A Range of Options

Among serious cooks, the debate over the perfect cooktop is hot stuff. David Rosengarten tests four of the best ranges on the market today.

This, believe it or not, is a true story. Once upon a time—not so long ago, really—people didn't care about which cooktop they had in their kitchen. Not only didn't they care about which range they used, it wasn't even a subject deemed worthy of consideration.

For one thing, there was really nothing to consider; 30 years ago, you moved into your house, turned on your stove, and, well, that was that. And then there was the fact that people simply didn't have conversations—much less debates—about their household appliances. Oh sure, there were some general kitchen decisions to be made—should the freezer be on top of the fridge or to the side? Should the refrigerator be avocado-green or sunset-red?—but aside from the fundamental choice of "gas or electric," the cooktop range was virtually an option-free zone. Ah, those were the days.

But say "home" and "range" to many Americans today, and instead of inspiring a rendition of an old prairie song you'll find yourself igniting one of the hottest arguments among at-home cooks: Does Garland make the best range on the market? Or does Viking? Or is it being made by a hotshot company you haven't even heard of?

Let's face it: The range has replaced the hearth as the epicenter of domestic life. It's the place where we cook, of course, but it's also the place where we get to show off a bit. (Okay, a lot.) Nowadays we're all star chefs whipping up fabulous at-home facsimiles of restaurant food. Not that it's easy. After all, eliciting oohs and ahs from friends and family—amateur restaurant critics all—requires burners so sensitive they can incinerate a shallot one moment, then cool quickly enough to hold that beurre blanc at the perfect quiver while you're busy boning the poached salmon.

So commonplace have such culinary theatrics become that it's easy to forget that Americans' fascination with and ease in the kitchen is really a fairly new phenomenon. According to Viking's Fred Carl Jr., it wasn't until the late 1970s that Americans even began to evince an interest in large, powerful, commercial-style ranges tailored for residential kitchens. But as Carl writes in an article in The New Cooks' Catalogue, the commercial ranges available back then didn't "meet building codes for residential installation because of their high heat output, lack of safety features, and excessive energy consumption."

So he, and others, began working on high-firepower residential ranges that would still satisfy American building codes. And did they ever succeed. By the 1980s, Garlands and Vulcans and Vikings and Wolfs were everywhere, elbowing their way into popular culture and establishing themselves as icons of the idealized end-of-the-century kitchen.

Today the number of companies that produce these commercial-style residential ranges is well into the double digits, and the number of options and accoutrements available to the customer is in the triple digits. And yet most consumers don't have the time or opportunity to significantly test-drive their prospective cooktop. Instead they are left to wonder: What should I look for? What should I be asking? And then, in the back of their minds: Are there even any significant differences between stovetops, or are they all more or less the same?

As a cookbook author who understands how crucial a good cooktop is, I always asked the same questions. So I set out to test four leading commercial-style cooktop ranges built for residential use. The tests I devised were purely performance-oriented (I knew early on that I was, in showroom parlance, "a cooker, not a looker"), and so, armed with my arsenal of pots, pans, thermometers, and ingredients, I traipsed through showrooms for a week, testing, retesting, and marveling at the results. By the end of my experiments I was much wiser, much more informed, and absolutely convinced of one thing: Not all cooktops are created equal.

I picked cooktops from four popular, well-regarded companies—Viking, Blue Star, DCS, and Jade—for my tests. I worked with six-burner models, which can be purchased either as a freestanding cooktop (burners only) or as a cooktop atop an oven.

I devised a series of experiments that I hoped would demonstrate each appliance's strengths and weaknesses (see "Prep Work"). The five tests were executed in exactly the same way on each, and I used the same pots and pans, and the same ingredients, each time.

TEST Boiling Water

First I wanted to see how quickly each cooktop could boil water—it's a simple test, but one that gives a fairly accurate indication of raw power. I filled a large pot with six quarts of water at 60 degrees and covered the pot with a glass lid to eliminate any ambient air differences and allow visibility. I placed the pot on the cooktop's highest-BTU burner at the highest heat setting and waited.

