Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Best 30-inch gas cooktop

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".

But first, here's your money shot, and the Fagor 850SLTX is a head-turner, ain't it??  One of my neighbors walked in and said, "That's the best looking cooktop I've ever seen!"  But I was 0% interested in acquiring a good-looking cooktop and 100% interested in getting the highest-performing 30" gas cooktop.  To see why this is not just another pretty stainless steel face, keep reading. 
Long Version:  And I'm not kidding - this post is long, even by my posting standards (I wrote it across three months!!).  But it needs to be long, as you'll see.  The installation of a foreign-branded appliance is not an automatic slam-dunk in an American kitchen, because unexpected incompatibilities can arise even when the appliance has been re-engineered for the American consumer market.  Purchasing exotic appliances is largely at the consumer's own risk by virtue of high re-stocking fees (typically 35%) and shipping charges, and so I've taken the time to describe how we vetted this appliance before purchasing it sight unseen from an east coast distributor (we were not able to locate any retailer or distributor in Texas).  If you're going to order an unusual appliance, you might want to keep this general approach described below in mind, because you do not want to make any tactical errors in your purchase (ca-ching).


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. 
Not only do I not have that budget, I don't have room for a 48-inch cooktop or anything remotely resembling it.  When I said "obligatory" 30-inch gas cooktop above, I mean that it's not physically possible for us to upgrade to even a 36-inch cooktop.  Our kitchen cabinet sizing obligates 30 inches.  The entire structure of the house has, in turn, been predicated on the existing kitchen lay-out.  Our house model has the kitchen in the very center of the house, rather than on an exterior wall, and the structure (including primary support headers) has been built around the kitchen's existing footprint.  I'm not kidding about the size implications.  Our entire house obligates a 30-inch cooktop by way of a structural domino effect. 
We ordered the house three years ago with "builder basic" appliances because we knew we would be upgrading at a later date after we had done the research.  In this case, the standard installed cooktop was a GE JGP328, which has since been discontinued.    
My challenge arises because I do the majority of my cooking in a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok.

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
I use that massive wok because much of our diet is based on a food freezing regime that I carefully developed over the past ten years, developed in order to maximize the use of my time and energy.

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.   
However, as I noted above, the same struggles will also characterize folks cooking for large families as well as folks cooking many kinds of Asian and certain other ethnic foods (I know that I'm going to pick up some Asian search engine traffic with this post).  Thirty inches is just not much room to work with.  And for those of us who simply cannot upgrade our cooktop to a larger size, the question then becomes the following:  How in the heck do we make the most of what we've got?!


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.
This is the GE model that is probably most similar to the older discontinued model originally in our house.  You can see that the wok completely blocks one of the other burners, and limits the use of a third.  When using my wok, I could really only use two of four burners on my builder-installed stove, which was often not enough to prepare the food I needed. 

Also note that, with some of these square burner orientation models, there is a scorch risk to the knobs if they are set too close to the burner.  The sloping sides of a wok force heat out laterally and that can melt plastic knobs if you're not careful (I made that mistake years ago in a previous home with a similarly-configured model of cooktop!). 
The square burner layout is the most common configuration on the market, but it is characterized by plenty of wasted space, in my opinion, wasted space both in the knob strip and in the border.  This is not an efficient lay-out.  As with the model above, having the highest-BTU burner adjacent to the knobs presents the potential for knob scorching when a large wok is used. 
This is the worst configuration I've seen on the market, and Viking is supposed to be a high-end brand!!  The only other high-BTU burner is the one cut off by the wok!!  This model would be out of the question for me because I would only be able to use one burner at a time. 
This is a better configuration because the mid-range BTU burner is on the diagonal, therefore would be useable while the wok was in place. 

However, having the high-BTU catercorner means that there's only one place for the wok handle if the other burners were in use, and that might be a concern to folks who lack abundant kitchen counter space. 

I'm not sure what the purpose of that central mini-grate is.  Looks like more infrastructure that would need cleaning. 

This 5-burner array has become quite popular in the last decade or so, but it's not without its own difficulties.  You can see that having the wok in the center would preclude the use of the two back burners, and the two front flanking burners would be limited to small pots only.  This configuration is also out of the question for me, for these reasons.  I often need to use a large stock pot at the same time as I'm using the wok, and this cooktop configuration would simply not allow that. 

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
At first glance, that Fagor 850SLTX did look the most promising for my specific needs.  My only initial reservation had to do with the degree of overhang that the wok would present on the left side.  The sloping side of the wok is about two inches above the base at that point, plus I was figuring that there's at least one additional inch of elevation due to the grate on the cooktop itself...
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.   
That height means that the heat should remain well off the counter and therefore it shouldn't cause a scorch or excessive heat problem.  But shouldn't does not equal wouldn't until the thing is finally tested and proven in daily use. 

