photo: Christopher Hirscheimer
photo: christopher hirscheimer

Our friends Christopher Hirscheimer and Melissa Hamilton, creators of the wonderful Canal House cookbook series, have a friend in the appliance business who keeps offering to get them a big new stove for their kitchen studio. NO, they keep saying, We love our little side-by-side stoves!

Every great dish Melissa and Christopher come up with is cooked on their two vin-ordinaire gas stoves, which makes for eight burners and two ovens. And those very same plain little stoves appear in photographs of their unselfconsciously stylish, comfortable kitchen.

Which begs the question: What kind of stove will really help you to cook happily and easily? The answer, we’ve found, is not necessarily a fancy high-end stove as many design magazines would have us believe. Witness the mournful, angry email we got from a wine importer we know who is a serious cook:  I want to throw my Viking out the window! Other friends are disappointed with their Blue Star, for its too-small oven and broiler, and wonky burner ignitions.

photo: Christopher Hirscheimer
photo: Christopher Hirscheimer

When we were planning the renovation of ‘improvised life’s Laboratory, we imagined trading in our 25-year-old U.S. Range for a snazzy $7,000 baby with a rotisserie and grill. By the end of the reno, with our finances looking grim, we opted to stay with our old reliable stove. It still looks great and is built like a tank.

sally schneider's U.S. Range
photo: sally schneider

In the twenty-five years we’ve had it, we’ve had one part replaced. We can recalibrate the oven ourselves if we need to using a screwdriver. There are no electronic parts to fail when there’s a power outage, a GREAT comfort as we watched people endure weeks in the dark and cold (and more of that coming). The burners and oven are always ready to turn on and stay on (not possible with an electronic ignition). If we had the money, we’re not sure we’d buy that fancy stove after-all.

We’d still love a rotisserie so were looking into hacking the griddle/broiler to see if we can put an electric rotator in there, to turn meats and poultry on a spit under the broiler’s flames.

Now that we think about it, some of the best cooks we know have no-frills stoves. Our friend Mary Rower, daughter of Alexander Calder, could have bought herself any stove she wanted yet insisted on a simple 4 burner. With that and 1-foot square of counter space, she quietly turned out spectacular dinners for twelve or fifteen.

And when we look at pictures of homes without fancy stoves, we realize that their charm and style has to do more with a whole way of life rather than any single element.

photo: christopher hirscheimer
photo: christopher hirscheimer

We highly recommend ALL of the Canal House cookbooks, especially Canal House Cooks Every Day to use or to give.

Related posts: why not design a stove hood like a sculpture?
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more on d-i-y wood ovens: books, sites, recipes…
canal house cooking: home cooks as indie publisher

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12 replies on “kitchen reno: what stove will really make you happy?

  1. Growing up, I noticed this as well. All the good Gulf Coast cooks used simple stoves that were many years old and had an extensive set of Revereware. I am the proud inheritor of preWWII revereware that I use everyday.
    My 15 yo dd, on the other hand, Has already started saving for a le cornue range.

  2. Yes, I have had expensive stoves and I have had cheap ones, and the cheap ones were always better. In my last house I had a pricey gas stove that was incapable of bringing a pot of pasta water to a rapid boil. When I downsized, I bought a used electric stove with the old-fashioned coils for $250. It brings a pot of water to a furious boil in record time and yet it will hold a very low simmer without effort. Huge oven. Easy to clean. What more could I ask?

  3. From a friend of Susan Dworski’s in Panajachel, Guatemala:

    Wow — loved the double stove idea — LOVE it — a solution I’ve been looking for when considering too expensive imported, top-end stoves from US — waste of money — besides, here, propane is kind — no natural gas and cost of electricity is out of question.

