The Scientific Reason Why the Back Burners Are Actually the Best Burners

updated Aug 4, 2020
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Credit: Katie Currid

There’s an old-ish meme on the internet that says you’re officially an adult when you have a favorite burner on your stovetop. Do you have a favorite? How do you choose which burner to use when you’re throwing a skillet on to, say, sauté some veggies? Does it matter? Turns out, according to science, it does.

Where you do your cooking makes a difference when it comes to indoor air pollution, says science journalist Emily Anthes, author of The Great Indoors. If you’re using a range hood (at least one that vents outside), a lot of them extend completely over the back burners but only partially cover the front burners, she explains. And why is that important?

Cooking and the Indoor Pollutants It Creates

“Just the act of cooking itself can produce pollutants,” Anthes says. The stuff being produced while you cook is known as fine particulate matter, she adds. That’s basically anything that’s being aerosolized. A big component of kitchen particulate matter comes from tiny droplets of oil “that are so small you can’t even see them but they get sort of spewed into the air if you’re making, say, a stir-fry or something,” she says. There’s also the actual particles of whatever food you’re cooking, as well as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Often that’s what we smell as we cook. These things aren’t necessarily dangerous, she points out.

Credit: Leela Cyd

The research is sparse when it comes to the effect of these compounds indoors, Anthes says, but a lot of them are components of outdoor air pollution. “The caveat is there’s still a lot to learn. We know that nitrogen dioxide, for instance, which is one of the big compounds produced when you cook with gas, is known for being a lung irritant that can cause respiratory problems, especially in children. So, it can trigger asthma and worsen any pre-existing respiratory condition.” It can accumulate really quickly in a home kitchen, she says, particularly if it’s poorly ventilated.

As for the fine particulate matter, those tiny droplets that we don’t even see, “they’re small enough to be inhaled deep into your lungs,” she said, “and we know that that is also a well-documented danger … [These droplets] can increase the risk of a wide variety of medical problems … asthma, and lung problems but also things like cardiovascular disease, stroke, there’s very compelling evidence that exposure to those particles can cause serious adverse effects.”

The Best Things You Can Do

Before we run away from our stoves, there’s a but. “But it’s not quite clear yet whether the risks are the same [as outdoor pollution] at the level we’re being exposed to indoors,” Anthes says. 

“I’m not telling people not to cook,” she said. There’s no such thing as a pollution-free environment, and “there are definitely some easy, common things that we can do to reduce our exposure.”

For one, using a back burner instead of front ones. Range hoods are just so much more effective at reducing pollutants that are coming off the back burner, Anthes says. “The airborne compounds and chemicals tend to rise up in a column over the pan or pot you’re using and so you can imagine, that if it’s completely covered by the vent sucking out the air, you’re capturing a lot more of the airborne pollutants.” And we’re really talking a lot more. A study done in 2012, she said, “shows that actually you’re reducing or capturing twice as much of the air pollution if you cook on the back burner.”

While most of the researchers she talks to recommend switching from a gas range to electric, that’s not always an option. In that case, she said, using small electric appliances in place of the gas stove whenever you can will help. Think electric tea kettles, toaster ovens, even induction plates

Related: How To Clean a Greasy Range Hood Filter

What if your hood doesn’t vent outside? Or you don’t have a hood at all? While venting to the outside is “far and away the better option,” the non-venting hoods are better than nothing she said. (But be sure to clean the filters periodically.)  

Related: 10 Things to Do If You Don’t Have a Range Hood or Vent

Credit: Cambria Bold

At the home Anthes rents, they don’t have a hood and can’t add one. So what does she do? “You can get a long way with the extremely low-tech solution of a window,” she says. She sets a fan in the window directed so the air goes outside. Next time I make the burgers that set off the smoke detector, I’m moving the pan to the back burner — and giving her window solution a try.

Related: I Spent $30 on a Window Fan for My Rental Kitchen, and It’s Made a Huge Difference