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Why did Julia Child use electric burners?

I was watching some "The French Chef" episodes last night from the '60s and '70s, and Julia Child was using electric burners in all of them.

Now, I'm not much of a cook, but the first time I tried gas burners (I grew up using only electric) I loved it, and didn't want to use electric ever again. I loved the instant response to flame adjustments. For example, if a pot was starting to boil over, and you turned down the flame, the bubbles went down immediately, rather than a minute later like with electric burners. It also worked the other way; i.e., turning up the flame gives an instant heat increase.

Another advantage of gas is that a warped pan can still work fine (or a round bottomed pan like a wok). It isn't ideal of course, but at least it is still heated properly from the flame; while with an electric burner, only a small part of the burner will contact the warped surface.

Does anyone know what Julia Child saw in electric burners?

Also, I've heard a lot about her using and recommending copper cookware; but in the several episodes I watched, she didn't use any copper. I saw her use raw aluminum and cast iron mostly. At one point she picked up a tinned copper pan and mentioned that it would work for what she was about to do, but then she put it away and used something else. She also gave lip service to using a raw copper bowl for beating eggs, along with a short demonstration; but then she put it away and said she preferred an electric mixer, and did it that way in a glass bowl.

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  1. I'm going to guess that it probably had something to do with the location of the TV show. Building a set with electric stoves and burners is a lot easier than running gas lines. Plus, lots of explosive gas around the electrical nightmare that would be most studios in the 60s and 70s would probably be a bad idea. This is all just a theory though. I know at the TV station we used to work, they used an electric range for mobility and safety, but that's small market TV, not "The French Chef."

    4 Replies
    1. re: armyofchuckness

      The French Chef was produced at WGBH's old studio on Western Avenue in Allston: hardly a state of the art studio even by 1963 standards.

      1. re: Jenny Ondioline

        WGBH Television predates PBS having been founded in 1955. They're original studio was on Mass Ave. in Cambridge burned down in a 1961 fire and they operated out of donated commercial TV stations for a few years while their Western Ave studio was being built.

        Even though there was big time community support in those years, GBH was a shoestring operation run and staffed by creative, well intentioned people. It would be consistent with GBH at that time to not make a large investment in range or cookware for the fledging cooking show.

        1. re: redrako

          I remember that. And while the burned-out studios were being rebuilt, Julia's show was taped in a studio in the basement of the Museum of Science, behind a big plate glass window so museum visitors could stand outside and watch. (I was a Science Explorer back then - kind of a kids' science club at the museum - and was fascinated by that.)

          1. re: redrako

            Thank you for that. Very interesting!

      2. My guess is that it was easier to set up electric burners in a TV studio environment. Just plug 'em in and go!

        1. I'm also guessing that at the time they figured it was easier to put in a stove in the studio that could just be plugged in than to hook up to a gas line or bottled gas. There are plenty of cooking shows now that use gas stoves so obviously times and/or priorities have changed.

          We know that electric stoves certainly were not Julia's personal preference for her own cooking. The Garland commercial gas range that she had in her Cambridge kitchen during the same years she was shooting The French Chef is now in the Smithsonian (as, by the why, are her copper pots).


          4 Replies
          1. re: taos

            In an episode that I just watched from 1971 it shows her own kitchen in France for part of the episode - http://video.pbs.org/video/1166576965/ . Skip to about 15:30 for that part.

            You can see her range in the background, but I can't tell if it is gas or electric. Maybe someone else can tell from watching it. It does show her using a tinned copper pot in her own kitchen. Earlier in the show on her normal TV set they showed her using a plastic-handled pot that looked like aluminum and enameled cast iron for everything else.

            I wonder if she used inexpensive aluminum and cast iron on her TV set because that is what most of the viewers would have been using at home? I know that she was mindful of such things because in one episode she showed a specialty french pan with a long handle designed specifically for making omelettes, but then proceded to use an ordinary raw cast iron skillet to show that it could be done even without the special pan.

            1. re: MaximRecoil

              That was going to be my exact assumption. She used what the everyday cook had in her kitchen. When viewing older clips of cooking shows, it seems that most of the chefs used regular everyday cookware.

              Now, they sell cookware.

                1. re: breadchick

                  You make a good point about older cooking shows: Their purpose was to teach cooking, not to sell merchandise. During her shows and in her books, Julia Child recommended types or items of equipment that would be helpful to the home cook; but, at least as far as I recall, she very rarely mentioned any particular manufacturer. If she did, it was only because she genuinely liked the product.

