Our cabinetry is set to arrive today, and installation is scheduled for tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, in a few days, we'll be moving forward with countertop fabrication. In the course of designing our kitchen, our choice for countertop materials was complicated. Since we use our kitchen so often, picking a durable, practical material was important, but so was aesthetics. Besides, this is the center of our home.
Inspired by apothecary shops and old-school laboratories, we initially wanted materials like white marble and soap stone. Both can withstand the heat of a hot pot (though suppliers recommend trivets and cutting boards to further protect the countertop materials), and properly finished, they also provide a cool, smooth surface for rolling dough or tempering chocolate.
The dark gray soapstone would make for a sober, utilitarian look, providing an attractive contrast to the soft wood tones of our cabinetry. The creamy marble would impart natural warmth and texture since the luminous surface can reflect light, allowing our kitchen space, hemmed in by cabinetry, to feel brighter and more open. So what did we pick? Marble and soapstone each had pros and cons, plus there was granite, stainless steel, and an "engineered stone" called CaesarStone to explore.
Marble is notoriously soft. Even with regular sealing and fastidious cleaning—as in every two months—it's difficult to keep white marble countertops looking fresh. Over the long haul, the scratches, stains, and general wear-and-tear coalesce into the classic, worn beauty found in the counters and tabletops of Old World druggists, pastry shops, and cafes. But it takes years to amass such character.
In the meantime, imperfections don't appear so graceful and charming, especially when juxtaposed with cabinetry and flooring likely to age at a different rate, looking newer and more pristine than the marble.
Soapstone is harder than marble but more brittle; less likely to scratch and wear down but prone to chipping, particularly around the edges. Regular oiling is necessary to keep it from looking mottled and stained. Though my husband and I really liked the look of the soapstone, we were also a bit concerned about having so much of a dark surface in our small kitchen, sucking up precious light.
Nonetheless, we also considered dark gray and black versions of some of the paper-based composite materials on the market, including Slate Scape, Paper Stone, Richlite and Squak Mountain Stone, many of which are used as more affordable, durable alternatives to soapstone. These products are composed of recycled paper fiber bound by proprietary resins or cements, yielding materials that are eco-friendly (to varying degrees), durable, non-absorbent and therefore stain resistant (especially darker colored versions), easy to cut and finish and bear a convincing likeness to natural stone. Such benefits aside, the light-sapping darkness of these materials ultimately urged us to keep looking.
For several years, we’d lived with wooden butcher block countertop. Inexpensive and easy enough to work with, we cut and installed it ourselves, and over time, it brought pleasant warmth to our previous kitchen. It was, however, undeniably high-maintenance.
It stained easily, mildewed around the sink (despite our best efforts to keep it well-oiled and dry), and was generally too porous to work on directly, unless you wanted a tedious clean-up. Less than ideal functionally, wooden countertops were even less appealing aesthetically. Coupled with the two shades of oak on our cabinetry, they would surely lead to arboreal overkill.
We admired granite for its functionality, low-maintenance, and resistance to stains, chips, scratches, and heat, but aesthetically, it never held much interest. With its variegated appearance, we’ve always found it visually noisy and distracting. It was never a serious contender for our countertops.
Stainless steel, on the other hand, was. The countertop of choice for most professional kitchens, it's relatively inexpensive, smooth, and easy to work on. Resistant to stains, rust, mildew, and heat, it's generally a cinch to maintain. But, in our small home kitchen, we feared that all-stainless countertops, coupled with our stainless appliances, might seem cold, glaring, and too institutional for our tastes.
We did, however, begin to consider stainless steel for a portion of the countertop— namely, the area around our sink. We admired the custom stainless steel countertop in our architect's home, which transitioned seamlessly into their stainless steel sink. Water and debris can be swept effortlessly from counter to sink; there are no joints or crevices for mold and goo to collect over time, and with a slightly raised lip around the perimeter, spills and slops are contained within the sink area.
This seemed like a functionally ideal solution for the countertop in our kitchen’s wet area (below our cabinet's dish rack, surrounding our sink, and above our dishwasher). This being tucked into the cubby-like area between the window and the fridge, it was also unlikely to overwhelm the space visually. On this much, we were sold.
CaesarStone, the 'Engineered Stone'
But what to do about the rest of our countertops? Marble still seemed the most promising option aesthetically, but it was a bit off the mark in terms of utility. Though we briefly considered and discounted a number of other options, including zinc (too unpredictable in its aging), concrete (too bulky and high-maintenance), and glass composites (too expensive and visually busy), CaesarStone was our final serious candidate.
The darling of every architect and kitchen showroom rep we encountered, this “engineered stone” is 93 percent quartz, making it even harder, more robust, and easier to care for than granite, which is generally composed of less than 50 percent quartz. Granite’s remaining components, the majority of which are feldspar and mica, are softer and less dense than quartz. As a manufactured stone material, CaesarsStone colors and textures are highly regulated and much more consistent than those of natural stones, which often possess structural and visual perfections. Unlike natural stone, it can also be made into larger or more irregular shapes without threatening structural integrity—this keeps visually distracting and debris-trapping seams to a minimum.
CaesarStone is also available in broader range of colors and styles—about 40 in all— from a very subtly textured, nearly solid white to heavily speckled and mottled facsimiles of limestone and granite in earthy shades, as well as brighter colors like lime green and red. We were particularly interested in the Misty Carrera, CaesarStone’s interpretation of the much beloved Carrara marble, the same stone that was used for Michelangelo’s David.
Upon close inspection of a small sample of Misty Carrera, it is certainly possible to ascertain that this isn't a true marble. Installed in a larger field, however, as we were able to see it in one showroom and in online images, the overall impression is about the same as that of the real deal, luminous and classic. CaesarStone is a bit more expensive than most marble, but we ultimately decided that it was worth it for a countertop that promises to be equally attractive and functional.
About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.