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...