Our love of preparing food over fire burns bright. But are modern and less romantic induction stoves better for our health, our planet, and even our cooking?
Hot, hefty and ablaze – there’s a specific kind of culinary grandeur associated with the gas stove. They’re as much an emblem of the raging intensity of the restaurant kitchen as they are the analogue warmth of home cooking.
Watch any of the best film representations of a restaurant kitchen – Boiling Point, The Bear, Big Night – and clattering skillets are engulfed in fire, vegetables are scorched by flames and hunks of meat are seared atop a hefty gas stove. Heck, even Remy the rodent chef of Ratatouille fame cooked with it. When it comes to our kai, we’re simply besotted with gas.
With that devotion comes conflict. It seems like every few months a new debate around gas stoves is stoked. One side argues for a shift away from gas, pointing to the climate change consequences of gas extraction along with the growing body of research showing that the indoor air pollution from gas stoves is linked to respiratory and other health problems. The other side revolves around an emotional attachment to gas, and a distaste for the alternatives: electric (too inconsistent) and induction (too futuristic).
The fiery debate on gas stoves which kicked off in the US last week feels particularly reflective of our tumultuous political times. Last week, a member of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency charged with protecting the public from dangerous household products, told media that gas stoves could potentially be banned due to their health and environmental risks.
Gas stoves are used in around one third of US households – far more than in New Zealand – and the suggested ban triggered swift opposition from the oil and gas industry, as well as many Republican politicians and supporters.
The commission quickly clarified that they had no plans to ban gas stoves in the near future but confirmed that ongoing research into the stoves could eventually prompt higher safety standards. It added that any regulations would only affect new appliances and not existing ones. This did little to dampen concern that federal agents might begin unceremoniously ripping out household gas ranges. From the outside, it certainly seems that the gas stove issue is becoming a rallying point for Republican push-back against environmental regulation and “nanny state” public health measures. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!” tweeted Republican house representative Ronny Jackson.
My flat is one of an estimated 300,000 households in Aotearoa that use gas for heating and cooking. When we viewed the flat for the first time the sight of the five hob gas stove top, complete with orange-tiled splashback, left us all smitten. Since moving in, the mammoth cooktop has become a constant object of envy among guests. As a perpetual renter, I’ll essentially cook on whatever my landlord has decided to install – but I’ll admit, after a succession of unreliable electric stoves and my (likely incorrect) perception of induction being complicated, I find comfort in the gas-hob glow.
But the current debate and ever-expanding evidence has forced me to interrogate my obsession with gas – and whether I’m OK with being slowly poisoned by air pollution in my own home.
Chef Alex Davies uses induction stoves at home and at his Christchurch kaimoana and vegetable-focused restaurant Gatherings. “It’s a greener energy form,” he says. “But there’s also the logistics of gas, where it was cheaper to operate as a restaurant that only uses induction than it was to use gas.” Their induction stoves are bought secondhand and he believes his last one cost around $400. Surprisingly cheap.
Davies describes the obsession with gas cooking as “purely romance” and says an induction stove actually gives you more temperature control.
The way induction works means there’s literally less heat in the kitchen because it’s contained only to the pots and pans. Instead of generating thermal heat, induction stoves create heat electromagnetically. Induction takes another kind of heat out of the kitchen too; Davies sees the comparatively fragile glass covered induction stovetops as a calming presence in the kitchen – a counter to the chaotic perception of restaurant kitchens. “With gas you can slam it down and there’s heat and there’s flames and it’s fast. But when you use an induction, it comes up to the heat just as quickly but it’s just a lot more controlled and balanced.”
Auckland-based chef Georgia van Prehn didn’t have much choice when she moved into the restaurant space of her Karangahape Road restaurant Alta – there were no gas lines into the building. Their small-scale kitchen uses induction too, and van Prehn says it suits her style of cooking, creates less heat in the space and it’s “a shitload easier to clean”. While she’s largely ambivalent about the debate, she sees a limitation in induction cooking when it comes to certain types of cuisines that need gas, like those using woks. “You’re never going to get the same result on induction,” she says.
Just as we all seem to be emotionally attached to our stove, we’re also attached to our cookware. There’s a belief that induction requires an entirely new set of strictly induction-suited cooking apparatus – a perception Davies thinks needs to change. While induction doesn’t work with some kinds of cookware, “there’s a lot more options than you’d think,” he says. Cast iron, enamel cast iron and stainless steel all work well on induction. An alternative is to buy special induction panels that will transfer the ring’s heat into your existing pans, he adds.
What makes it particularly difficult to part with gas is that for the past century, the fossil fuel industry has tirelessly lobbied and promoted cooking with gas. Our seemingly innate preference for cooking with flames, despite its damaging effects, is to some degree simply the result of effective marketing.
This latest affray is “just the fossil fuel industry clinging on and fuelling public opinion to keep itself alive when really, it needs to die,” says Davies.
So what about a gas ban here? Last year, the government announced New Zealand’s first Emission Reductions Plan with more than 300 actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across a range of areas. While the Climate Commission had recommended a ban on new gas connections to homes from 2025, the plan didn’t address this.
“The joy of gas is seeing the fire and feeling connected to the fire,” Davies says. But there’s always ways other than the gas hob of satisfying that primal yearning. “If you want that romantic notion you could get a barbecue or a little woodfired oven or even a yakitori grill,” he says. “Get out in your garden, do a bit of fire cookery and fulfil that burning desire that I guess we all have in us.”