Apartment after apartment that I saw when moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico, had what is widely considered most home cooks’ worst nightmare: electric stoves. I was lucky to find a place that even had an oven — a tropical fact I hadn’t considered — and so what I would have once thought a dealbreaker became my new normal.
The flat range offers two settings, raging hot or off, and scorches the bottom of my beloved cast-iron and stainless-steel pans. When making a simple syrup to candy citrus slices, I have to remember to immediately remove the sugar from the heat, even after turning off the burner, or it instantly turns to blackened sugar ash that I’ll have to spend ages scrubbing off. Often, I forget to turn the burners off at all because there is no flame to remind me that they’re on.
It has required, basically, a whole new approach to cooking. And when the power goes out on the island owing to earthquakes, heavy rains, or other failures of an outdated system, all hope of a home-made meal goes into the garbage. As the lights cut out and the room goes black, water stops boiling, sauce stops cooking, and prep time spent is lost — along with the rest of the food rotting in a rapidly warming fridge.
When weighing the unreliability and cost of electric versus the climate change nightmare that is our overreliance on natural gas, cooking at all loses its charm.
It’s also not cost-effective here, where electricity prices are nearly double what they are in the mainland United States (it’s more expensive than in any state other than Hawaii). The island’s top energy official, José Ortiz, warns that next summer might see many planned blackouts in order to meet energy demands, making an already tenuous, expensive system more inconsistent. In Cuba, as well, electricity is too expensive to use for cooking, yet cooking gas can be weaponized by sanctions. When weighing the unreliability and cost of electric versus the climate change nightmare that is our overreliance on natural gas, cooking at all loses its charm.
Not eating, though, isn’t an option, and so electricity seems to be the way forward. This has sparked predictably fierce debate, though not out of concern for how access to electricity and gas is distributed unequally throughout the world.
Berkeley, California, was the first municipality in the state to ban gas cooking in new buildings, both residential and commercial, and the California Restaurant Association retaliated with a lawsuit to overturn this ban, arguing it would require cooks to re-learn how to cook and take away certain techniques. This ban is part of a broad “electrify everything” movement that has gained steam across the country to push for less dependence on natural gas, despite the fact that these stoves in homes use very little fuel.
As a renter with little say in the matter, electric and gas tend to be the only options — and one is clearly superior in terms of control. Induction stoves that run on electricity are being touted as the savior — though aluminum, glass, and copper cookware won’t work on them unless outfitted with a magnetic bottom — and for many U.S. chefs in restaurants, cooking schools, and test kitchens, induction is making cooking less energy-draining, less stressful, and more adaptable.
“I feel like gas is an inefficient way to cook and there is a lot of loss with pilot lights needing to stay on when not in use,” said Eric Rivera, chef and owner of Addo in Seattle, Washington, where electricity costs tend to be lower than across the rest of the country. “It’s not something that I would like to keep paying for and considering sustainability and our environment, it’s a transition we need to make a lot faster. In my home, I only have an induction stove and I love it.”
Rivera is surprised the bans haven’t happened sooner because of safety and environmental concerns, but induction cooktops — which operate by creating heat in the pan itself, through a ceramic plate heated by an electromagnetic coil — can be expensive. In professional kitchens, though, induction means the ability to modify limited space.
“It is easier to run a cable than running a gas pipe,” said Francisco Anton of La Ñapa in Brooklyn, where the plancha, deep fryer, and stoves all run on electricity in a kitchen built from scratch in what was once a corner bodega. For Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger in Manhattan, they use what he calls “crummy, cheap electric inductions” not by choice, but because of the small kitchen in which they cook.
Anton noted that the startup costs and electric bills are very high and that the technology breaks down a lot quicker. “A gas stove can stay working fine with the proper treatment for 10-plus years,” he says. “Electrical equipment? Every day after the first year is a gift.” This isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, though Tom Philpott noted in Mother Jones that prices could fall if demand rises due to more municipalities banning the use of natural gas.
Still, folks like Deanna Fox, who runs Albany Cooking School, like induction because it puts new cooks at ease by eliminating the risk their aprons will catch on fire, and Washington, D.C.-based food writer Kari Sonde said it decreases her anxiety while working on recipes at the office kitchen. “It doesn’t conduct heat if there’s nothing on the surface,” she noted. “It turns off if it can’t sense anything. I sometimes have to turn back to check that my gas stove is off.”
Induction might be the solution for many, but the conversation around the necessary move away from natural gas must go beyond “electrify everything” to consider the sociopolitical and economic context. No coverage I’ve read of this push has noted the marked differences in electricity costs across the U.S. and its colonies, not to mention the global disparities.
As for my personal cooking woes, I’ve found a new apartment in San Juan, and thankfully it has an oven, but it still has the dreaded electric range. I plan, though, to buy a cheap induction burner to use on my limited counter space. This new place, at least, has a sizable patio. Maybe it’s time to really go back to basics: cooking with wood.