A cooktop is a great choice for a flexible kitchen design
Imagine taking your range, and just cutting off the top cooking surface -- what you end up with is a cooktop. While cooktops are no help if you have to bake a cake or roast a turkey, what they lack in functionality they make up for in flexibility, at least in terms of kitchen design and layout. Since they're not attached to a large oven, cooktops can be installed anywhere in the kitchen. One popular spot for cooktops is in a kitchen island, perfect for making cooking a social activity. But you'll pay for that convenience -- you can easily spend up to $2,000 or more on a cooktop and still need to buy a separate wall oven in order to bake.
Like ranges, cooktops come in electric, induction and gas models:
Smoothtop electric cooktops -- by far the most popular type of electric cooktop -- have radiant burners under a layer of ceramic glass. They are easy to clean, although some manufacturers recommend using gentle cleansers to avoid damaging the cooktop's delicate surface. While most electric cooktops measure 30 inches wide, some 36-inch models are available. Most electric smoothtops have four elements of various sizes to accommodate different pots and pans. Some cooktops have one or more elements that can be adjusted (manually or automatically) to different sizes of cookware. Burners of different sizes will typically vary in power level, which is expressed in watts.
Induction cooktops have smooth glass surfaces, too, but they use electromagnetic elements that heat the pan directly rather than transferring heat from a radiant element to the pan bottom. Cookware must be magnetic -- made of stainless steel or cast iron -- in order for an induction cooktop to work; glass and ceramic cookware won't do. (We have suggestions for induction cooktop-compatible cookware in our cookware report.) Popular Mechanics magazine does an excellent job of explaining in detail how induction cooktops work. In professional tests, induction cooktops excel at quickly boiling water and holding a precise simmer. Because the induction process heats the cookware material itself -- rather than applying heat with an exposed burner or cooking element -- these cooktops stay relatively cool to the touch.
Coil-style electric cooktops are still offered, though only at the low end of the price spectrum. These are harder to clean than smoothtop models, because food can easily fall below the burners, but they are easier (and cheaper) to repair if they break. And unlike smoothtops, you don't have to worry about scratching or breaking the unit's surface. Expert reviewer rarely look at these cooktops, but there's still some feedback on user-review sites. However, with the dropping price of smoothtop ranges, coil-style cooktops should only be a consideration by those with the very tightest of budgets
Gas cooktops typically have four or five burners with at least one high-powered burner (for tasks such as boiling water) and one smaller burner (for simmering or keeping food warm). The heat output of each individual burner is measured in British thermal units (BTUs). Most gas cooktops have sealed (one-piece) burners, which are easier to keep clean than unsealed models because there's no burner well for crumbs to fall through. Many gas cooktops -- even some basic models -- have continuous grates that fit together seamlessly so you can slide heavy pots and pans between burners. Gas cooktops are typically available in both 36- and 30-inch models.
Finding the best cooktops
Overall, we found ConsumerReports.org to be the best source for cooktop reviews. Editors report test results for nearly 40 electric, induction and gas cooktops on their website. Cooktops are tested on their ability to boil water under high heat, and simmer tomato sauce and melt chocolate under low heat without scorching. However, rankings and test results are available only to subscribers. Reviewed.com is another helpful source. It does not review as many cooktops, but does a more complete job of discussing a model's high and low points. Again, coverage includes gas, electric and induction cooktops. J.D. Power and Associates' 2015 survey on kitchen appliances provides insight into brand performance, including specific information on which brands of cooktops provide the highest satisfaction. That information is helpful, although individual cooktop models are not evaluated.
User reviews are helpful in evaluating how well a cooktop performs in the real world as opposed to a test lab. Not every cooktop receives enough feedback at sites like HomeDepot.com, BestBuy.com, Lowes.com and elsewhere to be informative, but it's not unusual to find some models with hundreds of reviews.
One caveat, however: Many user review sites now incorporate feedback that was originally posted elsewhere -- most often manufacturer sites -- into their ratings. These reviews are just as valid as those posted directly at the retail site, and show enough balance to remove any suspicion of censorship, etc. However, the same feedback now can be found on multiple sites, inflating the number of reviews and somewhat skewing the ratings. Among major user-review sites, BestBuy.com and Amazon.com are among the few that don't intermingle the feedback from elsewhere with that of their own customers (though BestBuy.com does provide links to that information). We took duplicate feedback at various sites into consideration when evaluating user reviews to get as accurate a read as possible on actual user satisfaction with a given cooktop.