Last week, Richard Trumka Jr., a US Consumer Product Safety commissioner, sent emotions boiling over when he said in an interview with Bloomberg that the agency was considering banning gas stoves, citing the fact that over 12% of childhood asthma cases in the US are the result of gas stove usage.
Though the White House soon set the record straight, saying that “The President does not support banning gas stoves – and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is independent, is not banning gas stoves,” the momentary panic at the thought that Americans might be forced to cook with electricity revealed just how opinionated we are about what fuels our kitchens.
Chef Andrew Gruel, a restaurant owner and television personality, taped himself to his gas stove in protest of a possible gas ban. Others demonstrated by participating in a dangerous social media stunt in which they turned on all the burners on their stove and let the gas run.
But some had legitimate questions about how to cook without gas. Food writer and chef Alison Roman invited Twitter users to ask her anything about her induction stove, and the inquiries quickly flooded in.
“Can you toast marshmallows over it for s’mores?”
“Does the surface of the stovetop get all scratched to hell when you scoot pans around?”
“Does it heat things up (e.g. boil a pot of water) as fast as gas?”
While the consensus from Roman and other impassioned electric and induction stove users is that it is entirely possible to cook intricate and delectable meals sans gas, it’s clear that the general public has deep-seated misgivings about it.
But why? When it comes to most consumer products, we love upgrades and innovation. What is it about gas stoves that keep us from moving past this centuries-old technology?
The most obvious answer is public misconception. People seem convinced that it is much harder – perhaps even impossible – to cook a quality meal with electricity. And this perception was not created by accident.
As Grist reported, advertising by gas companies is largely responsible for popularizing gas stoves in kitchens by promoting them as a sign of wealth and high design.
Then there’s the trendsetting power of food icons and influencers. With the creations of culinary TV shows, food has taken on a new life as a spectator sport. And as we watch top chefs like Bobby Flay tossing a pan of sizzling morsels over an open flame, we want to emulate his style, stovetop and all.
Meanwhile, the gas industry has tried to harness influencer power. According to Mother Jones, since at least 2018, influencers have been hired by trade groups to post over 100 pieces of content extolling the virtues of gas stoves.
There is something to be said for the visual feedback a chef gets watching a flame grow or shrink as they tinker with a heat dial. But for all the hype surrounding gas stoves, they have some serious drawbacks.
A growing body of research has detailed the numerous environmental and public health costs of cooking with gas. A study by Stanford University published last year found that the impacts of gas stoves are more significant than previously understood, due largely to the leakage of methane into the air.
Additional research has found that gas stoves emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, and, without proper ventilation, their concentrations can reach levels deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to the link between gas stoves and childhood asthma cited by Trumka, the stoves have also been linked to a slew of other health conditions from cardiovascular to cognitive issues.
This should sound alarm bells for the 38% of American households that rely on gas for their cooking.
It should also sound the alarm for chefs in commercial kitchens that run on gas.
Chef Chris Galarza used to be one of them. The 33-year-old New Jersey native spent the formative years of his career cooking over a gas burner. The heat from the flames that licked the sides of his pans, combined with the constant stream of gas pollutants he was breathing in during his long shifts, often made the chef and his colleagues physically ill.
“In between rushes, we would go to the bathroom to throw up,” he recalls. “We were experiencing nausea, vomiting, headaches, lightheadedness,” symptoms which have been tied to indoor air pollution and extreme heat.
It wasn’t until Galarza happened to take a job in an all-electric kitchen and his symptoms disappeared that he started connecting the dots between his health and the gas stoves he had been accustomed to using.
“I realized, ‘Wow, I’ve been poisoning myself as a chef in the pursuit of my craft and my career.’ I began to ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” It was then that Galarza decided he would center his career around helping commercial kitchens become electric.
In 2019, Galarza founded Forward Dining Solutions, a culinary consultancy dedicated to helping companies create fully-electric kitchens. As cities from coast to coast – including Berkley, San Francisco, New York City – have slowly started banning natural gas stoves in new buildings, Galarza has been there to not only help ease the transition to electric, but to educate chefs on why it is the way of the future.
