Home on the Range
Chef-friends and the clients for whom I cook have home kitchens which showcase heavy-duty cookstoves, stainless steel and copper-ornamented behemoths. They dominate the kitchen landscape and are the altar where the culinary clergy worship in the apse of their high-end kitchen. Their owners tell amusing stories about the nightmare installation involved in building their cathedrals of cooking, making for great table talk, but my romance with professional gas stoves ended a long time ago.
When my sister moved into her arts and crafts manse, she inherited an enormous Wolf range with six large burners, a griddle, and extra large oven. I fell in love with those red knobs and the clickety-click of lighting the blue flame, but soon held less affection for the required overhead vent– a monstrous and whirring dirt-attracting hurricane-inducing steel dynamo which still makes cooking there an unpleasant experience. Without fail, the smoke detector goes off, not from any smoke but from the shear heat output of simply boiling an egg, so the vent must always be used when cooking. The stove complex keeps her kitchen uncomfortably warm all year, the griddle pilot light cannot be turned off so the griddle surface remains very warm to the touch, and this professional machinery does not even have a broiler. Thoughts of removing the range and expert advice about doing so demanded a major de-construction and destruction of said stove just in order to get it out of the door. So she lives with it and has mastered its idiosyncrasies. It looks amazing in her large kitchen and never fails to impress as does her food.
Other reasons for my objection to such fancy fire sources are somewhat embarrassing, though logical: I am a bit of a neat freak.
Don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of home cooking, experimenting in the kitchen and entertaining; I enjoy making big time messes on a regular basis as I cook with abandon and on the client’s clock. But I accomplish all this on a flat-top ceramic electric model. (Please stop laughing now.) It comes with some nice bells and whistles, like a warming burner, convection oven, and more. When it comes to cleanup, I prefer a quick wipe of the sponge, a little scrubbage, and a few spritzes of Windex after which I can admire my reflection in the gleaming ceramic glass top.
I have no desire to pull apart heavy cast iron elements, to clean out blocked burners, or watch blackened grease build up on enamel and iron. When I had gas (usually in rented digs), I was constantly sniffing the air for leaks, fearing that I might blow myself up to smithereens out of carelessness or set the house aflame while I was away for long periods of time. I burned up my share of paper towels and oven mitts as well as ruined pots and pans in the early stages of learning to cook with gas. I watched mice scurry in and out of the burners en route to their nests under the sink. So when I bought my own home and had to make a choice, I chose a sophisticated electric model and had the gas line to the kitchen removed. Take that, mousies.
I know what they say: Electric heat is slower and less responsive. The direct heat of gas is best. You can’t cook with a wok on a flat-top. How can you char peppers? What about cast-iron skillets? Forget simmering at low temps on an electric stove! The best chefs use gas.
To this I say pish-posh. These points can all be argued. I admit, when storm Sandy hit the east coast, those lucky ducks with gas stoves still had a modicum of warmth and the ability to cook inside their homes. But we are talking about the art of cooking here, not cataclysmic concerns. Why is speed so important? Unless you are in an industrial restaurant kitchen setting, why should speed be at the top of the list. If you want speed, use a microwave.
I also admit that working with the flame of a gas stovetop has a nice primitive feel to it. It’s fun to play with the flame’s intensity. Bring out the marshmallows and peppers. Heck– why not a steak on a stick for that paleo vibe? There is a great joy in messing about with a direct heat source.
In the end, heat is heat, and once understood on your personal cooking device, can be controlled optimally. Learn to move pots and pans around. Take the numeric settings on your stovetop seriously and learn what they really deliver. Facts of cost, safety, and cleanliness depend on the individual. So why not try out different technologies throughout your cooking education?
I will always enjoy my charcoal Weber grill. I now can cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner on a wood-burning cast iron stove circa 1908 that lives in a shed in my backyard. And I will always prefer that iron monster to a high-end gas stove. Go figure.
Oh, and did I mention the cooking elements of the future? Induction? That’s right. A flat top burner that never feels hot to the touch due to the magnetic transference of energy directly to the pots and pans. You can put a towel under the pans to catch the splattering grease. Looks like the classic quandary may already be old hat. Then again, induction might just require an entirely new suite of cooking vessels. But that is another blog post.
So what do you all think? Share your experience and knowledge by leaving a response (Just click on the brown postage stamp in the upper right hand corner of this post).
Which is the optimal heat source when it comes to cooking? Gas or electric?