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Dreams of a high-end kitchen range go on the front burner

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By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some people covet expensive shoes or fast cars. I covet ovens and ranges. I drop by appliance stores to ogle the floor models. I visit the manufacturers' Web sites and drool over images of cast-iron burner grates and chunky knobs. I use the interactive tools, clicking on option after option in search of the one combination that is perfect for me. What's behind my obsession? I suppose if you were to be poetic you might say it has to do with the oven being the modern-day equivalent of the hearth. It's where heat is generated, where meals are cooked -- the heart of the kitchen, which itself is the heart of the home.

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Or you could argue that credit, or blame, lies with Viking Range Corp. Ever since the Mississippi-based company began turning out professional-grade ovens for the home cook some two decades ago, anything less has seemed . . . inadequate.

In my case, it mostly has to do with the fact that the range I use is a quirky old thing, with only two reliable burners (with mismatched grates), an unreliable oven and a downdraft fan that turns on and off at will. For someone who spends most of her days creating and testing recipes, this is not the ideal scenario, which is why I'm in the market for a new one.

An oven or a range is a big-ticket appliance, one that, hopefully, you don't have to replace very often. That means technology and design can change a lot between purchases. Now practically every manufacturer, from Aga, in Britain, to BlueStar, in Pennsylvania, is proffering cooktops, ovens and ranges with a host of commercial features, from high-heat burners to cavernous ovens, not to mention swoon-inducing looks.

Most of these I cannot afford, but the good news is that lots of brands now have lines that bring these appliances within reach of the mass market (i.e., me). In fact, so many brands have gotten in on the act that you can quickly find yourself down a rabbit hole if you don't watch out.

To help sort out the choices, I've compiled a list of priority features to consider:

Size

Yes, size matters, and by that I don't necessarily mean big is better. As much as I love the idea of a 60-inch range with two full-size double ovens, there's no way one would fit in my kitchen.

A growing number of manufacturers, including BlueStar, Bertazzoni, GE, Viking and Wolf, make 48-inch ranges that feature one full-size (36-inch) oven and one 18-inch "companion" oven, both with convection capability (more on that in a minute). American Range and BlueStar are among those that offer a 24-inch commercial-grade range that can either be a companion piece to a full-size range or a high-performance option for small apartment kitchens.

Burners

More manufacturers, including Bosch, Jenn-Air, Viking and Wolf, have cooktops and ranges with induction burners. Frigidaire has a hybrid model, with two induction burners and two standard electric. Induction cooking relies on magnetic energy for heat; it's fast and energy-efficient, and many chefs swear by it.

I, however, am a devotee of gas, and so I'm thrilled that so many manufacturers have added burners with flames that can go from ultra-low to ultra-high, up to 22,000 BTUs. Dacor, a California company, has what it calls a "simmer-sear" burner whose flame can go from melting chocolate without burning it to searing a rib-eye.

There are also more models featuring grills, griddles and, my favorite, the French top: a large, flat cast-iron surface whose heat radiates from the center. On a French top you can both boil a pot of water for pasta and keep an egg-based sauce warm without fear of it "breaking." Hello, heaven!

Oven technology

Many ovens today have a "proof" setting for bread, and Thermador, among others, has an oven with a steam injection system that makes the air in the oven more moist, resulting in crispier bread crusts.


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