Which is the right cast iron cooker for me?
I think it is best best Aga ever made is the Dual Control and I had one for 7 years. Sadly, it has now been withdrawn from sale and superceded by the latest models.
The new Agas, issued in 2019 and 2020, are different to any of the traditional Agas. The closest to a Dual Control is the R7, the closest to the Total Control is the ER7.
Before you commit to buying one of the newest, computerised and controllable Agas, please have a very serious look at the Esse electric range cooker. It is brilliant, the element goes all round the oven (so that it cooks like a traditional cast iron oven). It has a dome lid over the induction hotplate. It is British, hand built to order in Lancashire. It is a lot cheaper, too.
I think I am slightly in love with the Esse, and have changed my cooker from an Aga to an Esse.
You might also have a look at an Everhot, the Thornhill Ecorange and Heritage while you are at it!
If you want a traditional heat storage Aga, buy a reconditioned one, made and built in Shropshire in the days when Aga were truly British.
Why did I change to an Esse electric range?
Think about the amazing positives of Aga cooking: that wonderful all-round, indirect radiant heat that seals in the flavour as soon as things go into the oven. The ease of cooking pastry straight on the floor of the oven with no need to bake blind. Cooking pizza straight on the floor of the oven. Breaking an egg onto a piece of bake o glide on the simmering plate for the perfect fried egg, no pan and no washing up. Steaming rice in the oven. Steaming vegetables in the oven. Long slow casseroles that you chuck in at breakfast time and they are ready to eat after work. Frying on the floor of the oven so there is no greasy steam in the air. Think of the lovely warm kitchen all year round, instant heat, ready to cook at any time of night or day.
The Esse does all of this.
The dual control Aga (which I had from its launch in 2013 until 2020) - has been re-engineered and called the R7 I believe - has its ovens on all the time and the hotplates when required. I am now used to turning on the hotplates when I need to use them and turning them off again after 20 years with a traditional on all the time oil fired Aga. The boiling plate takes up to 5 minutes to get up to heat, or 8 minutes if the ovens are switched off. The Esse has an instant heat induction plate and a cast iron hot plate, both of which can be set to any temperature, offering the best of all worlds!
Think about some of the worries about cooking on an Aga: you have to think ahead and manage its heat – for example you have to cook Yorkshire puddings before anything else that day, when the Aga is at its hottest and only then will the Yorkshires will rise well. Tip them onto a cooling rack and reheat just before serving. Works brilliantly, but if you don’t know how to do that, they are often a disaster! In a 2 oven Aga there are definite techniques to baking in the really hot roasting oven – again, if you know what to do, it’s easy, but many beginners have a lot of trouble.
If you cook a lot on the top of a traditional Aga, the heat dissipates through the hotplates and the ovens lose temperature. Cooking the vegetables in the oven solves this, as long as you know what to do.
Over many years of demonstrating traditional and controllable Agas, I have made the heat management the core of the presentation – once people know what to do, it’s easy, but if you don’t know how to cope, it can be a nightmare.
One of the most frequently asked questions is about grilling – where is it and how do you grill? The roof of the roasting oven of an Aga is nearly as hot as the hotplate, so that is the grill, but some ovens run slightly cooler and the grill effect never quite works. The Esse has a full width grill element.
The Total Control and 60 Agas (now called the ER 'series' I believe) have electric elements embedded in the floor and roof of the ovens, which mean that you can't cook a lot on the floor of the oven as it is too hot and scorches the base of pastry etc. The Esse has an element all around the inside of the oven, which gives the same even heat as a traditional Aga, DC or R7.
My new Esse comes has a full width grill at the top of the top oven, so it will brown the tops of things properly when it is turned on. The Esse ovens are designed to be on all the time, at an economical 150C and they reach full heat in 20 minutes. Both of the Esse's main ovens can be set to any temperature you like, for example two roasting ovens on a busy Sunday or Christmas, or two baking ovens on batch baking days. There is a third oven that simmers – it doesn’t need to get turned on as it uses residual heat from the other ovens.
There is a single cast iron hotplate, just like an Aga, but the difference is that it can be set to any temperature, from a fast boil to a gentle simmer. Toast and fried eggs, no problem. The other hotplate is induction, so it as as close to instant heat as you can get. That is where I boil my kettle!
There is a tiny sliver of cast iron that you move back and forwards over a vent hole at the centre of the back of the top. Open the vent and the steam rises and roast potatoes crisp up. Close the vent and the moisture stays in the oven for lovely moist cakes. So simple and so effective!
Esse is made in Lancashire by a family owned, British company. All the cast iron is made in the UK. Esse have one full time engineer who repairs the cookers, because they only need one man to cover the entire country. Their customer service department is called Helen. They do not need servicing. A top of the range electric Esse costs about £10,000 with a choice of 6 colours.
Aga is owned by a faceless American corporation and most of the cast iron is now made in Hungary and Spain. Aga make many more cookers than Esse, and recently made over 50 engineers redundant, so that they have all set up as independents. Aga cookers need regular servicing, oil twice a year, gas and 30amp electric once a year, the new generation electric every two and a half years. Average cost of a service £150. Latest models do not need servicing, I believe. The Aga customer service department had 20 desks last time I visited it. A top of the range 3 oven Aga costs more than £14,500 with a choice of 14 colours.
I considered Everhot, but their ovens are stainless steel and it just isn’t the same. They do, however, have a larger choice of colours! There are other range cookers on the market, Rayburn and Stanley made by Aga, plus Thornhill Ecorange, Heritage, and more.
I have chosen Esse and they have chosen me! Cooking is fun again in this house.
PS. Here is a brief comparison chart, with details from manufacturers' websites for Esse, ElectricKit and eControl conversions.