Not so long ago an oven and cooktop could only be purchased as a single unit, and if two or more people wanted to prepare a meal together, they had to jam in close and look out for elbows. Now it's possible to buy ovens and cooktops separately, which gives cooks the freedom to mix, say, electric ovens and gas cooktops. Buying components has other advantages: ovens can be raised off the floor to a more convenient height, and cooktops can be customized (with wok rings, griddles, grills and large and small burners) and placed wherever they suit you.
A number of manufacturers, including Wolf, J. Dynasty Utility, FiveStar and Jenn-Air, now make professional-style gas cooktops, with one or more 15,000-Btu burners, for the home. Viking's gas cooktop, with a 14,000-Btu burner, comes close. (For an explanation of Btu's, see "Power Tips" at right.) With this restaurant-stove level of power--two or three times what older burners could put out--you can bring a 10-gallon pot of water to a boil in no time.
Miele offers an attractive home-style model with a five-burner configuration including a simmer burner. Thermador features a simmer burner that cycles on and off to maintain a 375-Btu level, which generates a heat so low that it can melt chocolate without a double boiler. (Many simmer burners are in the 1,000-Btu range.) In contrast, La Cornue,the French luxury-range manufacturer, recently weighed in with a five-burner cooktop featuring a large 20,000-Btu burner in the center.
Gaggenau offers the most choices in home-style cooktops: five kinds of modular elements--a deep fryer, a barbecue grill, a steamer and gas and electric burners--that can be mixed and matched (provided you're able to run gas and electric lines around your kitchen). A family of ambitious home cooks could simultaneously fry, grill, steam, sear and simmer just like a team of restaurant chefs working on the line.
While gas cooktops have their advantages, today's electric models are far superior to their predecessors. The new burners heat up and cool down far faster than the old ones--eliminating a familiar complaint about the inconvenience of electric cooking.RADIANTcooktops feature coils set under smooth fused glass-and-ceramic surfaces or under cast-iron disks called hobs.HALOGENburners, which use heat generated by halogen gas confined in glass tubes set under the cooktop surface (think of hot halogen lightbulbs), are even faster.
The newest trend in electric cooktops, RIBBON TECHNOLOGY, also delivers speed, the result of a new coil material and a twisted pattern that increases the coil's efficiency. Like their predecessors, the coils are located under a flat glass-and-ceramic top, which often has touch controls instead of knobs. Gaggenau's Power Light burners go from stone-cold to red-hot in three seconds. The burners on Dacor's Touch Top heat up in three seconds and a heat-indicator light lets you know when they're hot, whether or not they're glowing. KitchenAid's fast-heating new ribbon cooktops feature a down-draft exhaust system, eliminating the need for overhead ventilation.
Though ELECTRIC INDUCTION is no longer new, it's far more familiar in Europe than it is here. In induction cooking, the burner elements underneath the surface generate an electromagnetic field when (and only when) you place perfectly flat, magnetically sensitive cookware directly on them. (Cookware suitable for induction burners includes All-Clad Stainless, Wagnerware's Magnalite Professional, Nordic Ware Rangeware and Le Creuset's enameled cast iron, but just about any stainless steel, enameled steel or iron pots will do, as long as they are flat-bottomed and magnetically sensitive.) Induction cooktops are safer than gas ones, since you can't burn yourself on one even if you try; and they don't heat up the kitchen, since almost no heat escapes from the meeting point of pan and burner. GE manufactures a four-burner induction cooktop for home use. Glowmaster makes a portable one-burner unit that's sold by Sur La Table. Bonnet, a French manufacturer, offers the ultimate in custom induction units for both homes and restaurants; there are Bonnets in the kitchens at Le Cirque 2000 and Lespinasse in New York City and at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and California.
The prices for the new cooktops depend less on whether they're electric or gas than on whether they're residential or semiprofessional styles. Among electric cooktops, Thermador's four-burner version is typical of home models, at about $900; its five-burner version costs $1,100. Gaggenau's two-burner home units start at about $450. GE's Profile Induction Cooktop with four burners is around $950. Among gas cooktops, prices for desirable home-style models begin at around $600 for four burners. Jenn-Air's Pro-Style cooktops start at $1,100 for four burners, but most other gas models with powerful burners cost upward of $2,000.
Deborah Krasner is a Vermont-based kitchen designer.