  4. we have a four burner gas stove with a decent sized oven – quite ordinary. simple, functional, reliable. but, when my in-laws were buying everyone they knew indoor grills, my wife and I headed them off and suggested that a stove top griddle/grill would suit us better. we wound up with two of these jewels. it is a metal plate that fits over the top of two burners and turn our entire stove into a big griddle or grill or combo. it opened up lots of cooking opportunities and expanded my cooking capabilities. i use them nearly ever day one one side or the other of my stove.
    pancakes for 12 people (think slumber party)? no problem.
    crepes for 10? i start them in a small skillet and flip them on to the front half of the griddle (set to hot) to finish them and flip them on the growing stack at the back (set to warm) to keep them and then serve them as people get up.
    i can flip them over to use the grill side and cook up venison fajitas 2-4 pounds with ease. last fall i discovered how easy paninis were to make on the grills.
    anyone cooking for more than three people could probably use one of these.


  5. I remember reading that Marion Cunningham stuck to her plain Jane electric stove. I have a beautiful tiny 30+ yr old Wolf stove rescued from a bar in the Livermore, CA valley. We light the burners with a striker. I do miss not having a broiler, but here in California, my husband makes up with the barbecue. That and a torch are a pretty good substitute.

  6. Another endorsement of the concept here. A favorite uncle who spent a career as a designer for an appliance manufacturer once told me the key piece of a gas stove is the valve that allows gas to come to the burner. How finely it can be adjusted, and more importantly, the maximum heat the burner can deliver, are both determined by that valve. And having looked at gas ranges from every manufacturer at every price point, he said “They’re all using the same valves. And some of the fancy ones hold your pot too high above the flame to get maximum heat. Buy the cheapest one with looks you can live with!”

    Granted, this was over 20 years ago, but I’ve found it to be true.

  7. Thank you Jim. Well, most people who come here say the the burners on my 30 year old restaurant stove BLOWS all the new ones out of the water. I am ever greatful I didn’t trade in this tank-like stove. It is heating my apartment during this 20′ spell, while slow cooking a pork shoulder….

  8. I know it’s kind of later to post here but I want to say thank you. We redid our kitchen, splurging on some things but keeping perfectly working existing appliances. Because the stove is now in a corner, the back control panel seemed to me to stand out like a sore thumb even though we contrived a sort of back shelf to make it look more integrated. I was just waiting for it to cease working, wasn’t even willing to replace the starters for two of the burners, so I could replace it with the “right” kind of stove. When I mentioned this to a friend, her was response was “really – but this one looks so at home and friendly…” Her comment stayed with me. Warm and friendly is exactly what I want the kitchen to be but I was still coveting the “look”. This piece and the responses are right on the mark – I am calling the repair guy this morning! Once again, a huge thank you IP!!!

  9. Sometimes, it takes someone else’s eyes to question our thinking and give us another view.

    As for my 30+ year old restaurant stove, I am SO glad that I wasn’t able to go with a new one. My top floor space gets mighty chilly on winter days and it that stove is my ‘hearth’ that warms it up in the morning. There is no electronic ignition so it always works, even in a blackout. And when the thermostat needs recalibrating once in a while, I know how to adjust it myself. Tried and true and built like a tank!

  10. I agree with the basic principle here, but I would be interested in the features of a stove that you think really do make a difference.

  11. The most important thing to think about when buying a stove is what YOU need, and how you cook, and to ask yourself if you need the enticing bells and whistles, some of which can be problematic. For example, I love having a rotisserie, but, when offered, often have the major design flaw of enclosing food in too moist an environment i.e. not enough ventilation.
    For me, the important questions are:
    —Can it accommodate gas, at least for the burners, as it at is a more responsive, elemental way to cook. (Ovens are fine using electricity, as you want the very even heat it affords)
    —Oven size. Do you need one large oven or two smaller ones, as the Canal house women use?
    —Reliability (gauged by reading reviews)
    —Ease of getting the stove repaired or accessing parts (electronic ignitions often fail).
    —BTU’s of burners. Personally, I like to be able to have a strong flame. Most home stoves are limited in that way.

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