Thursday, September 21, 2023
The debate on whether paella is better on a gas stove or on a glass-ceramic hob is perhaps one of the most polarized in Spanish gastronomy (and not only in the Valencian Region). In any case, both energy camps share a common base: the need for heat to turn a handful of ingredients, with rice as the protagonist, into a delicious dish.
To talk about energy and food is to talk about our own evolution as a species, since the relationship between cooking and energy dates back to our prehistory, and since then they have not been separated. According to Harvard University research, homo erectus was already cooking its food 1.9 million years ago. This is an important historical evolutionary fact because ingesting meat cooked over the heat of a fire allowed us to soften the texture of food. A detail in our diet, however, that brought a great change to our way of life. Thanks to that first kitchen, the campfire, we need less energy and time to chew.
The world's first cook, homo erectus, succeeded in ensuring that from spending 48% of the day eating, we needed no more than 5%. Even our molars were reduced, but that was only a physical change. More free time, more time for new discoveries and breakthroughs. In any case, it was still thousands of years away before we began to refine recipes, a gastronomy issue inextricably linked to the use and type of energy. Because if we started with a barbecue, the next step was cooking. The first to do so? The Egyptians and the Babylonians, pioneers in the use of incipient stone ovens.
It was not until the Middle Ages that the griddle and the wood-fired oven were invented. Here the modern kitchen was born. England, in 1630, brought us a breakthrough that at first many considered somewhat crazy: the coal-fired oven. It was patented by John Sibthrope; the poets called it "captive fire”, which is perhaps why there were some who were reluctant. But the energy+cooking tandem was already more than inseparable.
It didn't take long for the steam kettle to arrive, although the real revolution was on its way: the gas stove. The first was based on a breakthrough devised by a German man in his chemical laboratory. It was a British man, James Sharp, who patented the first gas stove in 1826. A reputed Victorian chef in London named Alexis Soyer, a sort of influencer of his times, gave him a hand with marketing by saying that the stove could be turned off when it wasn't cooking. It was great progress over firewood and charcoal. Not only because of the savings, but also because there was already an awareness of the pollution caused by fossil fuels.
As with all new technology, there were those who had their misgivings about the use of gas, but there was no turning back. It would take 66 years to reach the next energy revolution in the kitchen. It happened on the other side of the Atlantic. There, Canadian inventor Thomas Ahearn registered an "electric furnace". It is known that the invention had served to prepare some meals at the Windsor Hotel in Ottawa but was shown to the world at the Chicago World's Fair of 1833. It would take much longer than gas cooking to become widespread for several reasons. The first, as with all other advances, was distrust of new things; the second, and probably the one that best explains this delay, was that electrification was still far from reaching all inhabited areas of the West.
But, once electricity entered the kitchen it never left. Meanwhile, a new world opened up. It was by mistake, a serendipity we have to thank for many inventions; an American came up with what we would call vitro, or glass-ceramics. Donald Stookey got confused when setting the oven temperature. On the upside: he wanted to heat glass to 600 degrees and did so at 900. It was 1953, and it soon became apparent that this could be used for cooking. The man who ignited the spark of vitro, a prolific inventor, also brought other advances in the world of optics and photography.
From the new glass-ceramic stove, the induction stove was later developed. In its different variants, these kitchens are installed in furniture fully adapted to homes and large industrial or restaurant structures to make what we eat more appetizing; and not just because our taste buds say so, but because science confirms it. In 1912, the Frenchman Louis Camille Maillard explained to the world that the pleasure we get from certain cooked foods had a chemical justification. It is named the Maillard reaction after its discoverer, and explains, in part (the process is not yet fully deciphered), why some humans cannot resist the smell, and taste, of a good barbecue or a spit on the beach.
Just as there is research into flavors and ingredients, there is research into processes that require energy. However, cooking and energy generation are two major fields of human knowledge and, as such, are increasingly oriented towards the pursuit of well-being and sustainability. Among the last major joint milestones were the invention of the microwave oven in 1945 and, now in the 21st century, the air fryer. It was introduced to the world in 2010 and extended its commercialization during the pandemic. It is now, according to the U.S. press, the latest trendy major household appliance. It allows for cooking without oil, a small revolution the way we cook, and also eat, in terms of our diet.
But, the relationship between energy with cooking and its ingredients, including fats, is not just about preparation or cutting calories.
Just as the new trends in gastronomy are committed to the consumption of zero-kilometer, local and seasonal products to reduce the carbon footprint and promote the circular economy, energy+cooking research is making more and more progress every day in the recycling of its own waste. A great example is new second-generation biofuels for engines from waste oils. These so-called second-generation (2G) biofuels are produced from what are known as circular raw materials, such as used cooking oil and agricultural waste. This is waste that, if not reused, would end up in landfills. In fact, Cepsa is already producing 2G biofuels at its energy park in Huelva, having carried out successful tests in airplanes and ships.
These biofuels can be used in land, air and maritime transportation, as well as in industry and, due to their organic origin, they reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil fuels. This figure confirms the efficient convergence of cooking and energy research, both of which are at the forefront in the sustainable use and exploitation of natural resources. They can't help but be so: because both cooking and energy draw from the same nature, while always being in continuous evolution.
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