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...


jo said...

We cook on propane in Maine. Will check with mom on the model (2 yrs old), our friends in NH have propane. The drop has never been an issue. Ever.
Here we have a Thermidor professional. 6 burners, 2 ovens (1 is small) and a griddle, which I rarely use, we already had a built in grill so I didn't need that and they didn't come with an 8 burner model. (photo here
I adore it and in the 6 years I have owned it it has never required service.
Look at Blue Star. Go to Eurostoves in Beverly. talk to Trevor or Karen. All the stoves are there ready to test. You can set up cooking on them if you wish. A standard Blue Star range fits a full sheet pan. Great line.

Helen said...

Hi Jo,

Would you mind checking what range your Mom has in Maine? Thank you so much for the tip about Eurostoves. I know about them and about Blue Star. More about that in my next post...

Hope all is going well at Create a Cook.


~M said...

Hi Helen,

Have you considered induction stovetops at all?

Helen said...

yes, I've considered induction. Here are some issues:

1) you still get an electric broiler, which sucks
2) almost none of my students have induction ranges, so that's not the best range to use for classes

I am thinking about buying one induction burner though -- useful for bringing water to a boil and as a back up :)

Marianne said...

I LOVE my induction cooktop! But I agree that students won't relate to it as easily as to gas. (But I can get 4 pans, including a 12" one on it...) Good luck in your search. I too was put off propane by the power drop. I found useful info in the Appliances forum on gardenweb. Good luck!

Helen said...

Hi Marianne,

So glad the induction is working out for you. It sounds like a great idea, but very different from normal stove tops. Yes, gardenweb is a mine of appliance info. It's both fabulous and nerve racking. Every time I think I figured it out, I read some horror story about whatever brand I decided on. But then again, I am sure the negative reviews are over-represented on these forums (if nothing was wrong, you are not as likely to post).

I've been learning a lot about the power drop with propane. This issue is turning out to be very misrepresented and misleading. I'll post what I've learned in future posts.


Anonymous said...

Go for it. Ask mfrs. if even a discount is available since you would boost sales with the recommendations to students, to all the other foodies you know. Won't hurt to ask... espec. in these challenging economic times.

Anonymous said...

Did you mention why you are converting to propane?

Sandy said...

I had a gas line and installed a Garland 6 burner stove with one huge oven and never had a repair in the 23 years we owned it. Moved to a condo, still with a gas line but the inspector wouldn't approve a pro stove because of venting issues, ended up with a Jenn Air which is fine on the burners but only 4 or them and I have already warped the base of the oven. i hate this stove, too many buttons and dials and choices. At vacation house I recently installed a Thermadore cooktop and a propane tank, and am so disappointed in the variance of the heat- there is no such thing as heat regulation- the hot doesn't get real hot, the simmer keeps a rolling boil. So frustrating! Thermadore makes different models for propane and for gas lines (the appliance guy told me- who know how reliable he was!) and I am not happy with propane at all, though I do have to say it's better than electric. Good luck here- maybe a gas line will come through for you soon?

Unknown said...

the costs, but I like my Fisher&Paykel cooktop. They have dual-fuel ranges that might work well for you.

Good luck on your search. I look forward to part 2 of the Saga.

Unknown said...

Oh - and I forgot to mention - I also have an induction cooker. I LOVE my induction cooker for doing pasta (among other things). Just gotta make sure you have the right cookware to use on it (stainless steel, or tri-ply with stainless outside).

Kat said...

Really interesting topic. Looking forward to part II.

Unknown said...


They are the best things since sliced bread. We've seen some restaurants kitchens in NY use them - regular domestic ranges! - and swear by them. If we didn't already have gas - and we're very fond of gas - we'd get one in a heart beat.

Is stove management really such a big deal for your students? A hot skillet is a hot skillet...

stephen said...

Hi Helen...
Have you actually called the gas company to confirm that there is no way to bring in gas? I bought a fixer-upper in Portland with no gas but the gas company brought in a new line for free (in return for our switching to gas heat). If you really can't get gas, I'd consider buying a different house. I cooked on propane for three years in Maine and it's actually worse than electric (at least with electric you can get high heat and super-low simmer). When you get your gas line or new house, get a Wolf cooktop with sealed stacked burners - high heat and super-low simmer. If you've got the room get one with a grill and 4 burners (36"). Get a separate electric undercounter or wall oven, preferably NOT under the cooktop. Also get a big powerful hood vented to the outside. In the big scheme of things the cost of these jewels is insignificant when compared to the pleasure you'll get from them. (A lot less than even a cheap car, and all you can do with that thing is burn gasoline and sit in traffic.) Good luck! Best, Stephen

Unknown said...

Contrary to what your mother thinks, when I took your One Fish, Two Flash class last summer I was really inspired by your range. If it wasn't much better than my no-brand-apartment-issue gas range, then I had no excuse not to cook such delicious food.

Mark Bittman at the NY Times recently drew a lot of surprise with a photograph of his tiny kitchen and less-than-professional range, but his response was the same - you can cook a lot of wonderful things on ordinary equipment. Good news for those of us with shrinking salaries!

I've since moved to an apartment with a flat top electric range - the broiler is useless. I miss fire. Get propane. Enjoying your research! Good luck.

Unknown said...

I'm with Gordon: seeing what you can do with an ordinary stove, a good knife, and a couple of decent pans is really comforting. If we learned in a professional kitchen, I might feel less confident when I went home to my ordinary kitchen.

Tati M said...

OMG That is my kitchen!!!! It is just like that!!! I will have to post this on my blog. lol
Awesome blog by the way.