The differences in boil time were amazing. The hands-down winner was the Blue Star, which I might have expected, given its 18,000-BTU burner; it took only 17 minutes and 50 seconds to bring the water to a boil. DCS, with its 17,500-BTU burners, came in second: The water on this cooktop came to a boil in 19 minutes and 30 seconds. Viking and Jade each provide 15,000 BTUs at their highest settings, and, predictably, were the slowest. But what I couldn't have predicted was that the Viking range would boil the water in 21 minutes and 20 seconds, whereas the Jade took a full 24 minutes and 10 seconds. I'm not certain why the Jade lagged behind—but the fact that its cast-iron grates cover some of the flame may have a good deal to do with it.

TEST Simmering Water

The opposite test is also of great importance—which cooktop can provide the lowest heat setting? This is a key consideration when you're making sauces (like those in the hollandaise and beurre blanc families), braising lamb shanks at the gentlest heat to ensure the slowest melting of velvety collagens, or when (like me) you're obsessively scrambling eggs over the lowest possible heat so that they reduce and get richer as they cook (this can take an hour if you have a really well-behaved burner). The test, again, was simple: I placed two quarts of 60-degree water in a large pot, covered it, and set it over the burner's lowest possible setting. Then I measured the water's temperature at two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, and 20 minutes.

The results were startling: the cooktop that boiled water in the fastest time was also the cooktop that kept water at the lowest, most even temperature; Blue Star once again emerged victorious, thanks to its "burner within a burner" feature, which provides a separate 250-BTU simmer flame right on the same burner that gives you a standard higher-output flame. The performance was beautiful: The water remained at 60 degrees after two minutes, even after five minutes. At the ten-minute point it rose slightly, to 62 degrees, and at 20 minutes it had mounted to only 68 degrees.

Another amazement: DCS, which finished second in the water-boiling sweepstakes, also finished second in the simmer competition. Its respective temperatures were 62 degrees, 63 degrees, 65 degrees and, finally, at 20 minutes, 78 degrees. Its simmer feature is similar to the Blue Star's: When you turn the dial to simmer, the main valve that supplies gas to the burner shuts off, leaving alive only the low-power secondary valve. Once again, Jade and Viking brought up the rear, this time with Viking in last place: The water, which was already 66 degrees after two minutes, mounted rapidly to reach a hot 85 degrees at 20 minutes.

Only two details marred Blue Star's victory in this category. First, it doesn't have a lock-into-place lowest setting on the dial, as does DCS. However, there is little play in the dial, and it's quite easy to set the flame very low without turning off the burner altogether. Second, the cone of heat that Blue Star produces at its lowest setting is of a very small diameter, targeted at the center of the pot. Will this cause problems—such as burn spots—when you're simmering something for hours? Because the heat is so gentle I doubt it—but it's something to consider. DCS' low flame, on the other hand, has a much wider diameter.

TEST Deep-frying

Another good measurement of a cooktop's power capacity is the amount of time it takes to heat cooking oil. This test, in which I measured the temperature of the oil after I added the food, gave me a sense of the device's ability to generate and retain heat.

I poured four cups of oil (at precisely 60 degrees) in a medium-sized saucepan. I immediately placed the saucepan over the cooktop's highest heat, then noted the amount of time that it took for the oil to reach 365 degrees, an ideal deep-frying temperature. When the oil hit 365, I lowered into it a half-pound of eight flour-coated chicken pieces (each piece was at 60 degrees). I slid the deep-fry thermometer into the oil and began recording the changes in oil temperature.

I suppose that this is beginning to lose its suspense, but once again, the Blue Star gave the most impressive performance. Not only did the oil reach 365 degrees in only five minutes and 50 seconds, but it never declined in temperature thereafter. In fact, two minutes after I had immersed the chicken, the heat had already climbed to 400 degrees.

Viking easily grabbed second place in this test; it took six minutes and 35 seconds for the oil to come to 365 degrees. Moreover, only the Blue Star and Viking were able to maintain the initial heat; after reaching the target temperature, the oil in the saucepan on the Viking range rose quickly to 390 degrees before dropping slightly, two minutes later, to 380 degrees, where it held steady. Viking's success in this test may have had something to do with its air-flow qualities: The design pushes the flame inward, creating a kind of cone. This may well be better for maintaining oil temperature, especially since the DCS, with its wide configuration of flame, was the biggest disappointment in this test. Both it and the Jade allowed the temperature of the oil to drop to approximately 340 degrees after two minutes had passed.

