They may be fashionable, but do these supersized, multi-function ovens earn their keep? Our undercover expert takes their temperature ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2011
Monsters are invading our kitchens, domestic ovens built on such a scale that they rarely get used to their full potential. These culinary behemoths, endowed with two or more ovens and five or more hobs, are range cookers.
They take their name from heat-storage cookers such as the AGA. A direct descendant of the first kitchen range, the Kitchener of 1830, the hefty AGA conserves heat in thick walls of cast iron and is therefore, according to its makers, “always ready to cook”. But most ranges sold today are quite different beasts—they are simply large conventional cookers constructed of steel, often combining four or more gas hobs and two electric ovens (usually one fan and one static) with a quasi-professional appearance that suggests that the owner’s culinary prowess will be magically transformed. But unless you are able and prepared to spend upwards of £4,000, their robustness and power may prove illusory.
Perhaps the greatest failing of most range cookers is heat or, rather, the lack of it. As Rose Prince, a British food writer, explains: “Essentially most range cookers are just domestic cookers, a bit glammed up. They are not the fiery beast that a real range cooker is.” The grill in most domestic range cookers may look as if it will do the same job as its far more powerful professional equivalent, a gadget endowed with the appropriately incandescent name of “salamander”. But just try to do the restaurant trick of caramelising one side of a thick fillet of fish while ensuring that the rest is gently cooked to juicy perfection. Under a domestic grill, the surface of the fillet will dry and burn while the interior remains raw.
Buyers might also consider if they really need all the culinary options offered by a range cooker. A 69-litre oven will accommodate a suckling pig, but are you likely to enjoy this porcine feast on a regular basis? Many ranges include a large wok hob that is slightly superfluous unless you’re constantly stir-frying. And who could manage seven gas hobs at once? Yes, they will supply enough heat for the most ambitious of meals, but their simultaneous operation would demand the dexterity of a Cirque du Soleil juggler.
Though a range cooker may be a seductive symbol of domesticity, prospective purchasers should also ask themselves if they have room in their kitchen for such a space-consuming item. Though a few models squeeze themselves into a 900mm gap, the majority require 1,000-1,100mm compared with 600mm for a standard cooker.
You can spend a lot of money on a range cooker—from £500 to well over £20,000. At the low end, their apparent robustness can be deceptive—oven shelves on the cheapest models tend not to be very strong, so you can’t load them up. Their oven heat is only middling, and the hobs can be dicey: unstable and with gaps in the support grid so that pans tend to tip over when you slide them from one burner to another (I speak from experience with our Baumatic).
Further up the ladder—around the £1,500 mark—gets you, essentially, two decent domestic ovens hitched together, with an extra burner and maybe a grill compartment for luck. The extra oven space is certainly handy for a big dinner—you can put a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey in one, roasting veg or puddings in the other—but you won’t get anything more than ordinary domestic heat from it. One range that can attain professional heat is the French-made Lacanche, which will handle soufflés and pizzas with ease—the 50mm gap required on both sides is an indication of its ferocious heat. Hand-built and custom-made, Lacanche cookers ascend in price from £4,090 to £12,050, and spending extra on a powerful extraction system is advisable, or the kitchen will get so hot you’ll have to get out of it. Higher up the scale still sits the £13,600 Wolf, a stainless-steel titan from America with two huge ovens, a griddle, charbroiler and distinctive red knobs, the point of which seems to be to let everyone know it’s a Wolf. Prices for the 1,800mm-wide Le Grand Palais from the French manufacturer La Cornue go as high as £23,550. Not just an oven: a palace.
It is intriguing to speculate how much time people who can afford such cookers actually spend at the stove. La Cornue boasts that its customers include Kylie Minogue, Silvio Berlusconi and Brad Pitt. A New Yorker article from 2002 about Viking, the first American manufacturer of domestic stoves that offered professional power, noted that the company’s “salespeople…estimate that the vast majority of their customers are ‘look, don’t cook’ people.”
While you can easily buy range cookers online, I’d say it was essential to view the various options in the flesh. Exploring the oven section of a London department store, I found that a Britannia range cooker had already lost one of its 11 knobs. My wife cooed at the lime-green finish of a Genesi Steel Cuisine cooker (£3,199), but the telescopic arms of its oven tray wouldn’t retract properly. A more significant failing of this model could not be blamed on over-energetic customers. When the oven door was fully opened, it hit the floor with a clunk. This brings us to a design flaw inherent in most range cookers: the ovens are too low, especially for dealing with risky dishes like roast potatoes. A floor-level oven becomes harder to use when you get older. As any professional cook will tell you, your back is the first thing to go.
So how can a keen home cook get professional heat at bargain cost? One answer is to forget about fashion and good looks. Giorgio Alessio, who cooks single-handed for 30 customers a night at Lanterna in Scarborough, Yorkshire, uses a 1950s cooker, with six gas rings and a single oven, made by the long-defunct company Stotts of Oldham. “I’d be lost without it,” he says. Similar vintage cookers occasionally crop up on eBay. Another possibility is to buy a smaller, professional cooker. Rose Prince is delighted with her powerful American Garland cooker (six gas rings and a large single oven), which cost under £2,000 plus extraction unit. Unless you have the deep pockets required for Lacanche and other hellishly hot devices, this would seem the cool-headed choice.
Lacanche Macon (top, blue)
Made in Burgundy, the bespoke, enamel-finished cookers are based on its professional Ambassade range. The Macon is one of its smaller models, but squeezes in five burners in a choice of two combinations, three ovens and a warming drawer. £4,380; 1,000mm
Stoves Sterling 1100DF (top, red)
Made on Merseyside, with seven gas hobs from 1kW to 3.5kW plus fan and conventional electric ovens (each 69 litres). Accessibility is eased by having the ovens above a warming drawer and storage compartment. Around £1,550; 1,100mm
A chunky beast with an alphabet-soup name, a hob of four 4.6kW gas burners and griddle, and two electric fan ovens of 127 and 71 litres. The price is as big as the oven, but it offers a scale and power that professional cooks might envy. £13,600; 1,216mm
Leisure Cookmaster 101FR
Made in Turkey, this 1,000mm-wide range cooker gives plenty of bang for your buck with five gas hobs, including wok burner, plus a ceramic “cooking zone”, separate grill and two electric ovens (fan and conventional). Comes in only two colours (black or cream) but is more robust than other low-price models. Around £700; 1,000mm
Rangemaster Toledo 110
Rangemaster is the leading range-cooker manufacturer in Britain, and its Toledo 110 has a proven track record. Though many variants are offered, the standard format includes five gas hobs from 1kW to 3.5kW with fan and conventional electric ovens (69 and 66 litres) and grill compartment. Around £1,470; 1,100mm