Whatever you call it, you can’t live without it … and we just got a new one. But, I had no idea it was going to be such a challenging purchase. Assuming you have a specific size and know you need it to be fueled by gas or electricity (or do you want duel-fuel), you then have to decide between a cooktop, built-in, free-standing, drop-in or slide-in range. Now, if you want an electric stove, do you want coil or induction? If its gas, how many btu’s do you need? How many burners? A standard 4 or maybe 6? Or how about a built-in griddle that doubles as two burners?
Then, of course, comes the design … do you want the controls in the front or the back? Or would you prefer a touch screen? What about baking … conventional or convection? How many oven compartments do you want? Do you want them to cook at the same or different temperatures? Do you want a broiler drawer, warming drawer or storage drawer? What about a temperature probe? And we haven’t even started to talk about finishes …
It was so confusing … but what I really wanted was a classic, cast-iron English AGA cooker. I’d be surprised if you’re not familiar with this icon of a cooker. For over 100 years, the AGA has commanded attention in most English kitchens, from the largest manor houses to the more modest cottages. Chefs including Marco Pierre White, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry wouldn’t think of cooking on anything else. Jamie Oliver said AGAs “make people better cooks”. Food writer, William Sitwell, said using one was a “much more natural way of cooking”, and actor Gerard Depardieu describes his AGA simply as “fabulous”.
Although the AGA has been a British icon for decades, it was invented and originally manufactured in Sweden. Its inventor was a Swedish physicist, Dr. Gustaf Dalén. Dalén was a brilliant, self-taught inventor who began his impressive career managing the family farm. His first invention was a machine to test the quality of milk. That invention alone caught the eye of others who encouraged him to get a formal education. Gustaf went on to earn a Masters and subsequently a Doctorate degree, earning a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1912.
Gustaf became employed by the Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator company in 1906 and within three years became Managing Director. Dalén worked exclusively with a highly flammable and sometimes explosive hydrocarbon gas. This hydrocarbon gas produced a bright white light perfect for illuminating lighthouses. This important safety device for the fishing and shipping industries led the way for similar products for lighthouses . . . the Dalén Light, the Sun Valve and then the Dalén Flasher, a device which created a small pilot light, reducing gas consumption by 90%. These inventions were a huge success and AGA lighthouses were mass- produced and sold all over the world.
Unfortunately, in 1912 during a test for one of these highly-flammable devices, an explosion occurred which caused Gustaf to lose his sight. This physical setback did not deter him, however. Over the course of his lifetime he had over 100 successful patented inventions . . . his most memorable was the AGA cooker.
Although there were many styles of British ranges being used, from wood to coal fired, they tended to be dirty, time consuming and, occasionally, dangerous. They had ovens to bake in and hot plates to simmer things on and they kept the kitchen toasty warm. For proper venting, the ranges needed to be installed into a fireplace opening. The biggest disadvantage was soot falling down the chimney into the food, and the amount of work it took to clean them. The range had to be cleaned every day, carefully removing the ashes and cinders, which were still combustible. The oven had to be swept out, and any grease which splattered needed to be scraped off. The flue needed to be cleaned constantly.
Gustaf’s wife, Elma, was in the kitchen cooking on a typical soot-producing, dirty and sometimes very dangerous coal-fired range. Realizing that this was not only dirty, dangerous and incredibly time consuming to use, Gustaf began conceiving a new style of cooker. He wanted one that was clean, easy-to-use, economical and not at all dangerous. Using the principle of heat storage, Dalén combined a heat source, two large hotplates and two ovens in one cast-iron cooker. In doing so, he invented a range that changed the lives of cooks not only in Great Britain but all over the world.
Originally manufactured in Sweden, the AGA cooker wasn’t introduced to England until 1929, but it didn’t reach its height of popularity until after World War II. During the war years, the British government used AGA cookers in feeding centers, hospitals and munitions factories, and the public fell in love with them. After that, the demand for these cookers skyrocketed and manufacturing moved from Sweden to England . . . where they are still made today.
Over the years, as with other ranges, much has changed. Today, depending upon the model, this massive beast of a cooker can have from two to six oven compartments, and from one to two hot plates on top (or the hob). It is available as gas-fueled or by electricity. You also have as many decisions to make as I’ve had to make in purchasing my new not-AGA range. But, whichever size, model, color, options, etc. you choose, you can be sure you’ve made a lifetime purchase.
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References: Wikipedia, Cosi, House Logic, Victorian Decorating, 1900s, AGAliving,