Now some appliances are blending into walls or masquerading as furniture. Industrial black and steel are giving way to eggplant-colored ranges and refrigerators in Pink Lemonade. Here's what's new in the two big-ticket kitchen appliances.
Cooktops, Ovens, Ranges
A cooktop/wall-oven combination--which offers more features than an all-in-one range--is the choice for many remodelers because the units can be mounted at any height anywhere in the kitchen.
A popular option is to position the combination like a range by dropping the cooktop into the counter and mounting the oven underneath. It's a sleeker look than a range and offers greater flexibility in features. The combo is generally pricier, starting at about $1,000, and its separate electrical outlets require professional installation.
The all-in-one range, especially the pro-style model, is still the pick for the serious chef. It's also best for those who just need to replace the appliance or want a statement-making centerpiece for the kitchen. It's easier to install than a combo, and slide-in ranges can blend in with countertops almost as well as the flush cooktops. While some carry Rolls-Royce prices, ranges start as low as $300.
Gas or Electric?
The quick-responding flame and the ability to eyeball heat levels are the gas stove's greatest advantages over electric. On the downside, gas is slower to boil liquids and harder to keep at a very low heat, and the heavy grates and open burners are tough to clean. Gas cooktops are also slightly more expensive than electric. Gas is a little more pricey, too, especially these days, and if you don't already have a gas line, adding one can be very expensive.
But gas innovations may outweigh the disadvantages. Among them are bigger control knobs that pop off for a quick clean, are easier to read, and offer greater precision; "French tops" on high-end models that cook several pots simultaneously on a solid-steel surface ranging from 800 degrees at the center to 140 at the edges; and electronic ignitions in place of pilot lights.
Electric coil burners still sell, and they're the cheapest option--as low as $150. They're also the easiest to replace if they break. But the smooth-tops are the biggest sellers ($200 to $1,000). You can slide pans around with ease, and a sponge swipe takes care of most messes.
Most models are made of Ceran, a tough glass-ceramic hybrid that replaced the underperforming glass ones launched by Corning. Some have a radiant-ribbon heating element, which cycles on and off to maintain temperature. Less popular are halogen tubes, which can be slower to heat and more expensive.
Manufacturers have brought out smooth-top heating elements as high as 3,000 watts, up from about 2,500 five years ago. They've also made induction cooking, once the domain of commercial chefs, more affordable--Kenmore's model starts around $1,500. With induction cooking, a magnetic field under the ceramic surface instantly heats a special pan instead of the cooktop, resulting in safer, more energy-efficient cooking.
Special features on smooth-tops include a 12-inch heating element for large pots; ultra-low settings for warming plates and extra-high for faster boiling; and pot-sensing elements that adjust to different-size pans or to woks and griddles.
What's in the Oven
Ovens have seen the biggest revolution in kitchen technology, allowing cooks to combine heating methods. They're also maximizing space, either with expanded capacities of five cubic feet and up or half racks that make room for large items below. Here's the latest on technologies beyond conventional thermal cooking.
Convection: Fans circulate the heat to cook faster and more evenly than thermal, and without drying; some add an extra heating element to increase temperature. Convection is available in electric and gas ovens, both of which can be switched to conventional cooking. Prices start around $900.
Microwave: Some of these ovens now combine microwave with thermal heat to produce crispier, moister results. They have lower microwave wattage to keep things like pizza crusts from getting tough and to keep metal and foil from setting off sparks. Some have a halogen lamp that acts as a broiler, as well as convection fans to heat foods more evenly without drying. Microwaves start around $70, microwave-convection combinations around $250.
Trivection: The term for this combination of thermal, convection, and microwave was coined by GE for its Profile and Monogram ovens ($2,350 to $4,300). You key in food type, time, and temperature that would be used conventionally and the oven applies the combination of three cooking methods for best results. The methods can be used separately or in combination. Other manufacturers also are turning out "tri" versions.
Steam: KitchenAid added this moisture-boosting feature to its dual-fuel range (about $4,000 for a 30-inch, $6,300 for a 36-inch). A two-liter container on the side of the gas cooktop injects steam into the electric oven, preventing food from drying. Gaggenau and Miele wall ovens also have steam options.
Home on the Range
Many cooktop and wall-oven features are available in all-in-one ranges. Dual-fuel models--gas stove with electric oven--are the bestsellers, starting around $1,000.
A few novelties have emerged: Sharp's Insight range ($1,400 to $2,250) has a microwave drawer and a conventional oven under the cooktop. Whirlpool's Polera (around $1,800) refrigerates food all day, then cooks it in time for dinner.
The larger pro ranges have as many as eight burners, a grill, and a griddle. Some have double ovens--with the convection option--and infrared broilers that cook faster, sear better, and use less gas.
But a bigger price tag doesn't necessarily mean better cooking. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that ranges priced as low as $400 performed as well as professional models costing $1,500 and up. A $550 Hotpoint and an $800 General Electric were CR's top gas-range picks; a $3,900 Viking placed 16th out of 17.
A bigger price tag can mean a bigger style statement. The French-made Diva de Provence will customize every feature--including 24-karat-gold trim--on models that run as high as $70,000. Aga carries a line that comes in 15 candy colors with side-hinged doors reminiscent of a wood stove ($5,000 to $15,000).
The appetite for industrial refrigerators appears to have been sated. "I think everybody's done with the pro-style look," says Joe Hilferty of Foremost Appliances.
Customers at his Washington Design Center showroom want models that blend into the scenery, disguising themselves as cupboards and drawers.
