Stoking the Flames

Fire up one of these professional-quality ranges for the ultimate in home cooking -- or just to impress your friends.
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What does your dream kitchen look like?

Perhaps you envision a warm and inviting space, with vibrant colors and plenty of room for family and friends to gather as you prepare meals. Or maybe you prefer the sleek elegance of stainless steel appliances that lend a restaurantlike air.

Well, no matter what your vision, the perfect range is out there to complete the picture.

Commercial-style ranges combining professional cooking power with attractive design have become essential elements for the home kitchen.

The stove you choose can speak volumes, and manufacturers of high-end ranges understand this concept very well: They have successfully turned the process of selecting a range into a full lifestyle experience, satisfying the deepest desires of passionate home cooks -- or decorators.

With prices that run from a few thousand to nearly $20,000 each, these luxury ranges far exceed the cost of standard stoves. But considering their outstanding performance, design appeal and the value they add to a home, there's ample reason to check them out.

A Trailblazer

In the 1980s, building contractor Fred Carl, Jr., wanted to install a commercial-quality range in the kitchen for his wife, Margaret; however, commercial ranges produced too much heat and were less energy-efficient than residential models.

This inspired Carl to design and create the Viking range, a hybrid stove that combined the cooking power of a commercial model with the design and size of a consumer range.

He was on-target in detecting this untapped appliance market, and in January 1987 the first Viking ranges were shipped to customers. The company has since seen double-digit sales growth over the past few years, with ranges selling for about $3,000 to $10,000 each.

Every Viking range is custom-made for its buyer, and the extensive list of options is a huge part of the brand's appeal.

"This is probably one of the biggest assets of selecting Viking products," says Sue Bailey, anager of Product Development/Major Appliances for the Viking Range Corporation. "We offer products in 14 color finishes, with or without a brass trim option. In addition to stainless steel, black and white, colors such as burgundy, cobalt blue, mint julep or lemonade can also be selected.

"Add to this five different range lines in widths from 24 to 60 inches, with 17 different top configurations, open or sealed burners, and over 15 hood options, and the customer truly has a one-of-a-kind kitchen," Bailey continues.

For many, the Viking experience also includes a journey to the company's hometown of Greenwood, Miss., where tours of the manufacturing plant and cooking classes are offered year-round. It's become a culinary Mecca, drawing cooking enthusiasts from all over the country. Viking even sponsors tours, guided by professional chefs, to places like Vietnam and Tuscany, where participants learn about local cuisine firsthand.

Just for Show

People with a passion for cooking make up the majority of Viking's customer base, but there are also buyers more interested in the value luxury brand names can add to their homes.

Tom Mayer, a luxury-home specialist for New Jersey-based Weichert Realty, works with clients seeking new-construction and older luxury homes in the multimillion-dollar range.

Mayer says there are certain elements customers expect to see in houses at this price level.

"When I first show a home, my clients usually make a beeline for the kitchen because they want to see the appliance package," Mayer explains. "They expect as standard the six-burner Viking range, a Sub-Zero fridge ... If these types of appliances aren't there, it can be a problem," Mayer says.

Although buyers seek out the best equipment, Mayer says his clients are generally not spending a lot of time working in the kitchen. "It is purely for aesthetic reasons, and resale," he says. "People buy a new luxury home and pick the appliances with resale in mind. They are thinking, 'what will the next buyer want?'"

Cooking With Gas

The tools for home cooking weren't always this sophisticated.

The origins of the modern stove can be traced to the late 1700s, when food was still prepared over an open fireplace.

Several creative minds aided the range's development, starting with Benjamin Thompson, a British statesman. He is credited with inventing the first practical stove in the 1790s. Thompson's stove, made of brick with holes cut out on the top to hold pots, burned wood or coal, and enclosed and separated a series of fires that could be individually regulated.

In the 1830s, cast iron became widely available, and iron "cookstoves" gained popularity. Philo Stewart, a founding member of the Oberlin colony in Ohio, created the Oberlin stove, a cast-iron wood burner for cooking that was all the rage in frontier homes.

Gas and electric stoves had slow starts, mainly because society needed to catch up with the technology. British inventor James Sharp developed the first gas stove in 1826; during the 1860s, gas ranges gained popularity in cities that had gas piped into homes for gaslights.

A more sophisticated gas stove, the AGA cooker, was invented by Swedish Nobel Prize winner Gustaf Dalen in 1922. Dalen's invention maintained cooking heat for 24 hours a day using only 8 pounds of coal.

An early version of the first electric range was patented by inventor George Simpson of Washington, D.C., in 1859; it was a precursor to a more streamlined electric stove invented by William Hadaway in New York in 1886.

The Heat Is On

In the nearly 85 years since it was invented, the Aga cooker has been a favorite in England, and its popularity has grown worldwide.

"The Aga is the Rolls Royce of cookers," says Sue Beddia, public relations manager for

Domain, a retailer of exclusive home furnishings and decor that is owned by Aga. "In a sea of stainless steel, there's no mistaking an Aga. It's a design that's been gracing fine English estates and country homes for over 80 years."

The distinct Aga stovetop features hinged covers, and inside is a single cast-iron oven or multiple ovens for simultaneous roasting, baking, simmering and warming. The Aga Classic comes in 14 colors, with multiple venting options; overall, the stoves sport a price tag of about $4,000 to $19,000 apiece.

The radiant heat concept discovered by Dalen is a key defining feature of the Aga cooker, and is the reason why this range has no knobs or dials. "It's on 24-7, so it's ready to cook when you are. Each radiant heat oven is set to a specific temperature, and each oven holds a number of dishes without transference of flavors," Beddia explains.

To entice potential buyers, Aga hosts free cooking classes every week. "They are very popular," according to Beddia. "We cook delicious but simple food so you can really taste the Aga difference."

Time for a New Flame

So what should you consider when selecting a new range?

Aside from price, whatever best suits your cooking needs and space requirements. There are dual-fuel ranges powered by gas and electricity, convection ovens that use a stream of hot air to cook food, and range hoods that are decorative while providing proper ventilation.

You can also choose from numerous configurations of burners and ovens, and accessories like a warming shelf, griddle or deep fryer.

Shop around -- most large electronics and home appliance stores carry all of the brands mentioned in this article. Here's some additional professional-quality picks:

  • Wolf Gourmet, which has supplied ranges to restaurants for 70 years, has been selling its residential line of stainless steel ranges since 1989.
  • Thermador has a line of commercial-quality ranges, including the 48" Pro Grand Duel Fuel range with four burners and electric griddle.
  • Sweden-based Electrolux makes professional and designer series for consumers, with options including glass cooktops and wall ovens.
  • Whirlpool (WHR) - Get Report has become a family of recognizable brands -- Whirlpool, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air -- all of which produce ranges. Jenn-Air offers the most sophisticated and highest-priced line of professional-quality ranges.
  • GE's (GE) - Get Report Monogram Collection is a line of stainless-steel, high-performance ranges, cooktops and ovens.

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Anne McDarby is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her professional experience includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor in northern New Jersey and more than 15 years in health care public relations and marketing.