            2. A little Googling finds that Julia Child used a Garland Model 182 six burner commercial *gas* stove in her own Cambridge kitchen. That stove, along with the rest of her kitchen, is currently on display at the Smithsonian.

              From the Smithsonian site:

              "Via a restaurateur friend (a man nicknamed "The Buffalo"), the Childs bought this used, six-burner restaurant stove for $429 in Washington, D.C., in 1956. They shipped this Model 182 Garland commercial gas range to their Cambridge home in 1961, where it remained until Smithsonian staff removed it in late 2001. Julia cooked meals, tested recipes, and gave cooking lessons on her much-loved "big Garland" for over forty years. During the three cooking shows taped in her home kitchen, she used a handier electric wall oven but was never as pleased by its performance."


              2 Replies
              1. re: srgoodman

                You didn't need to Google. I posted the exact same thing and the same link yesterday. It's four posts above yours.

              2. The same reason any of us use them. That's what we have.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Floridagirl

                  That reason applies to some people (it applies to me for example; my house doesn't have a gas hookup and there has always been an electric stove, and it would be a big effort/expense to convert), but when professionals use a certain tool of their trade (especially a fundamental tool of their trade), there is usually a considered reason behind their selection. For example, you wouldn't expect to see someone in the Tour de France on a $50 Kmart bike because that's what was kicking around in his garage.

                  In any event, judging from the other replies, it seems like it was more of a TV studio decision than her own decision. I did see her in a show called "Julia Child & Company from 1978 using a weird looking elevated single gas burner sticking up out of the countertop - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBQD3a... (skip to 5:43). I don't know what that thing is exactly; obviously a gas burner of some sort, but I don't know why it is just a single elevated burner sticking up out of the counter top, or who makes such a thing.

                  1. re: MaximRecoil

                    It's an alcohol chaffing dish. Note at 7:40 she extinguishes the flame with a flame cover. It's a chaffing dish episode.

                    1. re: MaximRecoil

                      Very often the reason is "someone is paying me to do it". Top pro riders ride what their team tells them to ride, based on what the sponsors want to sell. Shills on cooking TV shows use what their sponsors tell them to.

                      In other cases, what's used is driven by other economic considerations. Restaurant kitchens in the US tend to have gas ranges. That's nothing to do with any inherent advantage of gas; it's because gas appliances have been cheap, reliable, and gas itself has historically been very cheap. Places where gas isn't cheap, or where the costs of dealing with retrofitting a space to have gas, or to do deal with the venting requirements that come from open flames are high, you find electric coils or induction burners. With very few exceptions, the customer can't tell what the kitchen uses, unless they can see it.

                      1. re: dscheidt

                        I would have to disagree that gas is predominant because it is cheaper. Pro chefs use gas when they can because they like it better, particularly for its responsiveness. Where natural gas isn't available propane is used instead (including in my kitchen BTW). Only when neither is available, or where running gas lines would be for some reason prohibitively expensive, would electric normally be found. That would include TV studios, as per the OP's question. I would be very surprised to ever find a gas line run into a TV studio, natural or propane. Gas would be exceedingly dangerous in such an environment, where things are constantly being moved around and changed.

                        1. re: johnb

                          I was one of several amateurs (mostly) demo-ing our recipes for a PBS-station fundraiser in Nashville. The studios were in a '50s schoolhouse and extremely cramped, the stage being just a small elevated platform, room enough for a 6' table, a cook or two, and the woman asking the questions. The cooking medium was a professional-style tabletop propane single-burner, and the dishes were all pasta, so we had to precook everything but the sauce. It was my introduction to tabletop gas, and I was glad to have it, as I'd been expecting and dreading electric hotplates. And it was MUCH more powerful than my puny antique home range, so unlike some I didn't feel my style was cramped at all.

                  2. We had a gas stove when I was very little, but it was replaced, in the early 1950's, with an electric stove. I have the impression that this was, at the time, considered a newer and better way of cooking. I disagree, but since my house is all-electric, with no room for hood ductwork, it's a moot point.

                    Wasn't the Jacques and Julia series filmed in her home kitchen? They use an island, probably installed there for filming purposes. On the right end (where Julia cooks) the burners are electric. On the other end, Jacques uses gas burners. To the best of my knowledge, the reason for this, or any preferences, were never discussed. I could be wrong, but I think Julia only had 2 burners but Jacques may have had 4. Of course by that time Julia was getting a little bit feeble, and did less of the actual work than he did on most episodes. Possibly the producers/director were concerned that she might ignite her clothing.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: greygarious

                      I don't believe Julia every cooked on TV from her own kitchen. As others have said, in the "old" days setting up a kitchen for filming was a lot easier if you went for electric. With the modern filming methods and major TV ktichens, that fact can easily get lost.