TEST Stir-frying in a Wok

This is a great application, and a great test, for modern cooktops. When I stir-fry I'm always looking for that elusive taste that Chinese chefs call "the taste of the wok"; that rich, distinctive flavor that results from the perfect degree of caramelization, or charring, that you usually find only in Chinese restaurants, where woks are placed directly over enormous belching infernos of flame. (Without it your Chinese food will taste more like generic catered food than an authentic dish at a Chinese restaurant.)

My test was straightforward: I placed a large wok over the cooktop's highest heat and left it there for three minutes (Chinese cooks always start with a hot wok). Then I added two tablespoons of room-temperature peanut oil, which I heated for an additional minute. Next came the bok choy: I tossed in two cups of coarse, room-temperature chunks, all from the same batch of bok choy. Every 20 seconds I tossed the chunks again to make the browning as even as possible. I removed the bok choy from the wok after two minutes' cooking time.

There were huge variations in this test, principally because the different models offer different arrangements for cooking with a wok. Some feature special wok rings and some don't. Blue Star actually offers two options: You may place your wok over a wok ring that the company provides, or you can actually remove the center part of any burner's grate and sink the wok right into the hole created. I couldn't resist this latter option, which seems to mirror most closely the fire-wok relationship in a real Chinese kitchen.

And sure enough, the Blue Star yielded the best, most restaurant-worthy stir-fried bok choy. For starters, the wok became incredibly hot; I couldn't even wait the full three minutes for it to heat up before the showroom filled with smoke. The bok choy emerged with golden-brown spots over about 65 percent of its surface and a remarkable "taste of the wok." DCS, which offers a porcelainized cast-iron wok ring, finished in second place again; this bok choy was browned over 30 percent of its surface, with darker spots, and had a less authentic restaurant flavor. Both the Jade and Viking batches (cooked over wok rings) demonstrated only 20 to 30 percent browning and, though less browned, had more of an acrid, burnt taste than the sweet restaurant flavor I had achieved with the Blue Star and the DCS.

TEST Searing a Steak

Last, I tested how well each of the four performed when searing red meat, one of the most common cooktop functions.

I chose a heavy, trusty enameled cast-iron sauté pan from Le Creuset, placed it on each cooktop's highest setting, and let it heat for three minutes. Meanwhile I prepared the filets mignons—each was one and a half inches thick, weighed nine ounces, and had an internal temperature of 60 degrees—by smearing them evenly with room-temperature butter. After the pan had heated up for three minutes, I placed the steaks in the pans and cooked them for exactly four minutes on one side before flipping them to their alternate sides, where I cooked them for an additional four minutes. (Each time the new side hit the pan, I shifted the steak slightly to prevent sticking.) When the steaks came out of the pans, I rested them for a moment before taking note of their internal and external condition.

Once again, the BTUs won the day. In fact, the quality of the steak that emerged from the Blue Star test (at 18,000 BTUs) and the DCS test (at 17,500 BTUs) was shockingly different from that of the steak cooked over 15,000 BTUS on the Viking and Jade ranges. Although all the steaks browned in their respective tests, only those that were done over high-BTU burners developed a "steakhouse" kind of taste, a kind of exterior caramelization that I associate with the high-heat broiler cooking of steakhouses. The lower-BTU steaks, which had cooked on the Jade and Viking ranges, had more of a pan taste, a home-cooked taste: a little less beefy, a little more metallic.

So once again, the highest honors went to the Blue Star. The filet mignon produced on that cooktop featured a beautifully even brown-black char on its exterior, with a light crust that was firm to the touch. Even better was the interior, which was juicy and warm, an ideal rare-to-medium-rare consistency. The DCS filet mignon, while not as crusty as the Blue Star and a little too rare in the center, also demonstrated a wonderful steakhouse taste. It's worth noting that neither steak stuck to the high-heat pan, which improved the steak's exterior greatly.

There was a lot more sticking—and a lot less color and crust—on the Jade and Viking steaks. The Viking fared slightly better, with a very rare center (like just-seared tuna) and even exterior coloration. The Jade filet mignon, on the other hand, was the least evenly browned of the four as well as the rarest: Its center was actually cool to the touch. You may like this "Pittsburgh-style" center, but in the classic version the crust gets "black" while the interior remains "blue." That certainly didn't happen here.

