even continue to believe things we know for sure that just ain’t so. A myth, like grandma’s crud, is scraped off only with great effort. Cooks who should know better just from their own experience still swear that searing a steak seals in the juices, though it was disproved many years ago. The list goes on: dried beans must be soaked; bread must be kneaded; pork must be cooked to sawdust; great sushi has never been frozen. None of these things are accurate, but it’s a piece of cake to find true believers in these and many other falsehoods.
And so we encounter our shameful student, who fears she won’t be taken seriously -- who won’t even take herself seriously -- as a cook because she lacks a fire-breathing dragon in her kitchen. It’s ungracious to blame her; cooking shows run almost exclusively on gas (the ranges, and often the chefs), foodie forum denizens casually denigrate electricity (unless it powers an induction burner) as a Hobson’s choice, the way Henry Ford offered colors for the Model T. Those beleaguered with a coil- or smoothtop range pine for deliverance.
It’s too bad, really. When it comes to professional-style ranges in home kitchens, the case for gas is mostly hot air.
“Skin side down?” She has the tongs, and the chicken they clasp, in a death grip, her fingers stiff with apprehension, her elbow raised. Nevertheless, she flips the thigh back and forth, her head tilting in counterbalance, the corners of her mouth frozen.
I nod. “That’s right. Start at 12 o’clock -- I’ll tell you why later.” She commits food to pan. Soon, six chicken thighs are chattering away. The sauté pan is immense -- at least a foot across. “Chef,” (students always call me “Chef” until I ask them to stop because it makes me giggle) “Do you always use pans this big?”
“Only when I have to feed two dozen people,” I answer, gesturing at the other groups of students, assistants and store staff. She nods. Her interest is genuine; that she’s committed three days to a beginner’s class is proof. But her question also reflects the common neophyte wish to fast-track competence with emulation.
Imitating professionals is the honorable pastime of enthusiastic amateurs. A-Rod-autographed baseball mitts, Les Paul electric guitars, and spoilers on the family sedan all testify to the power of the halo principle: if Rafa Nadal plays with a Babolat AeroPro Drive GT, getting one will surely improve my forehand. Practicality limits application, though. Few people replace the windows on their Ford Fusions with reinforced netting and install removable steering wheels; Marshall stacks are the province not of basement-bound Stevie Ray wannabes, but of working musicians.
When it comes to furnishing our kitchens, we aren’t so bound by sensibility. The odd and often overlooked fact is that in many ways, the home kitchen of an advanced amateur cook features better equipment than the typical professional shop -- fully-clad pots and pans instead of bare aluminum; utensils with comfortable handles rather than knife-like edginess; digital scales that don’t remind one of either a medieval barber or a jack-in-the-box; ventilation that doesn’t require shouting to be heard. Yet we still want -- many of us, like my student, would say need -- a professional-level cooktop in all its flaming glory. To quote the eminent philosopher Hannibal Lecter, “We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?” We want what we see on TV. We want what we can glimpse through the service door porthole or across the pass of an open kitchen.
What Clarice discovers is that what we want isn’t always what’s good for us, and that ascertaining the reasons why we want a particular thing can comprise a harrowing journey, rife with mistaken assumptions and baffling diversions. If you covet a restaurant-style range, it’s helpful to understand why they’re designed the way they are, because the design decisions that manufacturers make can be irrelevant -- and sometimes at direct odds -- to what a home cook wants or needs.
She’s browned the chicken and removed it to a plate. During the sear, we accumulated rendered fat, and using a kitchen towel on the pan’s helper handle, she poured most of it off. Onions, sliced in an earlier lesson, went in to soften and color a bit. She’s absorbed a lesson on reductions through successive additions of sherry and sherry vinegar.
“Now the stock, tomatoes, sugar and mustard. A few grinds of pepper.” It takes but a few minutes to bring the mixture to a boil.
She’s biting her lip as she stirs. “Isn’t gas more, um, responsive?” she asks. “I mean, you turn the dial and the flame pops up. Turn it off, it’s off.”
“Yes,” I agree from across the counter. “But let’s try something. Kill your heat and push the pan off the burner.” She obeys, and the braise calms. “Now pull it back toward you.” Within seconds, the stock returns to a lively simmer. “The burner is off,” I say. “But you can’t fight physics.”
A controlled flame is responsive. So is a good cook, who reacts intuitively to the presence or absence of that blue flame with corresponding notions of “on” and “off.” But a stove burner is part of a system, and there’s the rub. The problem is not the fuel or the burner, it’s the grate that reposes above it. It’s five and a half pounds of cast iron -- weighing more than a 10-inch Lodge skillet. Cast iron is a great material for cooking, if you’re prepared to take advantage of its particularities: low conductivity and high specific heat per volume. The former means that it takes a long time to heat up (and cool down); the latter means that once you do get it hot, it holds that energy for a long time (and it will hold a lot of it). You can flick the flame out, but the grate above it will ooze residual heat for many minutes -- which makes one wonder why a range manufacturer would choose a responsive heat source, then saddle it with such a pokey playmate. It’s because (setting aside the fact that as a system, a gas range isn't very responsive) responsiveness and precision in a heating source is of little value to a restaurant line cook. When restaurants have to be precise, they turn to sous vide, where the simplicity of controlling a electrical heat source rules.
