Cooktops buying guide

Here’s the lowdown on buying a cooktop.
 
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01 .Introduction

Cooktop - gas

In brief

  • The pros and cons of gas vs electricity and the different kinds of electric element.
  • Induction cooktops: the coolest way to cook.

The old kitchen range — albeit in an upmarket format — is making a comeback, but having a separate oven and cooktop allows you flexibility to put each where you like, at the height that suits you best. You can choose the shape and size of both, and mix and match your fuels by choosing a gas cooktop with an electric oven (a configuration many professionals prefer), or even a dual or multi-fuel cooktop.

Apart from these practical considerations, there’s also style: a cooktop integrated with the bench gives a kitchen a sleek, streamlined look, while new flush-line technology that allows the cooktop to be sunk into the bench looks even more stylish. A separate cooktop also allows better use of space, particularly in a small kitchen. For example, if bench space is limited you can even get a corner cooktop.

The downside is that buying a separate cooktop and oven can be more expensive than buying a combined unit. The typical cooktop prices given below are for mid-ranged models. Your first cooktop decision is whether to go gas or electric.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 


Green cooking

As a rule, electric cooktops are more energy-efficient than gas: about 65–85% of the energy consumed is used to heat the saucepan (and its contents), compared with around 40% for gas.

This is because a lot of the heat from gas is lost to the air, whereas electric elements are in direct contact with the saucepan (which is why it’s important to use cookware of the correct size). Induction models are even more energy-efficient.

However, unless your electricity is generated by non-polluting, renewable energy (such as Tasmania’s hydro power), you’ll contribute more carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — to the atmosphere using electricity rather than gas. This is because up to two thirds of the energy contained in coal is lost through its conversion to electricity at the power plant, and in the transport to your home and conversion to heat. While there are some transport losses with natural gas, virtually all of its energy is available for use when it gets to your home.

Tip

Employ a licensed tradesperson to install a new cooktop:

  • It’s safer — they know what they’re doing, and you don’t want to risk an electric shock or gas leak.
  • Even if you’re a talented handyperson and think you can do it yourself, if something goes wrong you may void your warranty.
 
 

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All cooktop types

  • Size and shape: The most popular is a square-shaped cooktop, approximately 60 cm wide. You can also get rectangular models with burners/elements in various configurations.
  • Make sure you have the necessary space on your bench to fit the cooktop, as well as ventilation space underneath (measure the available bench space before you go shopping). Stores should have brochures with the specifications. There's a minimum distance requirement for the bottom of cupboards or rangehood above a cooktop — check before buying.
  • Consider the position and layout of the burners/elements and their size in relation to the pots and pans you usually use. Configurations that are spaced so that you don’t reach over one burner/element to get to another are generally easier to use — usually on rectangular units. Simmer elements/burners should be at the front so you don't have to lean over other burners to stir a sauce, say.
  • Controls: Look for control knobs that are a good size, ideally with a crossbar so they’re easy to grip, and a clear pointer.
  • The symbols and markings should be easy to read and understand, and their layout should match the burner/element configuration as intuitively as possible. If they’re close to the front of the cooktop they’ll be easy to reach — but for children too, so your family make-up may influence what you choose.
  • Look for a surface that’s easy to clean and a design without dirt traps. A good cooktop should be able to effectively contain reasonable spills — some ceramic cooktops don’t have a lip or rim to do this. As a rule, enamel cooktops are easier to keep clean than ceramic or stainless steel.
  • Knobs should be easy to remove for cleaning underneath.

Gas cooktops

  • Gas element  - cooktopBurnersGas burners are rated in megajoules per hour (MJ/h) — the amount of energy each uses on its maximum setting. Four-burner cooktops should have a good range of heat ratings, from slow (low heat: around 3.5–5 MJ/h) to fast (high heat: up to 10 or 11 MJ/h), with wok burners around 12–15 MJ/h. Burner sizes vary from around 4–7 cm in diameter. Wok burners should be at the front for accessible continuous stirring of food. Single-piece burners are easier to clean and maintain.
  • Safety: Knobs that have to be pushed down before they can be turned on means you won’t accidentally knock them while cleaning, and are harder for children to operate.
  • If the flame goes out while the gas is turned on, gas can escape into the room. Some cooktops have a flame-failure feature for this reason — the gas either automatically cuts out or automatically reignites.
  • If you want to use a gas cooktop in a high-rise building of 25 m or taller, you may have to get a model with flame-failure protection — see photo, right. Check with your local council.
  • Trivets or pan supports should be flat and stable on the hob. Those with rubber feet are less likely to move about than those without, and won’t scratch the hob surface.
  • Trivets without large gaps allow you to slide pans around the cooktop without lifting them.
  • Ignition systems include mains- or , battery-powered electronic ignition, piezo (pushing a button produces a spark) and manual (matches or a burner lighter). If you get one with electronic ignition, make sure you can also light it with a match in the event of a power cut.

