What we’re really fighting about when we fight about gas stoves

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A gas flame burns on a newly installed stove in a kitchen in Xiaozhangwan village at the outskirts of Beijing, China, November 15, 2017.

The heated debate over gas vs. electric stoves reached the boiling point last week. On Jan. 9, a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission said that he had not ruled out banning gas stoves due to their health and environmental risks. Two days later, the agency chair clarified that it was not planning a ban but confirmed that ongoing research might eventually prompt higher safety standards. This did little to dampen concern.

People were inflamed. Twitter, per usual, proved incendiary. Ranges became the third burner of domestic politics.

In interviews, emails and social media posts about gas vs. electric, home cooks expressed passion, invective and rarely indifference.

“Man cooked on fire first. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“When we moved to city apartment I realized no gas stoves. I was so bummed. Had always cooked with gas. Now I’m a true believer in induction stovetop.”

“This is like the people who want to ban fireplaces and wood stoves. I find it ridiculous.”

“I love my induction stovetop. Way more efficient than gas.”

The kitchen fight is about the environment, health, safety, culture, money, geography, design, identity, the past and the future, heritage and change, knowledge and the unknown. Also, cooking.

Gas vs. electric is no tempest on a cooktop. It is a debate about almost everything.

“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 Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.), equating ranges to firearms.

“I hate an electric. I hate it so much,” says Mitch Owens, American editor of the World of Interiors, speaking for many gas-stove owners. He equates cooking with gas vs. electric “to driving standard versus automatic.” In other words, only true cooks use gas. Electric is amateur hour. Owens is the proud owner of a 1950s white chrome Chambers stove purchased on eBay. He loves everything about it, even the way it sounds when you close the oven door: “It is heaven: sensual, provocative. It’s like living with a creature in your home.”

The passion for gas did not happen by accident. For a century, the fossil fuel industry tirelessly lobbied and promoted the wonders of “cooking with gas.” It became the thing to do.

About 35 percent of Americans, or 40 million households, prepare meals with gas stoves. How you cook often depends on where you live, your utility access, state and local regulations, and whether you rent or own. In California, Illinois and New York, most residents cook with gas; in Texas and much of the South, it’s electric. So, the makings of a roiling culinary culture war.

Gas ovens emit nitrogen dioxide, which can exacerbate childhood asthma, according to a study published in December. They release methane gas, which contributes to global warming, according to a 2022 Stanford University report. Scientists and climate activists are advocating against them.

“I’ve never had the privilege of cooking on a good electric stove,” says food writer Alicia Kennedy, who in 2020 penned a rant entitled “Electric Stoves Are a Home Cook’s Nightmare.” She lives in Puerto Rico, where electricity is costly and blackouts frequent. “It’s a question of equity. A lot of places don’t have a commitment to renewable energy,” Kennedy says.

Induction-stove cooks are in the vanguard, as they are wont to tell you, the Tesla owners of the kitchen. They are free from the guilt and worry that gas stoves now emit.

“It’s spectacular,” says kitchen designer Joanne Hudson, who installed two Gaggenaus in her Radnor, Pa., home. “It’s faster than gas. It’s easier to clean up.” These are not your old-fashioned coil burners, the ones on which many of us burned a hand or two. Repeatedly. Tops tend to be shiny, black, sleek, sexy. Induction stoves use magnetic fields, which heat quickly and cool down fast.

Hudson’s clients who like contemporary design favor induction; those who prefer traditional design, often dwelling in older homes, want gas ranges, such as the models from La Cornue, which can clock in at nearly $80,000. Hudson says the love for big, metallic fortresses of fire “is male-driven. They look like locomotives.” Consider the names: Viking, Wolf.

A cook’s relationship with a gas stove is primal. “There is something very emotional about seeing the flame. Nothing ever tastes as good as this,” says legendary French chef Jacques Pépin. “I have a connection with it. I can see the flame when I lower it. I don’t have as much control with an electric stove.” When he co-hosted a PBS cooking show with the late Julia Child, she insisted on installing a second stove, an electric, a nod toward modernity. Says Pépin: “We never used it.”

The kitchen is the heart of many homes, the true living room, and the stove its hearth. The room is a repository of memory. It is a venue for reinvention, often the first room to be remodeled, a way to express identity and ownership, wealth and taste. The kitchen is also the first room to become dated, as anyone who grew up with an avocado-colored stove can attest. (Oh, wait! They’re back!)

The fridge provides storage. The dishwasher does the stuff we don’t want to do. But the range is about skill and desire. During this millennium, in shelter magazines, designer showrooms and cooking shows, a six-burner gas behemoth became the signifier of culinary gravitas – even, if in some homes, it is rarely ignited.

For cooks, a range is something to be understood and mastered. It’s a relationship. And much of the current anxiety, anguish and virtue-signaling playing out on Twitter, TikTok and elsewhere is rooted in those twin confidence-busting bugaboos: fear of the unknown and loss of control. (Despite my experience, am I going to have to relearn how to cook on an entirely new machine?)

“My clients are not happy about the possibility,” says kitchen designer Jennifer Gilmer, with showrooms in Maryland and Virginia. “The consensus is that people have been cooking with gas for hundreds of years without any consequences, so why the sudden concern?”

Only about 3 percent of Americans have an induction stove or cooktop, according to a June Consumer Reports survey; nearly a third of the respondents had never heard of them. “I anticipate that’s going to change tremendously in the next couple of years,” says Jessica Petrino, editorial director at AJ Madison, a national appliance retailer. “As a new mom, I’m pretty creeped out by gas.”

Prices for induction ranges remain high, averaging about $3,000 at AJ Madison. Petrino is confident that prices will fall, as they tend to do, when demand, supply and choice surge. If a home cook wishes to spend much, much more, there’s a roughly $33,000 Aga induction model or a nearly $16,000 La Cornue range in a bouquet of colors, including Roquefort (otherwise known as mint) and Liberte (a.k.a. rose), a portent that induction models will become status symbols and culinary lust objects.

An induction cooktop is picky. Some people are ruffled at the need to purchase new cookware. Induction works with cast iron, enamel cast iron (such as Le Creuset) and many types of stainless steel; not with copper, aluminum and glass unless the bottom has a magnetic layer. “People are emotionally attached to their cookware,” Petrino says. “In those cases where you’re spending a quarter-million, why do people insist on putting old pots and pans in a new kitchen?”

Gas belongs to the past, induction cooks preach. Stick a fork in it. To cook with an induction range is to be intentional, creating a safer home and a cleaner planet. If it’s nostalgia for fire, Samsung’s induction cooktop simulates fake LED flames. It’s a yule log for your soup.

Electric cooks warn that gas stoves are disaster movies waiting to happen. “It could blow up your house. Look at the liability,” says Suzanne McDonnell, who lives in Alexandria and has never cooked with gas. “All the clothes are polyester these days. Your sleeve could go up in flames.” (Then again, induction stoves produce electromagnetic fields that can interfere with pacemakers.)

Pépin owns two stoves, a Viking and a KitchenAid, both gas. “If I have to cook on electric, I will lose something visually and emotionally,” he says. “You get used to what you’ve been doing, and I’ve been doing this for 80 years.”