Terry Love (425) 649-LOVE
How to pick the hardware that makes the room. By Merle Henkenius,
Reprinted from Popular Mechanics, August 96
Appliances are the workhorses of every kitchen, so it pays to seek out the best you can afford, with the features you most want. The key, as always, is in matching features to lifestyle and space, within an established budget. While this may seem to be the very definition of compromise, there are enough options and prices on the market these days to satisfy just about everyone.
Microwave ovens are a sign of the times, or should we say, the lack of time. What they offer is impressive speed and convenience for the price of a cheap TV. It's easy to understand why close to 95% of all new and remodeled kitchens have a microwave.
If you haven't looked at microwaves lately, you'll find a few new features. For starters, today's models have child lockouts with keypad releases. Other improvements include automatic defrosting and a range of programmed power and time settings for the most popular microwave foods, such as pizzas, popcorn and packaged dinners. Some models even organize foods by ethnic category, such as Chinese and Italian, and cook accordingly.
While these features can be handy, the real differences are in power, capacity, cooking sensors and convection-heat options. Power is measured in watts, starting at 600 and ending near 1000. More power means shorter cooking times. You probably won't want less than 700 watts because the recommended cooking times for packaged foods assume at least that amount. Power is usually coupled with size. Upgrade power and you'll usually get a larger cabinet, plus a carousel, which eliminates the need to stop and stir. Cabinets start at around 1/2cu. ft. and end near 1.3 cu. ft.
Many models these days have builtin sensors that prevent food from overcooking. The sensors are designed to monitor moisture levels. When a sensor determines that a meal has shed most of its water through cooking, it signals that the meal is ready to serve, and it's usually right. Some topend models add convection heat so foods can be browned without moving to a conventional oven before serving. The most impressive thing about microwave ovens is that so many features are squeezed into such a narrow price range, which starts under $200 and peaks just over $400. Fifteen years ago, we paid $400 to $500 for a good deal less.
Dishwashers also continue to improve, with the emphasis on quiet operation, energy and water conservation, and more versatile loading features, plus some electronic wizardry on the high side. As with microwave ovens, prices have held surprisingly steady for years. For $300 to $500, you can still buy a very good dishwasher, and one that is more efficient and convenient than a comparable machine built just a few years ago.
Price is still a good indicator of quality. For $400, you'll get quality, no matter which brand you choose, while $179 buys something closer to a wet/dry storage cabinet. If you want a dishwasher that will clean all but the most caked-on, dried-on foods, without having to prerinse, look for models that have built-in heaters, three wash levels, built-in food strainer/ grinders and at least three cycles, for light-, normal- and heavy-soil loads. Some models offer as many as six.
Beyond these essentials, look for a lower rack that has at least some folddown tines which allow easier loading of large items--a 2-tiered upper rack and a compartment with a lid for small items, such as plastic lids and measuring spoons, which seem to leap onto the heating element the moment you close the door. And finally, if your kitchen opens onto a family room, look for quiet operation, which is accomplished with, among other features, better insulation and cushioned mounting brackets. These units typically have the word "quiet" or "whisper" in their model names.
Electronic controls and sensordriven, fuzzy-logic microprocessors are also available at a price. Electronic touch-pad controls are attractive, reliable, convenient and easy to clean around, but have no real effect on performance. They also cost more than rotary dials and pushbuttons.
Refrigerators of old should be the standard of reliability against which all other products are measured. Many 30-, 40- and even 50-year-old refrigerators are still in use. They may not be particularly convenient or efficient, but they keep doing what they were made to do, year in and year out, often without the slightest hint of regular maintenance.
What does past reliability have to do with current models? Two points, really. First, refrigerators are still simple appliances, consisting of a compressor, refrigerant coil and an insulated box with shelves. And, as such, the marketing focus these days is on size, storage features, door shapes and addons, such as water dispensers and ice makers. What this means, until recently at least, is that you can buy a basic model and be reasonably sure that it will last as long as an expensive model.
While that's probably still true, the overall picture has changed slightly. Starting this year, manufacturers are no longer allowed to use ozonedepleting freon or plastics made with high-concentrations of CFCs. Manufacturers can sell existing inventories, but that's it. This year, and probably this year only, you can choose between a traditional model, which runs on freon, or a new freon-free model, which has no track record. It's a tough choice, but a temporary one.
