I have sweated over the flickering blue gas of Wolfs and Vikings and Thermadors. I have uttered curses at the glowing coils of Kenmores and Maytags and GEs. I have sautéed and deglazed and seared and poached all manner of flesh over hulking prehistoric beasts of no known provenance, things so foreboding and monolithic it seemed the kitchen walls must have risen up around them.
I have rocked recipes and ruled over flames. I have battled and burned ingredients that undid me and undid meals. I have had intimate interactions with ranges ranging in cost from the tens of thousands to the low hundreds.
Some were sleek stainless steel, and some were coated with decades-old crusts of grease as black as death. Some were shabby and scuffed, in tidy but run-down rental homes; some were in restaurants where mingling aromas of vaporized fry oil and Ecolab sanitizer prevailed over sizzling garlic and baking dough. Some had six powerful burners and a well-seasoned flattop. Some had three spotty burners and one undersized dark horse champion. All of them had quirks.
When you do everything right and your dinner still turns out wrong, don’t blame your cookware. Don’t blame the cookbook. Don’t blame the cook. Honey, blame it on the range.
Does it take forever to heat up? Is the biggest burner lopsided so all of the oil pools on one half of the skillet? Do you have to ignite the gas with a match every frigging time because the pilot’s always out? Do the controls have a layout so counter-intuitive you’re always adjusting the heat for the back burner when you mean to be adjusting the heat on the front? Does the power source short out from time to time so your pasta water quietly plummets from a churning boil to a tepid muck? Man, screw that stove.
And I can’t even get started on ovens. I bought a cheap oven thermometer—two, actually, just to cross-check—and discovered that the oven at our last house ran, on average, fifty degrees hot or fifty degrees cool. Which direction was anybody’s guess. I had to rotate pans and peek and prod like crazy just to get evenly browned cookies.
Yet there was a restaurant, one with an aforementioned prehistoric monster range, where we had two ovens triggered by two indecipherable, misshapen knobs, their dials long ago rubbed or melted off. We called one the “fast” oven and one the “slow” oven. I baked pies and cakes and bubbling little cauldrons of artichoke dip, and they all came out looking just the way they were supposed to, and to this day no one knows what the hell temperature those ovens were. It had good mojo, and that was enough.
You deal with the range you have. This is the skill. The skill is not identifying the range you want. Master the range you have. Finesse it. Understand that it will never be perfect, even if it’s the big expensive one and a foxy celebrity chef endorsed it in that glossy ad in Saveur. A range is just a tool. You are the operator.
Our current range in our current house is white, a budget Roper by Whirlpool. It’s adequate. I grapple with its knobs, which I manhandle enough that they are apt to fall off. I know how to get a decent stir-fry out of the thing, using the biggest burner in the back corner where the wok barely fits, and where I have to crank the heat up to eleven and let it sit for a good while just so the burner can muster up enough energy to approximate wok hay, the elusive crisp-crunchy-juicy-tender quality that a good wok technique imparts to meat and vegetables. (This is why decent take-out so often trumps our well-intentioned attempts at various ethnic foods at home. Our genteel Western ranges achieve wussy BTUs.)
The drip pans are rusty and the enamel is scratched. The oven has a self-cleaning feature, though I never run it, and so there are charred hazelnuts and carbonized remains of dripping pie juices. It’s not fiery, the affair I have with this range, but it gets food on the table, and for now, that’s enough. Because there will be another house someday, another job, another kitchen, another range to decipher and then dominate. Another notch on the wok handle, another day spent facing the stove, another blazing give-and-take with the most animated inanimate object we loathe and love.
This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I contribute.