Major appliances with major prices
Jane Bennett Clark
Whipping up a dinner of Rice-A-Roni doesn’t take fancy equipment, but cooks who pride themselves on their risottos are one force behind the trend toward equipping kitchens with ovens, cooktops, refrigerators and dishwashers at prices that may make you blanch. Many buyers of upscale appliances at sky’s-the-limit prices are serious cooks who spend a good deal of time slaving over au courant cooktops. But noncooking status-seekers with an eye on resale value are also contributing to a hot market in upscale appliances, says Michael Storms, a New York City kitchen designer.
High-end appliances tend to offer more accessories than a Barbie doll factory, but add-ons aren’t their only attraction (and some super-upscale appliances, such as Aga and La Cornue ovens, have relatively few functions). With all boutique models, you can expect high-quality materials, extra insulation, sleek styling and longer warranties than on mid-price models.
For instance, most refrigerators offer a one-year warranty on parts and labor and a five-year warranty on the sealed system. Sub-Zero and other high-end refrigerators offer at least a two-year warranty on parts and labor and a five-year warranty on the sealed system, with an additional seven-year limited warranty on parts. As for service, “all the major metro areas provide good service for the better lines,” says Storms, but you may have trouble finding authorized technicians for obscure brands in less populated areas.
One thing such appliances won’t guarantee is a significant return on your investment. “Nobody has ever said to me, `See if you can find me a house with a Sub-Zero refrigerator,'” says Lois Schenck, a real estate agent in Baltimore, who says kitchen appliances rank far behind location and layout among home buyers’ priorities. And that cobalt-blue Viking stove you spent thousands of dollars for eight years ago might be a turnoff to people who don’t like the color or who want a newer product.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone better able to tell you what works and what doesn’t in the kitchen than a professional chef. So we asked three well-known cooks what brands grace their own kitchens.
KINGS OF COOL
For refrigerators, substance plus status usually. add up to Sub-Zero, a maker of built-in appliances whose biggest models provide 30 cubic feet or more of storage space without jutting into the kitchen like a small iceberg. Sub-Zeros are installed flush with standard cabinets and can be faced with the same material as your cabinets or with stainless steel, the trendy option in kitchen appliances right now despite an unfortunate tendency to show fingerprints.
Perhaps more significantly, Sub-Zeros, at $2,000 to $4,500 for the full-size models (plus the cost of the panels), use one compressor for the freezer and another for the refrigerator, rather than a single compressor for both. The advantage? You can set the freezer temperature to molecule-stopping levels, low enough to preserve items for long periods, without putting refrigerated food in the deep-freeze as well. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible (see the box below), says she relies on that feature for storing as many as seven pies at a time.
Sub-Zero recommends that owners clean (or have a professional clean) the refrigerator’s condenser every three to six months so that dust does not get into the working parts. That may be a good idea for a less-expensive refrigerator, too, says Diane White of Sub-Zero, but “we make a point to emphasize it more.” Mollie Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook, doesn’t like her Sub-Zero’s freezer-on-the-bottom configuration: “I made the mistake of buying the freezer on the bottom — the freezer is one big drawer, and it’s impossible to organize. I don’t like getting down on my knees to look for something. So I’m going to go for a side-by-side next time.”
For fridge connoisseurs, cooler even than the Sub-Zero is the Traulsen refrigerator, a two-compressor commercial model whose glass front allows you to spot the foie gras without opening the door. Although Traulsen stopped making the $12,000-plus appliances for residential use several years ago, some customers are reportedly salvaging old units for their see-through snob appeal, says Alane MacKay of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Besides Traulsen and Sub-Zero, you can also get a built-in look with a top-of-the-line Amana ($1,800 to $1,900) or one of General Electric’s Monogram models ($3,500 to $4,700). Both come with only one compressor but offer nifty features such as wine caddies, gallon storage in the door and those must-have stainless-steel panels. Through-the-door ice dispensers and adjustable humidity controls for produce drawers are standard on most high-end refrigerators nowadays; a little more esoteric are Sub-Zero’s alarm, which goes off if you leave the door ajar, and Frigidaire’s built-in water filter.
Sub-Zero also sells a two-drawer refrigerator or freezer you can install under a counter for extra storage, a handy idea at a hefty $2,000. A wine chiller with an inset humidor for cigars runs about $1,900 from Marvel Industries, in Richmond, Ind., which specializes in under-the-counter refrigeration units.
HOT RANGES AND COOKTOPS
Standing over a stove that mimics Vulcan’s furnace may seem like a hellish idea to some, but there are enough people springing for restaurant-style ranges to constitute an industry trend. “Appliances with a commercial look are very popular now,” says Nick Geragi of the National Kitchen and Bath Association.
The 60-inch Viking you install in your home, however, is not likely to be the same model you’ll find behind the scenes at a restaurant. Because a single burner on a commercial stove puts out about 12 times the heat of the average noncommercial burner, safety requirements render them impractical for most home kitchens, says Geragi.
Instead, makers of brands such as Viking, Wolf, Dacor and Thermador have capitalized on the commercial craze by putting restaurantlike features on residential appliances, including the ubiquitous stainless steel and burners with heat ranging from 300 to 15,000 BTUs (compared with 8,000 to 11,000 BTUs in the average burner). The benefit: a light touch for simmering and major firepower for cooking vegetarian or in large quantities.
