What’s Cooking?

by bkrigbaum@solagroup.com

In recent years, cooking and entertaining at home have become more prevalent as a challenging economy has driven many consumers away from restaurants and back to the heart of the home.

While recovery is slowly taking hold, homeowners continue to seek out appliances that allow them to create restaurant quality dishes, cook up a quick meal on the go or create healthy concoctions less commonly found in restaurants. And innovative cooktops, convection ovens and steam cooking appliances are helping them do just that.

Time savings remains a key concern for many homeowners today, so technology that enables homeowners to do more with less time, work and clean up is extremely popular right now, according to John Farley, senior brand and environmental marketing manager for Bosch, in Huntington Beach, CA. “The most popular features with customers have been those that maximize convenience and performance,” he says.

Ease of use and enhanced space are the most popular elements of cooking appliances right now, states Brad Michael, senior v.p./sales and marketing for AGA Marvel, in Cambridge, ON Canada.

Tony Dowling sees a continuing trend toward people treating their kitchens as a “dining as entertainment” space, rather than as a utilitarian “cook-and-eat room.” Dowling, who is business development manager for Elmira Stove Works, in Elmira, ON Canada, theorizes, “Perhaps with people dining out less than they did years ago, they are recognizing that the atmosphere in which they dine has as much to do with the enjoyment of the meal as the food itself.” For that reason, he believes, “they want appliances that make their kitchens special.”

Manufacturers believe that consumers are demanding more from their appliances, since they’re using them more frequently to cook for their families and guests.

“What they’re demanding is real cooking innovations that make cooking at home an experience and not a chore,” says Zach Elkin, director of Thermador brand, in Huntington Beach, CA.

In a still-recovering economy, however, many consumers are also more focused on affordability. “All customers want beautiful and well-designed appliances, but not everyone has the means to purchase a kitchen full of premium appliances,” says Steve Joseph, v.p./marketing, Dacor, in Diamond Bar, CA.

For that reason, many appliance manufacturers are offering a wider range of products at a broader array of price points, while high-end products must really prove their value beyond just the trophy appeal.

Something’s Cooking

Simplicity remains trendy right now, and that may explain the popularity of innovations such as sensor cooking technology, which helps take the guesswork out of cooking. “Many cooking problems in the kitchen stem from the guesswork it takes to heat a pan to the right temperature and keep it at that temperature during cooking,” reports Farley.

Sensor cooking products work with pre-programmed cooking modes of commonly prepared recipes to measure the temperature from the bottom of the pan and apply the right amount of energy to the element.

“The result is precise cooking, every time, and without wasted energy,” says Farley, whose company features the AutoChef sensor on its cooking appliances.

Energy efficiency is another key trend impacting appliance design.

“Induction cooktops are a perfect example of efficient performance,” says Farley. “Induction is becoming increasingly popular because, while it delivers the cooking performance of gas, it uses 60% less energy.” Induction cooktops also win points with children and the elderly, as these provide added safety against burns.

Induction is something to keep an eye on, agrees Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero, in Madison, WI. He says that while people are unsure of the technology and its capabilities, once it has greater visibility, such as on popular cooking shows, people will be quick to flock to it. “Induction’s ability to control temperatures quickly, and the control you have over the preparation, far outdistances gas or electric cooktops,” says Leuthe.

“When you couple that with its energy efficiency, there will be a large demand for [this].”

However, the most popular cooking equipment right now, according to Leuthe, is dual-fuel ranges, due to the fact that they are aesthetically and functionally driven.

“On the aesthetics side, ‘home chefs’ want that appearance and/or credibility that a commercial-style range brings to the home,” he comments. “It implies that one has ‘arrived’ and really knows how to perform in the kitchen arena. This has steadily grown and is a large force in the growth of premium cooking.” However, he continues, “the units must perform up to expectations.”

Other features Leuthe has seen on the rise are dual-stacked burners on gas cooktops and sealed-burner range tops. This dual-stacked burner technology is one that Sub-Zero developed when it purchased Wolf back in 2000.