Go to the website of any commercial range company: Garland, Vulcan, Southbend, Wolf, U.S. Range (note that none of these companies make ranges for the home, any more than Five Star or DCS manufacture true professional products; among major producers, Viking alone maintains both domestic and commercial lines). Read the blurb that introduces their range or cooktop products. If verbiage relating to toughness isn’t within the first 25 words (almost always before you find BTU ratings), I’ll eat a gas regulator valve. Despite recent steps towards energy efficiency (Garland touts its second Energy Star Partner awards), the picture is easy to parse: what restaurateurs prize above everything is durability. Home cooks care about it, too, but their cooktops aren’t subject to a couple of dozen pan-slammings every night, nor to the predations of heedless dishwashers. A commercial grate must be sturdy; it’s constantly abused but cannot fail -- a replacement costs hundreds of dollars and can take weeks to procure.
While a restaurateur wants a stove that’s built to last, on the other side of the kitchen pass, a good line cook desires consistency. Without it, a restaurant is by definition a failure. Cooking is a nettlesome panoply of variables; removing even one from the equation that starts with raw materials and ends at the table is manna from heaven. So when a pan is on the burner, the burner is always full-on, converting a variable to a constant. That’s why those massive grates, so hardy and dutiful, please the cook as much as the owner. They mitigate the very thing that home cooks adore about gas: responsiveness. If you want to stop pumping heat into the food, take it off the stove.
These substantial bastions provide two additional benefits. The first addresses another shortcoming of burner design. Proponents of gas cooktops praise its flexibility; one can adjust the flame size to the diameter of the pan in use. This is true, and it’s helpful for heating things quickly. What lies unacknowledged is the inherent flaw in the shape of the flame that the burner creates. When you crank up the fire, a bit more heat will be delivered to the pan where the flame touches it. That’s going to be the outer edge of the flame, because the burner itself sits below the flame. Much of the time, the difference isn’t an issue. Radiance, convection and conductive materials team up to even things out well enough. But at low heat settings, there’s an unavoidable mismatch between flame and pan diameters: the ring o’ fire dilemma. Burner design (like BlueStar’s eponymous profile) and heavy grates, thermal sponges that they are, mitigate scorching of a pan’s contents – but they can’t eliminate it because they still emit energy. It takes a cook’s careful attention to do that.
The second benefit -- and it confers more to the commercial kitchen than the home cook -- is that grate topography forgives warpage. In partnership with the flame’s natural flexibility, the open center and limited number of contact points let the cook claim a few more weeks’ use out of a nine-inch Wearever with a bottom rendered as round as J Lo’s by thermal shock and employee abuse. (Electric burners demand flat or even slightly convex surfaces, which level out as they heat up, for efficient contact.) The domestic chef’s solution to warped cookware -- not that for home-pampered All-Clad, Sitram or Demeyere it’s a common occurrence -- is replacement and a humble promise to be more careful.
She tears a paper towel from a handy roll and pats her cheeks and forehead, She lifts her pony tail and fans the back of her neck. “Aren’t gas cooktops more powerful? All those BTUs and stuff?”
According to the US Department of Energy, only about 35 to 40 percent of the heat generated by a gas range actually reaches the pan. A domesticated commercial-style range will have at least one, and sometimes four, 15- to 18,000 BTU burners on a 30-inch model (a commercial range burner will be at least double that). With 60% of those energy units being employed in doing things other than heating your food, the practical rating of a unit like that is really six or seven thousand BTU. The rest goes out through the vent hood, and heats up the room -- and anything in it; hence the sheen of sweat on my student’s forehead.
There’s not much to be done about this. You can’t enclose the burner because it needs oxygen to operate, and a system to feed air (in a safe way) to a confined fixture would be a prohibitive expense. The one thing you can do is capture some of that heat and store it . . . in a colossal chunk of dense metal. (The downside of this is that every BTU used to heat a grate is one that isn’t heating your pan or your food in a direct way.)
But even after the efficiency hit, isn’t gas more potent? Let’s compare.
A typical electric burner is 70 percent efficient (we’re excluding induction ranges, which approach 90 percent efficiency). Electric burners aren’t rated in BTUs; they’re rated in watts. This is confusing, because the proper comparison is BTUs to watt-hours: one of the former equals 0.293 of the latter, give or take. So those 6000 usable gas BTUs are worth 1758 watt-hours, again, give or take. A typical high-performance electric cooktop will have at least one burner that consumes between 2500 and 2700 watts (though some boast up to 3000 -- this one, for example). At 70% efficiency, we’re looking at, hey, 1750 watt-hours, a negligible difference.
“I don’t get it. Gas is responsive, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not more efficient than electric. Whatevs. Why do restaurants use gas in the first place?”
