Types of Cooktops
While specific configurations and features vary widely, the fundamental choice in cooktops boils down to a choice of fuel types: gas (natural gas or liquid propane) or electric (including the new kid on the block, the electric induction cooktop). Cooktops range in size from ultracompact models 15"20" wide to supersize 6-burner models as wide as 48". Keep in mind that overall cooking space is only one deciding factor; the flexibility to accomodate different sizes of cookware can be just as important.
Gas burners feature a visible cooking flame and a wide range of temperature settings. Preferred by many chefs for its precise and virtually immediate temperature control, gas is also ideal for high-temperature cooking, such as stir-frying or searing; high heat can be achieved instantaneously and since the burner retains little heat when switched off, cooking stops almost immediately. Gas cooktops are typically more expensive than electric models, but are usually cheaper to operate and can save you money over the long term.
Burner output is measured in British thermal units (BTU) per hour; the higher the BTU rating, the greater the heat output and the faster food will generally cook. A typical cooktop offers one or two medium-power burners (about 9,000 BTU), a small burner (about 5,000 BTU), and one or two large ones (about 12,500 BTU). A standard gas range generates about 8,000 to 10,000 BTU per burner; power burners generate about 12,000 BTU. Low-powered simmer burners are common on all but basic models and manufacturers now offer high-heat burners with BTU ratings as great as 20,000 or higher.
Standard gas burner grates can be difficult to clean; easy-access drip pans make it easier. For a little more money, sealed gas cooking systems (also called "gas-on-glass") feature gas burners placed over a smooth ceramic surface for a more seamless look and much easier cleaning.
Note: To install a gas cooktop in your home, you will need both a gas hookup, either to a natural gas source or to a liquid propane (LP) supply tank, and a 120-volt household electric circuit to power the electronic ignition (if applicable) and controls.
Electric cooktops provide constant, even heat. They also allow you to easily maintain steady and very low heat, which can be challenging with gas burners.
Burner output for electric elements is measured in watts. A typical cooktop offers 4 burners, each with a variable power range between about 1,000 and 2,500 watts; deluxe models may offer more burners in an assortment of sizes and powers, up to 3,500 watts in select models. The more coils a burner has, the faster it will heat up.
Conventional electric cooktops are available in two styles: with standard exposed-coil burners or with a smooth ceramic glass top. The less expensive standard coil burners heat up quickly (though not quite as instantaneously as a gas burner) and accommodate a wide variety of cookware. The exposed coils are vulnerable to spills, but an easy-access drip pan can help make cleaning easier; simply remove the drip pan, wash and replace.
In a smooth-top conventional electric cooktop, the burner coils are hidden beneath a flat ceramic glass surface. The smooth top presents a clean, modern look and makes for much easier cleaning than with standard exposed-coil burners. Ceramic glass cooktops are generally more expensive than standard coil burner cooktops.
Electric Induction Cooktops
The latest development in electric cooktops (and, not surprisingly, the priciest), electric induction technology uses electromagnetic energy to heat your cookware rather than the cooking surface itself. Since there's no radiant heat to waste, induction technology is significantly more energy-efficient than conventional coil heating systems. It's safer, too, since the cooktop itself never gets dangerously hot. And because the heat is confined to the cookware surrounding the food, induction technology heats food fast.
There is one drawback, however. Induction cooking doesn't work with certain common kitchen materials such as aluminum and copper; cast-iron or steel cookware is required. For this reason, some manufacturers make induction "hybrid" cooktops that combine an assortment of induction and traditional coil elements beneath a flat ceramic glass surface.