Choosing a stove was pretty simple in your parent’s day. A free standing upright cooker in white enamel, of course. If you had the gas on, you'd buy a gas cooker, otherwise it was electric. If you wanted to upgrade, how about a clock with a timer – maybe even digital. Want to go modern? Get a wall oven and separate cooktop … generally, you guessed it, in white enamel!
Just as our tastes in food have moved on from steak and three veges, so has our choice in ovens. Choosing between a freestanding cooker or cooktop/wall oven is still the most basic decision, but now you can also consider an array of features and options: wok burners, fish burners, BBQ grills, teppanyaki plates, multiple ovens, self-cleaning, dual-fuel systems, and even deep-fryers and spit roasting. Buying such a staple kitchen item has never been more complex.
So first let’s dispense with some of the terminology. A freestanding oven, also known as an upright range, has the hotplates on top and the oven underneath. They are available in all electric, all gas or as a dual-fuel system (gas cooktop and electric oven). The clearest advantage of a freestanding cooker is that you don't have to buy a cupboard to mount them in. This also makes them simpler to install.
The alternative to a freestanding cooker is to mount a cooktop – the hotplates or burners – in the bench and have either a wall or underbench oven. The bench-mounted cooktop allows the kitchen to have uninterrupted bench space for an attractive integrated design, and can also be a great solution for saving space. A wall oven – generally mounted in a cupboard at about waist height up - eliminates the need for the cook to be constantly leaning down to use the oven. These ovens are also out of reach of toddlers and small children.
If you're replacing an existing stove you will most likely be limited in your choice of style and size, however if you're building a new kitchen you’re free to choose from a freestanding oven, or a wall or under bench model.
In the kitchen, size matters
Cookers are commonly referred to by size, and generally this means the how wide the cooker is on the outside. For those building new kitchens, there is an array sizes to choose from:
600mm wide: The most common width for cooktops and ovens – wall and freestanding alike. Most existing kitchens will be designed for this size. A 600mm cooktop will generally have four hotplates or burners.
900mm wide: The next most common size, particularly for freestanding ovens (900mm wall ovens are available but are less common). In fact, a 900mm cooker seems to be the must-have item for a stylish kitchen these days. Looks aside, a 900mm freestanding cooker is very functional. It will generally have five or six hotplates/burners with the option of extra features such as wok burners and teppanyaki plates. The width of the oven also means that you can fit more inside, which is great if you regularly cook large meals. 900mm cookers are also available with two separate ovens (generally about 600mm and 300mm). These are handy for cooking two items at once that need to be roasted/baked at different temperatures.
700mm, 800mm, 1200mm and 1500mm wide: Freestanding cookers are also available in these sizes. 700 and 800mm provide more room around the hotplates/burners than a 600mm cooker, allowing multiple large pots or pans to be used more comfortably at the same time. The larger two sizes often have two or more ovens, extra hotplates/burners and sometimes extra features such as BBQ grill plates.
Other sizes: Bench-mounted cooktops come in a range of other sizes including 300 to 360mm wide single width units. These are suited to either small apartments or to combining different types such as two electric hotplates, a gas wok burner and a BBQ grill plate. A number of sizes are also available especially between 600 and 900mm.
Cooktops also require free space on either side. This is an important consideration when planning for your new cooktop, and manufacturers can supply you with this information.
Whether you buy a wall oven or a freestanding cooker, ovens have common features to look for.
Cavity size: Not all ovens that are 600mm on the outside are equal in size on the inside. The internal height of the oven is an important measurement to look at. The internal height should be enough so that you can place – for example – a roast chicken and a leg of lamb on each shelf at the same time.
This internal height is also good to look for in 900mm ovens as, although you can place the two roasts on the same shelf, you are probably choosing a larger oven as you expect to cater for larger groups. Be sure to measure the useable space in store, especially when the shelving is in place. Can it be adjusted? Some of the marketing material may be deceptive.
Self-cleaning options: Most people don't enjoy cleaning an oven, so the engineers came up with self-cleaning ovens. These ovens have special internal liners on which fat and food particles lodge themselves. Run the empty oven on a very high temperature after cooking and these particles burn off - cleaning the oven. Self-cleaning ovens (also called pyrolytic) are generally more expensive. Sometimes self-cleaning ovens use liners (also called catalytic liners) which are available as optional extras. It's important to remember that you will still probably need to clean inside the door, the shelves and the fat filter.