Electric cooktops

  • Electric elements are rated in kW: a good range is 1.2–2.2 kW. Many electric cooktops remain hot long after the heat has been turned off, which is a potential safety hazard. They should have a residual-heat warning light that stays on until the cooktop has cooled to a safe temperature.

Induction cooktops

  • Element size: Your pots and pans need to be within, or close to, the diameter of the induction hotplates. Cookware that overhangs won’t heat properly around the edges, and pans that are too small won’t be recognised.
  • Safety switching: Look for models that automatically turn off or down in the event of overheating, and ones that turn off if a hotplate has been left on for an extended period of time.

For people with a disability

When choosing a cooktop, consider the following features that can make a cooktop easier to use.

  • Knobs with a crossbar are easier to grip and turn than smooth, round knobs. Make sure they don’t require too much force to turn them.
  • Symbols and markings should be easy to understand: words (off, simmer, high) may be easier to understand than symbols. They should also be bold, easy to read and in a colour that contrasts well with the background.
  • A ceramic radiant or gas cooktop that doesn't have large gaps in or between its trivets ,may be ideal for someone lacking strength in their wrists because you can easily slide the pans on and off the elements (though ceramic cooktop manufacturers recommend you don’t do this because you may scratch the surface).
  • If you’re buying a gas cooktop, look for one with an ignition pushbutton, rather than a knob you have to press and twist. A cooktop with automatic gas cutout or reignition is also worth considering.
Corner cooktopMost cooks prefer a gas cooktop because it gives instant heat control and visual feedback when you raise and lower the flame. It’s also cheaper and more environmentally friendly than cooking with electricity. If mains gas isn’t available where you live, you can use bottled LPG with many gas cooktops, though it's more expensive than mains gas — just check when you’re buying.

At one extreme, if you like the commercial kitchen look you can opt for an all-in-one stainless steel benchtop with an integrated gas cooktop, sink and draining board, as well as inbuilt storage for utensils — but at a price: over $6900.

For the rest of us, there’s a wide variety of design, colour and finish, including enamel, glass, aluminium and stainless steel (non-marking finishes are now available). There’s also a choice of enamel or cast-iron trivets, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one to suit your taste. Some finishes are easier to keep clean than others: as a rule, enamel is easier than glass or stainless steel.

If you love stir-fries you can get a gas cooktop with a specially designed burner for woks. Alternatively, opt for a rectangular five-burner unit with four regular burners and an oblong (fish) burner in the middle. You can also put a grill or hotplate on top of the oblong burner for barbecuing.

Cookware: All types OK.

Typical prices: Twin-burner: $500–$1000+; four-burner: $300–$1000+; four-burner + one oblong burner: $600–$1100+.

04.Electric cooktops

 

Electric cooktops aren’t as instantly controllable as gas (with the exception of induction cooktops), but they’re particularly useful for cooking at very low temperatures, such as melting chocolate or for a long, slow simmer. The options for elements are:

Ceramic radiant

Ceramic cooktops are coiled metal elements under tempered ceramic glass. The cooktop is fast, energy-efficient and has a continuous surface with few or no dirt traps. However, spills can bake on, so you need to wipe them up quickly, and there’s often no lip around the edge of the cooktop to contain them. Sugary spills will pit the surface if they’re not cleaned up immediately, and you may need a special cleaning cream to keep the surface streak-free. The ceramic glass holds the heat for a long time, so take care with delicate sauces and be careful after it’s switched off. Many have residual-heat warning lights that stay on till the surface reaches a safe temperature. ·

Cookware: It’s important to choose pans with a flat base for good contact with the surface for efficient heating. Make sure the base is free of grit or burrs that could scratch the cooktop. Aluminium and copper-based pans may leave deposits on the surface. You can use cooktop-safe glass pans, but cooking may be slower. ·

Typical price: Twin-element: $450–$1000+; four elements: $700–$1200+.

