Gas stoves are a new front in the culture wars. This month, an errant comment from a bureaucrat caused a full-blown conservative panic over whether such stoves would be banned, eventually prompting a White House statement that effectively walked the whole thing back.
Amid all this posturing, a more practical concern is getting lost: How much does gas actually matter when it comes to cooking? Are there some dishes that just can’t be made on electric stoves?
I called up J. Kenji López-Alt—a chef, a New York Times columnist, and the author of The Food Lab and The Wok—to discuss. While we chatted, López-Alt cooked on his gas stove in the background. But don’t take that as an endorsement: He told me that the stove came with his house, but that if he were to build a kitchen from scratch, he’d probably opt for an induction range.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: How much does the type of stove actually matter?
J. Kenji López-Alt: I would say for 99 percent of what home cooks—and even restaurant cooks—are doing at home, especially in the Western tradition, the heat source doesn’t matter much. All of your heat is being transferred to your food through the medium of a pan. A hot metal surface is a hot metal surface.
One of the things that I think people who are used to cooking on gas appreciate about a gas burner is that it has nearly instant response times. When you turn it up, the flame gets bigger, and the heat gets hotter. And it’s a very visual confirmation of what you’ve done.
Induction has a very fast response as well. It’s a little bit slower than gas, because usually you’re cooking on a glass surface that will retain some heat—rather than just the air that dissipates under gas flame. With electric, you have very slow response time, because the coil will take a long time to heat up and cool down. So of the three, gas and induction are really high, as far as responsiveness goes. Electric coil is more difficult to use.
Nyce: Why do you think people get so grumpy over non-gas stoves?
López-Alt: Technology has changed. Induction is a heck of a lot better than electric coil. It’s extraordinarily efficient as far as energy use goes. With gas and heating coils, a lot of the heat that you’re creating actually dissipates into your kitchen, whereas with induction, the heat generated is literally in the surface of the pan itself. So all of the energy that you’re using goes into the pan.
Your modern induction cooktops are just a lot better than what people might think of as far as what you can get from a non-gas range. Electric coil is just a lot harder to control than either induction or gas.
Nyce: But if you have the right cook at the helm, can you make equally good food on electric?
López-Alt: As with anything, it’s a matter of getting used to it. There are some things that you can’t do. For example, when you’re stir-frying, or searing a chicken breast, and then making a pan sauce, you want to be able to adjust the heat on the go.
To be able to do that on an electric coil, you have to shift the pan on and off the element, because if you just leave it there and turn the dial, the coil is still going to be blazing hot for a long time. So you might end up hurting your chicken skin.
That’s one of the difficulties of electric coils. But some of the best restaurants in the world use solely induction.
Nyce: What are the styles of cuisine—and the specific foods—where it really would be hard to give up gas?
López-Alt: So certainly, some types of wok-cooked dishes, particularly ones that rely on that smoky wok hei flavor that comes from the aerosolized oil actually igniting in the gas flame, like a Cantonese-style chow fun. Or fried rice, for example, would have that sort of smoky flavor that you can’t get out of induction. But for most wok cooking, you don’t need it. There’s plenty of homestyle dishes that don’t have that flavor. For my Wok book tour, I brought around an induction wok cooktop. And it works just fine.
People have this idea that you can’t cook on a wok without a gas flame. But most of the recipes in my book work just fine without one. There are very few specific recipes where that gas flavor—that smoky flavor of burnt oil—is an important part of the seasoning of the dish.
What I often recommend to people who have electric or induction is, if you want to cook something like a beef chow fun, the way you can do it is to get a portable butane-gas range. And the few times that you want to make that dish, you can pull that out, put it under your hood, or take it outside. And then you have a little portable gas thing, even though the rest of your kitchen is all induction.
My house came with a gas range. If I were to design my kitchen from scratch, I would probably go induction these days.
So that’s wok cooking. For other cuisines … so, for example, today I’m making sopes, so Mexican. And for the salsa I’m making, you need to char peppers on a gas flame. That’s part of the flavor. So I’ve put the peppers directly over the gas flame and let them really char, until the outside gets blackened.
Nyce: Could you also use a butane blowtorch for something like that?
López-Alt: For sure. In fact, there’s a technique I wrote about in my book where, if you want wok hei without a gas flame, you can get a butane torch. Essentially, you can stir-fry noodles, for example, and then spread them out onto a sheet tray, and then just use a butane torch. Pass it over them a few times, and you’ll see the oil kind of snap and crackle and char a little bit. Then put it back in the wok and finish stir-frying it. And you get that flavor that way. So there are definitely work-arounds.
Nyce: So if there are practical solutions for a lot of this stuff, do you think this debate—and the strong reactions that people have to news like this—is a little overblown?
López-Alt: For sure. I wrote online for many, many years. And I remember, any time you changed the fonts or the color scheme on the site, or had a redesign, people went nuts. People just hate, hate, hate change. And they especially hate when change is forced upon them by an outside party.
Nyce: Even if it’s good for their health.
López-Alt: You remember when the smoking ban came in, right? And people lost their minds. And then, like, two years later, it’s like, “Oh, I can go out and not have to inhale all this secondhand smoke and come home stinking.”
People who really cook a lot of, say, Cantonese dishes or certain types of Mexican food, things that really, really require that gas flavor and that direct interaction with the flame—they’re going to find workarounds. As far as restaurants go, I’m not sure, but I really hope that there are exemptions carved in place for restaurants that require wok ranges, for example. It would be insane and unfair to tell Chinese restaurants they can’t use wok burners anymore. But I think there are always industry exemptions for mandates like this, at least for any well-planned ones.
Nyce: Is there anything else from a practical perspective that you would want a home cook to know as they navigate a potential future change from gas to induction?
López-Alt: The biggest difference between cooking on the two for me is just the lack of visual feedback. Every stove is going to be slightly different, even if they all have dials from one to 10. With gas, I can see, This one’s got a really big burner that’s shooting a huge flame when I turn it to 10. Whereas with induction, who knows what that means?
It’s always better to follow visual and auditory cues written into recipes as opposed to ones like “medium for 10 minutes.” Really pay attention to what your food is doing, and correlate that to the settings on the stove. That way, you can rely on those settings instead of the visual feedback you used to rely on of the size of the flame.
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