Choosing Cooktops

Get tips on how to choose a cooktop that works best for you.

If you shop for cooktops, stoves, and kitchen appliances like a pro chef, you'll learn to check critical components that dramatically affect how well you cook. A former professional chef (and now a certified kitchen designer) gave us some insider tips on how to choose a cooktop.

Talking Heat Firepower is often the essential—and unnamed—ingredient in many fabulous recipes. That makes understanding heat a critical cooking skill. For example, if chicken turns out greasy, the problem could be related to heat output, or more specifically, recovery ratio. When you drop food into a pan, the temperature of the water, oil, or grease plummets. The time it takes for the liquid to regain its original temperature is called the recovery ratio. Until the high-heat temperature is recovered and seals the chicken, oil seeps into the meat, creating a greasier flavor. Recovery ratio also plays a key role in preparing sauces.

Cooktops with a maximum heat output equal to or higher than 12,000 Btus (British thermal units) provide optimal recovery. The average cooktop produces a maximum of 6,000-10,000 Btus; some cooktops are rated in watts (1 watt equals 4 Btus).

Moving Heat A cooktop's grates play a big role in cooking, through heat dispersion (distribution) and dissipation (release). Heat must be evenly distributed and escape the grate easily when it is decreased or cut off.

While many people like continuous cast iron grates because the even surface allows for easy pot shifting, continuous grates on gas cooktops dissipate heat more slowly. If you choose continuous grates for a gas cooktop, simmering may require moving dishes to another burner, just as on an electric model.

The Right Cookware Pots and pans are critical in the cooking equation. Heat dispersion and dissipation vary among dishware materials, with copper, aluminum, and cast iron cookware being the best heat distributors. Cast iron cookware provides poor dissipation, holding heat long after the burner is shut off. Stainless steel cookware is a popular choice and is used for lining in other types of cookware.

When shopping for copper or aluminum cookware, buy only those lined with stainless steel, tin, or silver to prevent unsafe effects on food.

Range or Countertop? Stand-alone cooktops on countertops and range cooktops offer the same basic functions, but they affect your kitchen setup differently. A range is often the smarter choice in smaller kitchens with limited layout options. In spacious cooking zones, a cooktop and double ovens offer generous cooking capacity and layout flexibility.

Burners come in many shapes and sizes. Some cooktops even come with interchangeable accessories, such as grills, griddles, and woks. Larger burners offer the most flexibility and let you cook "horizontally" rather than "vertically." When cooking chili, for example, smaller burners, such as the 9-inch units on many cooktops, require the use of small, tall pots and frequent stirring for even cooking. That means meals take longer to cook. Bigger burners, such as the 12-inch units available on some cooktops, support larger, shallower pots that produce faster, more even cooking with less stirring. Some cooktops on stoves feature a bridge element that combines neighboring burners to accommodate large pans.

Few residential ranges or cooktops offer high and low output on every burner. Shop for cooktops with high-power burners (for sauteing) in the front, and low-power burners (for simmering) in the back.

Go shopping with your favorite large pot. Try it out on potential purchases to make sure it doesn't bump up against control knobs or neighboring burners. Also, pans should be no more than 1 inch larger than burners. Buying a cooktop with nothing but large burners lets you move pots without worrying about whether they fit a particular burner.

Gas burners come in sealed or open setups. Open burners achieve maximum heat output more quickly, but pans sit farther from the flame than pans on sealed burners. Sealed burners make the most of heat by keeping pans close to the flame. Plus, they are easier to keep clean.

Electric: Electric stove units are low-maintenance (especially smooth-top cooktops) and have no pilot light to fuss with. Electric models may offer the equivalent of 10,000-12,000 Btus, but they respond more slowly to heat adjustments. A good idea is to buy an electric cooktop with five or six elements for optimal pan shifting; preheat two elements, one high, one low, and then simply move pans as needed. Make sure the location of knobs and controls doesn't limit pan positioning.

Gas: Instant heat regulation makes gas stoves, which offer output of 500-15,000 Btus, the pros' choice. With gas ranges, you can see the size of your flame, and you can control it instantly. If burners don't offer as low a simmer as desirable, you can expand simmering options with inexpensive heat diffusers, which are available at home centers.

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