Today's refrigerators range between $370 and $2000 (up to $5000 for commercial models favored by some), with $600 to $900 models offering the features most of us want. When shopping for refrigerators, make size and compartment options your top priorities. Sizes range from a stingy 13 cu. ft. to a whopping 28 cu. ft.
As a rule, upright models, with both upper or lower freezer compartments, are less costly to buy and to operate. Most come with ice makers or are wired and plumbed to accept retrofit kits. While the freezer space is usually smaller than that of a side-by-side, it often provides more convenient storage and access. Side-by-sides are more costly, but offer features like through-the-door water and ice dispensers. Because side-by-sides have a shorter door-swing radius, they work well in galley kitchens or across from other appliances with doors.
Other options to look for are adjustable glass shelves with spill-containing edges, temperature-controlled meat keepers (adjustable to several degrees cooler than the surrounding space), humidity-controlled produce drawers and door racks deep enough to hold 1-gal. jugs.
As for operating costs, you should pay close attention to the yellow energy-rating tags. All models are not equal. Assuming a national average of 8.76 cents per kilowatt-hour, annual energy consumption can range between $50 and $130.
Like other standard kitchen appliances, electric ranges have been around long enough to have the bugs worked out. Any model you buy will put dinner on the table. So the difference is in the details, and just as often, in the detailing. Solid-white models generally cost a little more than black-and-white models. Some have dial temperature controls while others have electronic keypads, and some have textured finishes while others are smooth. Most are priced between $350 and $900, with commercial lookalikes, sporting stainlesssteel facades, running $1200 or more.
The real differences are in burner types. The most popular ranges are still those with external heating coils, though smooth-top, hidden burners are gaining ground. External coils cost less, are easy and inexpensive to replace, heat faster and tolerate warped pan bottoms.
Smooth tops are more attractive, easier to clean and offer extra workspace when not in use. Smooth-top ranges cost roughly $200 more than those with coils, and the burners are more costly to replace, requiring professional installation. Baked-on spills also require a special cleaner.
And finally, some ranges come with solid cast-iron disc burners that are sealed into the cook-top. The advantage is that boil-over spills are kept from seeping under the cook-top, which makes cleaning easier. Beyond burner types, look for ranges that have accessible controls--even with large pans in place--large self-cleaning ovens, a window in the oven door, delay-start timers, lift-up tops and easy-to-clean surfaces.
Many of the features offered on electric ranges are available on gas ranges. Gas is said to be the preferred heat source of serious cooks, because it offers better control. While it's not true that gas burners heat faster, they can be adjusted quicker. In most cases, gas also costs less.
Even with these advantages, gas ranges are not for everyone. They are almost always more expensive, and usually substantially so. A reasonably well-equipped gas range will cost $600 to $800, while a similarly equipped electric model will cost $400 to $500. And because gas appliances are more complicated, they often require more service and repair.
Separate cook-tops and ovens
Separate cook-tops and ovens are popular today because they offer greater versatility in workspace layout, especially when two cooks are involved. This option also allows for two standard ovens, or one standard oven and a warming oven. Cook-tops that are 36 in. or wider can support up to six burners or grille and griddle inserts with downdraft ventilation.
For those with both utilities available, separate components also allow for a gas cook-top and electric oven, considered by some the best combination. Separate components, however, are usually more expensive than allin-one ranges.
Some cooks are attracted to the look, control and capacity of commercial appliances. Truly commercial ranges are not usually allowed in residential applications, however, because of their excessive heat output. When commercial units are allowed, commercial building codes apply, often including overhead sprinklers, extra ventilation and fire stops. A few manufacturers have adapted the best features of commercial appliances to residential dimensions, weights and heat clearances. If gourmet cooking is your passion, these offer the best of both worlds, but at a price. A couple of these hybrids--like a big range and refrigerator--can easily run $15,000.
Cooking creates a lot of steam, heat smoke and atomized grease, which are best vented outdoors. Gas appliances also produce exhaust gases, which are better expelled. When shopping for a vent hood, focus on capacity and power. Shallow 6-in. hoods simply don't have the holding capacity of deep hoods and, as a result, allow too much smoke and steam to escape into the room. If you do a lot of cooktop cooking, consider an exhaust fan with the pulling power of 200 to 250 cfm. When possible, avoid vent hoods that do not vent outdoors. These are primarily grease catchers.
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