Cooktop Buying Guide
What the best cooktop has
- Easy cleanup. Look for removable knobs (in models that lack digital touch controls) and an upswept lip or rim to contain spills. Smoothtop electric models may require special cleaners and cleaning protocol -- something we address in detail in the at the end of this buying guide. On a gas cooktop, look for sealed burners and grates that are dishwasher-safe. On an electric coil cooktop, a hinged lid to make it convenient to clean under the cooktop and removable, replaceable drip trays are important features.
- The right types of burners. Many cooktops come with burners specifically designed for low-heat tasks (like simmering) or high-heat tasks (boiling). Reviewers say these features are nice for the serious cook. More casual cooks might not need them, however.
- A useful burner layout. Make sure there's enough space between burners to use several pots at once without pushing one off-center. Electric coil and gas cooktops should have at least two small and two large burners; smoothtops often include at least that many, and some also have flexible burners that can be adjusted for smaller or larger pots.
- Easy to use controls. Cooktop controls should be legible and easy to access. Touchpad controls are easier to use and clean than knobs or dials; if you do opt for knobs, they should be removable and dishwasher safe. Knobs on the front of the cooktop (rather than the side or top) are easy to bump and reset by accident. They are also easier for children to reach; if you have small children look for a control-lockout feature for safety.
Know before you go
Will you need new cookware? Induction cooking requires magnetic cookware in order for the pan to heat. Cast iron, enameled cast iron and stainless or enameled steel with an iron core or base are okay; copper, aluminum, glass and stainless steel without an iron component are not. Many owners recommend taking a magnet with you when shopping for new cookware -- if the magnet sticks to the bottom, the pan will work on an induction cooktop. Other types of cooktops have no special cookware requirements. More information on the different types of cookware can be found in our cookware report.
What about venting? If you currently have a range, it probably uses existing venting. If you want to install a cooktop in another location, such as a kitchen island, you'll need to find a way to vent it so that you can clear the air of cooking odors and smoke. This is especially important if you choose a gas cooktop, since its flames produce carbon monoxide.
Venting options include overhead, chimney-style range hoods (either freestanding or wall-mounted), range hoods mounted under a cabinet, or downdraft vents (the least effective type). Some cooktops have downdraft venting built in, but reviews for those are relatively unimpressive. Chimney-style range hoods are the most expensive, but options costing around $200 are available. You can find good under-cabinet range hoods for less than $150. If venting to the outside is not possible, non-venting hoods are also available, but experts say to consider those only as a last resort. You can find more information in our separate report on range hood.
Gas, electric or induction? According to SmarterHouse.org, there isn't a huge difference between types in terms of efficiency. In general, gas is cheaper than electricity. However, cooktops don't use a lot of energy to begin with, so overall the difference is negligible. Instead, choosing between the different types of cooktops, experts say, is largely a matter of personal preference. We discuss the difference between these different models in the introduction to this report where we discuss "Types of Cooktops."
Cleaning your new smoothtop cooktop
By far the most common complaint we see over and over about smoothtop cooktops, especially black ones, is that you can see every smudge -- and we know this to be true. When the bright sun hits that shiny black surface just right, even if you've just cleaned it to within an inch of its life, every little dust mote stands out. There's not much you can do about that except look away and wait until the sun moves on along the horizon.
However, the other issue we see is from people who have never had a smoothtop before, and complain that their brand-new cooktop already has "burn marks" or "water stains." In fact, smoothtop cooktops require a special type of cleaning -- and it might seem a bit rough to use on ceramic, but trust us, it works. Start with a ceramic cooktop cleaning kit. The one we like (and use ourselves) is the Cerama Bryte Cooktop Cleaning Kit (Est. $11). It includes a 10 ounce bottle of cleaner, a cleaning pad and a scraper. You squirt a little of the cleaner on your cooktop, scrub it with the scrubber, and wipe if off with a damp cloth. For baked on spills use the scraper -- essentially a safety razor with a handle. Don't be afraid to scrape -- these cooktops are tougher than you think.
If you would prefer not to invest in a dedicated cleaning kit, no problem. Just grab your Barkeeper's Friend Soft Cleanser (Est. $15 for a pack of 2), a scrubbing pad (the type you would use for nonstick pans, not steel wool), and get to it. You can scrape with a regular safety razor, if necessary.