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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 10:55 AM

hspace="8" align="left" height="375" width="396">by Dave Scantland


“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)
kosher salt
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
fresh–ground pepper

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.


#2 heidih

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 11:39 AM

A great piece Dave. The energy information I was completely unaware of. You captured the beginning cook's fear and trepidation to the point that I wanted to wipe that bead of sweat off her nose. I have a friend who loses sleep over making the gravy for Thanksgiving. I felt bad for her and began making it for her and bringing it to her house.

#3 maggiethecat

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 12:09 PM

Dave, I've always been a proponent of gas, but you've made a darn compelling case for electric ranges. When I but my next stove I'll be giving electric careful consideration

Margaret McArthur

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#4 jsmeeker

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 12:35 PM

I still want a fire breathing monster. Fire is cool.

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#5 andiesenji

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 01:03 PM

I like your story about the woman with the pot roast.

However, I think the story goes back much further than that episode.

I first read it in The Grit, a rural newspaper very popular in western Kentucky where I grew up and it was probably around 1950.

A woman had written to The Grit with an amusing story about having always sawed the shank end off a ham before roasting it because that was the way her mother taught her.
She finally got around to asking her mother the reason for this at a family gathering and when the grandmother was asked, replied, "a big ham wouldn't fit in the side oven so to close the door I had to saw a few inches off the shank."

For those unfamiliar with this term, old wood/coal kitchen ranges had two ovens. One was the regular baking oven and could attain higher temperatures.
The smaller "side oven" was for long, slow roasting at a lower temperature. (On the other side of the "pond" the AGA and similar kitchen ranges had this same type of oven.)

Over the years I have seen this story repeated numerous times, usually with a ham because of the size but other things too.

It's still a fun story and I'm sure the same phenomena has happened to many cooks. There are just some things that don't fit comfortable into a certain vessel and one has to make do.


I once had a Garland range in my home and it was a wrench to leave it but it actually sold my house. The first people to look at the house, 40 minutes after the Open House started, bought it without quibbling about the price and before they even looked at the rest of the house.
The gas company inspected the installation and my insurance agent made sure all the safety factors were in place. It was costly but I wanted it and by gad, I had the same type range as Julia Child. :wub:
"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett
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#6 Dave the Cook

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 03:23 PM

A great piece Dave. The energy information I was completely unaware of. You captured the beginning cook's fear and trepidation to the point that I wanted to wipe that bead of sweat off her nose. I have a friend who loses sleep over making the gravy for Thanksgiving. I felt bad for her and began making it for her and bringing it to her house.

Thanks, Heidi!

Dave, I've always been a proponent of gas, but you've made a darn compelling case for electric ranges. When I but my next stove I'll be giving electric careful consideration

Believe it or not, that wasn't my intention; I'm agnostic on energy choices because the difference between the two is much smaller than most people seem to think. What I do believe is that people deserve to know the facts so they can make truly informed decisions. To my mind, the best reason to buy a gas cooktop, however, is:

Fire is cool.

That blue flame is alluring, and if that matters to you, by all means go for the gas. Just don't think that it's more responsive or more precise than electric, or that how restaurants cook has all that much in common with home cooking.

I like your story about the woman with the pot roast.

However, I think the story goes back much further than that episode.

. . . .

Over the years I have seen this story repeated numerous times, usually with a ham because of the size but other things too.

I first heard it from a coworker about 15 years ago. She swore it was her, her mother and grandmother in the story, and that's how I always related it -- until a student told me not long ago that it was a pretty common myth. So in these classes, I not only teach, I often learn, too.

. . . by gad, I had the same type range as Julia Child. :wub:

Another valid reason!

Dave Scantland
Executive director
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eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.


#7 David Ross

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 05:48 PM

What a wonderful piece Dave. I'll admit that after reading the title and on first glance of the photo I wasn't sure what type of story would follow, but you wove the relationship between the cook and the fuel of the first together beautifully. I've always longed for a gas range, but my yearning isn't based in fact-I simply think I need to have something I've never cooked with. I suppose that's a poor excuse for spending money on a gas range that I really don't need-but the desire is still there. I've added chicken thighs and vinegar to tommorrow's shopping list.