Once my tests had been completed I looked over my notes and thought about what I had learned. One thing was that although a cooktop's BTU level is a key consideration, there are many other features that contribute to its success or failure. But the best thing about these experiments was: There was a clear winner. I loved the way the Blue Star emerged unambiguously as the cooktop to own. Significantly, none of the cooktop professionals I spoke to was surprised by the result.

I tested Blue Star's model RPB36-6BSS, a six-burner range top, and was impressed by it for many reasons aside from the ones discussed above. For starters, I love the appliance's stripped-down, business-only look.The Blue Star—which has a 515-pound shipping weight (compared to 425 for Jade, 420 for DCS, and 415 for Viking)—is a commercial range all the way. Its tall backing, with the high shelf, creates a very professional look—and it provides a little ledge for holding plates at or near eye level. The model I tried had four 15,000-BTU burners (including the special "simmer" burner), and two 18,000-BTU burners, a perfect split of the firepower. The automatic electronic-ignition system performed flawlessly on the day I tested it, creating the most consistent ignition of any cooktop in my tests. Once the flame was on, the air flow, open burners, and the lack of porcelain cap all contributed mightily to its awesome firepower.

Then of course there's the famous flame configuration left over from the Garland days. For over 100 years, the Garland company has been building its cooktops with a burner configuration trademarked as "starfire." The starfire consisted of an inner circle of jets with eight additional spokes protruding outward. This gave the bottom of your pan great contact with heat, which pros call "vertical flame impingement." The Blue Star cooktops have the identical "starfire" arrangement, but for legal reasons it's called "nova" instead of "starfire."

Although I loved the Blue Star, I was also impressed by many of the DCS cooktop's features. Like the Blue Star it has superior BTU power and makes for an intuitive and pleasant cooking experience.

But no matter which cooktop you decide to buy, there is a piece of advice I can offer unequivocally and universally to any prospective cooktop owner: When you visit a showroom, come armed with questions and a working knowledge of a stovetop's features, because once you get there, things will rapidly lose their clarity. Blue Star, Viking, Jade, DCS—wherever you go, there will be a team of very convincing salesmen, each telling you why their cooktop is the best. So be prepared: Study the germane details thoroughly before you walk through the doors of the home-range store—where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the guys try to wow you all day.

Blue Star The clear winner. I had long wanted to test a cooktop by Garland, which was perhaps the most prestigious name in commercial-style home cooktops. Then I discovered that in February 2002, Garland—principally a manufacturer of professional restaurant equipment—ceased production of home ranges. Happily, though, Prizer-Painter, the company that had been manufacturing Garland's commercial-style ranges, continues to manufacture practically the same unit, now called Blue Star. (Perplexingly, Blue Star itself is known as "Vintage" in the American southeast and "Grand Chef" in Canada.) Six-burner cooktop, $2,280; with oven, $3,900; 610-376-7479; www.prizer-painter.com.

DCS isn't as well-known as the others, but it will be: An aggressive advertising campaign in national magazines has brought it onto the foodie radar screen. The California-based company produces both domestic and commercial ranges. Six-burner cooktop, $3,000; with oven, $7,600; 800-433-8466; www.dcsappliances.com.

Viking This manufacturer, which claims to have invented the "professional range" for the home, is currently the best-known in the high-end residential cooktop market, with the highest name recognition. Six-burner cooktop, $3,015; with oven, $5,385; 888-845-4641; www.vikingrange.com.

Jade This recent-vintage California-based company proclaims itself the "premier manufacturer of commercial equipment" and says that its home ranges are of professional quality. Six-burner cooktop, $1,870; with oven, $3,600; 888-462-9824; www.jadeappliances.com.

Prep Work

With so many cooktop features available, it can be difficult to determine which are really important. Here are the ones to consider most carefully:

BTUS Your cooktop's single most important feature is its heat-generating ability, a figure measured in BTUs. Most commercial-style home ranges offer 15,000 BTUs per burner, which is perfectly adequate for most at-home cooks. You won't always need all that heat, but if you want to caramelize a bell pepper in seconds, or blacken a redfish like a pro, well, you'll need all the heat you can get. My advice: Go for the big-time BTUs.

