Sunday, May 31, 2009

Range Saga, part 2.5 -- induction update

Range saga, part 1
Range saga, part 2

When I started blogging about my range saga, many readers suggested induction. I haven't thought about it much as an option, until my good friends D + TW left me a comment that I can buy their brand new Kenmore Elite and they'll buy induction cook top. Well, not really (they are not quite ready for the investment induction takes after buying a condo in Cambridge). But they thought this would be a good way to make their point: induction rocks!

After doing a little research yesterday, I figured I might as well consider it. Sure, I still won't have a decent broiler, but the heat responsiveness sounded phenomenal. I found out how to test my pots an pans for "inductivity," and headed to the kitchen. Since induction only works on magnetic surfaces, you can stick a refrigerator magnet to the bottom of your pan and see whether it sticks or not. I peeled my dentist's magnet of the fridge and set to work. With each pan, I was getting more and more discouraged. It worked on:
  • cast iron skillet
  • 2 quart stainless all-clad saucier
  • 4 quart stainless all-clad saucepan
It did not work on:
  • 12 Inch WearEver non-stick saute pan
  • 9 inch non-stick crepe pan
  • 8 inch cheapy non-stick pan that I use for omelettes (I don't even know the brand)
  • 8 quart Cuisinart stockpot
  • 10 inch all-clad skillet (oops, I totally forgot that I got Master Chef series for that, not stainless steal)
  • 12 inch Cuisinart saute pan
I expected the non-stick pans to be problematic, but I didn't expect to have to replace my stock pot, favorite 10 inch skillet, and a large saute pan. To replace all those with induction ready cookware, I'd have to spend at least $700.

Hmm... back to the drawing board.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The range saga, part 2

The range saga, part 1

Before I get to part 2 of the range saga, let me address a few questions that came up in the comments of part 1.

Why are you converting to propane? Have you heard about induction?
There is no gas in the neighborhood, so if I want to cook over a flame, propane is the only option. The reason I like cooking over the flame is responsiveness of the cook top and a broiler that browns quickly and evenly. The electric cook top does not respond to lowering or raising the heat immediately. This can be worked around by dedicating 2 burners to each dish and moving a skillet from one burner to another to achieve and immediate heat adjustment, but when I cook in class, I don't have extra burners because most of them are already occupied. Induction cook top does solve this problem, but not all pans work on it. In fact, my favorite non-stick skillet that's so handy for searing fish doesn't. Yes, I know lots of restaurants have been using them. Yes, I know they are "cool." I am just not a person to jump on the cool bandwagon yet. I'd be very surprised if there is a restaurant that has ONLY induction burners and absolutely no gas.

Now about the broiler. Even if I get an induction cook top, I still will have to deal with electric broiler unless I put in propane. Electric broilers broil the way George Forman grill grills. Real broiling needs a flame.

Back to part 2...
To sum up where we left of with part 1: I decided to look at pro-style ranges since many of them don't need to be converted to propane. They make separate versions for gas and propane with the same heat output.

My inquiries about sponsorship all ended with "You teach cooking classes where? In your house? Sorry, we don't sponsor anyone." Yeah, right. Of course, you do. I tried to tell DCS that I am just like Cook's Illustrated, whom they sponsor (minus cooking show, a magazine, and a number of award winning books). Details, details... But I have over 700 students per year taking classes with me. That didn't seem to impress anyone.

So be it. I'll pay for it all myself. At least I'll be able to say what I want about it if it breaks :)

Entering the world of pro-style ranges was like stepping into Saks Fifth Avenue after shopping at TJ Maxx my whole life. At Clarke showroom, I was served pastries, had to sit through multimedia presentations, and even had a helpful sales representative spend an hour with me going over Wolf features.

Another brand that I've seen up close is Blue Star. My first impression of all these ranges was "wow -- my skillets fit." I could put a 12 inch and a 10 inch skillet front to back. I guess you have to pay over $3,000 to expect to use all 4 burners at once (unless you have tiny pots and pans). Another wow factor was the broiler. These ranges have what sales people refer to as Infrared broiler. I was a bit put off by the high tech term at first. But after I saw how they worked, I started drooling. There is a ceramic mesh that spreads the flame evenly over the top of your oven. It's like having a big rectangle of very intense heat that you can pop things under when you want them to brown in a flash.

Blue Star also impressed me with its gigantic oven. All these ranges are stadard 30 inch wide on the outside. Why do some companies choose to make most of this space usable and some don't is a mystery to me. Is it because smaller ovens preheat faster? Or is it because you need less insulation for thicker oven walls?