And to the gas stove holdouts who remain skeptical that electric cooking can produce gourmet food, Galarza is here to allay your concerns.
“It’s not true at all that gas stoves cook better,” he says. “In fact, you can cook about 38.6 pounds of food per hour with your gas range, and it’s going to take time and elbow grease to clean and degrease it afterward. With induction, you can cook 70.9 pounds of food per hour – nearly double the amount of food – and your clean up is going to be a lot easier.”
Induction stoves use electricity to create a magnetic field and generate heat right in the cookware instead of on the surface of the stovetop. “Because the stove itself doesn’t get as hot, if you spill something on your induction range, it won’t burn onto the surface or require scrubbing to remove,” explains Galarza.
For their part, some restaurants are also committing to electric appliances. Brooklyn pizzeria Oma Grassa has been lauded for the crispy texture of its pizza crust, which is made possible by an electric oven, the top and bottom of which can be headed to different temperatures.
There are, of course, some culinary feats that require an open flame – achieving a light, stovetop char on a tortilla without dirtying a pan, for instance. But, as one Twitter user pointed out: “You can like something without having to defend every single aspect of it. Almost all good things have drawbacks.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
CNN: Tell me about your experience in kitchens with gas stoves at the start of your career. What was the environment like and how did you feel, both physically and mentally?
Chef Chris Galarza: The kitchens were hot. You’re supposed to be young and tough and have a bravado like “I’m going to conquer this kitchen, this kitchen is not going to conquer me.” That’s the mentality.
I spoke to a chef once who said he would listen to heavy metal and do push-ups to prepare for being in the kitchen. And that mentality is important because you’re going to get incredibly busy incredibly fast. You’re going to have rushes of orders. Everyone will be frantic.
One of the kitchens I worked in was on the top floor of a building and in the summer, all the heat from the apartments and kitchens below would come up to the top kitchen where I was working. On one particular day, I looked down at a thermometer I had in my pocket and it read 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Naturally you try to drink a lot of water to stay cool – but that also has its downside: If you drink too much water, you throw off your body’s electrolyte balance and you get sick.
It wasn’t until I looked back on the experience once I started working in a fully electric kitchen that I realized a big part of the problem – part of the reason I felt so sick – was because I was cooking on gas stoves all day.
CNN: How did you come to the realization that the symptoms were not only from the heat but also from the gasses you were breathing in?
Galarza: When I moved to a fully electric kitchen, I started feeling healthier and more comfortable and like I could work with a clearer head. Without so many open flames, the kitchen stayed cooler, and because all the chefs were more comfortable, we all got along better.
Once I noticed this, I started doing research and learning about what’s in natural gas. I always thought of it as the clean burning fuel. But the idea that you can burn something and it’ll be clean is an oxymoron. As I started learning about formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and what they can do to your body, I started realizing that symptoms of exposure to these gasses were the same symptoms I had experienced in the gas-fueled kitchens: nausea, vomiting, headaches, lightheadedness.
CNN: There seems to be a widespread perception of electricity-powered stoves as inferior to gas stoves. Can you explain why that’s not the case?
Galarza: In many ways, induction stoves are actually superior to gas. They can cook about double the amount of food per hour because there’s very little wasted energy. Up to 90% of the energy generated is transferred to the food in induction cooking.
A gas range, by comparison, is a little over 30% efficient. Up to about 70% of the energy escapes into your surroundings and doesn’t even make it to the food. That means you’re throwing out 70 cents per dollar, and spending more money on electricity to cool the space back down.
But with induction, the energy is generated in the cookware extremely quickly. The truest test: you can boil water more quickly with induction than with gas.
CNN: One common complaint that I’ve heard is that you can’t cook with a wok on an induction stovetop. Is that true?
Galarza: There are induction woks made just for this purpose and, yes, you’re still able to toss everything around, just like you can in a wok on a gas range. Woks are unique because of their structure. In the center they’re hotter, while up the sides they’re cooler, so you’re able to cook different things that have different temperature needs all at once.