                      1. re: escondido123

                        You are mistaken. Baking with Julia was filmed onsite in Julia's Cambridge, MA, home, as she says in the introduction to every show in the series.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          This FAQ from the Smithsonian Julia Child's Kitchen gives us the answer.
                          Was this the kitchen on Julia's television shows?

                          Yes, and no. Only Julia's last three cooking shows were taped in this kitchen, in her home on Irving Street in Cambridge. Produced in the 1990s by A La Carte Communications they included: In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia, and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. When viewers of these programs visit the exhibition they will recognize certain details—like the knives attached to wall-mounted magnetic strips between the windows—-but the center of the room will seem very different. To accommodate the lights, cameras, and cooking action by Julia and her guest chefs, the kitchen table and chairs were removed during taping and replaced by a cooking island that had a built-in stovetop and food preparation surfaces. Julia's previous shows, beginning with "The French Chef" in 1962, were all taped in studio kitchens in the Boston area.

                    2. I have to agree that at the time the original series, The French Chef, was filmed that it would have been simplest, most cost effective, etc. to have electric only on the set.

                      Back when The Frugal Gourmet was on, I remember a show where they showed how they set up the kitchen for each show - from unloading it from a truck to getting out the fake greenery that was outside of the window, setting up the cabinetry, plumbing, and yes, the gas range. They also showed the auxiliary kitchen area where the swaps were prepared. It was really most interesting.

                      1. The original kitchen set on which she worked was a demonstration kitchen at the local electric company. So they kinda had to use electric burners... :)

                        14 Replies
                        1. re: MrsSell

                          in one of her books (My Life in France, I think) she mentions this -- it was first filmed at the studios at WGBH in Boston, and there was no gas line anywhere near the studio...

                          ...so electric it was. The studio also had to be used for other productions, so it just wasn't feasible to have a gas line snaking across the stage.

                          She also talks about how difficult it was to hobble together a functioning kitchen with the miserly shoestring budget that they were given for the early incarnations of the program.

                          (ETA: I see others posting similar comments downthread...)

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            This makes so much sense!

                            In watching the first few seasons I marvel and lust at her cookware used in the show - and I always speculated that her (now vintage and highly sought after) cookware seemed to be from her personal collection... Imagine doing a show (full stop!) and then imagine having a budget such that you better bring your own cookware.

                            Of course she loved her copper pans - go see them at the Smithsonian! But I think she was really, REALLY most enthusiastic about the food and was very happy to show America how to make crepes - even on an electric hob with a "non-stick'em pan" (as she called hers in the 1962 crepes episodes).

                            Her egalitarian spirit met with her love of sharing the Joy of French Cooking... and a lot of us aspiring foodies (finger pointed FIRMLY back at myself, the worst of all offenders!) can learn a lesson from her pioneering spirit and unpretentious enthusiasm. Of course we all want French copper pots or a very fine carbon steel pan meant only for crepes - in the mean time this maven of culinary joy will show you how to make a "perfectly lovely" crepe in an $8 non-stick'em pan over a hot plate.

                            That's why we loved her and still talk about her.

                            1. re: CaliforniaJoseph

                              Agree with everything you say. Also, if you notice, Julia showed us how to use those electric burners effectively. As soon as she completed processing something on high heat she immediately moved the pan over to a burner that was already operating at low or medium. Voila, instant temp change!

                              1. re: Susangria

                                That's what cooks did with coal and wood fired stoves - move the pot to a cooler part of the stove. Gas stoves with quick reliable controls are just as much of a modern convenience as electric stoves.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Hi, Paul: "That's what cooks [DID] with coal and wood fired stoves..."

                                  Did? As in past tense? I upgraded last year to a 1910 Monarch, and TODAY have a nice coal fire burning under my stockpot holding yesterday's carcass. It boils on the far left, and you adjust your simmer by moving it right until it's exactly what you want.


                                  1. re: kaleokahu

                                    That's definitely the coolest thing I've heard today, Kaleo! Could you possibly share an image of your stove, so I can live vicariously? I have many fond memories of cooking on our woodstove in New England when I was young. (We also had an electric range but in the winter as long as we had the woodstove going anyway for heat, we'd often cook on it). I live in the tropics now, so no chance of either a wood or coal stove in my future.

                                    1. re: MrsPatmore

                                      Hi, Mrspatmore:

                                      Try this...


