Monday, 17 June 2019

The gas vs. electric cooking debate: Fire away

As I watch forests and town on fire around the world, especially around California, I can feel to the bone the destructive power of this gift from God. Fire is probably the one thing that propelled mankind from being to a beast to this glorious stage of development.

But perhaps God is giving us a very warm and vivid hint that unless we mend our profligate ways, and heed the warnings of our weather wise men, this same gift can also consume our lands, and indeed our civilization itself.

We have come a long way from cooking our kills on open fire and have contained this wondrous force into a small contraption in the kitchen that we can set ablaze at the snap of a finger — no wood, no flint needed. And even more amazing, we can douse it at will — no water needed, thanks to the source of the heat, either gas or electricity.

This choice of heat source often presents a point of debate, that is if you have gas piped to where you live or want to build, while electric is available everywhere. Gas is much more common up North, while newer developments in Florida are mostly electric, although gas lines are starting an inroad here, too.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, some related to one’s personal style and predilection. One thing is sure: It takes a little getting used to if you are shifting from one to the other, especially after using one for a long period.

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Here are some thoughts to help some folks who are building anew or remodeling — or are just having second thoughts about the choice they have already made. First the electric, which I know better.

Since electric heat is in direct contact with the pan bottom, it can boil water — and therefore cook — faster. If the pan size is matched properly to the size of the element — smaller pans on the smaller diameter ring, for instance — the upper part of the pan, especially the handles, remains relatively cooler.

It is also easier to control the heat, especially on very low settings, particularly if your range has a smooth cooking surface, which generally has built-in thermostatic heat control on each element. The smooth top also makes cleanup of spills much easier, although burn marks take a bit of elbow grease to remove.

On the minus side, there is little visual cue to the size of the fire; you have to trust the knob position. Since the pan bottom is in direct contact, there is more likelihood of scorching. This also limits the size of the pots, especially on smooth-tops. This is among my wife Kaisari’s pet peeves when she has to use large pots for a bigger family gathering.

An electric stove also offers heat retention after you cut power. For the gas, the moment it is off, there is very little heat that remains. Used to electric, we have learned when to shut the heat off and take advantage of the free glide the residual heat offers. But it takes some learning. With gas, the temperature control is more intuitive, without any need for calculations.

The visible flame size also gives a clear cue of how hot the fire is. This is probably built into our brain from eons of cooking on open wood fires. As the flame spreads on the bottom of a pan that sits higher on the grate, chance of scorching is less, and larger pots can also be more easily accommodated.

Gas is also cheaper to use and the supply is more reliable, especially in a storm-prone part of the world such as South Florida. We were without electricity for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Wilma (or was it her other sibling?) and cooked out on the gas grill for a while. My sister, Farhat, on the other hand, had gas and played host to several power-less relatives. I love to sear bell peppers and some special kinds of cheese on open flame, easily done on gas but not on electric.

Gas, too, has its own disadvantages. Among them: Lighting a gas stove is more complicated; in older stoves, a pilot light is really wasteful. Heat transfer is slower, at least initially. The flame can go off in very low temperature, without warning, especially in a drafty kitchen. Rising heat from high settings can heat up handles and the nearby space. In a gas oven, the temperature is more difficult to control, making baking somewhat chancy. Leak is a dire possibility, requiring a carbon monoxide alarm in the kitchen. Repairs are more difficult than on electric ranges and are better left to professionals.

Electric ranges, too, have their disadvantages. When we think of electric, we no longer see those old and outdated open cooktops with the coiled heat source, but, rather, the smooth-top with radiant heating elements. They are not only more expensive initially, but if an under-the-glass thermostat-controlled element goes bad, it is very expensive to replace.

That happened to our presumably reliable not-very-old Maytag, although I saved a bundle by changing the element myself. If ever you try such a thing, label all the connection points clearly and keep taking pictures as you go. Just one element can cost well over a hundred dollars, instead of under $25 for the old easy-to-plug-in coil. And God forbid, if the glass cracks, the loss is tantamount to total.

Some high-end kitchens sport dual-fuel ranges, where the cooktop is gas while the oven is electric. These appliances, however, are very expensive with limited choice of makes and models and they are more repair-prone. If you do have access to gas, a gas cooktop and a separate electric oven is a more viable option.

The ultimate in electric cooking is the induction range. But this cooking system, which utilizes magnetic principles, is still new and naturally very expensive. It transfers heat directly to the cookware bottom, which has to be made of iron or at least have an embedded iron core.

Prices on some models have come down considerably, with one General Electric model for just $700 and earning the Consumer Reports recommendation. It is, however, more feasible to have a countertop induction stove with just one or two elements.

And, don’t forget to thank God once in a while for teaching us how to use the fire for our good.


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