4 Lessons I Learned From My Electric Stove

4 Lessons I Learned From My Electric Stove

7623e24f449c20c00e8943f6d2d220739fd2325a?w=240&h=240&fit=crop
Emma Christensen
Feb 24, 2015
(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

If you are a renter, you have little control over your stove situation. In my case, the apartment that fit our rent, location, and availability needs when we moved to the Bay Area four years ago came with a gray-and-white speckled, smooth-topped electric stove. It was the stove of my non-dreams. But what’s a renter to do? I grinned (with an inward grimace) and bore it.

But I’ll also say this: I’m a better cook because of this time with an electric stove. While I won’t be at all sad to say goodbye when I move next month, I feel surprisingly grateful for the lessons it has taught me.

Electric stoves don’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. They provide less precise temperature control, less even heating (especially the kind with the coils), and less overall power than gas stoves. Plus, they are just about the polar opposite of sexy. We home cooks dream of Wolf ranges with built-in wok burners and fawn over fancy induction cooktops — wobbly electric coils and 50s-era glass-top surfaces rarely factor into our Pinterest-fueled fantasies.

But these less than awesome qualities can also provide some unexpected cooking lessons. Here’s what mine has taught me:

1. I learned to pay attention and trust my instincts.

It’s frustrating to cook on a stove where the heat constantly needs to be adjusted up and down just to keep the onions caramelizing or the sauce at a steady simmer. I often start off cooking on “high” heat just to get things cooking in a timely manner, then end up gradually nudge it down to “medium” to keep food from burning. It’s annoying.

But at the same time, I find that this forces me to pay much closer attention to the food as it cooks. I don’t rely on the number on the dial or whether the recipe calls for “high” or "medium" heat – I go by how the food sounds or looks or smells, or all three, and adjust the heat as needed. Over the past few years, I can honestly say that I have become much more attuned to my food as it cooks and learned to trust my instincts over the exact directions in a recipe. As a recipe developer, I’ve also learned to include more of these context clues in my recipes, not just the heat level and the cooking time.

2. I learned to think ahead.

An electric stove is slow to shift gears from one level of heat to another. This can make it tricky whenever a recipe needs you to adjust the heat up or down multiple times for different cooking steps, or if a recipe needs to be brought to a boil and then reduced to a simmer.

I’ve learned that I need to reduce the heat a minute or two ahead of when the recipe might otherwise instruct me to do so. This prevents over-cooking (or under-cooking) and saves some time – I hate standing by the stove waiting for a soup to reduce to a simmer when all I want to do is cover the pot and walk away.

The upshot of this is that I’m forced to always think a few steps ahead, and this habit has bled into other parts of my cooking – from making sure I have the jar of spices with the right size measuring spoon ready next to the stove to pulling out the strainer a minute or two before I need it. It’s a small habit, but one that has ultimately made me more efficient in the kitchen.

3. I learned to multitask.

Another outcome from this fact that an electric stove is slow to shift gears has been that I use more of the stove. I do most of my cooking on one of the front “power burners,” but once it’s time to simmer a dish or keep it warm while the rest of the meal finishes, I often move the pot or skillet to one of the back “low” burners rather than wait for the front burner to sufficiently cool down.

Gradually, this has taught me to multitask. I use more of the burners on the stove for different steps in the same recipe rather than relying on just one main burner for all my cooking, as I did when I cooked on a gas stove. Granted, this might be particular to me and my personal cooking habits, but it’s a lesson that I’m glad I’ve learned!

4. I learned to adapt recipes and stay flexible.

Since I started cooking on an electric stove, I’ve realized how biased the majority of recipes are toward gas stoves, including my own! I’ve had friendly arguments with fellow food writers who insist that the differences between cooking on gas and cooking on electric are minor to the point of being insignificant, but I disagree.

The differences in a written recipe can be subtle, but they can be frustrating and lead to errors that affect the finished dish. Cooking times are usually based on the straight-forward and consistent heat of a gas stove, and they don’t take into account the slow ramp up and cool down we get on electric stoves. They also don't usually give a lot of context clues — when the only information provided is cooking time and burner temperature, you can end up burning or undercooking your food on an electric stove, especially if you're new to cooking or unaccustomed to fiddling with the burner temperature. An author might talk about heat in terms of the “flame” or say to “turn off the heat” under a pot rather than “remove from heat” (on an electric stove, a burner will stay hot for quite some time, which can overcook food if the pan isn't moved).

I don’t blame my fellow recipe writers for their bias – it’s very difficult (impossible?) to write a recipe that will work 100% perfectly on 100% of stoves. Gas stoves are at least semi-consistent, whereas I find cooking times and temperatures on electric stoves can vary widely from one model to the next.

The silver lining? You become very adept at tweaking recipes to account for your electric stove. I read a recipe that says “cook the onions for 3 to 4 minutes” and I know it will take 5 to 6 minutes on my stove. If a recipe instructs cooking something over high heat, I know I will be adjusting my burner to medium or the food will scorch. Any recipe that involves covering and steaming, like a rice pilaf, might take some trial and error with the technique and correct burner temperature before I get it right.

I definitely do see this as a silver lining, though it can sometimes feel annoying or cumbersome in the moment. It’s a skill that took some time to develop – including a lot of time getting to know my particular stove. In the end, I feel like these mental gymnastics have made me much more flexible and quick in the kitchen. I've also gained trust my own instincts as a cook. And as a recipe writer, it’s made me more sympathetic to those subtle differences between gas and electric cooking.

But I won’t be terribly sad to say goodbye.

In another month, I will be bidding a fond farewell to my electric stove and moving to a new home with a gas range. Thank goodness. As grateful as I am for the lessons I’ve learned on my electric stove, for a food lover and for my happiness as a home cook, gas stoves just make cooking so much easier and more enjoyable. I’m curious to see if the adjustment back to cooking on gas will prove as tricky – and as eye-opening – as my adjustment to cooking on electric four years ago.

Do you cook on an electric stove? What lessons have you learned?

Created with Sketch.