“As the name implies, the burner is stacked, with larger ports closer to the cooking surface and a secondary level of smaller burner ports that are below the larger ones that offer a simmer or melt function to the cooking process,” reports Leuthe. “In this manner, an operator can have a full range of control. Control is everything for chefs, and they love to go from high BTUs to low flames that keep the sauces warm or chocolate melted without scorching things.”

The French Top or plaque (the large circular flat element) is the most desired cooking element for La Cornue, due to its flexibility, according to Anne Puricelli, director of La Cornue North America, in Brisbane, CA. It can accommodate up to eight pans simultaneously.

“Cooks like it because it affords tremendous control,” says Puricelli. “By simply sliding the pan toward the center or pulling it to the outer edge, the cook adjusts the heat (the center of the French Top is hotter than the outer edges). No fiddling with controls.”

Convection & Steam Cooking

In ovens, convection continues to be the sought-after feature, Michael says. Most consumers don’t have a lot of time to spend preparing elaborate dinners, but they still want healthy, tasty meals, and any way to achieve that while reducing cooking time appeals them, he believes.

“In some applications homeowners want speed cooking and are looking for the advanced technology applications that some microwaves bring the environment,” says Leuthe. “Another recent trend we see blossoming is steam cooking. It has introduced speed and healthy eating at the same time.”

“Right now, people want greater value and cooking benefits, and the steam oven provides real cooking features and healthy steam-cooking options,” says Elkin. “Appliances with innovative cooking features that allow home cooks to be exceptional in the kitchen are currently in demand,” he adds.

Ergonomics is also playing a more important role in kitchens as baby boomers age and demand appliances that are installed conveniently for them.

“Yes, they want a professional-style cooking appliance, so they may opt for a range top, but instead of having the ovens below the counter, they want them where they are more accessible,” says Leuthe.

Oven placement that works for the way the homeowner uses the kitchen is a growing trend that dovetails the trend toward greater flexibility/personalized design.

The obsession with ultra-performance also seems to be slowing down, according to Dowling. “We’re not getting a lot of call for super-high-performance features,” he says. “Consumers appear to be looking for appliances with enough features to do everything they need, but not so many that they can’t understand how to use them.”

Thou Small (or Shall Not) Steel

When it comes to style trends, what’s hot ranges from warm, stylish colors to sleek and sexy stainless steel to integrated appliances that blend in with the cabinetry.

Stainless steel has long been a mainstay, and Farley believes, “It remains the most popular finish because it’s sleek, sexy and makes a bold statement.”

But Michael thinks stainless steel’s time may be over. He notes: “Now more than ever, the kitchen is the heart of the home, and kitchen designs are reflecting warmth and comfort. The cold surface of stainless steel does not reflect that warmth. Soft pastel colors are trending.”

“We are definitely getting more feedback from consumers that stainless steel is near the end of its run; people are moving on from its sterility and coldness,” agrees Dowling.

But Elkin disagrees: “Stainless steel is an enduring style that offers clean design attributes and modern geometry for professional-grade appliances, and it’s suitable for any kitchen style – whether country, contemporary, modern or European chic.”

“If anything, we have heard from some designers that they would love to hide the appliances or cooking equipment more so they don’t stand out,” says Leuthe. However, he notes that Sub-Zero does not advocate hiding ovens behind doors due to legal mandates that require cooking equipment to be visible to give consumers a cue that they are on or off.

Dowling sees color and design trends as largely a matter of personal taste. “Whether it’s antique or retro styling, or bright bold colors, consumers buy appliances to make a statement about their personal style,” he says.

Companies such as La Cornue are using this “trend” to their advantage. “Because each La Cornue range is custom-built, customers are able to choose their range and trim color,” says Puricelli. She adds that polished brass is making a comeback.

Elmira’s customers are opting for more subtle cabinets and flooring, and then splashing color into the room with appliances in red, yellow, light blue, pink or mint green, according to Dowling. “We also get orders for more subdued colors like white, but the brighter colors dominate our order book.”

Color is becoming more popular, but Joseph warns designers to tread carefully if resale value is an issue.

Perhaps Joseph puts it best when he says, “With many homeowners choosing to upgrade their current homes instead of selling and buying new, the trend is really about meeting the tastes and needs of the majority of consumers by offering as many options as possible.”

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