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Aug 02, 2023Aug 02, 2023

There’s a storm coming to kitchens everywhere.

The first hint of these dark clouds appeared recently in the American media when, in December 2022, reports surfaced of a scientific study that noted a correlation between gas stoves and childhood asthma.

Bloomberg wrote about the scientific paper and included this comment from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission: “Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”

The White House has little to do with this matter but that didn’t stop reactionary right-wing pundits from launching a new culture-war salvo, claiming the Biden administration wants to take away people’s right to cook with gas.

I would not be surprised to see freedom-loving Trumpian idiots like Congressman Jim Jordan tweet something along the lines of “God. Guns. Gas stoves.”

The controversy mars an otherwise legitimate debate about the necessity to continue cooking with natural gas.

In Hong Kong, it is a common fuel. Almost 40 per cent of families rely on gas for heating their water and cooking their meals. Not surprisingly, it’s the preferred fuel for anyone who uses a wok.

They say electric ranges cannot generate the instantaneous heat that gas can. Proponents also argue that radiant electric heat creates none of the smoky wok hei of the fiery blue flame.

This “breath of the wok” has attained mythical flavour status in Chinese cuisine, although I’m not sure how many home cooks crank the gas burner to max to achieve wok hei for a simple dinner.

The fact is, gas is still a fossil fuel. There’s only so much of it in the ground. To pipe it up and burn it is ultimately not sustainable.

Beyond this new research paper, other studies have for many years noted that gas in an enclosed, unventilated space is not good for our health – or our general environment. Gas cookers release the greenhouse gas methane and pollutants including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide.

I am not sure if many professional kitchens are ever likely to switch. I don’t know if chefs will even be convinced that other options could match cooking with gas. They would say there’s still an abundance of natural gas and their kitchen has a powerful fan.

Fancy home gourmands would also declare: “I’m never going back to those slow-to-heat electric coils from my mom’s 1970s kitchen!”

There would be no point arguing against gas for food preparation except there now is a viable alternative option: induction stoves. Admittedly, I was quite ignorant of the details of this technology until recently.

In short, induction uses electromagnetism to create heat. It’s different from electric radiant cookers in that nothing gets hot on the stove except the pan or pot. And it’s fast! Water boils on induction faster than a gas burner. Very little energy is wasted and the heat is not dispersed warming up the whole kitchen.

The only drawback is that you might need new cooking ware with magnetic properties – iron or steel, basically – to conduct the electricity. Ceramic, aluminium, copper and, curiously, some stainless steel products won’t work on induction cookers.

Could induction stoves do the same for kitchens as Tesla has done for the electric-vehicle industry? Who knows. People don’t change stoves the way they switch cars. Induction replacements are also more expensive. And it is a bummer if you need to replace all your cookware.

I suspect gas traditionalists will hold out and resist any kind of change.

Indeed, the idiom “cooking with gas” means working efficiently and effectively with speed. However, one day, I foresee it will be flipped to suggest someone stubborn, outdated and shortsighted – but at least their food will have wok hei.