There’s a deep divide in the effort to reduce climate change – and it’s in the kitchen.
Beloved for its spark and sizzle, the gas stove is increasingly restricted in new residential and commercial building construction in more than 50 California cities and counties, according to the nonprofit SPUR, a consumer protection organization based in San Francisco. With escalating awareness of the environmental harm, some cities, like San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland, are banning new gas hookups altogether. Other cities, like Santa Cruz, only allow them in restaurants.
It’s a fraught issue for eco-conscious foodies.
“From a purely love-of-cooking standpoint, I would choose a gas stove,” said restaurateur Anne Le Ziblatt, who in 2002 opened the popular Vietnamese dining spots Tamarine in Palo Alto, followed by San Francisco’s Bong Su in 2006.
“But from an environmental perspective, I have accepted that it is being phased out,” she said. “We are getting so dangerously close to irreversible damage to the planet that we need to take more proactive measures.”
Earlier this year, the California Air Resources Board released a draft planning document that considers various policy measures to create the nation’s first zero-emissions standards for appliances, similar to the state’s zero-emissions standards for new cars.
For now, the agency is focusing only on gas furnaces and hot water heaters. But expansion to natural gas-guzzling stoves and clothes dryers would eliminate 30 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions every single day, it notes.
Existing homes could still use their gas appliances, but all new appliances sold in California would be zero-emission by 2035 for installation in homes and by 2045 for installation in commercial buildings, according to the draft. So if a gas appliance breaks, it would be replaced by an electric alternative.
That portends an ugly breakup of our love affair with gas cooking.
Public opinion supports all-electric appliances, “as it sounds good. … But wait until the reality sets in – and what it means to them personally,” said Jeffrey Stout, chef and owner of Be.Steak.A and Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell. Both of his kitchens use gas, except for a small induction oven for pastries.
“Can the public accept paying higher prices due to high energy bills?” he asked. “Will they accept that steak cooked on induction and no wood flavor?”
The gas stove was first introduced in the early 19th century, transforming the world of cooking. It uses an open flame, making it easy to see exactly when to increase or decrease heat.
But it pollutes. A new Stanford study found that stoves emit high levels of methane — even when turned off. When turned on, they can emit toxic levels of nitrogen oxides during combustion. Methane emissions from gas stoves across the United States are roughly equivalent to the carbon dioxide released by half a million gas-powered cars in a year, it reports.
The alternative is an all-electric induction stove. The technology, which uses electromagnets on a flat ceramic glass surface, performs far better than old-fashioned electric coils.
It’s pricey, lacks the drama of fire, and doesn’t work with copper or aluminum pans. So consumers have largely snubbed its use. But as California seeks to reduce emissions, purchases of induction stoves will likely surge.
Some home cooks, such as Palo Alto’s Hiromi Kelty, say she’s learned to love induction cooking for its healthy air and minimalist aesthetic.
“As humans, we’re drawn to cooking over fire,” she said. “But every time you turn on a gas stove, the air quality goes way down. You’re burning methane in the middle of your home.”
During a home remodel, when her family capped their gas line and went all-electric, she mourned the loss of a six-burner Viking range. Now, with a new Wolf induction stove, she’s learned how to skillfully use cast iron pans to boil pasta, toast tofu, even sear salmon.
“It comes out perfectly, every time,” she said. “The stove looks great, and is so easy to clean. I just use a damp towel and wipe it down.”
Some restaurants, such Napa’s French Laundry, use both gas and induction.
But the tool must be tailored to the recipe, said chefs.
An induction oven performs well when cooking a satiny crème brûlée or other custards, because it provides the consistent temperature that prevents scorching, said Rodney Baca, who runs the Shop by Chef Baca eatery at San Jose State University and also has food stands at SAP Center.
“It’s awesome, in certain areas,” he said.
But if your goal is a perfectly seared filet mignon, coated with coarsely cracked peppercorns? Or chicken fried steak, with crispy breadcrumbs? Only gas will do, he said.
The subtle smoky flavors and aromas of Wok Hei – “wok energy” in Cantonese — are only achieved when the food’s vaporized oil touches the flames from the wok burner, said Le Ziblatt.
Electricity can’t create the sustained high temperatures needed by fryers, added Stout. He also worries about dishwashing, if electricity can’t quickly heat the 200-gallon flows high enough to meet health department standards.
“When the state has rolling blackouts and cannot seem to supply the demand now, it seems unrealistic that they could meet the extra pull of power needed for restaurants,” said Stout.
Higher electricity bills are hard for small business owners, said Baca, whose induction stoves pushed up his PG&E bills from $800 to $2,800 a month.
But if the technology improves, efficiency increases and costs fall, both home and professional chefs will learn to embrace electricity, predicted Baca.
“Everybody wants to see a healthy Earth and preserve our fossil fuels,” he said. “We want our kids to have a future.”
Cooking with gas? Climate change may force a break up with your beloved range