Our suburban dream home came with an obligatory 30-inch builder-grade General Electric (GE) gas cooktop which is not compatible with the way I cook. This post describes the happy outcome of my exhaustive search for a better-designed model.
As with everything else I write, this is a noncommercial post containing personal opinions only. I receive no compensation or favors from any cited source.
Short Version with Spoiler: In my opinion, the best 30" gas cooktop on the market right now is model called the Fagor 850SLTX, which is produced by a European manufacturer (sourcing details at end of post). I will show you exactly why I found this to be the best in the extensive discourse below.
Update December 27, 2014: An extremely similar unit called the "Ancona 5 Burner 30 Steel Gas Cooktop" is reportedly now available at Costco. Thanks to the commenter below for pointing this out. Those who wish to purchase this product no longer have to go through the incredible amount of procurement hassle that I described below for our case, and it can now be had for a much lower price. The AJ Madison site now lists the original Fagor 850SLTX as "discontinued".
(1) THE PROBLEM
Let's start by framing the central issue in terms that every serious cook can readily understand.
Do you ever look at those popular professional cooktops and realize how much easier they'd make your life?
|This is a 48-inch professional-grade cooktop which appears similar to models that retail for about four thousand dollars ($4K just the cooktop, not including the ovens beneath!). Cooking would be a snap on something like this, eh?|
Screengrabbed from this HAR MLS listing for a Spring, Texas home priced at almost one million dollars. By the time I get around to publishing this post, that link may be dead.
|It's the most efficient large-volume cookware I've ever used, but it had two issues:|
(1) It's a spectacular space hog. It literally took up about two thirds of the functional area of this original cooktop, which largely prevented me from cooking other items simultaneously. And that was a huge impediment for me.
(2) It's so large that it takes a lot of heat to cook effectively using it. A 9,500 BTU cooktop burner just couldn't supply the energy that it required (more on BTU values a bit further down in this post).
If you cook American-style meals using American-style cookware according to an American-style paradigm (i.e., single-serve cooking for a small number of people), this type of standard cooktop will probably suit you just fine. But if you do any kind of large volume cooking, tag-team cooking, gourmet cooking or Asian cooking, it'll cause you no end of headaches and it will limit what you can accomplish in terms of your prepared dishes.
Pic from this post.
|You can't hope to fill a freezer like this unless you use a whopping big piece of cookware to prepare your stuff with the greatest possible efficiency. Pic from this post.|
(2) THE OPTIONS
To address that, I went to the AJ Madison website, which is a large major appliance clearinghouse with sophisticated product comparison options (my husband warns that, while searching for this retailer, do not confuse with Ashley Madison, which I'm not going to link to... insert eye roll here).
As of mid-2013, AJ Madison listed sixty-six (66) different 30-inch gas cooktops (non-downdraft models). I took 6 popular brand names which bracket the 3 most common burner configurations, and I drew a 14-inch wok to scale on the photo thumbnails of each. I did this as part of my initial evaluation of whether was even worth my time and money to purchase a new cooktop given our tract-home space restrictions. I've inserted my opinionated marked-up photos below, and you can draw your own conclusions about what might work best in your own situation.
|OK, wow - now we are getting somewhere. My husband immediately started jonesing for this one and declared that we had to have it. The second-highest BTU burner is the farthest away from the highest BTU burner, which is very promising. If you stare at this long enough, you'll start to see additional innovative engineering reflected in it. Those clever Spaniards.|
|Here's an oblique view of the 34-inch (European) version screengrabbed from this site. One of the first things we noticed when we were vetting this cooktop is that different websites mixed up photographs of the 30" and 34" models. This type of human error is something you have to watch out for when you're thinking about buying non-standard products. Additionally, if you compare this photo to my initial money shot at the beginning of this post, you can spot other minor but consequential design differences (the unit shown above may have been an older version of the same model). These things become critically important when you are acquiring a major appliance sight-unseen. You need to confirm in advance exactly what you're paying for.|
Of course, there's one additional way to evaluate this kind of thing in advance of a purchase: fabricate a model out of cardboard!!
|I projected the image onto a wall so that I could trace it onto cardboard. I first started with the wrong picture because of the website publishing errors described above. Only when I projected the original image did I discover that the aspect ratio was not consistent with a 30-inch cooktop. Be very careful with this stuff. |
|I measured the projection rigorously and redundantly to confirm it was accurate. This shows the 14 inch projection diameter for a 14 inch wok.|
|Not only did I measure my wok-circle with a tape measure, I even held up the wok itself to ensure that the trace represented it accurately.|
|Here's what the resulting cardboard looked like on top of the old cooktop. If the published photos are accurate, this should indeed mimic the actual cooktop very closely.|
|Measure thrice, provide credit card once: Positioning the wok on the footprint to ensure it's accurate by yet another means.|
|Looking promising, isn't it?? The massive wok no longer swallows the entire cooktop acreage. And the overhang on the left side doesn't seem likely to cause a heat problem to the countertop when examined this way.|
|Seriously, look at these two side by side. No comparison in terms of space efficiency.|
|BTU stands for "British Thermal Units", which is a unit of energy measurement. The higher the BTU, the more heat the cooktop burner puts out.|
|This lay-out easily accommodated two oversized cooking vessels and at least one additional smaller piece of cookware without feeling crowded. This was definitely a more efficient use of space than my original GE cooktop.|
Our existing granite countertop cut-out was sized for GE cooktops only at 28.5" x 19.625". The Fagor is sized for a 28.75" x 19.36" opening. Therefore, our granite needed to be trimmed by a quarter inch to accommodate the Fagor.
