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Decoding BTUs: How Much Cooking Power Do You Really Need?

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Decoding BTUs: How Much Cooking Power Do You Really Need?

June 29, 2017

The last time I bought a new gas range was over a decade ago. I was lured (and somewhat intimidated) by the upper echelon of professional-style ranges with their 12,000 BTUs of cooking power. Fast forward to today, and those would be considered training wheels for the new generation of high-powered stoves with burners that boast upward of 25,000 BTUs of heat output. What do these higher BTUs really mean? Do home cooks benefit from more cooking power in the kitchen, or are we suffering from BTU creep? Read our BTU primer to find out.

A Viking Freestanding 48-Inch Range offers high-level cooking power in a Los Angeles kitchen by Commune Design. Since Viking was purchased by the Middleby Corporation (the largest food-service equipment manufacturer in the world), it has upped its BTUs and other professional cooking-like features. For more, see Steal This Look: An Exotic Tiled Kitchen by LA Design Firm Commune. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Above: A Viking Freestanding 48-Inch Range offers high-level cooking power in a Los Angeles kitchen by Commune Design. Since Viking was purchased by the Middleby Corporation (the largest food-service equipment manufacturer in the world), it has upped its BTUs and other professional cooking-like features. For more, see Steal This Look: An Exotic Tiled Kitchen by LA Design Firm Commune. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

What is a BTU?

A BTU (British thermal unit) is a measure of heat output and applies to the power generated by gas stovetops and ovens. Technically speaking, one BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The capacity of gas burners is measured in BTU per hour. Pro-style ranges for the home typically offer high-output burners varying from 15,000 to 25,000 BTUs.

The open burners of the Capital Culinarian Gas Range offer a 23,000 BTU output with a low-level setting that provides a 145 degree simmer. Photograph via Capital Cooking.
Above: The open burners of the Capital Culinarian Gas Range offer a 23,000 BTU output with a low-level setting that provides a 145 degree simmer. Photograph via Capital Cooking.

When it comes to stoves, are more BTUs better?

The higher the BTU capacity of a gas burner, the hotter the burner can get; the hotter the burner, typically the faster the cooking times. But while BTU measures heat production, it doesn’t necessarily translate into better cooking performance. Other factors come into play, such as efficiency of heat transfer. If your pan is not sized correctly for the burner, the high BTUs can heat the room more than the contents of the pan (an argument many make for the induction cooktop, but that’s a topic for another post). Some manufacturers tout burners that are specially designed to direct all heat upward for more efficient heating.

Stoves with high BTUs come with some trade-offs, including higher price tags, greater consumption of gas, higher ventilation requirements, and difficulty consistently generating low heat.

While there tends to be a focus on the high end of the burner power, a range’s ability to generate low heat is equally, if not more, important. Low-heat cooking and simmering can be problematic. Some ranges “cycle” heat for low-temperature cooking. This means that they alternate between low heat and turning off, but the clicking can be annoying and the heat is not continual. Manufacturers are addressing this issue and many have recently introduced low-BTU heat burners that offer more consistency.

Wolf Gas Ranges have dual-stacked sealed gas burners with two tiers of flames: One delivers high heat, the other comes on for low-heat settings. Julie likes “the super firepower and the fact that it’s easy to adjust the flame to a slow simmer” on her Wolf range. Read our recent Viking Vs. Wolf Range debate. Photograph via Sub-Zero Wolf.
Above: Wolf Gas Ranges have dual-stacked sealed gas burners with two tiers of flames: One delivers high heat, the other comes on for low-heat settings. Julie likes “the super firepower and the fact that it’s easy to adjust the flame to a slow simmer” on her Wolf range. Read our recent Viking Vs. Wolf Range debate. Photograph via Sub-Zero Wolf.

How many BTUs do I need?

A cooktop with high BTUs does not a professional chef make. Be realistic about your home cooking practices and needs. The super-high BTUs in professional kitchens are designed for high-speed and high-volume cooking, not typically the situation at home, even when entertaining. Yes, it might be nice to have one very powerful burner to get that water boiling quickly, but beyond that, flexibility is often more important. Look for ranges with a collection of burners with different levels of power and consider which you’re apt to use most.

