You know that big box in your kitchen? Yeah, the one you use to cook food. What do you call that thing? Chances are, it’s either an “oven,” a “stove,” or a “range.” But why can’t everyone agree on a single name? What’s the source of this confusion?
Much of it probably has to do with upbringing and tradition, but there are other factors at play. As home cooking has evolved, the terms we use to describe our cooking appliances have also changed, and the appliances themselves have diversified.
But when you boil it down, there are real, definable differences between these three terms. So let’s clear up this confusion once and for all.
Let’s get the simplest definition out of the way first: An oven is simply a box that’s used to heat or cook food. Or, to put a finer point on it, it’s the enclosed chamber where the heating happens.
An oven can be anything from a hole in the ground with a fire built over it, to a countertop toaster oven, to an industrial oven. What’s not an oven, you ask? Anything that’s outside the cooking chamber—you know, like gas, electric, or induction burners. There’s a different term for that!
Of course, that doesn’t stop some people from referring to the whole shebang as an oven. On the whole, “oven” is probably the most commonly used term to describe a kitchen cooking appliance, which is why it’s the one we use to describe the category.
Here’s where it gets more confusing. A “stove” is technically any enclosed space that uses fuel to provide heat. Sounds a lot like an oven, right?
Well, yes and no. There are many kinds of stoves that provide heat but don’t cook food (or only do so incidentally). Coal stoves, wood-burning stoves, and pellet stoves are all examples of this variety. In fact, you could look at ovens as a subset of stoves; all ovens are stoves, but not all stoves are ovens.
All ovens are stoves, but not all stoves are ovens.
But there’s another wrinkle: Stoves often include what’s called a stovetop. Wood-burning cookstoves use the radiant heat from the internal wood fire to heat a griddle. More modern stoves have gas or electric burners.
Stovetops can be separated from the stove and exist on their own. In this configuration, they’re properly called “cooktops.” Cooktops come in all kinds of varieties including portable (confusingly referred to as “camp stoves”), commercial, and residential. These surfaces can use gas or electric, the latter of which also includes magnetic induction. In the U.K., the cooktop or stovetop is called a “hob.”
At least one prominent dictionary includes the cooktop itself in the definition of “stove,” but there’s another term for that…
Remember those stoves with stovetops? Well, when that stovetop has its own fuel and is connected to an oven, you’ve got yourself a “range”. It’s an all-in-one cooking solution, and it’s by far the most commonly sold variety of cooking appliance in the U.S.
Chances are, this is what’s in your kitchen.
But while ovens are most often purchased as part of a range, there are exceptions. Wall ovens are a common feature in high-end kitchens, where they’re typically paired with separate, countertop-mounted cooktops. This configuration allows for greater flexibility in kitchen layout, though it typically requires more space.
So what should I call it?
If you have a cooking chamber without attached external burners, you should call it an oven. If you have a cooking surface with no oven, you should call it a cooktop (or hob). And if you have both in one device, you should call it a range—though you could certainly be forgiven for calling it a stove.
The good news is that while “range” is the most accurate term to describe the majority of cooking appliances found in American homes, at the end of the day people will probably know what you’re talking about, regardless of the term you use.
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