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The field test

(post, Caroline Cummins)

We've been living with our new kitchen for nearly two months now. Here's what what works well, what doesn't, and what surprised us.


h1.The kitchen-remodel saga


h3. Appliances

All of our new appliances are, frankly, over-designed. Too many buttons, too many options. Really, all anybody needs is a fridge that keeps things cold, a dishwasher that cleans dishes, a vent hood with decent lighting and effective venting, and a range that cooks.

But in order to get high performance in these basic categories, we ended up with appliances that do more than necessary. Are we ever going to program our fridge for "vacation mode"? Are we ever going to put our oven on the "kosher setting" so our food will cook slowly while we're enjoying the Sabbath? Not likely.

Mostly we forget how high-tech our appliances are, though, until the Beeping Chorus starts. First there are the many beeps of the range, letting us know the timer is done, the oven has preheated, and the like. Then there are the repeated beeps of the dishwasher, telling us the washing cycle is over and please, please come open the door! Finally, there is the beeping fridge, which starts to panic if the doors are left open too long (a dire situation that occurs only when trying to unload too many groceries at once). 

[%image reference-image float=right width=450 caption="The north wall of the kitchen, complete at last."]

And yes, all the beeps are set to the same preset beeping frequency, so when one goes off, we dash into the kitchen and have to guess which appliance is tweeting away. Probably somewhere deep in the manuals are the instructions for reprogramming each appliance with personal ringtones, but honestly, who has the time for that?

Overall, however, everything works just fine. The cons are minor; so far, they're mostly limited to the vent hood, which occasionally refuses to turn off because its heat sensor is overly sensitive, and on the other hand, occasionally fails to prevent the overly sensitive smoke alarm from going off.

The best aspect of the slide-in range, in my opinion, is its continuous grating: heavy cast-iron grates cover the entire surface of the stove, which makes sliding pots and pans around much easier. Both burners and oven seem to do their job just fine. I've tried comparing the convection setting with the conventional bake option, but I can't really tell a difference; the convection option doesn't seem to cook food faster or more evenly. Most frustrating? The far-too-many-options control panel, with not one but three on/off/cancel buttons. Confusing! 

The fridge, despite being a shallower-than-standard counter-depth model, does an excellent job of storing our food. I've been surprised at how well I can rearrange things and still get everything to fit. And the well-lit bottom-drawer freezer is vastly superior our old conventional top-door model; it's much easier, after all, to see what's in the freezer when it's not shoved to the back of a dark box. (My husband was disappointed that the fridge is not magnetic; to compensate, we bought a magnetic whiteboard and hung it on an adjoining wall. Now the board, not the fridge, is home to our grocery list and our children's artwork.)

[%image fridgestove float=left width=450 caption="The range and the fridge, in their new locations."]

The dishwasher is shockingly quiet; we've learned to look for the slightly creepy little red light it beams onto the floor when operating. (It's also a little smaller on the inside than our old Kenmore washer, presumably from all that extra insulation making it so blissfully quiet.) Best, though, is the fact that the dishwasher actually washes dishes pretty darn well. Our previous dishwasher required dishes to be thoroughly scrubbed before it would deign to wash them; the new one, while not perfect, is much more burly about doing the scrubbing for us.

Sneakiest bugaboo of the appliances? They seem to suck down more electricity than our previous ones; at any rate, our electricity bills have gone up since the remodel. Boo.

h3. Finishes

We love the engineered-stone countertops; they are beautiful and solid, and the pattern hides crumbs and stains really well. Plus, it's nice to be able to put a hot dish from a moderate oven (brownies, say) directly onto the counter. 

Our big, deep, stainless-steel sink is excellent. Our fancy faucet, on the other hand, has proved a bit of a challenge; I can't decide whether its design features are intelligent or merely frustrating. 

[%image stovecorner float=right width=350 caption="The new cooking area, in the southeast corner of the kitchen."]