#8 mkayahara

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 06:25 PM

I believe it was Chris Hennes who pointed out in another thread that this is one place where domestic-grade gas ranges really shine. On mine, for example (a $400 Kenmore), if you kill the heat on a burner, it completely kills the heat; my braises do not return to a lively simmer, because there's simply not enough cast iron there to retain any of the heat. Which suggests that there's the domestic/professional axis to consider along with the gas/electric axis. I don't care so much about the hang time between "blazing" and "off," since you can remove a pan from an electric coil just as easily as from a gas burner, but I've always found there to be more lag between "sear" and "simmer" on the electric coil stoves I've cooked on than the gas ones. Of course, I'm open to the idea that this is all just confirmation bias on my part. :biggrin:
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#9 Chris Amirault

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 06:41 PM

I've cooked on both; different houses have had new and old gas and old and older electric. I'm a two-time convert: I drank the gas Kool-Aid as a 20-something and, lately, have converted back to electric.

It seems clear that both work well enough, and you have to learn quirks and benefits of whatever you've got. But, for me, I care most about what I've got when I'm doing the big power tasks: bringing a few gallons of water to the boil is a key example. On a quality home gas unit, that took me two or three times longer than the 1970s-era Thermador electric I have now.

So help me think about this, Dave. What is it about the electric ranges that delivers the power on superhigh?
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#10 maggiethecat

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 07:00 PM

Montreal, like Chicago, is a gas town. My brother and future sister-in-law threw a party before their thirty-odd years ago wedding. (Quite a party -- I opened the door to a stark naked man wearing a baby seat on his bum. Rugby culture.)

Montreal was also a hash town, not a grass town. (I'm going somewhere here. Hang in.) The communal sniffing of choice was called Hot Knives. You'd lay a couple of cheap table knives in the flame until they were red hot, then lay a chunk of hash over them and everyone, especially rugby players, would inhale. Those knives got literally, visibly, red hot.

I don't have an electric range around to test this side by side, let alone the hashish, but I've always wondered about the Hot Knives challenge. Those knives got hot so fast -- could it happen on an electric stovetop?

Margaret McArthur

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#11 Pam R

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 07:07 PM


I like your story about the woman with the pot roast.

However, I think the story goes back much further than that episode.

. . . .

Over the years I have seen this story repeated numerous times, usually with a ham because of the size but other things too.

I first heard it from a coworker about 15 years ago. She swore it was her, her mother and grandmother in the story, and that's how I always related it -- until a student told me not long ago that it was a pretty common myth. So in these classes, I not only teach, I often learn, too.


I always heard it was a brisket. :hmmm:

Great article, Dave. I felt good about my recent cook-top purchase (electric), now I feel better. Plus, my building doesn't have any gas. :wink:

#12 LindaK

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 07:26 PM

Great piece, Dave. It's always been a puzzle to me that it's become accepted wisdom that one can't cook well without expensive equipment, esp. a high end range. Thanks for shedding some light on this and hopefully puncturing that myth. Today I may be the proud owner of one of those gas bohemoths, but I'm the first to admit that it's a luxury and not a necessity. Many of the best meals I've ever made were produced on the barely functioning gas stove that preceded it and the electric coil stove before that. Understand your ingredients, technique, and equipment--adapt accordingly.


 


#13 Smithy

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 08:13 PM

Great post, Dave. Add me to the list of people compelled to rethink the electric / gas business. I've been cooking on electric coils for years now and thinking that gas (propane, in my rural case) would surely deliver more heat and control than the burner shuffle I do on coils now. And yet - in our travel trailer, home for months at a time, I can't honestly say I'm getting more heat and control on our propane stove than I get on our electric stove at the house. Since I'm winding up for a kitchen remodeling project at home, your piece is very timely.

I first read the story as a ham that wouldn't fit in the grandmother's only baking pan, in one of those Reader's Digest "Life in These United States" segments. I have always imagined that discussion taking place with my grandmother, given the size of the baking pan she had (and I have inherited).

Based on your description, I'd love to take a cooking class from you!

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#14 gfweb

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Posted 21 April 2011 - 09:30 PM

Nice piece, Dave, but I will stick with gas. I love the flame.

Cavemen didn't cook on a glowing coil. The pioneers used wood.

Electric is so Reddy Kilowatt...so 1950s...so Florance Hanford...so stove-of-the-future...so Levittown. Ewww.

#15 Chris Amirault

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 10:24 AM

Electric is also very rural, at least in New England where there's not as much propane, it seems, as other regions. There's no gas line to our new house, and we chose not to pay the $10K we didn't have to put one in. Given how much I love my electric stove, it's the best $10K I've never spent.
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#16 jsmeeker

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 11:13 AM


Fire is cool.

That blue flame is alluring, and if that matters to you, by all means go for the gas. Just don't think that it's more responsive or more precise than electric, or that how restaurants cook has all that much in common with home cooking.


