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The future of cooking is flameless

Gas is on the outs as a ‘weirdly magical’ technology takes hold — even for foodies.

The stoves in the kitchen at Dirt Candy in Manhattan have "always been all induction,” says chef Amanda Cohen.LANNA APISUKH/NYT

At first, it’s hard to say what you’re looking at. It’s a coal-black rectangle set into the kitchen counter. Is it a new fad in countertops? The latest swanky cutting board?

Chef Christopher Galarza knows the feeling that many people have upon encountering an induction cooktop. When he became an executive chef at Chatham University in Pennsylvania some years ago, he felt similarly dubious about starting up the kitchen at the university’s self-sufficient campus using what is, essentially, an electric range. “When I first got brought on, I thought, are you sure?” he says.

For around a century, the blue-orange flame of the natural gas stovetop has licked the pots of gourmets across the country. When you think of electric stovetops — well, it’s hard not to picture your grandma’s rinky-dink coils, bent out of shape and cherry-red with heat that scorches rather than simmers. To chefs like Chris Galarza and home cooks alike, it may have seemed improbable that anyone would want to give up the comforts of a gas stove for something powered by electricity.

And yet that’s just what a growing number of people are doing. Those shiny black rectangles popping up in houses these days are electrical induction stovetops, a far cry from Granny’s old clunker. Although only 5 percent of US homes currently have induction stoves, this year some Massachusetts utilities began offering rebates of $500 to ratepayers who replaced their gas stoves with induction. Ten cities and towns in the state are being allowed to ban gas stoves in new buildings, following recent bans in Berkeley, Calif., and New York City, leaving electric-powered cooking as the best replacement.

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Gas is on the outs. Can foodies get on board?

Water boiling on a Wolf Induction cooktop in the Clarke showroom in Boston.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Magnetic appeal

Part of the reason this is happening is that natural gas has a dark side the industry has obscured for decades. Gas stoves have a tendency to leak the potent greenhouse gas methane even when they are not being used, releasing about 2.6 million tons annually in the United States alone. This has a climate impact comparable to the carbon dioxide released by half a million cars. When they are being used, gas stoves release nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide at levels that would be illegal in outdoor air (there are no laws regulating indoor air). For an asthmatic child, growing up in a house with a gas stove is about as bad as growing up in a house with a smoker, a 2020 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute estimated.

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Induction uses copper coils that heat up pots magnetically, rather than heating directly like traditional electric ranges. With this method, the coils can get a pan hot enough to saute while barely heating the kitchen. If the electricity used to power the stove comes from renewable sources, it could shrink the carbon footprint of kitchens and remove a source of indoor pollution at the same time.

So when, in 2021, gas and electric utilities in Massachusetts got word from the state that they had new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years, they “got a lot more serious about the concept of electrification,” says Amy Boyd, a vice president at clean energy nonprofit Acadia Center. Mass Save, a program that uses money from people’s utility bills to fund energy efficiency measures, set its sights on encouraging people to move away from gas stoves, starting to offer those $500 rebates on induction cooktops. “We’re seeing more interest,” says Bill Graham, the head of marketing at HomeWorks Energy, which performs efficiency assessments that people need in order to qualify for the rebates.

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But what about the flame? Isn’t it difficult to cook good food without that iconic lapping of a flame that can be quickly raised or lowered?

“The gas industry has done quite a lot of marketing to make people think that,” Boyd says. Mother Jones found in 2020 that marketers working for the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association were using influencers on Instagram to spread the idea that food cooked on gas stoves is better.

Early media coverage of bans on gas in new construction had chefs chiming in about their reluctance to switch. One voice of official dissent about Berkeley’s ban came from a group representing the restaurant industry. A column in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Asian restaurants, particularly those like Korean barbecue that use open flames, would suffer. (Korean barbecue usually uses propane, which is not being banned.)

And it’s not a cakewalk to virtuous cooking. America’s Test Kitchen, in a review of the pros and cons of induction cooking, notes that induction stovetops may need more frequent servicing than gas. Making sure your home’s electrical system can handle the stove is key, and not all cookware works — you might find yourself having to buy new pots and pans. People with pacemakers can’t use induction stoves, because they’re magnetic; instead, they would have to switch to a more basic electric stove. Also, until more electricity comes from renewables, cooking with induction won’t be living up to its full environmental promise.

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Bans often have exemptions for restaurants, for better or for worse, says chef Galarza, who has started a small consultancy helping restaurants to navigate the laws and transition to electricity from gas. But as time has drawn on, voices from the food world arguing against induction have grown harder to find.

Dirt Candy, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, “has always been all induction,” says Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner. The vegetarian landmark has its kitchen open to the dining room, and induction stoves, which produce no heat except for within the pots themselves, have saved the restaurant quite a lot on air conditioning bills. “On top of all that, I love cooking on induction. It’s fast, controlling the temperature is easy, cooks rarely burn themselves, and the surface is a breeze to clean. Sure, not having fire can be a bummer sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade my induction stoves for a few flames.”

Cynthia Graber, the host of the popular food podcast Gastropod, is installing an induction stove in her new home. “Many years ago I was a little dubious,” she says, “but I’ve tried them and love them.” In addition to the environmental benefits, she likes that the stoves can’t be left on accidentally, since taking the pot off stops the heat. “As my mom gets older, I told her I’d love for her to think of getting one in the future if she is able to age safely in her house — just for the safety implications.”

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Long ago, gas was the new fuel on the block, replacing coal in American kitchens. That change made sense: Coal burns much dirtier, and natural gas was an improvement. Even so, some people resisted the end of the coal tradition, Galarza says, and he sometimes meets chefs who are similarly reluctant to give up gas. But he has found that most people, given the chance to mess around with an induction stove themselves, warm to it quickly. Literally: America’s Test Kitchen found that water that boiled in 12 minutes on a gas range boiled in only seven on induction.

There is also something a little weirdly magical about the technology. Galarza recalls giving a demonstration to a chapter of the American Culinary Federation and, noticing that his pan was spattering onto the gleaming black surface, laying down a towel between the pan and the burner to catch the spray. The food kept cooking, the towel didn’t catch fire, and no one in the audience could believe their eyes. “This towel isn’t magnetic!” Galarza pointed out, slightly taken aback at their reaction. But people wanted to come up and lay paper on the burner. Someone even laid down a $20 bill. “This is insane,” he remembers thinking. “But this is what captures your imagination.”

Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas. Follow her on Twitter @vero_greenwood.