Halogen or semi-halogen

Some ceramic cooktop elements use halogen bulbs to create heat. Semi-halogen burners combine a halogen bulb with a coiled metal element. Their cooking performance, ease of cleaning and energy efficiency are similar to ceramic radiant cooktops, but they’re slightly more expensive. Try not to look directly at the element when it’s on, as it could harm your eyes.

Cookware: The same as for ceramic radiant, except that some manufacturers don’t recommend glass saucepans.

Typical price: The upper end of the ceramic radiant price range.

Radiant coil

In fact you won’t find these as a separate cooktop nowadays — they’re limited to low-end stovetops. These coiled metal elements are cheap, have similar heat-up times to ceramic radiant cooktops and are slightly more controllable. The coils can be a hassle to clean; some can be unplugged and removed, others have a hinge so you can lift them for easier access to the drip trays underneath. They’re the most energy-efficient of the common electric types; only induction cooktops and gas are better. ·

Cookware: All types OK.

Typical price: Four-element, enamel upright stove: $650–$1000.

Solid hotplate

This is your cheapest option. Each hotplate is a solid metal disk that’s slower than other electric elements to heat up and extremely slow to cool down, making them the least controllable of all cooktops. They’re also the least energy-efficient of all cooktop types. They’re not too bad for cleaning because spills can’t get under their surface, though there can be a dirt trap where the hotplate joins the surrounding surface. Even on their highest setting they don’t glow red, so there can be a risk of burns.

Cookware: All types OK. A very flat base that makes good contact with the element improves heating efficiency.

Typical price: Four elements: $400–$700+.

Induction

These ‘elements’ use a magnetic field to heat up the pan, which then heats the contents, while the cooktop itself stays relatively cool. It’s the fastest cooking method and is just as controllable as gas. It’s expensive, though, and you can only use certain types of cookware — See more on induction cooking.

Typical price: Twin-element: around $1700; two radiant ceramic and two induction elements (as one unit): $1800–$2500; four induction elements: $3000–$4000+.

05.Combination cooktops

 
If you can’t decide between gas and electricity, you can have the best of both worlds with a dual-fuel cooktop, such as a gas cooktop with one electric element. Alternatively, you can pair cooktops by combining a twin gas cooktop with a twin ceramic cooktop, for example.

You can also get barbecues, grill plates, deep fryers and even weighing scales integrated into the cooktop. If you do a lot of these types of cooking, they could be worth considering.

Combination cooktopThe ultimate in mix and match: this combination has a gas wok burner, ceramic-surface 'grill', induction element and electric deep fryer. It'll knock you back close to $5700.

06.Induction cooking

 

Induction cooktops are growing in popularity and prices are coming down.

Cool cooking

Induction cooktopTraditional electric cooktops use some form of electric resistance to create heat, which is transferred to the saucepan and its contents. Induction cooking is based on magnetic fields: each ‘element’ (an induction coil) generates a magnetic field that induces heat in steel cookware placed on top of it.

In essence, the pot becomes the element that cooks the food, so the cooktop surface doesn’t get as hot as other cooktops. Induction cooktops have the same instant control as gas and are the fastest of all cooktop types to heat and cook food — for example, they take about half the time of conventional electric cooktops to boil water.

Cleaning

Induction cooktops are easy to clean. They have a continuous surface with no dirt traps, and the controls are touch-sensitive, so there are no knobs to clean around. Because the surface doesn’t get as hot as other electric cooktops, most spillages won’t bake on, although you do have to be careful with sugar because it can still pit the surface. On the downside, some models don’t have a lip around the edge to contain spills, and you may have to buy a special cream to keep it streak-free.

Energy

Induction models claim energy-efficiency over other electric cooktops, however we found they save energy (and money) by heating the pot a lot faster rather than using less energy overall.

Smart cooking

They’re capable of all sorts of clever tricks. For example:

  • They can detect if a saucepan has boiled dry and turn the element off or down.
  • If you turn the element on but the pan material is incompatible or there’s no pan at all, it will indicate the error and won’t heat up.

Pricing

Four-element induction cooktops range from around $1500–$2500+, so they’re not cheap. You’re also likely to have to invest in new cookware. Pots and pans must have a base made from a ferrous metal (a metal that can be magnetised). Cast iron, steel, some enamelled steel and stainless steel pans with an iron base or core are suitable, but you can’t use glass, aluminium, copper or many stainless steel pans. If you’re not sure about your stainless steel cookware, check it with a magnet — if it sticks it’s OK.