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Nov 11, 2010 12:43 PM

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 - . 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 - (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.