In fact, “great big” is the hallmark of professional-style ranges, which can be as wide as five feet and include at least two ovens and as many as eight burners, plus a griddle, a grill or a warmer. The four-oven Aga cooker, made in England, doesn’t even have knobs. Each gas oven is permanently set at a temperature designed for specific kinds of cooking — say, one for roasting and one for simmering. Says Mercedes Aza of Gourmet Alliance, an Aga distributor in Boston who sells one of the $10,000 units a month: “It’s kind of like a crockpot. You put the marinara sauce in before you go to work, and when you come home eight hours later it’s perfect.”
If you think $10,000 for a crockpot is a bit steep, check out La Cornue, an elegant, brass-bedecked French cooker with two ovens. It tops out at about $22,000. “It’s like buying a car for your kitchen,” says Storms. Both Aga and La Cornue are in a league of their own for looks, performance and panache, he adds. Describing a family who recently purchased a La Cornue, he says, “I don’t think they cook much, but their kitchen is unbelievable.”
Happily, most upscale ovens fall short of such high-octane prices: For instance, a 48-inch professional-style, four-burner Viking with a grill and a griddle plus two ovens costs about $6,200 to $6,800. Nor do you need a kitchen with stadium dimensions to accommodate commercial-size units. Wolf and Thermador ovens are available in standard sizes.
Because many cooks prefer to use gas cooktops and electric ovens, Dacor, Thermador and others make so-called dual-fuel appliances that combine the two, for about $7,000. But the ideal is to have the cooktop and oven at the same level so you don’t hurt your back by, say, bending over to pick up a heavy roast, says Beranbaum.
You can get separate cooktops and wall ovens from Wolf and Thermador. Separate units are also typical of such European products as Miele and Gaggenau. Full-size Gaggenau cooktops run from $900 to about $3,800, depending on the number of burners and add-ons, such as steamers and wok attachments. A 36-inch Gaggenau electric wall oven, big enough to roast two 20-pound turkeys, costs $4,400.
No matter what the configuration, most well-appointed electric ovens boast a convection feature, which heats from the back, not the bottom, and uses a fan to force air around the food. Thus, you could bake five trays of cookies at once and have them all bake evenly,” says Jim Krengel, a kitchen designer in St. Paul. Or you could put, say, creme caramel above a rack of fish sticks; with the fan, the theory goes, smells won’t mingle. You can get tabletop convection ovens, too. Beranbaum says her “vintage” Sharp carousel convection microwave ($423 for a new model) is ideal for cake baking because it has little distance from top to bottom and a rotating turntable.
Although makers of high-end dishwashers compete in their claims for ground-zero quiet, “all good dishwashers today are so well insulated that noise is not something to worry about,” says Krengel. “The high-end products from Miele and other European makers will do a good job, but so will domestic manufacturers, such as Jenn-Air, Maytag and GE. All the good ones allow you to take dishes directly from the table to the dishwasher.” And all high-end models are energy efficient.
But selecting a dishwasher demands plenty of other angst-ridden decisions, such as whether to go for a super-hot-water function, eight or ten cycles, a wine-goblet rack, or a “smart” sensor that stops the cycle when the dishes are clean.
When Michelle McCreery of Minneapolis remodeled her kitchen, she chose a Bosch model with a stainless-steel interior on the assumption, fortified by a 25-year warranty, that it would last longer than other interiors. “I don’t want to buy a dishwashers ever again,” she says. European dishwashers with top-of-the-line features can cost as much as $1,500; upscale American appliances run about $1,000.
The Miele (up to $1,500) gets high marks from Beranbaum. “Apart from the lack of noise, it cleans without breaking things because it has so many different sprays. Also, I like the design because you can put all the silverware on the top tray and you don’t have to bend down to get it.”
ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM ON REFRIGERATORS
BERANBAUM is the author of The Cake Bible (William Morrow). Her refrigerators are by Sub-Zero and Traulsen.
I have them both. [Laughs.] It’s not that I hate them, but I find that refrigerators are so poorly designed. One of the biggest reasons they break down is that the condenser filter has to be cleaned. When professionals do it, they use special blowers, and then the dirt gets all over the entire kitchen.
I think you get into less trouble with a standard GE Magic Chef than with any commercial refrigerator. But Magic Chef doesn’t have a separate compressor, and if you use the freezer for long-term storage, it’s not nearly as good.
JULIA CHILD ON OVENS
CHILD, host of public television’s Baking With Julia, celebrated her 85th birthday last year.
I have an electric Thermador oven with a warming drawer. The warming drawer wasn’t designed by a cook — you can’t control the heat. It’s too hot for rising bread and it’s too hot for plates. I don’t know what it’s for. A lot of these things are not designed by cooks; they’re designed by designers. They’ve taken everything off the front of the oven, so if you want to set the clock timer, you have to search around for the directions. They should be throttled. Otherwise it’s a fine oven. I also have one of those little toaster ovens. I like that very much.
MOLLIE KATZEN ON COOKTOPS
KATZEN is the author of The Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press). She has a 12-year-old stainless-steel gas Kitchen Aid cooktop but plans to replace it in an upcoming renovation.
Maybe 80% or more of the dinners my husband and I cook for ourselves are very quick, stovetop vegetable preparations in a work or sometimes a skillet. I love to get the wok or the skillet really, really hot and cook the vegetables as quickly as I can over high heat. At the other end, I cook a whole lot of grains. I like to simmer grains over the lowest possible heat. To vegetarians, high and low heat are very, very important. So I’m going to look for a six-burner with a real high end and a real low end. C., estimate
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