A: Dear Kate: Separate cooktops and ovens are becoming more popular because of convenience, comfort and efficiency. It makes sense to locate your hot oven away from your kitchen work area, especially during the summer, or you will just end up setting the air conditioner thermostat lower to stay comfortable. Locating the cooktop near the countertop food preparation areas is also more convenient.
The three basic types of electric cooking elements used in modern cooktops are induction, halogen and radiant. Nearly all of these are mounted in easy-to-clean smooth black or white glass cooktops that look similar. You really cannot see what type of element is below the surface. Many cooktops use a combination of various element types to provide more flexibility in cooking and reasonable cost.
Electric induction elements provide the best cooktop performance, safety and efficiency. Over the past several years, fewer manufacturers have offered induction elements, but manufacturers have indicated there is a resurgence of interest in them again. Induction ranges have only one or two induction elements, typically coupled with several radiant elements.
Unlike other electric elements, induction elements provide the precise temperature control equivalent to gas burners for gourmet cooks. Small single-element induction units are available that either mount in a cooktop or countertop. Plug-in lightweight, portable models are also available for use anywhere. Induction elements heat the cooking utensils by creating a simple magnetic field through the cooktop. When a metal (iron or steel) pan is placed on the cooktop, this magnetic field passes through the pan causing the molecules to move which creates heat in the pan, not the cooktop. This makes induction elements very energy efficient. When you turn the dial down, the magnetic field is reduced and the heat to the pan immediately decreases, just like with a gas flame. With all other types of heating elements, the element and the cooktop get hot and then transfer the heat to the pan on top of it.
Magnetic waves have no effect on skin or anything other than magnetic materials such as iron and steel. If the pan is accidentally removed from the cooktop by a child, no more heat is created by the magnetic field
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and the cooktop is not as hot as with other elements. The only drawback to using induction elements is they are more expensive than other element types and you must use iron or steel cooking utensils on them.
Electric halogen elements come up to temperature quicker than standard smooth-top radiant elements. These elements include a high-intensity halogen light to heat and radiate energy to the cooking utensil for quick start up. They are not as popular as they used to be because the newer ribbon-type radiant elements also heat up very quickly.
Radiant elements, that glow red, are the most popular and reasonably priced. The standard ones (not ribbon types) heat up slower initially than induction or halogen elements and lack rapid, precise temperature control. The cooktop area above them gets very hot and stays hot for a long time. You can often pick the type of elements you prefer in many models, so ask for the ribbon radiant elements instead of standard ones if you have the option.
For the most cooking flexibility, consider installing a truly modular electric cooktop. These have many optional interchangeable elements including halogen, griddles, steamers, woks, rotisseries, and deep fryers you can switch at anytime. Smart elements, that automatically sense the cooking utensil size and select the proper element size, are convenient and efficient. These also sense if the utensil is removed and turn off the heat for your children's safety.
Check on the type of heat controls. Unlike the truly variable heat output from a gas flame, most electric elements, other than induction, are either on or off. At lower heat settings, they are just off a great percentage of the cycle. Some new high-tech models switch the heat on and off thousands of times per second to provide more even heating at the lower heat settings.
In addition to the number and types of cooking elements in the cooktop, consider the number and shape of the cooking zones. Some cooktops have various size heating areas in one combination element. Others have a small bridge element between two regular elements to create a super-large oval cooking zone for large roasting pots.
Write for (instantly download -www.dulley.com) Utility Bills Update No. 870 • buyer's guide of 14 induction, halogen and radiant electric cooktop manufacturers (26 models) listing sizes, number of elements/cooking zones, types, shapes and features. Please include $3.00 and a business-size SASE. James Dulley, Illinois Country Living, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244.
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