The smallest of these have one burner and are usually electric. Single burner units can be a great choice for smaller kitchens where an extra burner is needed to keep a pot warm or to sauté an extra filet or two during the dinner rush. They're also useful in buffet lines to keep soup, gravy, or even fondue warm for customers. If you need more capacity, two-, four-, six-, and eight-burner configurations are available. These are mainstays in kitchens that prepare a good portion of their menu on the stovetop.
Choosing a Heat Source
Both gas and electric models are available. Gas is more affordable than electricity in some parts of the country, so operation can be cheaper. Chefs are usually more familiar with gas cooking, so there will be no confusion switching among equipment. Gas is also more powerful and heats quickly, so it's ideal for busy kitchens that will use it often or will heat very large quantities at once.
The main advantage of an electric commercial hot plate is mobility. One can be unplugged and relocated or stored away much more easily than gas equipment, which requires its own gas line and careful installation. If you're purchasing one for occasional use, an electric unit is a practical choice. In addition, electricity tends to produce less ambient heat, so it can keep your kitchen cooler than gas models. Electricity is also the way to go when gas is not available or is more expensive.
Two Types of Electric Burner Options
Coil burners, also known as spiral elements, use a heating element like those found on many residential ranges. These are the least expensive of the electric types, but they're also the least durable and can be difficult to keep clean. Food can stick to the intricate coil surface and fall into the well beneath the element. Consider a coil burner if you plan on using it occasionally and for lighter applications like warming smaller saucepans.
Solid Plate Burners
Solid burners are a more rugged alternative to the electric coil burner. Sometimes called “French style”, the surfaces of these are completely flat or with raised circles. These are easier to clean than a coil burner because they're sealed from spills and leaks, and can be wiped down with a wet cloth. The surfaces on these are made with cast iron or glass-ceramic. Cast iron offers great heat retention, meaning that once it's preheated, it will stay closer to the desired temperatures as you add cold cookware to it. It's also very rugged, meaning it should stand up for years, even in kitchens where the burner is used often.
Glass-ceramic is smooth and easy to clean, though spills can become burnt to the cooking area and take some scrubbing. These units also heat up quickly, but these tend to be the most expensive type of equipment in this category.
Gas Burner Options
The cooking grates on these will either be stainless steel or cast iron. Stainless steel tends to be somewhat lighter and easier to clean. Cast iron grates are a little more rugged, but they have a rougher surface, so cleaning them is a little bit more difficult. The main advantage is that cast iron retains heat very well, so they'll stay hotter when you add cool pots. These can be useful if you need to heat a lot of different pots in a short amount of time.
Cast iron grates require a few extra maintenance steps to keep them strong. Be sure to clean them regularly and dry them thoroughly after you do so. This will prevent rust from forming. It's also a good idea to rub them with a coat of oil after you clean them to further protect them from corrosion. Consult the manufacturer's recommendations for guidance on cleaning.
BTU stands for British thermal unit, and is a common way to measure the heat output of a gas-burning appliance. KaTom has these with outputs from 17,000 to 33,000 BTUs per burner. A gas range in a commercial setting tends to have between 30,000 and 35,000 BTUs per burner. So, if you're looking to do the same on your equipment that you do with a regular range - bringing food to a full boil or sauteing, for example – then get a burner with BTUs at least 30,000. If all you need to do is keep a pot warm, then a lower-power option will be a good choice.