There are three types of ranges available for your kitchen: electric, gas and dual-fuel models. In general, experts say, electric range ovens cook more evenly than gas ovens and maintain low heat more consistently. However, many users prefer gas, particularly for stovetop cooking, because the open gas flame is easier to adjust by sight and responds instantly (unlike electric elements, which take longer to heat or cool). Gas ranges tend to cost a little more at the outset, but they are usually less expensive to operate over the long run because natural gas (or, less commonly, liquid propane) is generally cheaper than electricity.
Electric ranges either use coil elements, which heat cookware directly, or have a smoothtop surface, which has radiant heating units beneath a glass or ceramic surface. A few models offer inversion cooktops. Many users say they prefer smoothtops because they are more attractive and easier to clean than electric coils. Once found only on high-end models, smoothtops now dominate the range market; only low-end models have electric coil elements.
Gas ranges have heavy cast-iron or ceramic grates that cover the gas burners. Many higher-end models feature continuous cooking grates, which cover the entire cooktop's surface, allowing cooks to slide pots and pans from one grate to another. Less expensive models typically have individual grates over each burner.
Dual-fuel ranges combine a gas cooktop (usually with continuous cooking grates) with an electric oven. The burners on these professional-grade ranges are often more powerful than those found on gas ranges. However, dual-fuel ranges are more expensive than gas or electric ranges, costing anywhere from about $1,500 to $4,000 or more for a high-end model. While some serious cooks may prefer a dual-fuel range, ConsumerReports.org editors are skeptical, saying they see no advantage to this style.
Most ranges measure 30 inches wide, although it's possible to find compact models as narrow as 24 inches and wider versions of 36 inches or bigger. Stainless steel has been a popular finish for years -- although black and white finishes are also common (and usually $50 to $100 less expensive, depending on the model). Two features are particularly popular, experts say: convection ovens and warming drawers. Convection ovens use a fan to circulate air within the oven, cutting cooking time and heating food more evenly. Warming drawers keep food hot in a separate compartment until it's ready to serve. You will often have to pay more for such convenience, however.
Given their cost and frequency of use, experts say a range's reliability is important to consider. J.D. Power and Associates surveys more than 5,000 consumers to gauge satisfaction with their ovens and ranges. This survey covers 10 factors, including performance, reliability, style, price and ease of use. High-end manufacturer Wolf is tied with LG for the top spot, followed closely by GE Monogram, another high-end brand. Amana and Hotpoint are the worst performers by a considerable margin.
This report covers freestanding ranges, which have finished sides and can stand by themselves or be placed between kitchen cabinets. Slide-in ranges do not have finished sides and must be tucked into a kitchen counter or island, but these ranges aren't covered very often in reviews. However, you can expect performance to be similar to the freestanding ranges discussed below.
Wall ovens are built into a kitchen wall or cabinet; you'll have to have a separate cooktop if you prefer this kind of oven. ConsumerSearch covers both of these kitchen appliances in a separate report.
ConsumerReports.org has the best, most credible reviews of ranges. Editors test more than 100 gas, electric and dual-fuel ranges by boiling water, simmering sauces, melting chocolate, baking cakes and cookies, and broiling burgers. Each range's self-cleaning feature is tested with a baked-on mixture of eggs, tapioca, lard, cheese, cherry pie filling and tomato puree.
Good Housekeeping also tests more than 50 electric and gas ranges using similar methodology. Each range receives a letter grade, along with a brief summary of its strong and weak points. However, some of the models included in these reviews were tested in 2008, and quite a few are discontinued.
For information about the overall reliability of different brands, we consulted the J.D. Power and Associates Kitchen Appliances Study. In this survey, more than 4,000 respondents rate brands based on factors such as reliability, price, styling and features. However, this survey provides no details about individual range models.
As with most appliances, user reviews are very helpful, because they reveal information about long-term performance and durability that often can't be measured in a professional review. We found a good number of owner reviews at retailers like HomeDepot.com, AJMadison.com and Sears.com. We also consulted user review sites like Viewpoints.com and Epinions.com.