I haven't looked into Capital, American, Viking, and Thermador seriously yet. I don't believe my Kitchen appliance place carries them. I don't want to disclose their name for now, but they sell AND install appliances. So many places give you the range and hood and let you deal with it. As it turns out finding someone to deal with it is hard. For our little installation, we need a carpenter, an electrician, a duct guy, and a granite cutter. All these people are hard to hire for a little job like that. They are also hard to coordinate unless you have someone knowledgeable managing the project.

Unfortunately, the only pro-style range consumer reports evaluated was Viking and they got terrible marks for reliability. I started googling around for opinions on all these hunks of stainless steal, and that's when I came across gardenweb appliance forum and chowhound cookware board.

The for next week, I have been obsessively reading people's description of cooking bliss and maintenance nightmares. Every time I thought I found a range of my dreams, I found a horror story about it. I also couldn't find any consensus on what features people do and don't like. Some think sealed burners are the best thing since sliced bread. Some think it's the worst. The weirdest thing is that both camps think their way is easier to clean. Some thought that cooking on propane is absolutely fine, some thought its output is weak or heat is not adjustable.
I found some of these discussions as funny as the proper way to break an egg argument in Gulliver's travels.

Here are the brands that I've investigated so far:

General perception: there seems to be a sentiment that Wolf is an overpriced, poor quality product. They have recently had a recall that had to do with the broilers flaring up. That seemed to freak everyone out. One woman claimed she had her range replaced 3 times and it was still not satisfactory. There were, of course, many happy Wolf users. Just for the record -- Wolf home ranges don't have anything to do with Wolf commercial ranges. The only thing they have in common is the logo. Home Wolf is owned by Sub-Zero.
Rough price for a 30 inch gas range: $4,500
Max btu output: 16,000
Burner style: partially sealed. Here is how the salesperson explained it to me. If you spill something it will still leak onto a drip tray and get out of your way. You can disassemble the burners if you want to clean them inside, but the porcelain top comes all the way to the holes where the gas comes out of.
Oven width: full size sheet won't fit (that's not a biggie for me). the oven seemed the same size as mine, but the rack holders go inside the oven about an inch on each side (in mine they are just indentations in the oven walls). This seems to waste a lot of oven space, so I worry that I won't even have the space I have now.
My best guess about the ease of cleaning: doesn't seem so bad. You can easily remove the cast iron grates and wipe the top of the range the same way I am used to doing on my Kenmore.
Number of companies that service it in Boston: I found at least 3 so far, but there are probably more.
Customer service: it sounds like they try very hard to keep people happy and are willing to take anything back that's defective.

General perception: cooking bliss or service nightmare. Good news: great burner design (very even heat), and the highest power you can get for a home range. Bad news: Even happy customers who think that Blue Star is a gift from God reported ignition problems, gas leaks, and waiting weeks for service.
Rough price for a 30 inch gas range: $3,100 for an 18K btu version, $3,600 for the 22K btu. The delivery is more than other ranges since this beast weights 400Lb.
Max btu output: 22,000
Burner style: open. You can lift the grate and even the plate around each star shaped burner. There is no continuous surface under grates.
Oven width: huge -- a full size sheet fits
My best guess about the ease of cleaning: I am concerned that the plates around the burners are not easily wipeable because of their rough texture. You can definitely get them clean by putting them in the sink or in the dishwasher. But they are big, heavy, and clunky. I don't expect that getting them in your sink on daily basis is a pleasant experience. That being said, grease is probably not as noticable on their dark bumpy surface as it is on smooth and shiny one of Wolf.
Number of companies that service it in Boston: one! that's scary. There is only one company that Blue Star approves for servicing their ranges. If you get anyone else to service it (not that many service companies would even agree to do that), you lose your warranty.
Customer service: it sounds like the really terrible head of customer service is now out. The new guy sounds better and they are even offering free range inspections within 10 days of install to people who buy the more expensive model. But I still haven't heard of them taking anything back if it's defective the way Wolf does.

General perception: They were recently bought by Fisher Paykel, so it's hard to say what it will be like going forward. Many people seem to think that's a bad thing. The people who founded DCS left to start Capital. That doesn't sounds good.
Rough price for a 30 inch gas range: $3,600
Max btu output: 17,000
Burner style: closed
Oven width: not sure since I've only seen it in the pictures. none of their marketing materials brag about the oven fitting a full size sheet.
My best guess about the ease of cleaning:It looks like you can lift the grates and wipe the smooth surface underneath. I wonder if the spills pool up with the sealed burners. Mine are open, so I have no idea how sealed behave. It's a shame that none of the showrooms demonstrate what happens when you make a mess.
Number of companies that service it in Boston: I haven't investigated yet.
Customer service: When even the salesperson tells you that it took DCS 3 tries to replace his oven door because wrong parts were shipped, you start to worry. That was supposed to be a success story, by the way. He says he loves his DCS, but the glass in his door was getting lose and the wonderful folks at DCS replaced the whole door to make sure he doesn't have future problems. Too bad it took them 3 tries.

