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Cooking Without Gas? Electricity Versus the Wok

29 August, 2022
Wok on a fire

Photo by: Dan Heinkel

I spoke with three such chefs in different parts of the USA – California, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania – to see how cooking with electric would affect them on ground level. Would their menus change? Their methods? Coming from three states with significantly different sources of energy, how engaged and knowledgeable were they when it came to their state’s energy sources?

Wokworks is a Philadelphia-based franchise company serving fresh, farm-to-fork stir fry. It is fully dependent upon gas. Starting as a brick-and-mortar store in 2013, Wokworks currently operates pickup and delivery kitchens, grocery store stalls, and a fleet of food carts and trucks serving hospitals, universities, and private events. Owner Brennan Foxman says: “In building out our 10-plus Wokworks locations we had experience with both conventional gas range and induction wok cooktops. For many reasons, we were not able to achieve the same results with induction/ electric wok cooking and now operate all our locations strictly with gas ranges.”

Foxman breaks down the experience of cooking over a wok into three categories.

“Wok hei is the unique texture and cooking process related to proper wok cooking. You must use gas instead of induction or electric to achieve ideal results for the following reasons: 

Steam zone: when you flip the wok, you are creating a pocket of steam in the middle zone, which helps to sear and steam the flipped ingredients evenly simultaneously. On induction, you cannot flip the pan as necessary while maintaining contact with the induction plate.

Edge heat: gas burners will evenly spread the heat zone up and around the pan, including the top sides of the pan, which is critical for creating a crunchy, fresh texture stir fry in a wok. An induction pan will only heat the part of the pan that is making contact and thus does not have the same temperature zones for cooking as gas. 

Aerosolised fats and oils: A critical part of achieving wok hei is the contact between the oil, food, and flames. The oil aerosolising and combusting with direct flame contact adds intense smoky flavour, sear, and crunch to fresh ingredients while trapping in nutrients. This reaction is only possible with a gas range, as induction will not create a flame to contact the food inside the pan.”

Noodle Theory in Oakland, California, where an electrification ordinance was passed in 2020 and took effect in 2021, is an institution. Opened back in 2007, Noodle Theory has long been a neighbourhood stalwart, with multiple satellite locations in and around San Francisco that opened and closed over the years. At 52 years old, its chef and owner Louis Kao has now worked in restaurants for forty years (yes, you’re reading that number correctly). Kao is my cousin, and I’ve long felt a sense of pride that everyone hailing from the Bay Area was impressed when I told them that I was related to the owner of Noodle Theory.

Kao’s parents, my aunt and uncle, owned restaurants in San Francisco when he was a child. All three of their three sons worked in these restaurants, starting with a Chinese restaurant (our family is from Hong Kong) and then they expanded, eventually operating a 24-hour diner, a burrito shop and pretty much every conceivable restaurant concept in between. Kao worked primarily as a short order cook in these restaurants, eventually falling in love with cooking with a wok.

Noodle Theory’s menu today is relatively unchanged from the menu it opened with fifteen years ago. “Ginger chicken with crushed peanuts, a version of dan dan mien with a sesame lime base, beef udon with coconut curry – though we emphasise Shanghai noodles,” Kao says. “Half our menu is cooked in a wok. There’s nothing better. If you forage wild mushrooms which you then wash and soak… crisping them up would take 45 minutes over an electric stove, but ten or fifteen minutes in a wok.”

“All our dried sautéed noodles are cooked in the wok. You can’t replicate gas with electric. It doesn’t heat evenly. It doesn’t sear the same. Electricity burns and there’s no controlling it. You can elevate the wok and use different parts of the flame,” he says. As a chef who has opened and closed multiple restaurants, he’s not comforted by the notion that California places restrictions on gas in new construction, “which would probably affect Chinese sauté cooking the most out of any cuisine. When it comes to frying – electric fryers are fine. But sautéing over an open flame – there’s nothing like it. It’s like comparing using an electric smoker to a smoker that burns charcoal and wood. It’s night and day.”

“On electric coil you need full, flush contact. With gas you don’t need it. The flame will do all the work. Just like when you smoke meat and cook over charcoal – playing with hot and cool zones. With gas, you can create hot and cool zones in your wok, in different areas of your wok,” says Kao.

Mulling over the prospect of opening future restaurants with new construction,  he says: “Using electric would affect my menu. But what are you going to do – you can still cook the food, it would just lack a certain type of dimension. I feel like Chinese people will always find a way around things but I do think switching to electric would highly impact Chinese cooking and flavour profiles because you won’t be able to get that smoky char from a cast-iron wok.”

“There’s nothing that is consequence free. Yes, electric is a way to go. Yes, fossil fuels burn dirtier and there’s a lot of pollution in the air. But carbon footprint wise, you still have to mine for those battery components. And then recycle them.”

The lack of consequence when it comes to energy makes Hawaii’s resources even more dire. Hawaii has relied on imported petroleum for its electricity for the past two decades. I chatted with Justin Herndon, an environmental scientist who has worked in public health in both Hawaii and California. “Hawaii is a hot mess, no matter what,” he declares. “They need to figure out electricity based on wind, hydro, and solar. Otherwise, all the energy they are getting is coming over on a ship that uses diesel.”

Maui-based Lee Anne Wong, the executive chef of Papa’aina at the Pioneer Inn can do anything. An accomplished chef on and off television (you might recall her from a couple seasons of Bravo’s Top Chef), she has a breadth of experience in many different kitchens. “Things like searing meat, or even flambéing food, somehow feel more of an authentic experience over flame, but to be quite honest, technology has made such incredible advances that most resourceful chefs can learn to live without gas flame for cooking, and some even find that they have more precision and control using electric versus gas. Take it from someone who has lived with electric coil stoves most of my life (the pitfalls of renting). Chinese cooking is a whole other topic, and nothing can beat the intense power of a professional wok-burner, which range usually from 100,000 to 150,000 btu.”

Wong and Kao seem to agree that whatever comes, they’ll adapt. That’s what cooks and Chinese people are known to do. Wong says: “As chefs, our jobs are to know how to improvise. While a professional gas range may always be preferred at work or even at home, I can cook on a $20 hot plate if I need to. Is it ideal? No. Do we always get the dream custom kitchen at work or at home? Not always. But I believe in the attributes of both gas and electric. With electric, I have more control and clean-up is a breeze. Gas anything, while powerful, takes quite a bit of daily maintenance and cleaning. I have eaten at some genius restaurants where the chef was only using an induction burner and a toaster oven.”

When it comes to energy, there isn’t one clear solution, and of course, ultimately chefs will have little choice on their energy sources depending on their locations. Every solution is problematic, comes at a cost and differs from state to state. Herndon corrects me in my early assumptions that between gas or electric, there was going to be a clear better option. “It’s not about how good electricity or natural gas is, it’s about how bad fracking is. The environmental impact of electrification is debatable. In California, where there are nuclear, wind and solar power tied into electrical grids, these should lower greenhouse gases. But the problem is that this puts strain on electrical grids. Most major cities already need rolling blackouts in hot summer months, and we are only getting hotter.”


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