Is there a sweet spot for burner strength for the home cook? The jury is out on that question. For most users, one power burner (12,000 BTUs or higher) is more than adequate—especially when paired with two medium-strength burners and one low burner for simmering. If you do a lot of cooking that requires quick high heat, such as stir-frying or searing, you may want to push the power up. The good news is that stove companies have heard the cry for better performance at lower heat, so getting an appliance that can do it all is easier than it used to be.

Bluestar Ranges and Cooktops feature wok-ready burners with up to 25,000 BTU searing power. By removing the top ring grate on the burner, the wok sits directly in the flame for maximum heat.
Above: Bluestar Ranges and Cooktops feature wok-ready burners with up to 25,000 BTU searing power. By removing the top ring grate on the burner, the wok sits directly in the flame for maximum heat.

I have a tattered copy of a 2001 New York Times article about professional-style ranges tucked in my kitchen remodeling folder. In it, New York chef Marcus Samuelsson offers his take on powerful ranges for the home user (in this case, himself). Despite the passage of time and the increase in BTUs offered on ranges, his comments still seem on target: “Flexibility,” he says, “is most important in a range.” A variety of burners, one with high BTUs for fast stir-frying, and one with super-low BTUs (200 or 300) for simmering, offers the most flexibility for cooking. And Samuelsson points out, ”You can create a high-heat effect, like leaving the heat on with a cast-iron pan, but you can’t fabricate a low heat.”

A kitchen for two avid cooks by Elizabeth Roberts Design/Ensemble Architecture has a Bluestar range. (See more of the kitchen in Indoor/Outdoor Living, Brooklyn Style.) Bluestar’s designs are handmade in Redding, Pennsylvania, and offer the highest BTUs on the market (25,000). They have French tops, which feature variable heat zones for slow cooking, sautéing, and wok cooking. Photograph by Dustin Aksland.
Above: A kitchen for two avid cooks by Elizabeth Roberts Design/Ensemble Architecture has a Bluestar range. (See more of the kitchen in Indoor/Outdoor Living, Brooklyn Style.) Bluestar’s designs are handmade in Redding, Pennsylvania, and offer the highest BTUs on the market (25,000). They have French tops, which feature variable heat zones for slow cooking, sautéing, and wok cooking. Photograph by Dustin Aksland.

What about ventilation?

When shopping for a new range or cooktop, don’t ignore ventilation or you might be in for an unanticipated purchase. The bottom line: Higher BTU heat output requires higher power ventilation. How do you know if your current fan is up to the task? As reported in the New York Times primer, Your Stove Just Needs to Vent, “the rule of thumb for gas stoves is that the range hood needs to remove 100 cubic feet per minute for every 10,000 BTUs of burner output.” This means a gas stove with 50,000 BTUs of total burner output requires a range hood that can accommodate 500 cubic feet per minute. And, adds the Times, “Err toward a stronger vent if you frequently do Asian-style or stir-fry cooking.”

Gardenista’s Michelle spec’d a Wolf range in her Mill Valley kitchen redo. Photograph by Liesa Johannssen for Remodelista.
Above: Gardenista’s Michelle spec’d a Wolf range in her Mill Valley kitchen redo. Photograph by Liesa Johannssen for Remodelista.

When buying a gas stove, besides BTUs, what other factors should I consider?

Beyond burner power, there are a range of details and options that come down to personal preference. These include burner configuration, specialty burners (such as a grill or griddle pan), oven size and fuel source, self-cleaning features, auto reignition, range finish, positioning of controls, warranties, and size.

For more guidance and product options, see our features:

When will the BTU arms race subside? Or will it? Julie thinks that kitchen appliances may move from the professional style to a more organic look. We do like the Amica Zen Oven, shown here, which mixes state-of-the-art technology with a stripped-down design. And see our post on the Ethical Kitchen Project, which questions the size of modern-day kitchens.
Above: When will the BTU arms race subside? Or will it? Julie thinks that kitchen appliances may move from the professional style to a more organic look. We do like the Amica Zen Oven, shown here, which mixes state-of-the-art technology with a stripped-down design. And see our post on the Ethical Kitchen Project, which questions the size of modern-day kitchens.

N.B. This post is an update; the original story ran on March 26, 2015.

Looking to upgrade in the kitchen or elsewhere? See our Remodeling 101 posts:

Finally, get more ideas on how to evaluate and choose your kitchen range or oven in our Remodeling 101 Guide: Kitchen Ranges & Ovens.

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