If you're thinking about installing a cooktop, read on. These questions and answers will help you decide which style works best for you.
Q: What makes a cooktop superior to a conventional range?
A: The advantages are practical, physical, and visual. You can have a gas cooktop and separate electric oven (the historic consumer preference) or vice versa. A cooktop frees up cabinet space below for pots and pans and can be installed on an island or peninsula, boosting kitchen-design options. You can put a cooktop in one place and a built-in wall oven (easier on the back than a range oven) elsewhere. When two cooks are working at the same time, they each have access to a separate appliance. Because they're installed virtually flush with a countertop, cooktops can be far less visible and utilitarian looking than ranges, an important consideration in kitchens open to adjacent rooms.
Q: I don't have room for a wall oven in my small kitchen. Will a separate oven fit under a cooktop?
A: That depends on the depth of the cooktop unit itself. Most are 4-6 inches deep, others just 2 inches deep. With downdraft models, often 18-19 inches deep because of the fan and ductwork below, there's no room for an oven. Although some ovens will fit in the remaining space under certain cooktops, make sure the ovens are large enough for your needs and can be installed high enough for easy access.
Q: I like the streamlined look of electric ceramic-glass cooktops, but I've heard electric burners are slow to heat up. True?
A: Not anymore. Today, some electric burners reach maximum heat in as few as three seconds. Response time between high and low settings has been cut drastically as well.
Q. I'd like to put a cooktop in my island, but I don't want an exhaust hood overhead. Is there an alternative?
A. If you can run a duct under the floor and outside, downdraft ventilation is the solution. Vents are built in to the surface of some cooktops. Others have vents that telescope, rising several inches above the cooktop surface when needed and disappearing between meals.
Q: How much heat output do I need with a cooktop?
A: Most professional chefs say there's no such thing as too much heat. You can always turn a high-power burner down, but you can't turn a low-power burner up beyond its maximum. With electric cooktops, the maximum is about 2,500 watts, and with gas, about 15,000 Btus (which are roughly equivalent). Usually you'll find just one or two high-heat burners on any given cooktop. The others provide medium and low heat.
Q: Which, then, is better, gas or electric?
A: Both have their die-hard champions, so in a way, you can't go wrong. Traditionally, gas has been more popular because you can see a flame, easily adjust it, and get an immediate response. But appliance engineers have made great strides in fine-tuning electric burners for virtually instant response. Both gas and electric low-heat burners have been vastly improved, too, making it possible to hold melted chocolate for hours without scorching. Style, size, number of burners, color, cost, materials, and safety features also are factors to consider.
Q: What's a sealed gas burner?
A. It's a burner capped with a metal disk, like the cap on a mushroom. The disk prevents spills from dribbling into the tiny holes from which the gas and flame emerge and provides a more even distribution of heat than the old-fashioned, direct-flame burner did. The heat is spread across the bottom of the pan, not just concentrated in the middle, where it may result in scorching.
Q. I'm confused by all the different kinds of electric cooktops. Can you explain the various options?
A. An electric burner by any other name is still an electric burner. Unlike in the past, most are concealed under a layer of ceramic glass. Halogen burners heat with halogen gas contained in a tube, similar to those in halogen lamps. A ribbon burner is a metal element in a spiral shape; some say it provides more intense heat than the standard exposed radiant coil found on electric ranges and cooktops in the past. A solid hob hides its electric heating element under a solid metal plate rather than ceramic glass. With magnetic induction, the burner doesn't heat up, but the pan's molecules vibrate to heat it and its contents.
Q. Do I need a specific kind of cookware for a particular type of cooktop?
A. For magnetic-induction cooking, you'll need ferrous cookware-steel, stainless steel, triple stainless steel or cast iron. For others, check manufacturers' recommendations. Generally, newer high-output burners (2,500 watts or 15,000 Btus) require medium- to heavy-duty cookware, either stainless steel or a "sandwich" of stainless steel and aluminum or copper. For a variety of reasons (including uneven heat distribution, heat transference, or the potential for damaging the cooktop itself), some manufacturers recommend against using glass, ceramic, or cast-iron cookware on ceramic-glass cooktops.
Q. I notice more five- and six-burner cooktops on the market these days. Do I really need more than four burners?
A. Maybe not for day-to-day cooking. But for family gatherings, dinner parties, and holidays, you'll be grateful for the extra one or two. In a two-cook kitchen, a separate two-burner unit in another location could supplement a standard four-burner in the primary cooking zone. The space between burners, grate size, and configuration are important factors. For those who routinely cook with large pots and pans, it could make more sense to have four widely spaced burners than five or six crowded together. So, take your largest frying pan or stockpot with you when you go shopping. More burners mean more flexibility. Restaurant chefs often shift pans back and forth between high- and low-heat burners, rather than make constant adjustments to one. One of the advantages of continuous grates or ceramic-glass tops is you can slide pans from one burner to another without lifting. In any case, while cooks often bemoan having too few burners, no one ever complains about too many.
Q: Will any cooktop fit on my standard-depth countertop?
A: Most are designed for standard-depth counters, leaving a couple of inches at the front and back. Some commercial-style units, however, will protrude beyond the edge of the countertop. Because you need some countertop space on either side, width is sometimes a critical issue. Most cooktops are 30, 36, and 45-48 inches wide. Some manufacturers have maintained the same cutout dimensions for years to make it easy to replace a cooktop without having to alter the countertop.
Q: Are cooktops easier to clean than stove tops?
A: Yes. On gas models, sealed burners keep spills from getting into the burner elements. On some, drip pans span the entire width of the cooktop, so boiled-over foods can't dribble below the surface. Both gas and electric cooktops feature smooth glass, which is a vast improvement over individual drip pans.
Q. Are there cooktop accessories I should consider?
A. Yes, on gas cooktops, look for griddles or grills, steamers, rotisseries, wok rings that hold round-bottom, stir-fry pans, and simmer plates that can be placed atop burners to prevent scorching at low-heat settings. Some electric models now offer "keep warm" zones to maintain food at serving temperature, bridge elements that make one big race-track-shaped burner out of two smaller ones, and touch-pad controls that eliminate grime-catching knobs and minimize maintenance (also a convenience for those who lack grasping power).
Q: What color choices do I have?
A. They vary, depending on brand. Most gas cooktops come in black, white, almond, or stainless steel. Electric ceramic-glass cooktops are usually black, white, or a speckled black-white-gray that mimics granite. Several American and European manufacturers offer blue, red, green, yellow, and other hues.