Of all the restaurant kitchen equipment and appliances that I miss working with on a daily basis, a French top range is high on my list, especially when I'm cooking a number of things at once on my stovetop. A French top has a large flat surface made of cast iron or rolled steel, with a couple of rings positioned in the center. Underneath those central rings is a high-powered gas burner that heats the cooking surface in a radiant fashion; as we already know, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat, so the cooking surface is hottest at the center, and as you move away from the rings it becomes less intense.
The graduated heat of a French top allows you to sauté, simmer, and warm food all at the same time, without having to fiddle with the knobs of your burners. Simply slide your pots and pans around on the flat-top to find the perfect area for cooking, like Sohla's famous duck zone. The large flat surface of a French top also allows you to fit a lot more cookware on the range than you can on regular home ranges—no matter whether you are working with gas, electric, or induction—which generally only allow you to fit four to six vessels over the heating elements on the stovetop.
You may be thinking, "Great, thanks. That's super useful information for when I stumble upon an extra ten grand to buy a fancy stove." But I'm not here to give you a home-improvement sales pitch; rather, I'd like to share a little trick for MacGyver-ing a bootleg French top on a regular stove. As with my chimney starter grilling set-up and foil-lined brick rig for better skewers, I'm always looking for cooking workarounds that use equipment I already have. This time, I'm using a Baking Steel (or cast iron griddle) to make a jury-rigged French top.
The Baking Steel is already one of our favorite pieces of equipment for pizza-making at home, and doubles as a high-performance stovetop griddle. With its thick, heavy-gauge steel construction and high volumetric heat capacity, the Baking Steel always reminded me of a French top cooking surface, so I started experimenting with it as a flat-top in the test kitchen.
I'm happy to report it works like a dream—perfect for keeping food simmering or warm in a number of saucepans and pots, while also getting hot enough to sauté, reduce, and sear at high heat in a skillet. If you find that your stovetop often turns into a frustrating game of saucepan Tetris when cooking and re-heating food for a holiday meal, then I highly recommend busting out a cast iron griddle or Baking Steel if you have one. (Do note, though, that many stovetop griddles have a raised rim that will limit how many pans you can fit; the entirely flat surface of the Baking Steel griddle allows pans to come right up to the edge while sitting flat.)
As you probably have experienced, simmering, re-heating, and holding food at a consistent temperature is very difficult to do on your stovetop (it's one of the primary advantages of sous vide cooking). You end up having to constantly adjust the heat on your burners. And then there's the issue of space. At home, I have a small four-burner gas range that emits pretty weak flames all-around. With that setup, I can only fit four cooking vessels at a time, and even then, I have to maneuver them so that they all can fit at once—two large pots or skillets can't be on adjacent front and back burners. It's a cooking Rubik's cube.
But when I pop a Baking Steel griddle over two of the burners on my stove, I open up a lot more space for cooking and heating food. I can adjust how I heat the Baking Steel, and which burners I use, depending on the kitchen tasks I need to get done. This is especially helpful when cooking large meals for holidays like Thanksgiving.
If I want to cook a few things at a simmer, like sides of braised kale and purple cabbage, along with a batch of cranberry sauce and gravy, I heat the burners under the Baking Steel to medium and fit all the pots and saucepans on the same heated surface. This also reduces the risk of scorching the food that's being cooked, as the heat is more evenly distributed through the Baking Steel than it would be with a pan sitting directly over a burner flame. You therefore don't have to babysit at the stove as much, and you can focus on other kitchen prep.
If I need different heat levels on different parts of the cooking surface, I can do that too. Let's say that I have just one dish that starts with sweating shallots in oil over higher heat. To do that, I bring that pan to the front area of the Baking Steel, and crank up the heat of the burner directly under it. While that's happening the back burner can be set to a lower heat for simmering, or turned off completely to let the heat gently radiate through the Baking Steel from the front burner, mimicking the graduated heat on a French top.
The flat-top cooking surface that you create with the stovetop griddle makes it easier to get the even heat of the "duck zone," and provides a smoother surface for swirling a pan when you're finishing and tossing pasta, or building a butter emulsion for glazed carrots (it's also easier on the ears, since the sound of a skillet dragged over the grate of a gas burner can be like nails on a chalkboard).
Along with giving you a larger cooking surface, a Baking Steel makes for a great warming station for those big holiday meals. Getting all the food you made hot again is always a headache. The oven is inevitably tied up, and you don't want to be constantly zapping things in the microwave or transferring everything to and from plastic bags to reheat with an immersion circulator. The Baking Steel stovetop setup allows you to heat up and hold a lot of food in a number of different pans all at once, while keeping it in sight and therefore front-of-mind (how many times have you forgotten something being reheated in an oven?).
Because the Baking Steel and other griddles aren't large enough to cover all four burners on even my small range, you still have a couple free ones to use if there are more projects that you need to get done on the stove. With this DIY French top, you can fit a lot more cookware on your range and get a lot more done. Dream kitchens are great and all, but we can all enjoy the benefits of getting creative with the equipment we have.
Editor's note: This article was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not endorse large indoor gatherings, but also believe this tip to be useful for scaled down meals that nonetheless tackle many stovetop dishes simultaneously—such as our banchan Thanksgiving menu.