AIR FLOW As important as a cooktop's BTUs is the air flow around the flame: The more room you have between the source of the flame and the bottom of your pot, the more efficient the heat. Air flow can be affected by sealed or unsealed burners. Traditionally, all burners were left "unsealed." In other words, the flame was surrounded by an open groove through which food could drop. But then home cooks began objecting to that open groove because dropped-through food inevitably accumulated under the cooktop. Companies responded by offering a sealed burner, which contains the spillover to the cooktop—but reduces the heat efficiency of your BTUs. My advice: Skip the sealed burners.

THE PORCELAIN CAP Years ago the gas jets of burners were made of stainless steel. But then range owners began complaining that heat was discoloring the steel. So manufacturers started adding a "porcelain cap" onto the jets to protect the metal. Unfortunately, this "solution" ended up reducing air flow. So then the manufacturers came up with a better solution: They built the burners from cast iron, which won't discolor. My advice: Skip the cap, and look for cast-iron burners.

WHEN THE HEAT HITS THE PAN Professional chefs spend a lot of time discussing . . . physics. Specifically, what is the ideal angle and spread at which the flames of the burner should hit the pan? Some argue for a "wide" spread of flames; others argue for a more conical flame. My advice: Go for a wide spread of flame that shoots directly upward to the pan; it provides superior heat distribution.

IGNITION When testing a cooktop, turn on all the burners repeatedly and reject any appliance that gives you even the slightest ignition anxiety. My advice: Make sure you understand how your ignition works.

THE VISIBILITY OF THE FLAME Once you get the flame on . . . can you see it? It's easy to overlook this detail, but important to investigate: Some cooktops' flames are practically invisible. My advice: Buy a cooktop with a clear flame.

THE TURNING OF THE DIALS Make sure your prospective range doesn't have sticky dials. And make sure your dials turn down to low as easily as they do to high. Often, when attempting to find the lowest possible setting, you must turn the dial so far down that eventually the flame just disappears, forcing you to reignite. My advice: Test the low heat on your prospective cooktop and make sure you can find the lowest setting.

CYCLE HEAT OR STEADY STATE? Speaking of low heat, some ranges give you a steady low heat on the lowest setting, but some "cycle" the heat, or alternate blasts of low heat and no heat. My advice: Stick with the steady low heat.

THE WAY THE GRATES SIT Great design is essential in grate design. Do the grate's spokes block the flame? Do they jiggle in place, wobbling your pots, or sit firmly as they should? Finally, are the grates aligned with each other, from burner to burner, so that you can easily slide your pots and pans anywhere across the cooktop? My advice: Pay attention to the slidability factor; it makes cooking easier.

COMMERCIAL OR RESIDENTIAL MANUFACTURE? Is your prospective cooktop manufactured by a producer who exclusively makes residential ranges, or by a commercial producer who makes a line of home ranges? All the pros said commercial producers' cooktops are usually heavier and more durable. My advice: Look for commercial manufacturers.

Gaga For Aga

I had originally planned to test a fifth oven in preparation for this report: the Aga, which is made in Shropshire, England. But I soon realized that I simply couldn't perform the same sorts of tests on this cooktop. I also realized that cooking with the Aga—which I highly recommend—is a unique, and often thrilling, experience.

The Aga stove was invented in 1922 by a Swedish scientist, Gustaf Dalen, who had won the Nobel Prize in physics a decade earlier. After he began losing his sight, Dalen created an oven that wouldn't require the user to look at the dials in order to gauge the temperature. His solution was a unit that's always on—all the user needs to do is understand which part of the stove is most appropriate for cooking specific foods.

Today, Dalen's Aga stovetops and ovens are coveted by cooking connoisseurs worldwide (just over 750,000 of them exist). Today's top-of-the-line Aga features a cooktop with three plates—no burners, just wide round metal sheets, each of which maintains a different temperature. Below the stovetop sit four ovens, all set at different heat levels.

Cooking on the Aga means learning how to move your pots and pans from the correct plate into the correct oven, all without the help (or hindrance) of heat-controlling dials. It sounds overwhelming, but after eating the remarkably succulent food cooked on an Aga, I was hooked. The Aga folks attribute the range's success to what they call "gentle but powerful heat." The heat, they say, "is not being forced onto the food, but when it hits, it penetrates." Still, the Aga may not be for everyone—it does require a certain degree of experimentation that some may find intimidating. But others will be intrigued (I was) by all the new cooking challenges it affords, and by its promise of great food. A standard-model Aga costs just under $13,000; customized models are around $18,000, 800-633-9200, www.aga-ranges.com.