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The cooktop question: how to make the right choice?

Here's everything you need to know to choose what's best for you--heat source, configuration, the latest features, accessories, and ventilation options

OUR TRUE LIVING ROOM IS THE KITCHEN, AND, IN THIS vital center of the house, its hearth is the cooktop. With apologies to the oven, we're cooking more food on top of the stove than in it. Witness how the cooktop has freed itself from its boxy brother to sit anywhere in the kitchen, freed itself to take a bewildering variety of forms, styles, and configurations--in short, freed itself to become one of the most confusing purchases we have to make. How do we make a rational choice?

It's not just a gas burner or an electric coil anymore. Now it's invisible elements, light bulbs, magnets. And you're no longer restricted to just one type of burner per cooktop. Different cooking elements can be paired in innovative ways: many cooktops are quick-change artists, letting you yank out a pair of burners to slide in a grill, griddle, wok, steamer, deep fryer, or rotisserie.

So what are we looking for when we buy a cooktop these days? One, it has to be drop-dead good-looking. Two, it has to be a breeze to clean. And, oh yeah, three, it still has to cook food. Figuring out how you're going to use your cooktop is a logical place to start. Look past the come-ons and take stock of your needs. What kind of cook are you?


Once you review your cooking style and aesthetic preferences, consider your heat source. A rundown of options for electric elements and gas burners follows. You don't have to stick to one type--modular cooktops with a mix of elements and burners provide great flexibility. Of course, such custom design carries a higher price.

Energy concerns are, frankly, not much of an issue. Gas units use slightly more energy, but gas is so much cheaper than electricity that it's still less expensive. A cooktop's energy use is nothing compared with that of a refrigerator, dryer, or water heater--at most about 5 percent of a house's total energy use.

As UCLA architecture and interior design professor William Peterson tells us, "An electric cooktop uses $3 a month, gas $2 a month for a family of five who cooks all its meals at home--and who is that anymore?"

A cooktop with one or two high-output burners is all most of us need, according to Peterson. "High BTUs or watts only bring things to a boil faster--that's it. Just about every cooktop type will bring a quart of water to a boil in 5 to 5 1/2 minutes. Frankly, nothing works any better than my grandmother's coal stove."

For purposes of comparison, the measure of a burner's electrical power is the watt; for gas heat, it's the BTU (British thermal unit). A watt equals about 3 1/2 BTUs. Big burners or elements have more BTUs or watts.

Electric coil. This old standard is the least expensive electric element. It heats up fairly quickly, although it lacks gas's instant response. A coil is more forgiving with imperfect pots and pans than some other electric elements. Elements generally run 1,250 to 1,500 watts; larger elements check in at 2,100 to 2,800.

Solid electric. There's no denying that they look great. Solid elements run wires through a piece of cast iron fused to the cooktop, which is usually glass but sometimes stainless steel or porcelain enamel on steel. The elements maintain an extremely even heat, but responsiveness isn't one of their long suits. If gas or induction elements are sports cars, solid elements are more like an old Volkswagen bus--slow but steady.

The way around the responsiveness problem is technique: learn to anticipate, and change the setting before it appears that you need to. It's often best to set the temperature to the one you want to ultimately reach--for example, to a simmer rather than starting on high (the response is too slow to make setting it to the higher temperature worthwhile). These units retain heat like crazy; most manufacturers suggest you turn the elements off before you finish cooking. With a little practice, you'll learn to complete the cooking process on this retained heat.

A red dot on a solid-electric element indicates that the element is thermally protected and will shut down if a pan boils dry. Some elements have silver dots; these sense a pan's temperature and cycle on and off imperceptibly to maintain a heat setting. But don't count entirely on the thermostat; there can be as much as a 20|degrees~ temperature swing.

Pan choices are more critical for solid elements than for coils. They have to be truly flat and shouldn't extend more than an inch beyond the disk. Glass pans don't perform well.

Wattages run 1,500 for small elements; 2,000 to 2,800 is standard. Some manufacturers have increased wattages up to 3,200 to make the disks heat up faster.

Radiant. Radiant elements set coils under a ceramic glass top, which is almost always a material called Ceran. It resists heat (to 1,300|degrees~) and sudden, radical temperature changes. It's also stain and impact resistant. Ceran comes in black; some tops have a textured look (usually a sort of pebbly gray) to help conceal scratches.

You can see the element glow through the glass so you know what's on. The glass also transfers heat faster than the opaque white ceramic units that were sold until about 15 years ago. Many models have indicator lights that don't go out until the cooktop adjacent to the burner is cool to the touch--a useful feature, because it, too, retains heat. Heat tends to concentrate straight up from the elements--the glass outside the element doesn't get as hot. The same cookware guidelines apply as for solid electric.

Wattages vary by element size: 1,200 to 1,400 for 6- to 7-inch elements; 1,900 for 8 1/2-inch; 2,000 for 9-inch, 2,400 to 2,800 for 10-inch. The biggest elements often have dual circuits--an outer coil around a 1,000-watt 6-inch inner circle.

Halogen. This is a radiant cooktop, with all the same surface features, but usually a couple of the coil elements have been replaced with quartz glass tubes filled with halogen gas. We're essentially talking about tremendously sophisticated heat lamps. These infrared elements heat up fast and start glowing immediately, and they're bright. Looking at a glowing halogen element is a little like looking at the sun--of course, it's no big deal when a pan is in place. Although its visual response is faster than other electric types, it's no faster at doing the work. For cookware, follow guidelines for solid electric.

Halogen is also often paired--and tends to work best--with a radiant element set in the same ring. The halogen lamp cycles on and off; the radiant keeps it steady. Wattages run from 1,200 to 2,000. Halogen bulbs do burn out on occasion (though standard life expectancy is about 20 years), and they aren't cheap to replace (about $250).

Induction. This is cooking with magnetism, and the response is as instant as gas. Once you set an appropriate pan in place and turn on the unit, a sensor triggers an induction coil that sets up an electromagnetic field reaching about an inch above the cooking surface. It heats only the pan, not the cooktop. (The cooktop will still heat up from the pan--but spills won't burn on.) Remove the pan, and there's no live heat source.

Don't worry; it won't screw up your watch or your uncle's pacemaker. Nor will it heat up a spoon or your car keys. Protection circuitry keeps it from kicking in on anything less than 4 inches in diameter.

A pan doesn't have to be flat; it just has to contain ferrous metal--cast iron, magnetic 300 or 400 series stainless steel, or porcelain on steel.

Wattages run about 1,750 to 2,000 per element. Elements can be placed beneath ceramic glass tops or set into tiles that can be positioned anywhere on a counter. Induction units feature touch-pad electronic controls in place of mechanical dials.

Conventional gas. If you need high performance, gas is your cooktop. You have the greatest range of BTU output options, from standard burners to restaurant-style cooktops with mammoth grates and burners that look like rocket nozzles.

Average burners for natural gas run 8,000 to 12,000 BTUs. "Below 9,000 BTUs for the big burner, we start hearing complaints," says Mike Heintz at University Electric in Santa Clara, California. Beefy restaurant-style burners designed for home use crank out 15,000 BTUs or more. Propane burns a little cooler, so BTU ratings drop off to 7,000 to 10,000 if you're using LP gas.

Most gas cooktops have electronic ignition instead of a pilot light. The gas ignites when you set the dial to "light," then you adjust the flame as necessary. If you can't get electricity to the cooktop, you can still find cooktops with pilot lights.

Sealed gas. These burners are fused to the cooktop. No more drip pans, no more finding gross surprises when you finally build up the nerve to clean the burner box. Boilovers just meander over the slick glass surfaces. Burner caps and grates are generally enameled cast iron.

All have pilotless ignitions now, and some manufacturers offer an instant reignition feature. "The best thing it does is light your stove from any position on the dial. I've never heard of a flame being blown out on a cooktop," Heintz tells us.

Keep water away from igniters. Water makes them act screwy; they'll click until they're dry.

There are no performance differences between like-output conventional and sealed gas burners. Sealed gas even has a better simmer because the flame is more spread out.


Unfortunately, test runs on cooktops aren't an option for most shoppers. Rarely are cooktops hooked up in showrooms; the liability is too great (kids love to play with knobs). But often they're set up in kitchenlike settings, so you can see how they look and get a feel for how they're configured.

On aesthetic grounds, you'll likely find several candidates that will fit the bill. You want a sleek European look? No problem. You want to look as if you're running a restaurant? No problem. You want a nice, simple, Luddite cooktop? No problem. Count on finding cooktops in white, almond, black, steel gray, or pebbly gray. Surface options are porcelain-coated steel, stainless steel, tempered glass, and ceramic glass.

How fastidious a housekeeper you are tracks nicely with your options. Smooth surfaces, while a cinch to clean, also tend to show soil, whereas electric coil and standard gas units may not show soil as readily but are harder to clean when the time comes. If cleanup ease is your key concern, look for sealed elements or smooth tops. These cooktops are usually tempered or ceramic glass, and even the knobs yank off for cleanup. But wipe them off after each use; cooked-on stains are more difficult to remove. And mop up any sugary spills before they harden--they can pit the surface of ceramic glass.

While checking things out, notice the position of the cooktop controls. Are they logically placed, legibly marked, and easy to understand? Knobs are usually mounted on the cooktop; some are on the front edge. (European models connect the control panel to the cooktop with a long cable, so you can mount the controls anywhere.) Knobs on top are generally safer, particularly if there are small children in the house. But front-mounted controls may stay cleaner--they're out of the way of splatters. Another safety feature--terrific if tops don't show when they're hot--is an indicator light that lets you know when the unit can still singe you (available for radiant and halogen only).

Particularly if you're buying a gas cooktop, take in a few of the pans you use most often and set them on the grates. Some grates look as if they ought to be in a modern art museum, but they're just plain dumb in terms of what they're supposed to do--support your pans. Check to see how well they hold the pans, how easily pans slide from one burner to another, and how forgiving burners are if you set a pan off center.


You'll find a bewildering variety of cooktop configurations to choose from. (Some examples are shown above.) To determine if a given configuration will work for you, pretend you're cooking a meal; place the combination of pans you use most on the cooktop. Do the pans fit the burners or elements where you'll use them?

Many experts believe the best cooktop combination is a large, high-powered burner or element plus a smaller, less-hot burner at the cooktop front, with the same pair, in opposite positions, in back. This provides easy access to foods that need constant attention, in both large and small pans--a frying pan of browning meat and a saucepan of custard, for instance.

Besides the standard setups in the showroom, check out modular setups. Most modular burners or elements come in pairs. The rule of thumb for price of modular tops is $250 to $450 per two-burner set (halogen can go as high as $1,000). Figure starting at $1,200 to $1,600 for the basic setup--four to six elements and a downdraft vent.


Cooktop installations are, luckily, pretty standard. The vast majority of cooktops come in 30- or 36-inch widths, and they're all at least 2 to 3 inches shallower than the standard 24-inch counter depth. Drop-in tops with no venting run from about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches high.

For electric tops, figure on needing 30 to 40 amps of 220-volt service. Gas needs gas (coming in on common 1/2-inch rigid pipe), plus a standard 110-volt electrical outlet to work the ignition system.

Cooktops generally rest on the surrounding counter surface and are secured to the surface from below. They're insulated so that contact between cooktops and wood surfaces isn't a factor.

DOWNDRAFT, UPVENT--What's the difference?

Cooktops don't have to hunker against a wall with a hood overhead. With downdraft vents, they can be placed anywhere there are counters. An add-on vent unit will set you back at least $500; one that's integral to the cooktop--and many are--generally costs less.

Built-in downdraft units usually run from front to back between burner pairs or, now more commonly, along the back edge of the cooktop.

Back-of-the-cooktop units can either sit flush to the counter or rise out of the counter to put intakes up near the pot tops. Sometimes, a front-to-back downdraft is the only option; modular units and tops that feature a grill fall into this category.

Surface vents have been known to take the heat away from the food, and the flame away from a burner. Turn on the fan and a boil may turn to a simmer. And it can cool the top surface of barbecued food because it's drawing cold air over the top. The rising units offer some advantages on this score. Downdrafts also eat up cabinet space beneath the cooktop; rear mounts take less. The least they'll eat up is 20 percent of the cabinet space under the cooktop.

Vents are rated by how much air they move in cubic feet per minute (cfm). The vent works best with the straightest possible ducting path. Downdrafts with inboard fans start at 250 to 600 cfm; capacity doubles with an exterior fan powering the system. Some vents with long duct runs require exterior-mounted fans.

The maximum duct run for a 450-cfm venting system is 25 to 30 feet; a 900- to 1,000-cfm unit can suck air through a duct up to 60 feet long. However, the openness of the room, cooktop location, and presence or absence of overhead ventilation affect these figures.

Elbows and other duct fittings have equivalency ratings to help you figure the length of your run (for instance, a 3 1/4 by 10-inch flat elbow is calculated to a 12-foot equivalent). The most common duct sizes are 8-inch-diameter pipe or 3 1/4 by 10-inch rectangular ducting that tucks between studs, though some systems use 9-inch-diameter or 3 1/4- by 14-inch ducting.

Downdraft vents have dishwasher-washable or replaceable (more expensive) filters. One unit even has a sensor light to let you know when filters need cleaning.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on downdraft vents
Author:Crosby, Bill; Anusasanan, Linda Lau
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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