Warm Up to the Right Stove

Finding the best stove for you can make life in the kitchen easier. Here are some tips for choosing the right appliance.

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Close Up of Oven

My new stove changed my life, and I'm not kidding. After a decade of constant struggle with an ancient Amana range (just like the ones Monty Hall used to give away in the 1970s on "Let's Make a Deal!"), the final blow came on Thanksgiving. I put the lovingly stuffed 20-lb. turkey in the oven and set it at 325 degrees, only to find, after hours of basting and checking meat thermometers and fiddling with the dial, that for some inexplicable reason the oven wouldn't work at any temperature lower than 350 degrees.

So the turkey roasted, then cooled, then roasted, then cooled, and I spent several sleepless nights wondering if I'd poisoned my nearest and dearest with inadequately cooked poultry. I finally saved my dollars and bought a spanking new smoothtop electric range. It's amazingly easy to clean, the electric elements do a great job on everything from high-temperature searing to low-temperature simmering and the oven is large enough to accommodate an entire holiday feast (and cook it at the right temperature!)

As trite as it may sound, the kitchen stove is the heart of the home, especially during the holidays. More cooking appliances (including microwave ovens as well as ranges) are shipped out to retailers than any other major home appliance, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

You can get more options than you've ever imagined in a new range, from a stove that actually keeps food cold then turns itself on and cooks it, to one that includes a microwave drawer as well as an oven. Features that used to be considered premium are now standard on many ranges, including smoothtops, sealed burners on gas cooktops and self-cleaning ovens. Even stainless- steel finishes, which continue to be in high demand, have dropped in price according to Consumersearch.com, a website that evaluates product reviews from a wide variety of sources.

If you're in the market for a new range, you need to ask yourself some questions before you head to the store.

Is your kitchen currently plumbed for gas or electric? As much as you may long for the real flames of gas burners, it can be very expensive to run a gas line to your kitchen if there’s not one there already, depending on the distance, BTUs needed, etc. Generally, your best bet is to go with whatever type appliance your kitchen is already set to handle.

Are you in a hurry in the kitchen? If you're always scrambling to get dinner ready fast, you might want a combination thermal/convection oven, which cooks with a fan that circulates hot air so items cook more quickly and brown more easily. Convection ovens have improved dramatically in the last few years, says, Sharon Franke, director of food appliances for Good Housekeeping magazine and the Good Housekeeping Institute, which evaluates new ranges on a regular basis.

"If you're the kind of person who really needs their chicken cooked in half an hour instead of an hour then you have to decide if it’s worth the extra expense," says Christine Frietchen of Consumersearch.com.

Another consideration if time is a factor: high-heat burners or elements (they’re called "burners" on gas stoves and "elements" on electric stoves).

"The wattage on electric elements and the BTUs on gas burners are getting higher so most ranges have one or two burners dedicated to high heat," Franke says. Both will bring water to a boil faster or sear meat quickly.

Finally, if you’ve joined the slow cooking movement, there's a stove for you, too. Kenmore makes a range that offers a slow cooker feature, so you can set your stew in there in the morning and let it cook all day until you get home.

"People who love slow cooking don’t have to have a separate appliance to store somewhere or to sit on the counter," Franke says.

What's your cooking style? If you do lots of stir-frying or heat large quantities of food, you'll want at least one high-heat element or burner, as mentioned above. Many ranges include a wok ring, which sits on top of the burner grate to hold a wok. If you simmer lots of sauces, you'll want a "simmer burner," which cooks at a low temp. Check with the manufacturer on these; "a simmer technically is 190 degrees," Franke says, and some low-heat burners are really warming burners because they maintain a 150-degree temperature, which is fine for keeping a dinner warm but not for simmering your gravy.

If you're a pancake person, "bridge" elements or burners connect two larger elements to form a continuous heating surface – great for griddles or long pans. If you do lots of warming, consider a range with a warming drawer, which now replaces the lower level storage drawer often found on most ranges.

How meticulous are you about wiping up after spills? Electric smoothtop ranges need to be cleaned carefully after every use or you can get a residue buildup on top, Franke says. Smoothtops also require a special cleaner. If you're not the constantly cleaning type you may want to consider electric coils, which are inexpensive and easy to replace, or a gas cooktop with sealed burners so spills can't leak down underneath.

How much do you really use your oven? Very few people are really going to use an oven to complete capacity, Franke says, so those extra cubic feet might not be that important. Some ovens have racks that divide so you can cook a standing rib roast and then put in a half rack for your biscuits or sweet potatoes.

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