Cooking Appliances Serve up a Menu of Options

When home remodels fell off in 2007 with the dip in the housing market, so did sales of cooking appliances. That’s now changing according to Jill Notini, vice president, Communications and Marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) in Washington, D.C. “We’ve had several years of decline, but the first quarter of 2013 marks the first year we’ve seen the shipments come back a bit,” Notini says.

As the market rebounds, hands-on kitchen designers and builders have a new challenge. Clients increasingly use the Internet, retail outlets and personal recommendations to shape their preferences, and approach remodelers with cooking appliances already selected. The designer’s and builder’s roles are shifting in this changing environment, and knowing the differences and benefits of today’s technology can position them as a resource for clients.

Induction cooking

“The hottest trend today is induction cooking,” says John Petrie, CMKBD, 2013 National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) president-elect and owner of Mechanicsburg, Pa.’s MH Custom Cabinetry. “Induction technology has improved and price has come down. It’s phenomenal how responsive electricity can be in this form. Formerly, you could only get this type of performance with gas.”

Although popular in commercial kitchens, induction technology didn’t catch on in the consumer marketplace until a few manufacturers created a hybrid approach to re-introduce the technology. Some replaced one conventional element on full ranges/cooktops with an induction unit. Others offered portable induction-surface appliances that plug in on the countertop as an affordable entrée into the technology. Now, 10 percent of built-in electric cooktops have induction elements. In appliances with an oven below the induction surface, however, the figure remains at only 1 percent.

Customers like that induction’s direct heat transfer provides faster cooking and energy efficiency. Because it works with electricity and magnetism, the pan heats up but the surface stays cool, making it a safer way to cook. The flat surface also provides easy cleanup. Induction cooking requires direct contact with the pan, and cast iron or stainless steel pans are needed to make the magnetism work (copper bottom, ceramics and aluminum pans are not an option).

Brenda Bryan, executive director of Charlotte, N.C.’s-based Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI), says that data collected from two surveys indicate induction cooking is on the rise. RICKI’s 2012 Remodelers 360 survey discovered among almost 1,500 U.S. consumers, 23 percent were interested in induction cooking. Of the 1,000 homeowners that participated in RICKI’s 2013 Consumer Kitchen Trends, 56 percent said they had heard of induction cooking and 36 percent found the technology “extremely or very appealing.”

Steam ovens and convection ovens

By contrast, only 9 percent of respondents in RICKI’s 2012 Remodelers 360 were interested in steam ovens. Still, steam ovens remain a niche item for people interested in healthy cooking. Using steam ovens allows cooks to reduce the fat added to keep food from drying out, and the method helps retain more vitamins in food. In addition to preserving moisture and vitamins, steam ovens cook faster than radiant ovens.

Convection ovens also offer a faster way to cook with a fan that moves air throughout the oven to cut cooking time by approximately 25 percent while using a lower temperature. Consumers from RICKI’s 2012 Remodelers 360 indicated that 26 percent were interested in convection ovens.

Gas and electric ovens

The largest change in gas ovens throughout the years has been safety. Sealed burners come with thermal couplers that sense the heat from the flame and send a spark if the valve is open without being lit. Gone are the days of igniting the pilot light, as modern appliances have an electric sparker. Many manufacturers combine a gas cooktop with an electric convection oven, and this combination can be purchased as one appliance or separately.

One trend is for conventional ovens to have multiple cavities (one generally larger for bigger foods) so homeowners can cook various items at the same time at different temperatures. There also has been movement toward a reduction in self-cleaning times in conventional ovens, and one appliance now offers a self-cleaning cycle that is complete in 20 minutes.

Microwave ovens

Microwave ovens have made their way around the kitchen. Initially, these stand-alone units rested on countertops. Then they were placed over the range. The above-range built-ins free up counter space but create safety issues with owners reaching over boiling pots or trying to remove hot, full containers from a high angle. Now, these appliances have found a more ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing location.

“Microwave drawers allow designers to integrate these appliances into the cabinetry at a safe height and conceal the microwave in an open-roomed kitchen,” Petrie says. “Another design feature is that conventional microwave doors always open to the left, which may have meant that the door opened back into the cook. The drawer eliminates this issue.”

Flexibility and customization

One of the biggest trends, however, is not in which specific appliances homeowners prefer, but in their passion for customization. Ranges and cooktops have moved beyond the standard four fixed elements to come in an array of configurations. One example is four burners with a griddle in the center. Another is found in a variable cooking element where the center ring can be fired up between two elements to accommodate larger pan surfaces. In fact, RICKI’s 2012 Remodelers 360 revealed a third of consumers were interested in cooktops with built-in attachments like a grill or griddle.

Notini says every manufacturer is trying to provide more features with the same footprint and functionality. “Smaller fans, smaller motors, different lighting and varying sizes are all popular,” she explains. “Cooktop widths span from 38 in. all the way down to 29 in., which are great for remodeling a separate living area with a fully functional kitchen.”

Placement is also flexible, as some homeowners want a cooktop in one spot and a wall oven in another, which is especially helpful when there are multiple cooks in the kitchen.


Remote access

Today, smart technology allows owners to turn on their oven remotely through phone or computer applications. Although these devices create convenience, they still pose potential safety issues in instances where the owner accidentally left something in the oven from a prior meal or used the oven as a storage place. Manufacturers are addressing these situations with new applications that will allow the user to see inside the oven remotely, so they can make sure the oven is clear before pre-heating, check on whatever they have cooking inside or see how much time is left on the timer. Bryan remarked a full 51 percent of homeowners from RICKI’s 2013 Consumer Kitchen Trends survey were aware of remote access cooking technology and 13 percent found the concept very appealing.

Near future technology is slated to help owners with easier cleanup, meal preparation and faster cooking. Methods to further reduce energy and water use also are on the horizon.


KJ Fields writes from Portland, Ore., about remodeling and design.