Talking to sales people seemed hopeless. The small shops that carry few brands push whatever they just started carrying as the latest and the greatest. For example, "We dropped DCS because we were having problems with them, but we love BlueStar." With more prodding it turns out they only sell about 15 BlueStars a year. That's hardly a large enough sample size to hear about serious problems, especially that most customers will call BlueStar with problems, not the people who sold it to them. The large shops that carry tons of brands, don't want to say anything at all. If they have a service department, they refuse to share any information about what brands they see the most trouble with. It must be part of their contract with the manufactures -- not to give the buyer and useful information.

The on-line forums were very useful, but I have a feeling that negative reviews are over-represented. If everything was fine, you would be cooking, not posting your horror stories on gardenweb.

I starting looking for a more objective opinion and following advice of the gardenwebbers started to contact service companies. No one seemed to agree on which pro-style range was the worst offender, but all servicemen agreed that I shouldn't expect anything fixed for at least 10 days. First they have to come over and figure out what's broken. Then they have to order the part from the manufacturer of the range. Then that part needs to be shipped to them from some other state. Then they have to come in and install it. And that's the best case scenario. Often wrong parts get shipped, so you might have to wait a month before your problem is resolved.

For most home cooks this is annoying, but not the end of the world. Surely, you can live without an oven for 10 days. In the worst case, you'll get take out. But I need my range to work, and I can't cancel classes waiting for the service people and the manufacturer to finally figure out when and how to fix it.

I was starting to seriously doubt whether a pro-style range would be practical and decided to re-examine and issue of the drop in power for home ranges when they are converted to propane.

I ran into an interesting discussion about it on cheftalk. It seemed to be in line with my original idea that the btu output is not the most important thing in the world. But it's after midnight, so this will have to wait for another post.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The range saga, part 1

I haven't slept in over a week. I have dreams about BTUs, gas leaks, and failing electronic panels. Jason suggested I blog about my range saga. He said it would help me organize my research notes. I think it's because he is sick of my whining about the stupid range, and who can blame him?

The wonderful news is that we bought a house and will be moving in August. It's a gorgeous place with a garden, huge windows, perfect layout, and a large kitchen. There is just one little problem. There is no gas in the house or in the neighborhood. "Big deal," I thought. "We'll get a propane tank." I researched this issue thoroughly when we were house shopping, and it looked like installing a propane tank was very doable. Not only will I get to cook on a live flame like I did for the past 14 years, but I'll get to cook on a range of my choosing for the first time in my life.

Up to now, I've cooked on the dinky little Kenmore that came with our condo (the cheapest Kenmore one can buy at Sears for $300). The grates don't stay in place when you move pots around. Once the oven and two burners are going, you can't light the third burner. If you have a 12 inch skillet on the front burner, you can forget about using the burner in the back even for a little pot -- there is no room. And did I mention the oven ignition going bad every 3 years (more like every 1.5 years once I started teaching cooking classes). Of course, there are some wonderful things about my range as well. The obvious one is that it's gas, which means it responds immediately when you turn the knobs. The broiler is a work horse and browns beautifully. The burners have never failed me once in 8 years. The oven ignition can be replaced the same day I call my appliance repairman and only costs $150. It is even nice enough to give me notice of when it's getting close to retirement (the oven takes longer and longer to turn on). I do love my little range and will miss it, but this is a good opportunity to move on and get something more... oh, I don't know... serious?

My Mom was all excited about it. "Finally, you'll get a professional range, so that your kitchen is more presentable to students. What must they be thinking looking at that dinky Kenmore?" Well, the students seem to notice the food more than the stove, and my goal is not to impress them with the musculature of my appliances. Besides, you can't really put a real professional range in your home. You can put professional style range, like Viking, Wolf, Thermador, etc, but that's not the same thing as the ranges restaurants use. The most impressive thing about pro-style ranges is their look -- you can feel like you are cooking on a set of Food TV; their price -- $4000 and up; and their power -- more than my dinky Kenmore, but less than a true restaurant range. The repair bills and the frequency with which you'll see your repair guy also seem to be impressive. Since the manufacturing volume of these ranges is small, the quality assurance is much weaker than for regular home ranges.

No, no -- I wasn't thinking of anything that impressive. I was planning on checking consumer reports and going with some reliable, mid-priced home range. Surely, GE Profile or Kenmore Elite would be lovely to cook on. I was originally hoping to spend around $1000. Once I took a look at the prices on-line, I realized that's impossible for an island range. Everything island (ranges, hoods) automatically cost more. Moving the range somewhere else would involve a major kitchen redesign. Besides, it's nice for it to be in the island for teaching purposes. I came to terms with having to spend closer to $2000, grabbed my pots and pans and headed to Sears to take a look.