                                        1. re: kaleokahu

                                          OK, I'm officially swooning right now. That is one gorgeous kitchen appliance. They don't make them like that anymore. PS Regarding the two doors on the top of it, to the right and left of the smoke stack, are those for cooking, storage, dough-proofing, or something else? Also if you don't mind, could you please explain how the different boxes below are utilized, either by you personally or how the boxes were intended to be used? It looks like there are 3-4 separate sections on the left side of the bottom and at least 2 on the right side. I find this subject really fascinating!! (I'll bet other chowhounds are just as interested)

                                          1. re: MrsPatmore

                                            Hi, MP:

                                            The compartments above are warming cabinets. The big door under the oven accesses the space under the whole stove--it's for storage. All the other doors and spaces are associated with burning--feed door, ash bin door, draft door, soot cleanout door, and grate crank.

                                            One of the cool things about these stoves is that the ovens have a lot more useable space because there are no elements, and you can use the oven's floor. Another nice feature is the fold-down trivets, used to keep pans warm. I've yet to tie the stove into my hot water radiators and/or HWH, but that's coming.


                                            1. re: kaleokahu

                                              Thank you for the response! And I do see the fold-down trivets now. That is very clever and I bet works well. Color me jealous of your stove and your copper pots, as well.

                                    2. re: Susangria

                                      You win "Best Screen Name" award today!

                              2. On the copper cookware issue, allow me to engage in pure speculation --maybe others with knowledge on the facts can weigh in. Copper isn't cheap, and I'm guessing she did not have the benefit of what modern TV chefs have --sponsorship from a kitchen supply source willing to donate product if she'd simply mention the brand name. Furthermore, her target audience most likely would not have had a collection of copper pots, so maybe she thought she ought to cook using tools common to what the typical American housewife at the time would have.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: MagicMarkR

                                  Hi, MagicMarkR:

                                  I'm speculating, too, but here's my take: Julia's shows (unlike most cooking shows seen on TV today) were all about teaching normal folks to cook better, to demonstrate. If the viewer failed at a prep, and she blamed it on *not* having copper or *not* having gas, she might have given up on watching the show. Ultimately, the show may not have been popular at all if it was perceived to be elitist, French, or a showplace for exotica. So I agree with you that "she thought she ought to cook using tools common to what the typical American housewife at the time would have."

                                  Also, beating eggs in a copper bowl with a whisk is long, hard work, not suited to filling precious airtime.


                                  1. re: kaleokahu

                                    Except that IIRC, in the series with M. Pepin, they had a contest wherein he whisked whites in a copper bowl while she used the electric mixer. I can't remember who won but it was pretty close. However, with his decades of professional experience, and comparative youth, he was always faster and more precise than Julia. The charm of that series was the genuine camaraderie and affection they showed for one another despite their frequent differences of opinion..

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      Hi, greygarious:

                                      Yes, and the mutual deference and respect... Both would have recoiled at the idea of throwdown or competing against each other.

                                      Asking Julia to hand-beat eggs in her dotage would be like handing me a blacksmith's hammer at the forge.


                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        Thank you for the lovely reminder of that show. What a pleasure it was to watch it. How did we ever get from that cordial and respectful atmosphere to Guy Fieri???

                                  2. Despite appearances, most of her shows were done on sets in TV studios. Installing a working electric stove in a TV studio is quick, easy, and cheap; running a gas line into the studio would be a non-starter. (No inside information, just common sense.)

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: John Francis

                                      I remember seeing a "behind the scenes" episode of The Frugal Gourmet where they showed the complicated set up of the set from unloading it from the truck to setting up the plants in back of the window. They did have a gas stovetop but it wasn't an easy task.

                                    2. One final note -- if you watch the early black and white episodes, the show was actually sponsored by the Cambridge Electric Light Company. I believe it was originally shot in their display kitchen.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: dtremit

                                        not according to "My Life in France" -- but yes, being sponsored by an electric company was, I'm sure, a significant part of the equation.

                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                          Here is the filming chronology of The French Chef. It comes from the 1974 Calvin Tompkins New Yorker piece, Good Cooking. The article is included in Secret Ingredients, the New Yorker's anthology of food writing (a fascinating and often hilarious collection that I enthusiastically recommend).

