Fire has long captivated the human imagination. A source of life and death, fire can both feed and destroy us, sustain or snuff us out.
But humanity’s propensity to burn is taking a toll on the planet. In the west, this burning has turned against us. As carbon emissions rise, wildfires scorch the earth at greater frequency and ferocity than ever before. Heat waves swelter cities and drought saps waterways and soils of moisture.
Even as we bear witness to the impacts of climate change — caused by the burning of fossil fuels — many of us still ignite tiny fires within our homes to cook meals or flip on the gas to warm our bodies, activities that account for a significant amount of San Francisco’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, a growing number of chefs and environmentalists are seeking food beyond the flame.
One of those chefs is Rachelle Boucher, the co-founder of the Electric Kitchen Workshop at Monark Premium Appliance in Potrero Hill. Using induction cooking technology, Boucher regularly demonstrates how to make gourmet meals sans firepower.
Unlike other electric stoves, which channel energy into heated coils, induction cooking uses electric currents to directly heat cookware through a magnetic field.
“You’re basically using magnetism to cause electricity to move around in the pan,” said Leo Steinmetz, a program manager focused on electrification at Acterra, an environmental nonprofit that hosts induction cooking classes. “That transforms the pan itself into an electric resistance burner.”
On a recent March morning, Boucher turned on the sleek black cooktop with the press of her finger. The stove blinked to life with a beep, revealing a range of digital numbers that she adjusted to bring a pan of still water to a rapid boil in what seemed like seconds.
“When people talk about it being efficient, what we mean is that you’re creating the heat in the pan itself. So all of the heat is going into the pan. None of it is going anywhere else,” said Steinmetz.
Boucher, who calls herself “an induction super fan,” has been cooking on induction stovetops for over a decade. She talks emphatically about the precision and control afforded by induction cooking methods and is quick to dispel any myths that you can’t achieve delicious meals without gas burners.
“When people talk about ‘you can’t get high heat, you can’t do wok cooking’ — it really just has to be shown,” said Boucher as she tossed a handful of Padrón peppers into a sizzling silver wok.
Plus, she said, the benefits, not only for the environment but for human health, far outweigh the cons. “It’s faster, stronger, safer,” said Boucher. “It’s better for the world.”
Eliminating natural gas
In addition to generating carbon dioxide by burning natural gas for fuel, gas appliances release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and other harmful pollutants, including unburned methane, into the air, exposing people to hazardous pollutants inside their homes.
In January, a Stanford-led study found the methane leaking from natural gas-burning stoves inside American homes is comparable to the carbon dioxide emissions from about 500,000 gasoline-powered cars.
“If you have gas hookups in your house, they’re just always making low levels of methane and low levels of gas. And that’s, like, really scary for a lot of reasons,” said Steinmetz. “For anybody who has asthma or people who have any other kind of respiratory condition, that’s going to be dangerous.”
Induction cooking also represents one way San Francisco is working to ease residents into electrification as it begins to phase out natural gas as part of its strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.
Buildings account for nearly half of The City’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, the overwhelming majority — almost 87% — of emissions come from natural gas burned to operate heating systems, boilers, water heaters, dryers and cooking appliances.
San Francisco already eliminated natural gas lines in new construction, but if it’s going to decommission natural gas lines in all buildings in the coming years, enthusiasts like Boucher think induction cooking will need to take a more prominent role.
Some politicians are also catching on. “Natural gas is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in San Francisco and poses major health and safety risks,” District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who introduced the ban, tweeted. “All-electric construction in new buildings is a critical step toward a safer, healthier San Francisco and planet for future generations.”
Even utilities such as PG&E, which has a vested interest in maintaining The City’s gas infrastructure, has signaled it may be open to shifting to a world beyond the burner. “We welcome the opportunity to avoid investments in new gas assets that might later prove underutilized as decarbonization efforts progress,” said Ari Vanrenen, a spokesperson for the utility. But, PG&E envisions a future where gas still exists as one part of the energy system, she said.
Still, when it comes to converting the masses to induction cooking, there are hurdles ahead. A large proportion of people remain unfamiliar with induction cooking, and there is a growing fear among chefs and the culinarily minded that some cuisines will be sacrificed in the name of climate concerns.
A test of this tension came in November 2019 when the California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley over its gas ban, arguing the ban would increase costs and prevent restaurants from preparing many sought-after cuisines, including many Asian and South Asian foods.
“Many of these restaurants rely on gas for cooking particular types of food, whether it be flame-seared meats, charred vegetables or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok,” the trade group said in court filings. “Indeed, restaurants specializing in international foods so prized in the Bay Area will be unable to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas.”
Boucher understands people’s emotional attachment to an open flame and their hesitancy to ween off the gas, especially when it comes to traditional foods that have been passed down through generations. “It’s not about elimination,” she said. “It’s about transition.”
But even advocates concede that not everything is possible with induction. “There are some things that you can’t do,” said Steinmetz. “If you’re doing anything directly over a flame — the most common example is a lot of people heat up tortillas by putting them on a gas burner — you can’t do that on induction; you have to use a pan.”
Still, he said, he wants to demystify induction cooking for the masses. “For most people, for the overwhelming majority of cooking, it’s just another stove.”
It’s also clear that times are clearly changing. These days, Boucher sees more people coming through her workshop looking for induction cooktops or asking her about electrification.
As for Boucher, she’s never going back to gas again. “I wouldn’t take a gas range if you gave it to me for free,” she said.