If your budget does not run to a self-cleaning oven, try to avoid ovens that have lots of screws or attached parts inside the oven. These gather grease and dirt and make cleaning harder. Cleaning the oven door will also be easier if the inside of the door has a full glass sheet. Otherwise dirt will collect on the join between the metal and the small glass window on the inside of the door, making cleaning harder.
Oven doors: Some of us may remember burning ourselves from touching a hot oven door as a child. Thankfully a lot has changed over the years and this no longer has to be a danger, thanks to improved door design that includes multiple layers of glass in the oven doors. Generally, an oven door with three layers of glass will be cooler to the touch on the outside than a door with two glass layers. This is particularly important to consider if you have children.
Also while looking at the door, consider how it opens. Most have hinges at the bottom of the door. Alternatively you can also get oven doors with hinges on either the left or right side, so that they open sideways, like a microwave oven. Make sure these open far enough so that your elbows don't hit the door as you are lifting out that hot, heavy baking dish. Ideally the door should be light and easy to open. And check that the door will stay open at the desired angle, not just fully open or closed.
Be sure to test the door to see how smoothly it opens and closes – not all door hinges are made equal.
Controls and settings: Electric ovens currently on the market are generally all fan forced, and they should have functions for different settings. Common functions include classic bake, conventional bake, and fan forced baking, with some ovens including quick preheat, defrost, and fan assisted functions. Ideally one of those should include running the oven without the fan.
Some ovens offer preprogrammed cooking programs for a variety of food types from pastries to roasts. You simply set the type of food you are cooking, its weight and then the oven automatically selects the rest of the functions (temperature, time etc) needed to cook the food.
Take note of how clear and easy to understand the oven controls are – you don’t want to keep referring back to the oven manual to decipher what the symbols mean.
Grill: Many modern ovens do not include a separate grill area. Instead the grill is inside the oven at the top. Using the grill with the fan may be used for roasts.
A smokeless grill tray is a useful feature if the oven you select has an internal grill. Some grill trays have a safety stop so the tray cannot come all the way out, and ideally it shouldn’t slope downwards either. Look for an oven with a separate grill if you plan to grill and bake at the same time, or just prefer that configuration. Two grill tray heights offer enough options.
Some of the combination and steam ovens also use halogen lamps to assist with the browning of food.
Hobs / Cooktops
Just as ovens have been modernised over the years, so too have the cooktops. Cooktops now come in a variety of functions and styles including different hotplate types.
Gas cooktops have burners with a safety gas cutoff should the flame go out. Electric cooktops come with metal or ceramic hotplates, or with an induction-cooking surface.
Gas: The first decision you will most likely make regarding your stovetop is whether to go for gas or electric. Gas burners are used in professional kitchens and have a strong following with home users as well, mainly because you have immediate control over the level of heat. Also, safety cut out switches have eliminated the fear of leaving the gas on by mistake. Note: just because you have a gas stovetop it doesn’t mean you need to have a gas oven. It is common these days to mix the two and combine a gas stovetop with an electric oven.
Electric: Metal hotplates are the most cost effective cooktop choice. Ceramic hotplates have a glass-ceramic surface with the heating elements under the glass surface. Because the entire surface of the cooktop is a sheet of glass these cooktops are easier to keep clean. The hotplate is red only when it is on, but most ceramic cooktops include a heat light when the hotplate is off so you don't burn yourself.
Induction: Gas burners, metal and ceramic hotplates all get hot themselves and, consequently pass that heat to the pots and pans sitting on top of them. Induction instead uses electromagnetism to generate the heat directly in the base of the pot or pan through the glass-ceramic surface they are sitting on. There is no actual hotplate that gets hot, and when you take the pot off an induction stove the surface of the cooktop is cool to touch.
However induction stovetops are not cheap, especially as you may need to buy new cookware – you need to use 'ferrous' based cookware, such as cast iron or stainless steel with an induction base. The markings on an induction cooktop are basically there to indicate where the sensors are under the surface.
Things to consider
* The spacing of the burners or hotplates on the cooktop makes a difference if you want to use a number of large pots or pans at the same time. This is particularly important if you are getting a stove with a wok burner – make sure there is enough room around the hotplate to fit other cookware.
* Cooktops are also available with a range of specialist burners including fish burners, teppanyaki plates, BBQ grills, and deep fryers. It is also possible to buy cooktops with both gas burners and electric hotplates.
* For easy cleaning take note of the screws and edges – the less the better. Gas cooktops should come with solid cast-iron trivets.