Whether your idea of heaven is whipping up Sunday brunch for eight from scratch or you live for soup from a can, how you prepare your meals—everything from what kind of stove you use to your cooking techniques—has an impact on the environment.

Cooking eco-challenges

Energy efficiency

There are as many choices in cooking appliances as there are recipes for meatloaf. However, most kitchens are equipped with a freestanding stove that combines a cooktop and oven, or a separate cooktop and wall oven. Unfortunately, neither is particularly energy efficient. That's because when you turn on the oven to cook that meatloaf, you aren't applying heat directly to the food. Instead the energy source (electricity, gas, or propane) has to first heat 35 pounds of steel and the air in the oven before it even begins to cook the meatloaf. Only about 6 percent of the energy output of a typical oven is actually absorbed by the food.[1] In fact, the US government doesn't require minimum-efficiency standards for cooking appliances—you won’t find yellow EnergyGuide labels or ENERGY STAR logos on stoves, ovens, and cooktops.

Obviously, one of the best ways to minimize your energy use is to cook less. The less you use your stove or oven, the less energy you use.

Gas or electric?

If eating out every night won't cut it, you can green your time in the kitchen by using a gas stove instead of an electric one. Gas stoves not only produce less CO2 but also waste less energy compared to electric appliances because the fuel is delivered directly to your home without undergoing any conversions. Electricity, on the other hand, is made by converting coal (or another fuel source) into electricity. One unit of electricity requires three or four units of fuel. Consequently, a gas appliance costs less than half as much to operate as an electric one.[2]

Yet, in the US more households have electric stoves. In 2001, 64 million housing units were equipped with an electric stove and 37 million had a natural gas stove.[3]

Note: A gas stove is more energy-efficient than electric but only if it has an electric ignition instead of a pilot light, which burns small amounts of gas continuously. All new gas stoves are now required to have electric ignitions. Replacing an older stove that uses a pilot light can save 40 to 50 percent of the energy the stove uses.[2]

Energy-saving oven features

Both gas and electric stoves are available with two features that can save energy: convection ovens and self-cleaning ovens. A fan in a convection oven continuously circulates the heated air around the food, so the temperature and cooking times can be reduced. On average, convection ovens use 20 percent less energy.[4] Self-cleaning models are more energy-efficient because they have more insulation, which helps to maintain oven temperature. Just don't use the self-cleaning feature more than once a month, or the energy savings from the insulation is lost.

Small cooking appliances

When cooking a small meal or just warming leftovers, smaller electric appliances do the job more efficiently. Microwave ovens, for example, reduce energy use by about two-thirds (compared to standard ovens) because they significantly reduce cooking time.[4] Pressure cookers also reduce cooking time by cooking at higher temperatures, and cut energy use by 50 to 75 percent.[5]

Cooking habits

Without government energy-efficiency standards driving appliance manufacturers, better cooking habits are the best way to save energy in the kitchen. Being conscious of how you cook, such as keeping pot lids on tightly while cooking, could save up to 50 percent of a stove’s energy consumption.[6] For example, a cook who uses a 6-inch pot on an 8-inch burner wastes more than 40 percent of the burner’s heat. Instead, be sure to match the pot size to the burner size and you’ll save about $36 annually if cooking on an electric stove and $18 if cooking on gas.[7]

Emerging technology

Manufacturers recently began offering high-end stove units with “speed ovens” or “rapid cook ovens.” These units use microwave technology, plus either halogen lamps or convection heat, to cut cooking time in the oven. As yet, there are no independent studies to show energy savings, but there are claims of cooking times being cut by 4 to 75 percent.[8]

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