                                          In the spring of 1962, shortly after MtAoFC came out, Julia was invited to appear on a WGBH TV show about books. It was her idea to demo egg-white whipping. The station received an impressive number of enthusiastic letters from viewers, which prompted the PBS station to invite Julia to film a pilot for a possible series:

                                          "They made 3 pilot shows in Jule 1962, using a basement display room of the Boston Gas Company in downtown Boston, because the WGBH studio had recently been destroyed by a fire. WGBH's director of programming, Robert Larson, liked the pilot so much that he was willing to put the station's own funds into financing a series of 26 shows. They went into production in January 1963, in a makeshift set on the 3rd floor of the Cambridge Electric Company, which had better parking facilities than Boston Gas. The early shows were all "remotes", videotaped with 2 cameras connected by cables to a power source in WGBH's mobile unit parked outside the building. They did 4 shows a week.... Julia and Paul, who did all the shopping for the shows, would get to the Cambridge Electric Company an hour or so ahead of the others, carrying the Sacred Bag and a huge load of groceries. Whenever it snowed, Paul had to shovel the fire escape so the crew could bring in the cables and equipment... They did 68 shows at the Cambridge Electric Company before moving to the new WGBH studios, in Cambridge, in November 1963."

                                          Unless the sponsorship by the electric company (which was not the sole underwriter of the show) held paramount sway, I am guessing that Julia was not seriously unhappy with using an electric stove, because the rebuilding of the WGBH facility would have allowed for inclusion of a gas range when the design of the kitchen studio was being planned.

                                          1. re: greygarious

                                            "They did 68 shows at the Cambridge Electric Company before moving to the new WGBH studios, in Cambridge, in November 1963."

                                            So much for The New Yorker's legendary fact-checking department. As a generation of Zoom!-watching schoolkids could have told Calvin Tompkins, the WGBH studio that opened in 1963 was not in Cambridge, but here on the south side of the river in Allston, 02134.

                                            1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                              as a generation of Zoom!-watchers...can you still to that flappy thing with your arms?

                                              (great -- now I'll have "zip ohhhh-two- one- threeeee-four -- send it to ZOOM" in my head!)

                                      2. Mostly, it was sponsored by an electric company. I don't see a company that sells electricity sponsoring a cooking program Implying that gas is superior.

                                        I doubt that it would've been an important factor for someone choosing a stove, but very few companies will sponsor a program that implies that a different product is better than theirs is as it is difficult to justify the expenditure if it is questioned.

                                        8 Replies
                                        1. re: ppllkk

                                          it was sponsored by an electric company because they *had* to use an electric range, as there was no way to run a gas line through the television studios.

                                          Julia discusses all of this in her book "My Life In France".

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            Thank you for your reply. That is very interesting. Do you remember where it is in her book. It's around here somewhere and my wife has read it. Maybe she will remember.

                                            I had always assumed that it was because of the sponsorship, not the other way around.

                                            1. re: ppllkk

                                              Read this thread. The details are all covered here.

                                              1. re: greygarious

                                                It is a long thread. Before posting I did glance through it,and I did not run across the documentation.

                                            2. re: sunshine842

                                              "they *had* to use an electric range, as there was no way to run a gas line through the television studios."

                                              This has been mentioned by several people in this thread, but why couldn't they just have had a portable propane cylinder (e.g., 20 lbs.), like is used with gas grills, sitting under the cooktop? Assuming the cooktop was mounted in an island, the propane cylinder could have sat concealed inside the island, accessible through a cupboard door.

                                              1. re: MaximRecoil

                                                I know here in NC we cannot use refillable propane cylinders indoors - it's against the state fire code.

                                                1. re: Leepa

                                                  I think that's universal. Our refillable cylinders at the one house where they were used were on the front porch at the kitchen wall. The cooktop I mention using took single-use cylinders, as do all such portable gas tops.

                                                2. re: MaximRecoil

                                                  Ask Julia -- that's the explanation in her book.

                                                  (yes, I understand what I just said. No need to point out that Julia is no longer available to ask.)

                                            3. For a six-part instructional series in 1985, titled "The Way We Cook", with Julia Child, a newspaper article quoted her as saying...: (bottom of the far right newspaper article column)

                                              .....Child chose an electric range for 'The Way We Cook.' "I'm perfectly happy with electricity if it's good," she said. "I think the gas people have fallen behind. A lot of people are buying professional gas stoves. The domestic ones are junky.".....


                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Antilope

                                                It also didn't hurt that the electric stove had LOTS of burners! Moving pots and pans over the various burners set at various levels of heat could easily approximate the quick response we love about gas stoves.

                                                1. re: Edteclady

                                                  not least because the appliance dealer and the power company would have made sure that she was using a top-of-the-line range...no point in having housewives ask for the entry-level model...