Ever since our ancestors first climbed down out of the trees, they promptly turned around and set them ablaze to cook the evening’s catch; humankind has had a unique and symbiotic relationship with fire ever since. A love/hate relationship that spans the vastness of human evolution, humanity’s connection with fire generates a variety of emotions that range from fear to comfort. From the time they first sat around the evening’s fire, cooking a chunk of freshly killed caribou, our cave dwelling cousins must have had the Neolithic equivalent of, “No, baby…hot!”
As we have evolved over the ages, so has the kitchen. And, in some respects, the basic kitchen has changed very little from those early days; the kitchen is still the gathering place—if not so much for the tribe, then for the modern family. It is a place where we meet and start the day over cups of coffee, prepare lunches for the kids and gather at the end of the day to discuss events over a hot meal.
What has changed is how we cook. We have moved from fire pit and spit to the hearth, from the hearth to the cast-iron stove, and from the cast-iron stove to the modern age with electric coils, glass top radiant and induction cooktops. There is no question that these modern cooking devices are easy to clean and efficient to use, but they are lacking something—something very human. There is something about the click, click, whoosh as that little blue flame flickers to life that touches the primal instinct that still lives deep inside each of us.
In today’s modern world, filled as it is with new smart home technology, safety still comes first. As the kitchen continues to adapt, there are specific gas technology features that are becoming more available in the newest and most innovative kitchen appliances.
In North America, premium appliances typically offer gas flame rectification technology. With auto-reignition, an electrode in the tip of the spark igniter senses the flame, and if the gas valve is on but no flame is detected, then using the process of ionization, it sends a signal to the spark module. This technology provides additional safety by preventing any buildup of gas above the cooktop. However, the clicking sound can be a nuisance for consumers, especially if the spark ignitors are not cleaned properly, or if the burner is not assembled correctly.
In Europe, cooking appliances typically use thermocouples connected to a thermal valve. The thermocouple senses the heat from the flame and will close the gas valve if the flame is not present. Thermocoupled burners take longer to fire up than burners with auto-reignition because the thermocouples need to warm up before the valve opens.
The residual heat indicator is another premium appliance feature that visually notifies the user if temperature sensors under the cooktop detect heat—during and after cooking on a cooktop. This is a great way to keep the user from accidentally touching a hot surface after cooking on a gas cooktop.
The design of the burner system, including its valves and the resulting impact on cooking performance, is another key differentiator in the premium appliance space. Dual-stacked, dual-valve and ring burners offer a broader range of flame control. The power at the high end and the Btu rate of the burner at its lowest setting have become more important with the increase of culinary interest we have seen over the last decade with the advent of the Food Network and myriad other culinary media. Home chefs and foodies alike have come to realize that the low flame setting might come in handy when preparing those delicate sauces. Cooktop burners continue to push the envelope at both the high and low ends of the Btu spectrum.
The built-in gas wall oven has mostly gone by the wayside, but the good, old-fashioned gas range continues to be a popular choice in the professional kitchen. And, though it may not be easily apparent, technology in these ovens continues to evolve.
Premium gas ranges are typically self-cleaning and, though self-cleaning is nothing new, cleaning a larger capacity oven in the same kitchen footprint means less room for insulation and cool air flow. Insulation, air flow and burner system design all play an important role in making the complete range system work.
Infrared gas flame broiler technology is a great solution for searing meats to perfection and keeping all the moistness and flavor inside. This type of broiler provides a large, even gas flame close to the meats, giving the restaurant quality results that less powerful, heat-reflecting tube broilers don’t offer.
Also advancing inside gas ovens are ignition technologies, convection performance, and the development of electronic gas valve technology for the bake burner. Electronic gas oven valves may soon provide the ability to more accurately control the oven temperature, conserve energy and start through an electronic interface instead of the typical knob.
Long considered by some as the “holy grail” of gas cooktops, new electronic gas valve and controller technology combines the benefits of gas with the convenience, precision and cleaning benefits of a glass cooktop. The integrated touch-controls allow the home chef to preset gas burner cooking times for optimum energy use and prevent overcooking and damaged cookware.
The electronic gas approach gives the home chef precise and incremental control over each burner, along with the ease to reset a flame to the exact previous setting without guesswork. In addition to being an easy-to-clean surface, electronic control of a glass cooktop introduces other added safety benefits, such as a security lock that keeps the top from being used. This is a great element for homeowners with young children who have wandering hands.
The electronic gas cooktop also offers a timing feature that can be set to automatically shut off the gas at a desired time. Plus, a step function can be offered that aids the home chef in selecting the level of heat which is emitted from the burner—all with the touch of a finger.
By continuing down the path of digital interfaces as used in the knobless gas cooktops, manufacturers keep finding new ways to integrate technology as a way to control all appliances, including those using gas. Recent industry research indicates that 58 percent of Americans also use their smartphones in the kitchen some or all of the time (according to NextMarket Insights research: The Connected Kitchen: A Market Analysis, Survey & Forecast of the Smart Kitchen (2014)).
Smartphones and tablets, for example, are already able to control the lighting of a house, air conditioning temperatures or entertainment centers through innovative apps.
As gas cooktops become smarter, safer and more efficient, they will continue to be the cornerstone of the American kitchen, now and into the future.