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The heat is on

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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When the food-obsessed meet each other, it never takes long to get to the key question: What kind of stove do you have?

There's a pecking order for cooktop envy. It goes like this:

 The electric people envy the gas people, because gas stoves react more quickly when you change the temperature, and because the gas people have actual blue flames coming out of their stoves.

 The gas people envy the induction people because induction stoves can boil water in less than a minute. The kitchens at Hogwarts use induction stoves.

 The induction people envy people with quantum stoves; these stoves cook food instantly, but you may or may not find yourself in the universe where the food is cooked.

I'll be talking about my induction experience in a future column, and quantum stoves I just made up, so this isn't going to be a guide to choosing a new stove. It's more a pep talk for myself and the rest of us here in Electric City.

h3. The electric way

James Beard famously preferred his electric stove, saying he hated the smell of gas. Beard was also famously iconoclastic and probably would have switched to gas if anyone had actually taken his advice about electric stoves.

[%image electric float=right width=400 caption="Electric burners have red rings of heat."]

I also have an iconoclastic bent, but I really like my electric stove, even though it's pretty much the most bargain-basement model you can possibly buy. It's a matter of heat. Those coil elements (which are generally Calrod brand, made by GE) get really, really hot.

How hot? I tried to figure it out. Come get lost with me.

Let's talk for a moment about BTUs. Range manufacturers love to talk about them, possibly because "BTU" is a very macho-sounding sort of unit. It's also a misnomer. A BTU is a measure of heat, like a calorie (in fact, a BTU is one-quarter of a calorie). For a stove, you want a measure of power, or BTUs per hour.

The next problem is that electric stoves are rated in watts and gas stoves in BTU per hour. There's no good reason for this, since both are measures of power; one watt equals 3.4 BTU per hour.

The next next problem is that you can't directly compare power ratings between gas and electric burners, because electric burners are, in my experience, more efficient. I don't know why this is; perhaps more heat escapes around the edge of gas burners.

I put this hypothesis to Dan, a sales rep at Seattle's venerable shop Albert Lee Appliance. "Generally gas is going to give you a whole lot of control," said Dan. "Not necessarily the high output, but the control." (In the Hot or Not world of cooktops, "control" is the equivalent of "good personality.") Then Dan backpedaled. "It depends on the burner. Gas burners vary so much in flame pattern; there's a lot of different factors there."

Next, to be scientifically rigorous, I turned to my friends on Twitter. Kairu Yao (@kairuy), of the blog Conclusive Evidence, agreed with me that cheap electric is as muscular as fancy gas. "On electric coil, it is just as easy to burn things, but much harder to set things on fire," said Yao, who has cooked on her own GE electric and on Wolf and Gaggenau gas cooktops.

Anita Crotty (@MarriedWDinner), of Married With Dinner, thought I was nuts. "Maybe you have a mutant coil, but in my experience it's not even the same sport," she said. Yes! I have a mutant coil. That would explain a lot about my life.

I also spoke to Suzanne Butler, a caterer and assistant to Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr. She recently redid her kitchen and went electric after feuding with an underpowered gas stove. "It took 18 minutes to boil a pot of water for pasta, and I had to cover the pasta pot to keep it at a boil, and of course it always boiled over," said Butler by email. "I couldn't really brown meat the way I wanted to on the gas stove, either. I needed more BTUs. My house, kitchen, and budget are tiny, so what's a girl to do? Electric stove, of course."

Hmmm. Let's try some numbers. The large coils on my electric stove are rated at 8530 BTU per hour. I once spent a week cooking on a Viking range whose burners were rated at 15,000 BTU per hour. It felt about equivalent to my burner at home. A Viking range costs $4,000, minimum. My stove cost about $400.

True, many inexpensive gas ranges (under $1,000) now offer a single high-output burner alongside their regular wimpy burners. But that's only one burner. I have two high-performance burners. You step to me, you're gonna get seared.

h3. Now you're cooking with, well, you know

Here's what I love about gas stoves: flat grates. Electric coils tend to tilt to one side, which makes oil pool sadly at the edge of the pan. (Those smoothtop electric ranges solve this problem, but have other problems, namely that they don't get hot enough and the burners cycle on and off. It's like trying to cook over a bad cell-phone connection.)

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Gas burners emit blue tongues of flame."]

As for quick temperature control, that's nice, but I don't mind moving the pan to a different burner. In a professional kitchen, this would be a pain; at home, it's fine.

If it sounds like I'm saying that the entry-level gas stove is incompatible with serious cooking, however, I apologize.

I recently spent a week in Japan. Every day at my hotel, I had the most elaborate and satisfying breakfast. One day — and this was typical — it consisted of two kinds of pickled vegetables, a vegetable stew, a bowl of rice, nori to sprinkle on the rice, a fried egg, seared salmon, and miso soup. The next day I was seated near the kitchen and got to peek in. Naturally, my breakfast — and that of a dozen other guests — came off a tiny two-burner hot plate.

This reminded me of the title of a new book, [%amazonProductLink asin=0757313655 "Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens"], which I haven't read yet, but I have lived it. It also reminded me of Mark Bittman's bad kitchen, famously profiled in the New York Times._

When I got back from Japan, I told my wife, "Don't ever let me complain about my kitchen again, OK?"

Unsurprisingly, she agreed. So my electric and I are still happy together. At least until I start flirting with that induction burner. Stay tuned.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"]* writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

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