It's not just the blue flame from the burner. It's all the fire you get from vapors that ignite when you shake a pan around. It just looks so cool. So, PRIMATIVE. A sous vide tank looks so sterile by comparison. :cool:

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#17 Dave the Cook

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 11:39 AM

So help me think about this, Dave. What is it about the electric ranges that delivers the power on superhigh?

Just theorizing here, but my guess is that this relates to the efficiency issue.

If you think about a graph that has energy input on the x-axis and efficiency on the y, the plot for electric is probably pretty close to a straight line at 70% (assuming you've matched pan-size to burner size properly). The plot for a gas burner would start high, but fall off as you crank the heat up.

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#18 Dave the Cook

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 11:41 AM

Montreal, like Chicago, is a gas town. My brother and future sister-in-law threw a party before their thirty-odd years ago wedding. (Quite a party -- I opened the door to a stark naked man wearing a baby seat on his bum. Rugby culture.)

Montreal was also a hash town, not a grass town. (I'm going somewhere here. Hang in.) The communal sniffing of choice was called Hot Knives. You'd lay a couple of cheap table knives in the flame until they were red hot, then lay a chunk of hash over them and everyone, especially rugby players, would inhale. Those knives got literally, visibly, red hot.

I don't have an electric range around to test this side by side, let alone the hashish, but I've always wondered about the Hot Knives challenge. Those knives got hot so fast -- could it happen on an electric stovetop?

My guess is yes, though it wouldn't be as dramatic, or as Meeker and gfweb might put it, as sexy and primitive.

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#19 Dave the Cook

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 11:50 AM

I believe it was Chris Hennes who pointed out in another thread that this is one place where domestic-grade gas ranges really shine. On mine, for example (a $400 Kenmore), if you kill the heat on a burner, it completely kills the heat; my braises do not return to a lively simmer, because there's simply not enough cast iron there to retain any of the heat. Which suggests that there's the domestic/professional axis to consider along with the gas/electric axis. I don't care so much about the hang time between "blazing" and "off," since you can remove a pan from an electric coil just as easily as from a gas burner, but I've always found there to be more lag between "sear" and "simmer" on the electric coil stoves I've cooked on than the gas ones. Of course, I'm open to the idea that this is all just confirmation bias on my part. :biggrin:

One of the best ranges I ever cooked on was a Thermador gas unit that had star burners and thin steel continuous grates. As you say, it's a design that takes full advantage of what gas offers to the home user. Unfortunately, Thermador has succumbed to the popular rage for cast iron and they don't seem to make it any more. If they did, I might well have gotten it instead of a smoothtop electric -- and this article would never have been written.

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#20 Dave the Cook

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 11:51 AM

Nice piece, Dave, but I will stick with gas. I love the flame.

Cavemen didn't cook on a glowing coil. The pioneers used wood.

Electric is so Reddy Kilowatt...so 1950s...so Florance Hanford...so stove-of-the-future...so Levittown. Ewww.

So you grew up with one of those brass "This Home is All Electric!" medallions by your front door, too?

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#21 gfweb

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 12:00 PM



Fire is cool.

That blue flame is alluring, and if that matters to you, by all means go for the gas. Just don't think that it's more responsive or more precise than electric, or that how restaurants cook has all that much in common with home cooking.


It's not just the blue flame from the burner. It's all the fire you get from vapors that ignite when you shake a pan around. It just looks so cool. So, PRIMATIVE. A sous vide tank looks so sterile by comparison. :cool:


You are right that sterility and "differentness" has to be part of the resistance to Modernist techniques. Its funny, I was a lab rat before I was a cook and when I got started cooking I was annoyed by the primitive stuff in a kitchen. It was different that what I worked with and pretty frigging useless in my hands. I longed to have the stuff from my lab available at home...a magnetic stirrer...a centrifuge...pipettes..a still..separatory funnels. I can easily see how a cook with years of traditional techniques would be repelled by this Jetsons-esque cooking.

#22 Dave the Cook

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 12:09 PM

Great post, Dave. Add me to the list of people compelled to rethink the electric / gas business. I've been cooking on electric coils for years now and thinking that gas (propane, in my rural case) would surely deliver more heat and control than the burner shuffle I do on coils now. And yet - in our travel trailer, home for months at a time, I can't honestly say I'm getting more heat and control on our propane stove than I get on our electric stove at the house. Since I'm winding up for a kitchen remodeling project at home, your piece is very timely.

