The heat is on

Gas versus electric cooktops

April 27, 2010

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.

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.

electric burner
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.”

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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.

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.)

gas burner
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, 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.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

There are 18 comments on this item
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1. by Patrick Barber on Apr 27, 2010 at 10:31 AM PDT

We rent, and we recently moved to a new house that has a smoothtop electric stove with halogen burners. I was skeptical, but it turns out that this rig is amazing. More power than the gas stoves I’ve used, and all of it goes into the pan. Pot handles don’t get hot, utensils don’t get hot, and (when the burners are cool) you can use the smooth flat stovetop to roll out pastry if you want to. The stove is a joy to use. I was completely taken by surprise.

There are some things I have to get used to, like moving pots off of the burners when I want them to be “off the heat”, but it’s a small price to pay for the performance and convenience that this stove offers.

Great article! Cheers!


2. by Sophia Markoulakis on Apr 27, 2010 at 12:11 PM PDT

Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about induction. I have total gas envy, but don’t have the line so I’m hoping induction will go down in price soon. Model info would be great.

3. by anonymous on Apr 27, 2010 at 1:11 PM PDT

I currently have a rental place with electric (yuck!). My last place had a cheap-o gas stove (okay). Before that, I had a modern more expensive model of gas stove (very slightly better). Before that, for many years, I had a Kalamazoo 40” gas range, vintage 1942. I MISS that stove. It cooked beautifully even hooked up to an outdorr grill-type propane bottle--and it kept doing so till it finally got irreparably rusted out. I have an O’Keefe & Merritt in storage for the next time I can have a gas stove.

4. by anonymous on Apr 27, 2010 at 10:11 PM PDT

How soon will we get to hear about your thoughts on induction - I need to make my decision for a new cooktop in less than a week?

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 28, 2010 at 7:26 AM PDT

Not soon enough, I’m afraid! I’m just getting started.

6. by anonymous on Apr 28, 2010 at 12:06 PM PDT

Oh goodie! I’m an electric range user and have to say I prefer it over gas . . . BUT . . . am estatic to see North America is finally getting induction ranges. They are still out of my price range (even Sears is selling at almost $3,000 here in Canada). But as more people become interested in this form of cooking I’m sure they’ll come down in price. An induction range is 90% energy efficient compared to an electric of ~75%. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about induction -- will you be able to take one for a “test drive?”
Will stay tuned! and hopefully watch pricing come down as they become more popular!

P.S. One thing I was told by a Sears rep was that you need to make sure you have enought amps coming into the induction range otherwise it will not generate the optimal amount of energy.

7. by healthgal on Apr 28, 2010 at 12:49 PM PDT

Fifteen years ago I moved to Florida and most of Florida is electric. I have been miserable ever since. I don’t know much about induction stoves but I’ll take a good gas range any day of the the week and twice on Sundays.

8. by anonymous on Apr 28, 2010 at 1:00 PM PDT

I’m really shocked that this is even an issue. Electric may be fine for apartments or for those not concerned with anything other than heating up water, but for those who demand immediate and precise control, my money is on gas.
I have electric now and hate it. My next home will have gas, even if I must have it retrofitted. If that is impossible, then induction would be the next route, I suppose.

9. by fermata on Apr 28, 2010 at 1:31 PM PDT

I use gas at home and recently cooked pork chops for a group at a friend’s home, where there was electric. After burning the first 3 or 4 chops (but not so much that they weren’t still edible and good), I was sorta getting the hang of it. But thank goodness for that fan over the stove! I never create smoke like that when I’m cooking on gas. I really think it’s a matter of getting used to whatever you’ve got.

10. by Patrick Barber on Apr 28, 2010 at 1:52 PM PDT

For gas-o-holics who are stuck with an electric range, you might consider buying a butane burner for when you really need or want to use a gas range. unlike propane, butane burners can be used inside (provided the room has decent ventilation). Or just get a propane camp stove and use it on the porch (what I do for messy stir fries and seared meat, no matter what kind of stove I have).

11. by debra daniels-zeller on Apr 29, 2010 at 8:19 AM PDT

I’m an electric range fan because no matter how high end gas ranges are, they all off-gas a small amount of toxins from the flames. One more reason to love electric.

12. by Carol DelSignore on Apr 29, 2010 at 1:05 PM PDT

I am a gas-o’holic stuck with an old electric coil range.Have gas lines in the house,but to run one into kitchen would be more than I could/would want to spend. I just purchased a portable induction burner and am currently test driving it myself- So far, like flat top, the almost instant heat,gas-like control of temp - will be curious to see your report.

13. by David Bryce on May 1, 2010 at 11:43 PM PDT

I grew up with slow combustion stove but went electric when I got married. Years in PNG we used gas and loved it. Just put a new kitchen in our current house (hopefully no more moves) and have gas oven and cooktop. Lovely. So much more control and faster response than the old electric cooktop we ripped. I still use my beloved Weber Q gas BBQ - the only oven we’ve had for 6 months - and a portable gas cooker outside for the wok - no spatters in the kitchen.

Yep - I love gas

14. by zegg on May 3, 2010 at 8:03 AM PDT

I’m a gas fan, because I like being able to turn the heat down as soon as I want. My stove top has two high power burners, and two lower ones, so no problems getting enough heat. My problems are more than I burn things, but I think I did back when I had electric too. Electric ceramic top is definitely easier to clean! If someone could invent a burner that switches off the instant the water in the pan has boiled away I’d be happy!

15. by anonymous on Mar 30, 2011 at 4:39 PM PDT

I was wondering if you have done the comparison on induction keen to see the results...they are very tempting and the price is going down

16. by anonymous on Jun 28, 2012 at 6:18 AM PDT

Electric and gas stoves are made for two different types of people. Like you said, directly comparing them is difficult, especially since they are even rated in different power levels. Depending on your cooking needs, one of them is going to have one disadvantage too many that makes you decide on the other. But for either one there are a bunch of options. Milcarsky Appliance

17. by Dessy Anaiwan on Dec 29, 2013 at 11:39 PM PST

Some days ago I replaced my gas cook top and take electrical cook top because with gas cook top I face out many problems. That is increased potential for gas leaks, the leading cause of residential fires and it’s difficult to stabilize pots while cooking. Electric cook top have not this type of issue. Electric cook top having smooth-top electric ranges are more stable for pots and offer additional counter or storage space when not in use.

18. by anonymous on Dec 30, 2013 at 10:02 PM PST

You make good points on a smooth top electric range being more stable for pots. However, I am in the market for an electric range (being forced; no gas option) and the Sears rep gave me some interesting information I feel should be shared here.

He asked if I did any canning. I said yes he mentioned that a ceramic glass cooktop may not be for me for two reasons. First is that the pot/pan surface must be completely flat for the cooktop to be efficient and anything with a ridge to it would not receive the heat properly. Since canning containers usually have waves/ripples under them (and many pots and pans currently produced), it would be difficult to bring the vessel up to boil. The other nugget he passed along was a bit more alarming. I was told that although the glass top had a ceramic element to it, it was still glass and when it was put under the tremendous weight with gallons of water used for canning, there was a chance it could crack the cooktop.

This has changed everything for me and I am now looking for a new, coil-top range. Fortunately, they still make them and although not as slick, I know my canning endeavors won’t suffer.

However, if anyone out there has other information on the two canning points I heard above, I would love to get your thoughts.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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