The single handle requires just the merest tap to operate; this is good, in theory, but in practice, we often tap it too hard and spray water everywhere. The faucet is designed to swing back to the center of the sink, which looks pretty but is irritating when you want to push it out of the way and have it stay out of the way. And the pull-down sprayer at the end of the faucet only sprays so long as you squeeze it — a nice feature for spraying down the sink, but not so nice when, say, you want to fill a bowl of strawberries with the spray and don't want to stand there waiting for it to fill up.

Still, it's attractive and sturdy, and gets the job done.

The cabinets are the single biggest line item in a kitchen remodel for good reason: they get the most use. So we had a number of specific requests for the cabinets, including having as many plain drawers as possible for the lowers (to avoid having to open doors and then pull out drawers) and having flush-to-the-ceiling uppers (to avoid having to clean atop cabinets). We asked for two vertical lower cabinets for storing cutting boards and baking sheets, and a skinny cabinet space under the window is perfect for stashing Dutch ovens and baking dishes.

So far, everything works beautifully. The huge, deep drawers designed for pots and pans open and close smoothly. The tip-out drawer front just under the sink hides sponges and scrubbers. The roll-out drawer beneath the sink conceals the trash and detergents. Frankly, we have so much more cabinet space now than before that we don't use it all. Such luxury!

The two floating wooden shelves that we requested next to the stove do get used; they store such cooking basics as prep bowls, salt and pepper, garlic, and the like. They're within easy reach, but out of the way.

h3. Functional surprises

All of our travel and usage patterns are different now. The biggest change is the fact that our basement — rearranged as a temporary kitchen during the remodel — is still getting heavy use as a storage center for dry goods, cookbooks, and bulky kitchen gear. After all, why try to cram everything into the kitchen when it can stay within sight and easy reach on open shelves in the basement?

Within the kitchen itself, flipping the locations of the fridge and the stove altered our familiar triangular travel pattern between the fridge, stove, and sink. Our kitchen is an awkward size: too wide for a galley kitchen, too narrow for an island or peninsula. So, despite trying to arrange all of our gear in a logical fashion (frequently used cooking tools near the range, plastic kiddie stuff in lower drawers away from the range), we still log a lot of foot mileage.

[%image shelves float=right width=350 caption="The open shelving."]

Some things have permanently changed. We knocked out one of the doorways, widening that space; because it's a bigger portal, we carry everything to the dining table through that doorway now. Before we moved the stove, we cooked with one eye on a recipe-displaying laptop on the bookshelf in the living room. Now, there's no obvious (and out-of-splatter-range) location to prop open a cookbook, laptop, or iPad.

I had hoped to salvage our magnetic knife strip from our old kitchen and affix it to the inside of the vent hood, so we could slap our knives along the side of the hood — a nifty trick I learned from Kathleen Flinn's newest memoir, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School. But the magnetic strip was just an inch or two too long to fit, so we bought a knife block that fits into a drawer instead.

Flinn also talks about using dishtowels or paper towels underneath cutting boards, so that the boards don't slide around when you're cutting on them. I thought this was odd, until I started cooking in a kitchen with an engineered-stone countertop that looks and feels like a hunk of cold, smooth, stone. Cutting boards just don't slide around on laminate or butcher-block countertops, which were the only two kinds I'd had before. On a super-slick stone countertop, though, they do. So thanks, Kathleen, for that tip, too.

Getting a French-door model refrigerator was a new experience for us, and we didn't anticipate how we would use it. When we stand in front of the fridge with the doors open, the nearest counter space, it turns out, is behind us, next to the stove. Which is fine — except that we tend to grab something and reach behind to deposit it without looking, a habit that has resulted in at least one glass bottle shattering when it hits the edge of the very hard countertop.

h3. Next time around

What would we change about our kitchen if we could? On a daily basis, the only thing that really bugs us is that pesky faucet, and changing out a faucet isn't so hard if we feel like tackling it. 

The only item we didn't think through enough from the beginning was electrical locating. It would be nice, for example, to have a light switch just inside that newly widened doorway. And it would be better to move one of the existing light switches from its current location above the dishwasher (and therefore always behind the dish-drying rack) to another location on the backsplash. Minor, but like Adam Ried noted about his just-too-far-away disposal switch, annoying.

That's not bad, though, for an entire remodel. My one remaining wish? A self-cleaning kitchen.

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