An all-in-one freestanding cooker with four electric hotplates or gas burners on top, and one or two ovens below, is still the most cost-effective cooking appliance on the market. This type of cooker can stand alone or slot in between two base cupboards and is easy and cheap to install. (For a separate built-in oven and hob you may have to rip out your kitchen and start from scratch.) Moreover, you can easily upgrade your freestanding cooker as most come in a standard 60cm width, and will slot smoothly into the space of your old model. If you have limited space, try a smaller 50cm-wide cooker or even a mini table-top version with two rings and an oven. There is now a much wider selection of these 'entry-level' cookers on the market, with hi-tech features and sleek metal finishes to rival the built-in machines - multifunction fan ovens, wok burners, dual fuel models (electric oven, gas hob) and plenty of safety features. Grills are usually set inside the oven, which does restrict your ability to roast and grill at the same time; a separate grill cavity or double oven is a more flexible solution.
The craze for range cookers has been partly fuelled by cookery programmes on TV, which have linked them to the world of high-profile professional cooks, but also by the huge diversity of range cookers that are now available. Whether it's industrial stainless steel or the traditional, farmhouse range cookers now form the centrepiece of many kitchens, whether traditional or modern. Enamelled, cast-iron ranges like Rayburns run off natural or bottled LP (liquefied petroleum) gas, oil, electricity or solid fuel. They release heat through the ovens and hotplates in a consistent way, without the need for a direct heat source. This radiant heat preserves all the flavour, moisture and texture of food. There are generally two ovens without temperature controls; the hot oven is for roasting, the cool one for slow cooking. Four-oven Agas also have a baking oven and warming oven. The two hotplates, one for boiling and one for simmering, are also ready to use at any time. The insulated covers keep heat in when the hotplates are not in use and are useful for drying and airing laundry.
In addition, some ranges can also provide you with central heating and hot water. Cast-iron ranges must be installed on a solid, level floor, which can take the weight of the appliance, usually around 300kg. Manufacturers of professional catering equipment have introduced domestic range cookers so we can emulate restaurant chefs in our homes. These robust and powerful cookers are more controllable than the traditional Agas and often provide up to six burners, with a fish-kettle, wok burner and griddle plate to accommodate the most inventive cooking. Two large-capacity ovens, a separate grill and warm storage drawer for proving bread, warming plates or light storage) complete what is the ultimate cook centre for the serious chef. Such quality does not come cheap, however. Balance their good looks and high performance against how much you will use a range cooker and what you cook. Remember also that you'll need a lot more space. Measuring from 90cm to 150cm wide, they are often deeper than the standard 60cm oven. Unless they are used as freestanding pieces, ranges often require made-to-measure cupboards, and are more easily accommodated in a bespoke kitchen than a standard one.