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I live in a rented apartment, and I'm having an issue with the stove.

The stove is one of those electric flat top stoves.

What seems to be happening is that at least one of the elements, when switched on, switches between being fully on, or being completely off. Even when on minimum temperature, it the element will turn on to what looks like 100% power, and then switch off to cool down.

This has caused at least a couple of dishes to be burned.

My questions are:

  1. Is this how flat top stoves are meant to work, or is this a fault?

  2. How can I conclusively test that the stove element is working/not working correctly, so I can tell the landlord to fix it, (and which elements to fix).

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This is, indeed, how electric stoves (flat top, coil top, or otherwise) work. It's also how most microwaves work, incidentally. The heating elements have two states: on or off. If you set a burner to an intermediate setting, the way it achieves that intermediate temperature is by turning on for a particular amount of time, then turning off for a particular amount of time.

Note that the burner doesn't actually cool down all that quickly just because it momentarily doesn't appear red. This is why it's so easy to burn things on an electric cooktop if you're not used to it: burners stay hot enough to cook food for quite a long time after being turned off. If you're done cooking something, you need to physically move it off the stove, or at least off of any burner that has been turned on in the last, oh, half an hour, otherwise you will continue cooking it, thus potentially burning it.

To test whether a burner is working, turn it to the highest heat and check that it stays on more or less constantly. Note that depending on your stove, you might have to put a pot on the burner for it to turn on at all. And if your stove comes equipped with a "boil-over" sensor, all bets are off: the burner may not stay on constantly no matter what you do. In any case, the failure state of most stoves is "stops working at all", not some sort of "works when it feels like it", so if you can get your stove to produce heat, chances are it's working as correctly as it's capable of.

  • I agree, this is normal behavior unfortunately. It's one of the reasons I prefer to cook with gas, but that's not much of a help to you. My advice would be to cook with heavier bottomed pans as more mass will help to even out the spikes in heat. – GdD Apr 6 '16 at 8:03
  • Many flat-top stoves have a boil-over-protection bug, er, I mean feature, whereby they will NOT stay "on more or less constantly" unless you happen to own a REALLY FLAT pot or pan. The suggested test doesn't work. (I don't really know what would, though.) – JPmiaou Apr 6 '16 at 21:31
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A simple and straightforward test would be to put a measured amount of water (e.g.: 4 cups) in a pot and place it on a burner turned to the highest setting. While being careful not to watch, time how long it takes to reach a full boil.

Repeat the process on the other burners, making sure that you use the same amount of water, in the same pan, and starting at the same initial temperature each time. If the burners are all the same size, it should take approximately the same length of time for each to reach a boil.

Of course, if the burners are of differing sizes there'll be a variance, with larger burners working faster. Otherwise, the times should be consistent. If there's a marked difference however, you've pretty much proven the burner(s) aren't working properly.

Note that if instead of conventional resistance heating elements, you have an induction range, there could be other issues at play. Make sure your pans are compatible with induction elements. Otherwise, the control system could be detecting a problem and causing a shutdown.

  • I've never met an electric cooktop with two burners the same size. – Marti Apr 6 '16 at 5:05
  • @Marti In the US it's fairly common to have two large and two small burners. – Cascabel Apr 6 '16 at 5:15
  • @Jefromi: I'm in the US. All flat-top electric stoves I've met have had one large burner with two size settings, one slightly smaller burner with two size settings, one small burner, and one even smaller burner. The two small burners can look very similar in size, but if you read the specs, they'll be pretty different BTU's. – Marti Apr 6 '16 at 5:20
  • Definitely true for newer/nicer flat-top ones. But the non-flat-top ones pretty much all had the two large two small design, and the earlier and cheaper flat-top ones copied that as far as I can tell; I've seen plenty like that. – Cascabel Apr 6 '16 at 5:28
  • @Marti: yes, you have. Mine. – JPmiaou Apr 6 '16 at 21:31
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As others have said, it sounds like your stove top is behaving normally.

I am guessing that you have very thin aluminum pans. This allows the pan to reach the full heat temperature during the stove top's heating cycle and this will burn your food. Am I correct about that?

If so, I recommend you buy some sturdier cooking ware. You don't have to buy very expensive stuff, just some stuff that has more bulk to it on the bottom so the heat doesn't transfer instantly through it. You want your cookware to store some of the heat and release it evenly to your food. If you have the money, a decent starter set is that pioneer woman $119 starter set that includes some non-stick aluminum skillet, a cast iron skillet, small stock pot and sauce pans.

If you can only afford one pan at a time, get a skillet like calephon or similar make of pan. This will help your cooking out tremendously.

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