The original cult appliance: ‘My mother used the electric

I double-check the address that’s been sent to me through Facebook Marketplace and ring the doorbell. Jennifer answers the door, asks if I’m Tristan, and hands me my glimmering prize: a 1957 Sunbeam electric frypan. It is in full working order.

“My mother used to cook every meal for us in that,” she tells me as she takes my $25. A frequently repeated lamb and vegetable stew has left its scars in the pan’s cast aluminium surface. Soon, the dents and scratches will be joined by the reanimated spirits of my own mother’s chicken casserole and curried sausages.

Jennifer and I aren’t alone in our nostalgia for this revolutionary device. Long before air fryers, Instant Pots and high-end blenders, the Sunbeam electric frypan ruled the benchtop. Search the cupboards of any pre-1990s house in the country and you’d probably find one.

Tristan Lutze’s 1957 Sunbeam electric fry pan: still in working order. Photograph: Tristan Lutze

Introduced to Australia in 1955, only the kettle and toaster were more ubiquitous in postwar kitchens. The plug-in pan with a single temperature-adjusting knob had been launched in America two years earlier, but quickly became an essential part of Australian home cooking life.

“The electric frypan’s attractions were twofold,” says Julie Gibbs, a food writer and curatorial adviser to the Australian Culinary Archive. “It was incredibly easy to use and clean, and very affordable to buy and run.

“My mother used the frypan constantly to save on power instead of heating up the oven.”

Gibbs remembers holes forming on the surface of pikelets and lamb roasts cooked alongside potatoes and carrots – formative culinary memories shared with some of the country’s most celebrated chefs.

“My enduring memory of the Sunbeam frypan was the crackle, pop and smell of the Sunday mutton roast,” says chef and author Mark Best. “Dad got it on early so that it would be ready for lunch, with the spuds joining it soon after.”

A vintage advertisement for the electric frypan highlighting its ability to grill, bake, roast and makes stews and casseroles.
A vintage advertisement for the electric frypan. Photograph: Sunbeam

Like Gibbs, Best believes it was the era’s sluggish electric stoves that saw the Sunbeam take up “a fair portion of the benchtop real estate”.

“Spiral electric element stovetops were so inefficient, and usually relegated to boiling the shit out of vegetables.” He recalls the electric frypan as “the Thermomix of the day”.

For chef Matt Stone (Ciao Mate), the frypan was so essential to his mother (“she used it more than any other cookery method”) that he was shocked to find it absent in his first commercial kitchen.

As an apprentice chef, he asked his mother to teach him her technique for garlicky potatoes, so he could serve them as his first ever staff meal. “I freaked out when I realised there was no electric frypan and I had to use a cast iron pan on the stove. Pretty sure the potatoes ended up burnt and raw at the same time.”

Jason Saxby, Head Chef of Raes in Byron Bay, says it “was used pretty much every day by my mum for everything she cooked”.

“She used it so much the base was warped.”

As well as the cutlets, rissoles and sausages in Saxby’s mother’s repertoire, localised versions of “Asian” fare like fried rice and honey soy noodles made regular appearances.

As waves of migration from Europe and Asia set a culinary cat among the staid pigeons of “traditional” English cookery, Australian home kitchens became a frontier of appropriated multiculturalism. In the absence of appropriate cookware, the electric frypan served as an ersatz wok. Attempts at chow mein and apricot chicken were spurred on by the spectacular success of the 1978 Australian Women’s Weekly Chinese Cookbook.

For Gibbs, that Asian home cooking explosion manifested as “some mincemeat with a tin of Kan Tong Asian vegetables and soy sauce”, while the chow mein of Mark Best’s childhood is remembered as “mostly mince and cabbage with no evidence of mein”.

A vintage advertisement for the Sunbeam electric frypan.
A vintage advertisement for the Sunbeam electric frypan. Photograph: Sunbeam

But Sydney-based chef Dan Hong (Mr Wong) grew up watching the appliance used for more authentic fare.

“My mum used it a lot for shallow-frying at home in the mid-to-late 80s,” Hong says of his mother, Angie, who later ran a Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney’s north. “[She’d make] spring rolls, fried chicken wings, that sort of thing.”

While Sunbeam (and others) still produce electric frypans, the device’s popularity ebbed as other appliances improved.

“In the 60s and 70s, ovens just had a top and bottom element, and the solid cooktops were horrendous,” says Choice’s home economist, Fiona Mair, who remembers her mother cooking beef stroganoff and apricot chicken in their electric frypan. “We now have multifunctional ovens that cook food beautifully and more economically.”

The cooking guide on the handle of Tristan Lutze’s vintage electric frypan.
The cooking guide on the handle of Tristan Lutze’s vintage electric frypan. Photograph: Tristan Lutze

While Choice doesn’t currently review new models of the electric frypan, Mair suggests any potential energy savings that plug-in gadgets might provide need to be balanced with other factors.

“With small appliances, you’re not having to heat up a whole oven,” Muir says, “but you’ve got storage issues, safety issues, and also the cooking capacity isn’t huge. If you’re going to end up having to cook in batches, you’re better off using your oven.”

The lifespan of newer models is also a concern to consumers, Muir says. Many contemporary devices break down after only a few years of service. “Remember that at the end of its life it goes into landfill. Often it’s better to use your oven instead of these short-lived appliances.”

Back home, I plug the 65-year-old frypan into the wall and turn the dial to 300F (150C), the temperature prescribed for sausages on the guide printed on its handle. The red indicator light beneath the knob flickers to dim life. The sausages hit the hot aluminium surface with a satisfying squeal.