There’s a culinary term “wok hei,” which translates to the “breath of the wok.” It refers to the way a wok cooks and the flavor it imparts. Induction cooking is able to replicate wok hei beautifully and has been touted by chefs such as Martin Yan as the future of cooking.
CNN: Are there any downsides to cooking without gas on a flameless stove?
Galarza: The major perceived con for induction is that you can’t see a flame. With gas, you associate the size of the flame with the amount of heat you’re cooking with. But with induction, you have to rely on the dial setting to know the power level.
Some people may find it hard to gauge what a “10” on the dial equates to in terms of heat. When I train folks, I always say, “Don’t be alarmed. The first thing you try to cook, you’re going to burn.”
Your instinct is going to be to crank the dial to high and not realize how much power you’re cooking with. It has happened to all of my staff. Obviously, with a little practice, that can be mitigated, but I always tell folks to expect a learning curve.
It just means you have to tune into your other senses. When you hear a sizzle, you know something is searing; when you smell smoke, it’s probably burning. We don’t need a flame to tell us what’s happening in the pan. The food will tell us what it needs or when it’s ready to be flipped over.
CNN: What about cookware? Can the same pots and pans that are used on a gas stove be used on an induction stove?
Galarza: If you use pure copper or aluminum pots and pans, then switching from gas to an induction stovetop may require you to buy new cookware. For many people though, chances are that the cookware you already use on your gas stove will work just fine on an induction stove.
You can test it by seeing if a magnet will stick to the bottom of your cookware. If it sticks, your pots and pans can be used on an induction stove.
CNN: What are the primary reasons you think people are resistant to moving away from their gas stoves?
Galarza: Cooking is very emotional for folks. It’s spiritual for a lot of people. My great grandfather belonged to a tribe in the Amazon rainforest, so I’ve thought to myself “Man, maybe one day I’m going to inherit recipes from his tribe and I’m going to be connected to my ancestors in a way that I never thought possible.”
So I can understand the primal, humanistic draw to one’s heritage – that sense of getting back to your roots. People may see fire and think, “This is how my mother and grandmother cooked.”
But we’ve also now been inundated with marketing about how great cooking with gas is. Influencers are being paid to say things like “Hey, I couldn’t imagine cooking without gas! #CookingWithGas.” And that marketing is very effective.
Part of the problem is that food has become less about eating since the invention of social media. Now people think, “If I take a picture with this big flame, it’s going to look really cool and it’s going to get a lot of likes.” As chefs, we laugh at that, because having flames all over the place won’t do anything for your food – it’s flashy, but you’re not controlling your heat.
CNN: What do you think it would take to start changing the popular perception about cooking with gas and electricity?
Galarza: I can answer that with a story. Do you know why lobster is so popular? It used to be the thing that fishermen couldn’t sell. People thought it was poor people’s food. They would say, “That’s just trash. We don’t eat that. Leave that for the fishermen to eat.” And now the lobster is considered a symbol of opulence, right?
The lobster hasn’t changed – people’s perception of it has changed. Now it’s one of the most expensive things on the menu and we’re willing to pay for it.
The moral of the story is that popular perception can change – it just takes an effort to change it.
CNN: Who do you think has the power – or perhaps the responsibility – to help change that public perception?
Galarza: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. How do we start to nudge people to choose electric on their own? I think it’s going to take a community of folks who want to encourage electric cooking to start talking about it.
It’s going to take the American Culinary Federation, which is the governing body of chefs. It’s going to take celebrity chefs. It’s going to take the scientific community doing more research on the impact of gas appliances in restaurants.
People need to start hearing the truth: there’s no conspiracy or cabal coming to take your gas. We just want what’s best for you, your family and our industry.
I’m just one guy talking about induction – but there are a lot of us who use it and are passionate about it. I encourage the David Changs of the world, the Bobby Flays of the world, the Food Networks and Cooking Channels of the world to say, “Hey, let’s talk about the fuel we’re cooking with. Let’s show how food can be the catalyst for change we need.”
If viewers were to see Bobby Flay cooking on an induction stove, it would start changing their minds. They would realize this is the next evolution of cooking. The future is here. And the future is awesome.