How to Tell If Your $10,000 Gas Range Is Worth It
In the same way that a Honda gets you to the grocery store just as well as a Porsche, every stove on the market can boil water, roast vegetables, and bake brownies. This is doubly true when it comes to the top end of the market, where 36-inch ranges start at about $5,000.
But while the best stoves—Wolf, Thermador, Viking, Aga, and La Cornue, among others—might have similar specifications, they have very different prices. A 36-inch range from Wolf retails for $9,395; a $5,599 one from Aga has a burner with 15,000 BTUs (the measure of how much heat its burners can generate), 5,000 fewer than the Wolf version. A similarly outfitted stove from La Cornue is $7,500. Even on the lower end, Consumer Reports recommends a $699 Kenmore range, which has more than 18,000 BTUs.
Is the cost differential between the world’s best stoves simply a matter of branding and aesthetics, or is something more sophisticated going on?
Forget About BTUs
Stove shoppers tend to get fixated on the British Thermal Unit, but the heat measurement has nothing to do with quality, said Bob Fischer, the co-owner of Kitchen Consultants, a Denver and Long Island-based company that designs and installs commercial ranges intended to receive an extraordinary amount of abuse. “You can take a crummy stove and add a big burner.” He compared it with flooring a gas pedal on car. “You’ll only do that twice in a car’s lifetime,” he said.
Instead, Fischer argues that it’s the grate above the burner that matters more. A heavy steel or iron grate to support pans has a demonstrable difference in utility and resilience than its flimsier equivalents. “That’s how to determine quality,” he said.
Also more important than BTUs is the durability of the range’s materials. Poorly made steel will rust, bend, or deteriorate faster than its tougher counterparts. Fischer suggested what he called a “$1 trick.” Take a refrigerator magnet and put it against the stove. If it sticks, the steel doesn’t have much nickel in its composition, which means it’s low quality. If it falls off, you’re in good shape.
Another indicator of value is weight. A heavy range is almost certainly made with a thicker metal and is therefore sturdier. That $9,375 Wolf range weighs 470 pounds; a similar sized, $679 Premier stove sold at Home Depot weighs just 190 pounds. “It’s certainly something I would pay attention to,” Fischer said. “But it’s maybe not the first or last thing.”
From Good to Great
Every $10,000 stove will be well-built, well-insulated, and capable of burning whatever it is you’re trying to cook to a crisp. Not every stove, said Mick De Giulio, the owner of De Giulio Design in Wilmette, Ill., has tiny touches that elevate it from good to great.
De Giulio is an unapologetic booster of Wolf products. “I’ve worked with them for many years,” he said, “and I’ve been part of their focus groups, so I do have a different perspective.” He argued that the engineering and calibration of a stove matters more than most buyers realize.
“Lesser ovens, where the calibration is off, can’t heat up quickly or hold the heat in the oven. You can tell the difference.” He also cited the strength of his oven door: “I can put a 20-pound turkey on my Wolf door, and it won’t bend.”
And while De Giulio said he appreciates high BTUs, the simmer capabilities of a burner is as important as its high flame, if not more. “I have a Wolf product at home that can turn down to 800, 600 BTUs, he said. “To simmer with gas at that level, it has to be carefully engineered.”
The Importance of Being Versatile
Yet all these little differences might not be drastic enough from range to range to matter. “When you come to the common and well-known American brands—when you’re talking about Thermador, Wolf, and Viking—are all similar in price, and people buy them if they’re looking for a brand name,” said Karen Williams, a principal in the New York-based design firm St. Charles of New York. “There are subtle differences in some of them, but not enough to make a difference to most people. And Viking and Wolf are almost identical.”
The real issue, and the true feature that justifies the cost differential between one stove and another, Williams said, is variation. “I would go for the versatility in cooking options, not just more burners,” she said.
She cites a Thermador range ($14,000) that combines a regular, convection, and steam oven in one. “Don’t get me started on steam ovens, they’re my favorite thing in the world,” she said. “It’s better at reheating than any microwave because it doesn’t dry out the food.” And Wolf ranges can include a stovetop called a “french plaque,” a large, flat, cast-iron surface that can accommodate pans of many sizes.
“What makes a stove valuable is when it has different burners so you can do different things” she said. “One for everyday, one for making scrambled eggs—think about your daily usage rather than the extremes.”
Williams said she’s mystified by people who buy a stovetop with eight or 10 equal-size burners. “Personally, I always get confused, she said. “You never need that many burners doing the same thing unless you’re in a restaurant.”
American brands, Williams said, are much different from their higher-end European counterparts, such as Aga and La Cornue, and are priced accordingly. “Let’s say a Wolf is $8,000, La Cornue can be $50,000,” she said. “There’s a major jump in price. The reason someone would consider one or the other price point would be the level of versatility they want in their cooking.”
Mix and Match
Williams is a self-professed La Cornue enthusiast. “The combination of elements the client can customize are just amazing,” she said. La Cornue ranges, for instance, can include the french plaque burner, a teppanyaki surface (à la Benihana), rotisseries, and electric ovens for baking in the same unit as gas stoves for meat and vegetables.
Aga stoves, she said, are similarly varied. “It has individual ovens that are designed to cook specific products. There’s a meat oven, a bread oven, and so on,” she said. “It targets a specific audience.”
Americans, Williams said, traditionally don’t gravitate toward smaller, varied ovens. “That’s another mistake people make: You look at the size of their ovens, and they’re huge,” she said. “Who ever put something that big in there? Who’s roasting half a pig?” Giant ovens, she continued, “take a lot of time to heat up and take more heat to maintain. Every time you open it up, all that hot air goes out, making it harder to cook.”
And why, exactly, do people buy these large, inefficient, unnecessary objects? “Everyone thinks about Thanksgiving,” she said. “I say: ‘Don’t design the kitchen for the way you live one day a year. [Thanksgiving] doesn’t creep up on you.”