Hiding the fridge behind cabinet panels has long been favored overseas and is catching on here, giving some foreign appliance makers an edge in the built-in styles. Liebherr refrigerators arrived from Germany last year, with dimensions well suited for built-ins--and prices lower than its high-end competitor, Sub-Zero.
Foreign manufacturers have more than doubled their share in the US market in the past four years. Korea's LG Electronics grabbed attention when it put computers on fridge doors; it's now peddling more-mainstream models at Home Depot.
Sub-Zero, known for its stainless monoliths, is working to keep pace. Its new "fully integrated" refrigerator can pass for an armoire.
With few real technological innovations in refrigeration, manufacturers are focusing on style. Double-drawer models are breaking new ground with two doors below the refrigerator, the bottom for the freezer and a middle door for a fruit-and-vegetable crisper. Mitsubishi's starts around $1,800.
Undercounter refrigerator drawers are still mostly a European thing, but their compactness is attracting small-space dwellers here. They're mounted low so they won't cover up windows, and they're fronted with cabinet panels so they look like the cutlery drawer. The compact units come either with dual refrigerator drawers or in fridge/freezer combos; prices run $2,200 to $5,000.
French-door models--double doors on the refrigerator with a bottom freezer--are selling strong, and most manufacturers now offer the style ($1,500 to $2,000). As with side-by-side fridge/freezers, the narrow door swing provides more room in the kitchen, but the interior space spans the full width for large items like pizza boxes.
Bottom-freezer models with wide-swing doors are overtaking top freezers in sales. They're best for those who don't freeze much, because the most frequently used items--the ones in the fridge--are at eye level. Top freezers are the cheapest options, starting about $300; bottom freezers start about $600.
Side-by-side refrigerator/freezers can squeeze into tight spaces but can't fit wide items inside. These models are more likely to have water and ice dispensers on the doors. Prices start at around $800.
Built-ins are the priciest--$3,500 to $6,000. They're shallower so they can fit flush to the cabinets, thus reducing capacity; matching door panels must come from your cabinetmaker. Liebherr's edge comes from its shallower but taller dimensions, which increase capacity; prices range from $2,400 to $6,500. Sub-Zero's models start at around $5,500.
Slim-line refrigerators are US manufacturers' response to demand for a cheaper option to built-ins. They come in cabinet depths but aren't always a perfect fit; some accept door panels to match cabinets. Prices start around $1,500.
Sub-Zero is selling what it calls the only "fully integrated" refrigerator. It's a step up from built-ins because instead of a refrigerator that fits flush to the cabinet line--so that the cabinet-matching panel juts out--the fridge sinks completely into the cabinet. The 36-inch version is about $5,600.
Curved doors are getting scarce, but most manufacturers have at least one such model, usually starting around $350. They give the refrigerator a retro look.
Fingerprints and Finishes
"The artwork stays--the finger prints don't," says General Electric's pitch for its CleanSteel refrigerator. It seems parents were complaining that their kids' finger paintings wouldn't stick to their trendy fridges--magnets don't adhere to stainless--while their little pawprints did.
So GE, Whirlpool, LG, and other makers are substituting carbon steel with a laminate finish for a stainless look that has a magnetic cling. Stainless prices have soared, and the knockoffs are as much as 80 percent cheaper. Other manufacturers are cutting costs by using stainless only for the front panels.
If they're not going for the space-age look, consumers are heading back to colors. But these aren't the avocado greens and harvest golds of the 1970s. Big Chill is harking back to the '50s with pink, turquoise, and butter yellow, and Viking is going classy with burgundy and forest green.
Sub-Zero's newest built-in comes with a glass window in the door. It's probably best for cooks who arrange their fridge contents like a still life, as there's no hiding the clutter. This model omits some features--such as door shelves--to make way for the view but carries a hefty $6,000 price.
Bells and Whistles
Reducing noise and conserving energy have been the main refrigeration improvements in recent years, but there are also advances in convenience and cooling. Here are some of them:
• Separate refrigerator and freezer compressors mean different humidity levels for each compartment--dry air for the freezer to preserve meats and ice cream longer, moister air for produce and dairy. The highest-end models offer three compressors--one for basic refrigeration, one for the crisper, and one for the freezer.
• Independent temperature controls on bins keep vegetables and meats fresher longer. Some have a digital display that shows the setting, and a few show the temperature.
• Liebherr says its BioFresh compartment marks the only new advance in refrigeration introduced in the United States in the past decade. The separate chamber between fridge and freezer keeps foods just above 32 degrees so that meats and produce stay fresher but steaks don't have to be thawed for hours before dinner. Icons on the drawers let you know how many weeks each food type should stay fresh. Around $2,690 for the BioFresh model.
• Speed-freezing freezes food faster to lock in freshness and produces ice cubes more quickly. LG's Express Freezing Function feature accelerates freezing for a period of up to 24 hours to produce six pounds of ice--a pound and a half more than standard freezing.
• Whirlpool's FastFill in-door ice and water dispensers spout faster--and accommodate larger containers--for big jobs (around $1,900 for models with this feature).
• LCD screens on some refrigerator doors let you surf the Internet for recipes or watch cooking shows. LG's TV refrigerator is around $3,200; Samsung's HomePad Internet Refrigerator, around $5,000.
• Removable bins with handles let you carry condiments or soft drinks directly to the table or on a picnic (LG's Grab&Go feature is on most side-by-side models)--a nice way to take part of your kitchen with you wherever you go.