|I talked about the contractor hiring process in this post.|
We just barely were able to make the Fagor fit the GE-cut opening. Our existing cut-out was too small from side to side, but too large from front to back. But not so large that we couldn't scoot the Fagor into place and add a little silicone along the back seam to make sure nothing leaked into the cabinet below. The seam doesn't show.
|Ah, but there's a flip side to that: Raising the cooking surface up meant correspondingly-reduced clearance between the top of the wok and the bottom of the microwave oven mounted above the cooktop (this distance is now about 14"). Initially I thought that this might pose a space problem, but it does not, for reasons I'll show below. |
Yes, I mounted this $15 IKEA mirror on this section of backsplash. A Jetsons style touch and also good feng shui. Personally, I dislike facing a blank wall, and this also helps me to not step on our dog when she's hovering behind me hoping I'll drop food from the cooktop onto the floor.
|The Fagor's elevation is significantly different from my older American-style GE cooktop: the GE actually has the burners recessed. Not only are the Fagor's not recessed, but the grates are very high to boot. But wait for the analysis on that part.|
(4) PERFORMANCE TESTING
The cooktop does indeed accommodate pots efficiently, and it does so even better than my cardboard mock-up had initially suggested:
biryani, which is a dish that brackets the full range of what a cooktop is supposed to do: it requires searing heat at some stages, very gentle heat at other stages, and timing of the various stages of the dish is essential (if you have to sit around waiting for some stages to cook on a sluggish low-BTU cooktop, the dish won't turn out properly). This dish also demands that my two largest pots be used simultaneously and with plenty of elbow room around them.
|For serious cooks, here's the other good design feature of a cooktop that places its two highest BTU burners on the extreme right and left sides (as opposed to one in front and the other catercorner in the back): One cook can work on each side of the cooktop and not have to reach across the stove or around the other person. That's the mirror reflection of my husband skinning fresh ginger on the right, as I was working on the left. |
This is the stage of the biryani where the onions need to be lightly carmelized, which because of their sheer bulk needs to be accomplished on a higher BTU setting than I could achieve with my original stove.
Also, notice one other important thing about these photos:
|Do you see the plume of steam bracketed by the yellow arrows? When we replaced our over-range microwave about a year and a half ago, we picked a model that had the most powerful four-speed undermount range exhaust fan we could find (some of them simply filter and recirculate the air, but ours is vented to the outdoors). However, to our frustration, the darned thing never did work properly with the old cooktop. But now that we've installed this Fagor, it works much better. I'm not sure why this is - because the clearance is so much lower, because the maximum BTU burner is actually in the middle of the cooktop depth rather than being stuck out in front (thus is now closer to the suction), or because the raised grates simply make for more efficient air flow, or all of the above. But this is a welcome unexpected bonus!!|
This is why I said that having less separation between the top of the wok and the bottom of the microwave is not a problem for me. I would gladly trade a couple of inches for improved venting, which is what has happened here.
|...what happens next is that one layer of cooked fish is dressed in a mint and dill Greek yoghurt sauce, which cannot be heated too much, so the temperature has to be brought down quickly.|
|Then the second layer of fish is put over the yoghurt sauce and the carmelized onions are spread on top of that...|
The Fagor 850SLTX is exquisite, in my opinion. It's going to take me some time to learn exactly what it is capable of accomplishing, but even with this first major dish that we cooked, we could taste the improvement that the higher-BTU settings were capable of producing. I declare it well worth the time and money to research and buy.
Thus far, I cannot identify anything that I would change about it (I will update this post if future issues become apparent). However, I will tell you that it has a different "feel" than any conventional American cooktop that I've ever used. That might take some getting used to, and depending on your cooking style, you might not find that you enjoy it as much as I do.
|Oh, and by the way, it came with ALL-METAL KNOBS!!! Finally, no more accidentally melting the knobs off my cooktop!!|
I mentioned AJ Madison above and I do find that they have the best appliance website on the internet, but I actually bought my Fagor from Plessers in New Jersey because their price was the same as other online retailers but they also included a 10-year warranty at no extra charge (I don't know if this is still being offered).
Both AJ and Plessers were quasi-backordered in mid-2013, meaning, they seemed to be shipping these units in from the manufacturer only on an as-ordered basis. We had to wait several weeks for delivery.
The Fagor was about $800 including shipping charges, which means that it is nowhere near the top of the market - some of the competing high-end products are two to five times that price! I've never used a four thousand dollar cooktop and perhaps if I did, I would declare it to be superior. But I doubt it, because I can already see that the Fagor is capable of doing what I need a cooktop to do. For my purposes, after all that research, I do believe I found the sweet spot of price vs. performance. Not to mention design.
|And the thing is a looker to boot. Here's that money shot one final time. Good luck as you make your own purchasing decisions. And a round of applause for the Fagor engineers who developed this impressive product.|