If $300 can get you a decent range. Surely, $2000 can get you an amazing one. Hmm -- not so fast. The looks were definitely better -- stainless steel, smoother corners, cooler knobs. The grates were heavier and continuous, so they were more likely to stay in place than mine. But the cooking area was no bigger than mine and it was still impossible to use the back burner if a 12 inch skillet was in the front. "Your problem is that your pans are too big," said the Sears guy. I definitely agree that it's a problem, but something tells me I am not the only home cook with a 12 inch skillet.

I have also noticed that all these ranges had electronic controls in the front. Instead of a knob that turns to a specific temperature to turn on the oven, there were buttons enough for a space station. There was programmable this and programmable that. Nothing against programming, but a range is not something people want to program. Trust me -- I have a degree in computer science with a specialty in human computer interaction. I remember dozens of my colleague at the MathWorks suffering profusely when the lounge microwaves got updated to the state of the art in microwave technology. No one could warm up their lunch for days! Most of these guys have Ph.D.'s in computer science, math, and physics. Apparently, it takes more than that to operate modern kitchen appliances.

What bothered me even more about these electronic controls was the advice I got from Phil, my appliance repairman. He said to avoid them like the plague. The heat of the oven cooks them and every 4-5 years they break. My on-line research confirmed this problem. This doesn't just mean that you can't press your "perfect turkey" button or program your oven to turn on at 3am. It means that you can't turn your oven on. Period. Unlike me dinky oven's ignition, the electronics are hard and expensive to replace. That didn't sound good, particularly considering the fact that for me they would break every 2 years since I use my range about 3 times the amount of a normal enthusiastic home cook. Not only that, but if I can't get my oven fixed in a day or two, I would probably have to cancel some cooking classes.

"Do you have any island ranges without electronics?" I asked the Sears guy. "No. For that you need a professional style range, like Wolf or Viking." That makes perfect sense. You start with my $300 Kenmore. Then you pay an extra $1700 to get electronics put in, and then another $1700 to get them removed. I guess for that money, I could just preemptively order an electronic panel for when it breaks (they are about $350-500) to have it ready for a repairman when the time comes to replace it.

The bigger issue that was eating me up was the power loss. I heard that when you convert a range from natural gas to propane, it loses power. The question was how much power. Sears guy said 10%. That didn't sounds too bad at all. My current burners are all 9,000 btu. The burners on GE Profile and Kenmore Elite were all different. Some as high as 16 (for the front) and some as low as 5 (for back simmer). Even if I lost 10%, I would still have at least a few burners more powerful than my current ones.

But the mistrusting person that I am, I thought I'll double check this 10% assumption. After a little Googling, I started to panic. I read statements like "GE loses a 1/3 of its power." This sounded too big to be true, so I called GE. It wasn't an across the board 1/3, but way bigger than 10%. Here are the outputs they gave me for GE profile:

NG - 18, 11, 9, 6
LP - 15, 6, 8, 6

So, overall, it was a loss of about 20%, but this also meant that I'd have one burner more powerful than my current ones, and 3 burners that are weaker. It was especially frustrating that the biggest power loss was on the second front burner. I tried to call Sears to ask about Kenmore, but it was impossible to speak to a human. I was starting to panic. What would 8,000 btu feel like, what about 6,000? I was imagining limp fish skin and pale steaks. The nightmares of never being able to have a hot skillet again (at least on more than one burner) kept me up at night. I forgot to ask the helpful GE rep what happened to the oven and broiler output. I was imagining the worst.

I felt like a patient whose limb was going to be amputated. I was going to lose the heat that I always took for granted. The fire, heart and sole of my kitchen was going to be gone forever. Seeing my despair, Jason suggested we look at pro-style ranges. They were supposed to have so much power that even if we lost 20% of it, it would not be worse than our current set up. I couldn't believe how sweet and understanding Jason was about the whole thing. I was starting to feel guilty about those times I questioned him about little splurges on hard drives and video cards. Those were all small potatoes compared to a pro-style range.

What I needed was a sponsor. Yes! Finally, I had one brilliant idea about this whole mess. If you were an appliance retailer, wouldn't you want to give me a free range (or at least a significant discount)? I have over 700 students coming through my kitchen every year and asking me advice about where to buy fish, meat, pots, pans, knives. Why not ranges? Accepting freebies for advertising is generally against my principles. But desperate times called for desperate measures. If Rachel Ray gave me a good range, I'd seriously consider never again mentioning to my students what I thought about her. Principles be damned! I needed something to cook on.

Thus began part 2 of the range saga.

to be continued...