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A cooktop is a great choice for a flexible kitchen design

A cooktop is essentially a range, minus the oven. What it lacks in functionality it makes up for in flexibility, at least in terms of kitchen design and layout. Cooktops can be installed anywhere ranges can; unlike ranges, cooktops can be built into kitchen islands, freeing up counter space, giving you more room to maneuver and 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 gas, electric and induction models:

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 (Btu). 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 available in both 36- and 30-inch 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 burners of various sizes to accommodate different pots and pans. Some cooktops have one or more burners 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 burner 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 lots of feedback on user-review sites.

Cooktop review sources

Overall, we found ConsumerReports.org to be the best source for cooktop reviews. Editors report test results for more than 60 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' 2014 survey on kitchen appliances provides insight into brand performance, which 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. Cooktops don't get as much feedback as many other appliances, but there's still enough at sites like HomeDepot.com, BestBuy.com, Lowes.com and elsewhere to be informative.

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. 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.

Elsewhere in this Report:  

Electric Cooktops
Electric cooktops are terrific performers and stylish additions to any kitchen. Editors name the best cooktops overall, and the best budget buys.

Gas Cooktops
Something about the sight of an open flame makes cooks crave gas cooktops. Editors find a gas cooktop from Thermador is tops, but also name some more budget-friendly options.

Induction Cooktops
Induction cooktops are lightning fast and cool to the touch, but is one right for you? Editors explain what to consider, and identify a top performer based on user and expert feedback.

Buying Guide
What are the pros and cons of electric, gas and induction cooktops? Our Buying Guide explains the ins and outs, and what to consider when looking for the right choice for your kitchen.  

Our Sources
We used these expert and user review sites to find the best gas, electric and induction cooktops, as well as some great budget buys. The sites are ranked and rated based on their quality and helpfulness.

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