“How ‘bout you get the sauce from the sauté into the Dutch oven? Then add the chicken without getting sauce on that skin you did such a good job of browning.” (We have a logistical issue: that giant pan we used to sear the chicken and construct the braising liquid won’t fit in the oven. On the other hand, flipping chicken thighs in a Le Creuset or Staub pot is awkward tong-wise, and distracts from the lesson.)
“While you do that, I’ll tell you a story.”
It might happen before dawn, or maybe just before lunch: a guy (it’s almost always a guy), quite possibly hung over, surely sleep-deprived, shuffles through the back door. He carries a bindle of cutlery that he totes from job to job like the kitchen hobo his résumé proves he is. He flips on the lights. Lumens, vicious as rabid sugar gliders in the hot Aussie sunset, ricochet from multiple steel and glass surfaces, incising his bloodshot eyes. He blinks in pain.
But he recovers, and before withdrawing to the locker room to don his checks, he lights the stoves. The ovens are set to 350°F; the front of the flattops are on medium and the rears are on high. Once they reach temperature (it takes quite a while for a steel griddle to suck in all the heat it can hold), they will stay there for many hours, until the last lowly commis to exit the kitchen extinguishes the flames (assuming he remembers). In the United States, this happens about a quarter-million times a day, at least six days a week.
And that’s why restaurants use gas: if you’re going to blast three or four stoves’ worth of professional-level BTUs for eighteen hours at a stretch, you want the cheapest power source you can find. In the US, that’s natural gas. Should you require an exception that proves the rule, note that when Alain Ducasse opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City’s Essex House -- a cost-be-damned enterprise if ever there was one -- he chose . . . electric ranges.
In the home, the difference in the cost of running an electric range compared to a gas range is dwarfed by the voracious maws of water and home heating, air conditioning and keeping food cold. Cooking consumes less than five percent of the average household energy budget. (If you’re really concerned about how much carbon it takes to satisfy your appetite, consider vegetarianism. The little bit of power used to cook meat is but a fly on the pile of energy expended in raising and transporting it -- irksome, but not the root cause of the problem.)
“So what are you saying? I should just get over having a crappy electric stove?” She’s crossed her arms; the silicone spatula in her hand sticks up like a flag.
“Hmm. Chefs used to call their ranges pianos. If you play piano, you’d probably rather noodle a Steinway grand than an upright Yamaha, and a Yamaha more than a two-octave plastic Casio sampler. Good tools are a pleasure, but they’re just that -- tools. You’re the cook, and even a four-hundred dollar Kenmore is miles ahead of what Jacques Pepin apprenticed on: a wood-burning behemoth it was his job to stoke.”
“Crappy is as crappy does?”
“We need to get this in the oven. You know,” I wind up for another pontification. “It’s a poor craftsman that blames -- ”
“Chef,” she says, hefting the pot toward me and smiling at last. “Dave, I mean. Put a lid on it.”
Chicken with Sherry Vinegar Sauce
6 to 8 large chicken thighs (or 4 large thigh–leg quarters)
3-4 tablespoons chicken or pork fat, or olive oil
1 small onion
2/3 cup dry sherry
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
1 to 2 cups chicken stock
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Slice the onion and set aside.
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt. Melt the fat or oil in a large skillet (or oven–proof braising pan if you have it) over medium heat. You want a thin, even coat of oil over the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, skin–side down, and fry to a light golden–brown on both sides and remove from the pan. Work in batches if necessary; don't crowd the pan.
Pour off all but a light coating of the fat. Sauté the onions or shallots until slightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the sherry and stir to dissolve the browned fond from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for a few minutes to reduce by about half. Then add the sherry vinegar and cook for several minutes to reduce again by about half.
Add 1 cup of chicken stock, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, the tomatoes, sugar and mustard and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer.
If your pan is oven-safe, add the chicken pieces skin side up. If not, transfer the liquid to a large oven–proof pan (with lid) and add the chicken. Add more chicken stock, if necessary, to bring the level of liquid about half to two-thirds up the sides of the chicken pieces -- do not submerge the tops of the thighs.
Cover the pan and bake for 25 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and turn the oven up to 400˚F.
Take the chicken out of the sauce and set aside for a few minutes. Strain the sauce into a large grease separator and allow the sauce to clarify. Reserve the solids.
Pour the defatted sauce back into the pan and add the chicken and the solids. Return the pan—uncovered—to the oven for another 25 minutes. The liquid will reduce and the chicken skin will get brown and crisp.
Take the chicken out of the oven. If you want to reduce the sauce further, remove the chicken, put it on a rack and stick it back in the oven (with the oven off). Put the pan on the stove over medium–high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce as desired.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Dave Scantland (aka Dave the Cook) is an Atlanta-based writer, graphic designer and cooking teacher. He is also a director of operations for the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters.
Recipe courtesy of Janet Zimmerman.
Illustration by Dave Scantland. Eye photo by Doortjah, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.