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. 
But of course, space efficiency is only half the battle.  I also needed heat output efficiency.  Here is a chart summarizing that information for these two models:
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. 
That's one crowded cooktop, but in a pinch, I could indeed have four pots on it, with two of them being jumbo-sized.  That's a remarkable space efficiency for a 30-inch product. 

NOTE TO FAGOR:  You could probably sell a lot more of these cooktops if you would produce a paper template similar to my cardboard outline shown above, so that people could get a copy of the template and try it in their own homes with their own cookware before making a purchase decision.  Because obviously the merits of this cooktop model become very convincing when examined to scale like this.  And they are advantages that many other cooktop models arguably do not possess. 
So it's looking very much like it has a big-cooktop feel at a standard-cooktop width, doesn't it??
The feeling of extra space is happening because (1) there's no wasted space on the side of the cooktop where many other models place the knobs, and because (2) the wok overhang is essentially buying me about two inches of "virtual" space here.  In other words, this thing is actually acting like a 32-inch cooktop instead of a 30-inch.  That might not sound like much of a gain, but every additional inch counts.  Additionally, as I would find upon purchase, Fagor wasted no space on a "lip" surrounding this cooktop.  The cast iron grates are pushed all the way out to the edge, in contrast to the way I drew my cardboard mock-up here (which, in turn, was based on slightly inaccurate internet pictures). 
It was impossible to get a "feel" for how much heat would be thrown to the side, however.  I tried simulating this using my existing cooktop and moving things around, but nothing I tried seemed realistic.  The existing burner has both a deeper inset and a significantly lower BTU, so there were too many variables to do a realistic simulation. 
That was an exhaustive evaluation, wasn't it??  Ex-HAUST-ive!!  But we're only half done with this analysis, so let me continue. 


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. 
Here's where I realized that some of my pre-purchasing analysis missed the mark.  The photos on the internet implied that this cooktop was much lower to the counter than it proved to be in real life.  The grates are actually quite deep, elevating the bottom of the pan almost three inches above the counter.  No danger of countertop scorching here. 
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.


The cooktop does indeed accommodate pots efficiently, and it does so even better than my cardboard mock-up had initially suggested:
There's the 14-inch wok plus a large stock pot and I still have room for two other pots.

It's better than the cardboard model because my cardboard assumed that it would waste some space to a surrounding border, when in fact the burner grates are pushed all the way out to the edge. 
In order to put this thing through its paces, I chose to make a fish 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.

ASIDE:  Every time I go to Rose's Seafood, I walk out thinking to myself, "OMG, I can't believe I paid $25 - $30 for a few fillets of fish."  But LOOK at the vibrancy of it - it's almost impossible to buy snapper of this quality any more, for any price.  Each time we start out with buyer's remorse, but then we get the fish home, prepare it, and realize that it's worth the money!! 

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. 

After the onion-carmelizing stage, there's the fish-searing stage.  This is fresh fish (delicate and flakey) so it can't be man-handled too much, but it's essential for taste to get a bit of golden brown crust on it (red arrow points to it).  This was simply unattainable with my original lower-BTU cooktop. 

In this dish, the fish is cooked with many different herbs and spices, including a cilantro-serrano paste that is included in the searing phase.  However...
...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...
And then the whole thing is blanketed with basmati rice that had been par-boiled with additional herbs and spices (that's what the large stock pot was for). 

This pan is then sealed tightly with aluminum foil and the fish concoction underlayer is gently heated to steam the rice above, in order to finish cooking it (transmitting all those other flavors upward into the rice during the process). 


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. 


  1. I'm so glad I found your post!
    I've been torn about having to find a new cooktop. I use a big soup pot consistently and was having a hard time finding a cooktop that would work. Thanks for this detailed post :-)

  2. Wonderfully thorough...and you are just up the road! Glad to see I'm not the only one that obsesses over getting it just right. :)

  3. Got this unit and have some concerns over the Stainless Steel. It seems to scratch rather easily. Have you had that experience??

  4. I haven't found it to be any worse than any other appliance. They all scratch, even the colored appliances, although the standard black and white tend to show less wear and tear even though it is there (stainless is reflective and shows more marks).

  5. It is sold at Costco under the "Ancona" name for only $400!

  6. Am interested in the Costco model. The grates appear to have wider spacing than many grates, especially in the corners. Do you find that to be a problem with small pots like the old Corning Ware small glass pots, etc.? Many thanks for any additional comments after a year of use.

  7. I do use one tiny pot on the center rear burner and haven't noticed any stability issues.


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