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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cookin' With Gas

Have you ever wondered why there aren't more great cooks in the world? My answer can be summed up in two words: electric ranges.

Okay, I admit to writing this while recovering from a fit of pique over burning yet another innocent piece of kitchen equipment on what I thought was a cold burner. After all, the damned thing had been turned off for almost five minutes. But I do have other more valid issues with electric cooktops.

Culinary saints be praised, I was raised in a home with a gas stove and learned how to cook food properly on its natural element, the open flame. Trying to cook anything on one of those accursed heated metal coils is akin to cooking on a hot rock.

But, somewhere back in the '50s, pitchmen for the ultra-modern “all-electric home” came along and convinced millions of gullible consumers that electric stoves were the wave of the future. Throngs of rubes bought into claims of clean, safe, convenient electric cooking, and soon the old reliable gas stove was being shown the back door.

For some reason, the South seemed to fall for the electric stove fallacy more readily than other parts of the U.S. I seldom saw one of the wretched devices before moving to the South from my native Midwest. My Southern-born wife, however, had known nothing else and still doesn't completely understand my rantings about versatility, even cooking, and temperature control. To her, incinerating pots, pans, burner covers, wooden spoons, plastic bowls, and human hands on “black-hot” electric coils was just an everyday part of life.

Don't talk to me about “safe” electric cooking. When you see a blue flame rising from a gas burner, by golly, you know that burner is on and hot, right? You don't stick your hand in it or set something burnable on it, right? But “safe, reliable” electric burners, unless they are actively glowing red, give no indication of whether they are hot or not, short of trial and error. “I wonder if that burner is still too hot.” [Tap lightly with a finger.] “Ouch! Dammit! Yes!” I mean, what kind of a pazzo method is that? You've got this big plastic bowl full of mashed potatoes in your hand and you're looking for a place to set it down, but you don't want to melt the bowl, right? So you put your hand on the burner first to make sure it's okay. And if it's not, the burn ointment is right under the sink! Pazzo! But everybody with an electric cooktop does it.

You know those metal burner covers they sell with the cutesy kitchen designs on them? Banned from my kitchen after my wife cooked most of three sets of them turning on the wrong burner. (I finished off the last set myself.) With a gas stove, you know right away what burner you've turned on. With an electric stove, your first clue that you've turned on the back eye instead of the front is the smoke curling up from the burning burner cover!

But enough of that. There are more important reasons to stay far away from electric stoves.

Now, let me qualify that. I should more correctly say, “stay away from electric stove tops.” Electric ovens are a whole different topic.

Let's revisit safety for a moment. In the course of doing a little reading up for this post, I came across a dolt who advocated electric ranges in homes with small children because they are so much safer than those nasty gas ranges and their open flames. Back up the bus, Junior! A kid can see an open flame! If your child is exceptional, he has listened to what you have told him about fire. If he is an average, regular kid, he has probably already learned from a painful object lesson. Either way, most kids can make the connection between open flame and danger.

What's more difficult for the average kid – because it's equally difficult for the average adult – is the ability to perceive danger in something that doesn't look dangerous. Like the burner of an electric stove. This is especially true with the spiffy new flat-surface cooktops. They can easily be mistaken for countertops – really hot countertops – making them doubly dangerous for kids and preoccupied adults alike. Fortunately, these units frequently come equipped with warning lights that indicate the “hot” status of the surface. The lights don't go off until the surface is cool enough to touch. Too bad somebody can't engineer that into the old-fashioned coil element cooktops.

I conducted a little experiment this morning. I fired up the front burner on a regular old electric stove and boiled a teakettle of water. After the water came to a whistling boil, I turned the burner off. It continued to glow red for about thirty seconds. Obviously, nobody is going to intentionally put a hand on such a surface, right? But after thirty seconds, the right front burner looked just like the other three – black. I put a cast iron skillet on the “cold” burner and laid a strip of bacon in the skillet. The bacon started cooking after about a minute on the “cold” burner.

Which brings up the main reason why most cooks stay away from electric cooktops; temperature control. Electric coils result in uneven temperature distribution, and “hot spots” are a common problem. And then there's the matter of temperature control itself. Electric cooktops with push button controls are useless. You get the manufacturer's idea of “high,” “medium,” and “low,” and that's it. A delicate simmer is nearly impossible to attain. Dials and knobs aren't much of an improvement. You still can't set and maintain a precise temperature.

Gas burners are “instant on.” No waiting for the cooking surface to “warm up.” Turn the knob and you've got fire. Turn it more and you've got more fire. Turn it back and you've got less fire. Wow! What a concept!

Similarly, you don't have to risk ruining a dish while waiting for a gas burner to cool down. When your recipe says, “reduce heat,” you can either instantly turn down your gas flame to the desired level, or you can sit and watch your sauce overcook for the minute-and-a-half it takes for your electric coil to cool from “high” to “low.”

One of my “electric obsessed” friends likes to point out that electric stoves are easier to install than gas stoves. I gotta give him that one. Just plug that sucker in – assuming the prongs on your cord match the holes in your socket – and fire it up! Well, heat it up, anyway. While I am mechanically proficient enough to change out the cord on an electric range, even I am not stupid enough to fool around with gas fittings.

And, yes, “Mr. Electric,” pilot lights can go out and unlit gas can accumulate and explode. Happens every day, right? I mean, I like to just drive down the street from time to time and watch gas stoves blow up in every block. C'mon. I've seen more fires caused by greasy paper towels being left too close to electric eyes than I have ever encountered from exploding gas stoves. If you come back to the future for a minute, McFly, you'll notice that most modern gas cooktops don't even have pilot lights anymore. They use electronic ignition systems.

Oh, but if you spill something on an electric eye, you just have to clean out the drip pan. With a gas burner, it gets all down in there and is almost impossible to clean.” Reference the previous observation; contemporary gas ranges usually come equipped with sealed burners, making them no more difficult to clean than their electric cousins.

“Oh, but electric stoves are so much cheaper!” Yeah, well, you get what you pay for. And because gas ranges cook more efficiently, they are usually cheaper to operate.

I mean, let's face it, the reason electric burners work at all is because they are inefficient conductors of electricity. Electric “eyes” on stovetops are resistors, after all, designed to interrupt the smooth conduction of electricity. The resultant waste from this process is heat. So, basically, when you cook with electricity, you're cooking with wasted energy.

Besides, when somebody says, “Now you're cookin' with gas!” they mean to imply that you're really doing something good or right. Nobody ever says, “Now you're cookin' with electricity!”, do they?

As I said up front, the tables all turn when it comes to the oven. Electric broilers, convection ovens, etc. have it all over gas, for the most part. In my perfect kitchen, I would have two wall-mounted electric ovens, one conventional and one convection, and a nice five-burner gas cooktop built into a convenient countertop or island. Throw a microwave in there somewhere and you've conjured up a cook's paradise.

Now, I'll readily admit that I don't have enough experience – yet – with induction cooking to have an opinion. It may change the way I look at electric cooking. But as long as the electric cooktop market is dominated by resistor heating coils, I'll be cookin' with gas, thank you.

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