I first read the story as a ham that wouldn't fit in the grandmother's only baking pan, in one of those Reader's Digest "Life in These United States" segments. I have always imagined that discussion taking place with my grandmother, given the size of the baking pan she had (and I have inherited).

Based on your description, I'd love to take a cooking class from you!

If you've got the budget (and cookware) for it, definitely check out induction. Otherwise, the most recent electric smoothtops demonstrate improvements in the cooling cycle.

ETA: Thanks! You're welcome in my class anytime.

Edited by Dave the Cook, 22 April 2011 - 12:10 PM.

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#23 maggiethecat

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 06:46 PM

What amazed me, when I was cooking on Daddy's cheap electric stove (as opposed to my cheap gas stove) is how much faster water came to the boil on the electric range. It was dramatically faster. Of course, most Canadian kitchens feature an electric kettle, which heats up your tea water FAST. But even without the kettle,this gas fan was amazed at how fast a pasta water stock pot came to the boil

I still think the cook has to be more alert on an electric stove. On/Off is something important, and I believe a plain gas range is useful there.

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#24 David Ross

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 07:52 PM

One advantage of my glass-top electric range is ease of cleaning. No foil to have to wrap around the pans under the burners on a regular electric range, no soot or burned shards of food to fish out from under the grates of a gas grill. Cleaning is easy.

#25 Smithy

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 09:02 PM

One advantage of my glass-top electric range is ease of cleaning. No foil to have to wrap around the pans under the burners on a regular electric range, no soot or burned shards of food to fish out from under the grates of a gas grill. Cleaning is easy.

I'm afraid I'd scratch a glass-top if I weren't careful enough moving my heavier pots around. Do you have any issues with that?

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#26 Blether

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Posted 22 April 2011 - 10:47 PM

That was a long one, Dave, but worth reading. Lots of stuff I didn't know: I'm happy with my 150-dollar standard-Japanese-"gas table", but I'll be more forgiving of the electric I grew up with back in the UK, in future.

... Hot Knives...


Hey, Maggie. A knife balances quite nicely with its tip between two of the coils of an electric cooker - and gets as red hot. And in those days, the translucent, soft plastic milk bottles, with the bottom cut off them, were just the thing as inhalation funnels.

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#27 gfweb

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 07:55 AM


Nice piece, Dave, but I will stick with gas. I love the flame.

Cavemen didn't cook on a glowing coil. The pioneers used wood.

Electric is so Reddy Kilowatt...so 1950s...so Florance Hanford...so stove-of-the-future...so Levittown. Ewww.

So you grew up with one of those brass "This Home is All Electric!" medallions by your front door, too?


No but Philadelphia Electric tried. LOL. Thinking about it, Florence Hanford's all-electric cooking show in Philly has to have been one of the first on TV. I have dim memories of a black and white lady in a dress cooking on TV.

added...here's her wikipedia writeup http://en.wikipedia....lorence_Hanford

The squib that the WSJ obit (linked from wikipedia) has looks interesting, but I'm not a subscriber.

added again.. A YouTube of her show. Pretty 1950s!

Edited by gfweb, 23 April 2011 - 08:06 AM.


#28 slkinsey

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 08:36 AM

. . . I care most about what I've got when I'm doing the big power tasks: bringing a few gallons of water to the boil is a key example. On a quality home gas unit, that took me two or three times longer than the 1970s-era Thermador electric I have now.

So help me think about this, Dave. What is it about the electric ranges that delivers the power on superhigh?

There is little doubt that an electric burner will deliver more thermal energy to the bottom of a flat pan than a similar gas burner. This is because the surface-to-surface conduction of thermal energy is far more efficient. I imagine if you had a high powered induction burner it would be even faster.
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#29 David A. Goldfarb

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Posted 23 April 2011 - 08:48 AM

Here's Julia making omelettes on an electric stovetop:



#30 teapot

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Posted 11 May 2011 - 11:43 AM

Timely and interesting article. I've spent most of my cooking years using either a woodstove or an electric 1958 GE Hotpoint. Both stoves I understood and could fix/adjust when needed. Now we're about to remodel the kitchen and it's time to bid my hotpoint farewell. I've cooked only a few times with gas but have become completely enamoured of the Capital Culinarian with its open burner (23,000 BTUs each) design and lack of electronics. Maybe induction is a smarter way to go...but where's the love? There's a relationship that develops between cook and stove and I've had a hard imagining a bond developing with most other stoves (gas or electric) I've seen. I guess it is about magnetism after all :wink: