What to Look for in a Cooktop

Does your kitchen need a facelift? A new cooktop gives you the ultimate choices in design flexibility. Whether you are looking for a sleek electric cooktop, a professional-style gas cooktop, or the energy efficient induction cooktop, there are as many choices and details as there are recipes you can make in the kitchen. Understanding your space constraints, cooking needs and enhancement options will help you to select the kitchen cooktop that is right for your budget and household needs.

Gas or Electric?
Gas used to be the darling for professional chefs, but advanced technology, smooth-top surfaces and induction heating have made electric cooktops serious rivals. Chances are the choice between gas and electric has been made for you depending on your available hookups, unless you're planning an extensive kitchen makeover.

Gas cooktops still offer the quickest reaction time and many cooks like the ability to judge heat levels by the visible flame. Gas burners can generate lots of power and excel at high-heat tasks like searing and stir-frying, but are less capable of maintaining very low simmer temperatures. If you're considering a gas cooktop, look for burner output of 9,000 BTUs per burner.

Electric cooktops have a reputation for slower response, but technological advances have put them almost on par with gas. Electric cooktops are more consistent at low temperatures, making them great for long simmers and delicate sauces. The most popular electric cooktops are smooth-tops, which produce heat from radiant elements beneath a flat, ceramic-glass surface and are considerably easier to clean than the grates and burners on gas cooktops. If you're considering an electric cooktop, be willing to invest a few more dollars to avoid electric cooktops with coil burners-they're less responsive than advanced models and they're harder to clean.

The latest advance in electric cooktops is induction technology, which uses electromagnetic technology to transfer heat directly to your cookware instead of the burner surface. Induction cooktops provide instantaneous temperature control and the safety of a cooler surface, and they're energy efficient. Keep in mind that you must use induction cooktops with cookware that's magnetic or the heat transfer will fail. The advantages of induction cooktops don't come without a price-most models start at $1,500 and prices rise steeply from there.

Size and Ventilation
Cooktops offer homeowners flexibility when it comes to kitchen design because they can be installed anywhere in the kitchen. However, you'll still need to determine which size fits your plans and your cooking needs. Most cooktops come in sizes of 30 inches wide that offer four burners or 36 inches wide with five burners. High-end, professional-style cooktops can measure as wide as 48 inches and come with up to six burners and additional cooking surfaces like grills or griddles. The bigger the cooktop, the higher the price tag-and the more counter space you'll need for installation.

You'll also need to consider how to vent your cooktop if it will be installed where a range or cooktop hasn't been before. Range hoods can do the job if the cooktop will be under a cabinet, but if you plan to install in a kitchen island, look for downdraft cooktops that use fans to pull smoke, steam and grease down rather than up, avoiding the need for a hood.

Design Features
For most homeowners, a conventional four-burner cooktop will suffice, but if you're serious about creativity in the kitchen, there are some features available on high-end cooktops that are worth the investment if you use them.

  • Power burners deliver up to 18,000 BTUs on gas cooktops or 3500 watts on electric models and excel at high-heat techniques like stir-frying; low power simmer burners protect delicate sauces from scorching.
  • Dual elements, found on electric cooktops, offer cooks different-sized elements, like six and nine inches, on a single burner, allowing you to choose the burner size you need based on the cookware you're using.
  • Bridge elements close the gap between two main burners to accommodate and evenly heat oversized cookware.
  • Continuous grates, found on gas cooktops, eliminate gaps between all burner surfaces, making it easy to slide heavy cookware from burner to burner.
  • Modular components let you customize your cooktop surface to your cooking preferences by combining gas, electric and induction elements or by adding accessories like grills, woks, steamers and deep fryers.

If quick cleanup is a top priority, choose a smooth-top electric cooktop. Unlike traditional coil burners, which allow spills to get on and under the elements, flat, ceramic-glass surfaces wipe clean in seconds. You'll need to purchase separate cleaners made for these surfaces. For even quicker clean up, choose electric cooktops with digital touchpad controls. If you choose a model with knob controls, make sure they're removable.

Gas cooktops require a bit more elbow grease to keep clean, but choosing a model with the right features will simplify the job. Look for gas cooktops with sealed burners that prevent spills from entering the burner box, dishwasher safe grates and removable knobs.  Another trend in gas cooktop design is "gas on glass," where sealed burners are mounted directly onto a continuous ceramic-glass surface that's almost as easy to clean as an electric smooth-top.

Induction cooktops provide the most protection against burns, as their elements cool immediately after cookware is removed. However, the high cost of induction technology may put them out of reach for most shoppers.

When shopping for gas cooktops, look for models with electric ignition, which saves you from having to manage the pilot light. Some gas cooktops feature automatic re-ignition that prevents flames from extinguishing accidentally at low-heat settings.

If you're purchasing an electric cooktop, you won't have to worry about the danger of open flames, but do choose models with indicator lights that let you know at a glance if a burner is hot.

No matter which cooktop you choose, if it has digital touchpad controls, look for child-lock or automatic shutoff features to keep kids safe.

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