Cooking with a vintage stove

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Construction

I have a confession to make. Until last month, I had never cooked on a gas stove.

There's more: It's not just that I'm now cooking on a gas stove for the first time. It's a vintage gas stove. I'm not sure how old it is, but when the guy from the gas company showed up to inspect it, he stood back and whistled with appreciation.

"That's an old workhorse," he said. "You don't see those anymore!"

That immediately convinced me I was going to burn the house down the moment I fired it up.

But over the last several weeks, I have come to realize two things: First, there is definitely truth to the enthusiasm of the saying, "Now you're cooking with gas!" After all those years with an electric stove, I have now been initiated into the world of awesome temperature control.

And second, that a vintage stove is much more than just a pretty piece of history.

A brief history of the cookstove

Interestingly enough, I have cooked with wood, which makes the fact that this is my first gas stove even more surprising. Wood stoves were created about 200 years ago, and were really born of a simple idea: To move the flames of the open hearth to a box that would contain them, and therefore provide better control of the heat. Those early stoves used wood as the heat source, but after the Civil War, coal became a major player on the kitchen scene.

Cooks in England had embraced the use of gas by the 1860s, but in America the fuel took some time to catch on. By the 1900s, when gas companies began to see competition from electric companies for lighting houses, they turned to cooking with gas as a viable business alternative -- and cooks were much happier for it. Much lighter and more compact gas ranges began to replace the large, bulky wood and coal stoves. Best of all, gas didn't require a chimney, which opened up new kitchen design ideas for homeowners everywhere.

Soon other options began to flood in, including the vapor stove -- which made use of new petroleum products -- and eventually the electric stove, which become popular around the 1930s. By the time the 1940s rolled around, wood and coal stoves had fallen out of common use and now gas and electric were king. Automatic controls, timers, new configurations, and more rolled out in showrooms everywhere, and soon the modern stove, just like the one you have in your kitchen, was born.

Cooking with history

In our sleek modern world, an old stove immediately brings a nostalgia for the old days. And in all but the most modern decors, an older stove will look just fine. But before you take the plunge to cooking with gas on a vintage stove -- or burning wood in your really old version -- it pays to have the stove thoroughly inspected by a contractor who knowledgeable about vintage kitchen appliances. A vintage stove might have to be restored to meet today's safety codes, so if you do choose to purchase an old beauty at an estate sale, keep that in mind.

Cooking with gas is still a work in progress for me, and learning the quirks of my old stove makes dinnertime more exciting than usual. But I'm quite happy to have this blast from the past in my more modern home. It's a daily reminder that some things simply get better with age.