Low-Maintenance Appliances: Ranges, Cooktops, Microwaves

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For purposes of low maintenance, much of what I’ve said about refrigerators applies to other major appliances too, especially cooking appliances. Like refrigerators, a range can last a long time—one lady in our town still uses one made in the ‘40s and says she wouldn’t part with it for all the electronic gadgetry in today’s kitchen. Burners burn out on ranges but are simple and fairly inexpensive to replace. (Have you noticed that as burners get easier to replace, they tend to burn out quicker, too? Is that progress?) On gas ranges, there are no burners to go kaput as such. Once in a blue moon the gas ports might get plugged but a poke or two with a length of wire can solve that. There are really ancient ones with original equipment still alive and well. My sister has one in her garage modified for LP gas, which she uses for electric blackout emergencies and for boiling off maple sap.

The only other major range problem that can develop is linked to the self-cleaning oven. Early and/or cheap models sometimes do not have enough insulation in them, and the oven walls crack during self-cleaning. But such bad luck with today’s models would be a rarity, Self-cleaning ovens are a great way to lower maintenance. The increase in energy usage is at least partially balanced by a decrease in energy in normal baking because the added insulation keeps more heat in the oven. Statisticians say it costs 39 cents to run a self-cleaning oven at average electric rates.

The other maintenance bugaboo with cooking ranges is wiping up around the burners and cleaning the drips and spills that fall through them. Designers have made it relatively easy to lift the burners out or up and clean the porcelain pans underneath. Now you can get solid “black burners.” They’re caulked around the edges so that there’s no space for anything to drip through. Some new ranges sport a one-piece “upswept” burner that has no cracks to trap dirt around the edges. In effect, the rim of the burner and the cooktop are one piece. Some burners allow you to adjust the size of the heated area to the size of the pot or pan you are heating. This saves energy. If you don’t have this feature, you should try to use the burner that more closely fits the utensil you are cooking in, as I guess everyone who has taken a course in home economics knows. To put a small pan on a large burner is wasteful.

One more design feature I have found in some new ranges that makes cleanup easier is an oven vent duct that is not directly at the lowest center part of the catch pan. This prevents large spillovers from going into the oven.

If you are thinking of buying a new cooking appliance and haven’t been keeping up with new developments, you will be in for a surprise when you go to your favorite appliance store. First of all, the word “range” is heard less and less, in favor of the word “cooktop.” A cooktop essentially is a range top installed someplace other than on a range and it has no oven under it. (If it has an oven under it, it is generally called a “drop-in.”) A cooktop may be installed in almost any countertop or kitchen island. Cooktops can be equipped with several different choices of burners— changeable plug-in modules (to use the latest language) that can function as a grill, griddle, or even a rotisserie. Whether the griddle burner is really any improvement over the old iron fry pan is arguable. And whether a grill burner on the cooktop is any real advance over grilling in your conventional oven is also debatable. But the new cooktops do offer greater freedom in designing a kitchen. Fashion rules and practicality follow, stumbling, after it.

Inductive Heat Cooktops

But the big advance in cooktops is in the incorporation of a really new kind of burner that uses inductive heat, not the usual conductive kind. When the word “cooktop” is used now, and especially by the time you read this, it refers almost always to inductive burners. An induction cooktop has its heating coil embedded in a ceramic plate. What you see as the “burner” is the ceramic plate upon which you set your pot or what ever. But that ceramic plate does not get hot. Instead, when you switch on the burner, the heating coil inside sets up a magnetic field. An iron pot, a porcelainized iron pot, or a magnetized stainless steel pot set on the burner attracts the heat magnetically through the ceramic plate. The pot heats up, not the burner. (In the old conductive way, the heat had to first spread through the burner, then flow by conduction into the utensil on it.) Great claims of efficiency are being made for induction burners—up to 60 percent more efficient than conductive electric burners and up to 15 percent more efficient than gas burners. In addition, these burners have a safety advantage over the old ones; you are not likely to get burned if you accidentally touch them. Induction burners appear at this time to be very much the wave of the future despite their higher cost right now.

Convection Ovens

Another relatively new development is the convection oven. Standard ovens are heated by simple radiant heat coming from the heating elements. Convection ovens add a fan to circulate that heat more uniformly. The advantage is faster, more even cooking than standard ovens. Many cooks like convection cooking for lots of uses but prefer radiant heat for food that burns easily, or where a slower roasting can mean greater flavor. You can buy new ovens that come equipped with both and enjoy the best of both types of cooking. You convert from radiation to convective heat at the flick of a switch.

Microwave Ovens

Microwave ovens have become the most popular new ovens of all— “microwaving” is our newest verb. Because they heat and cook so fast, they are beloved by busy families. In a way, microwaves and the fast lane people deserve each other. Microwaves are great for heating up food that otherwise is ready to eat, like TV dinners, and for lightly cooking vegetables. But every person I meet who enjoys good food says that microwaving will never take the place of slower range cooking. Meat and pastries just don’t taste as good out of the microwave. And a frozen casserole will take as long to thaw and cook in a microwave as in an ordinary oven. Improvements may negate my statements, but as of now, these drawbacks are significant for anyone with even a touch of gourmet in their souls.

In their favor, microwaves use far less electricity than ordinary ranges. But since most homes will continue to have both standard and microwave ovens, this advantage might be less than the energy watchers calculate—if you count in the energy of manufacturing and distributing all those microwaves in addition to all those conventional ranges.

The electronic monitoring gadgetry on cooking appliances, especially microwaves, is literally fantastic. It reminds me of Christmas decorations, and some of the gadgetry is not much more useful than that, either. Whereas previously you turned knobs to activate and deactivate a stove, now you touch panels. Lots of the digital readouts give you information you don’t need to know or maybe don’t want to know, like the date, which has nothing to do with cooking anyway. It’s the language of touch paneling that deludes you. “Electronic programming” sounds like a big deal, but more often than not it enables you to do with your stove exactly what you have always been able to do, minus the pretty lights. For example, here is a description of one of the features you get on a microwave, as I quote verbatim from the catalog of a leading manufacturer: “Temp Cook/Hold cycle that cooks food by temperature and maintains selected temperature until Clear/Off is touched.” Wow. You do that on an old range by twisting a few knobs.

But I don’t want to make too much fun of electronic gadgetry because some of it is real progress. And with microwaves, ultra-handy touch panels that monitor everything except whether you have let the dog out yet are really almost necessary. Why? Because the microwave works so fast it would be folly to leave the cooking time up to human manual control. The food would more often be annihilated than cooked. I’m sure by now everyone has heard the story of the misguided soul who put his poodle, fresh from a bath, in the microwave to dry off and then the phone rang.

How long will a microwave last without major repairs or replacement? There’s not much about them that can go wrong, really. But they haven’t been around long enough yet for us to find out.

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