What a Lovely Way to Burn
So how do you decide what size burner you need for the job? My advice is to first consider the cooking vessel. Sometimes when I make myself over-easy eggs, I pull out the smallest saucepan with the shortest sides I have and do it straight in there. I could use a saute pan, but I like to work with smaller items and we don't have a tiny saute pan that would work for two eggs. If you're going to be leaving whatever is cooking in the vessel for an extended period of time, I suggest using a straight-sided pot/pan which can help control boil-overs. If it's a quick cooking method and you need to get the food out easily, use a sloped-sided pan which can help food slide out effortlessly. Once you have the size of your pot settled, then you can move on to the burner. Prior to lighting the burner or heating up the element, place the pan/pot on top of the burner. Does it sit securely on top? Is there any wobble? Always make sure that once your pan/pot is in place it's going to stay there. If you're not sure that the pan will stay put once it hits the heat, its time to consider moving it to a different burner or maybe getting a different vessel where more security is ensured. This is heat we're working with, after all, and burns (even minor ones) are no fun. If the bottom of your pot is warped (which can happen when placed in the dishwasher multiple times), then what the heck is it doing in your kitchen? Get my drift?
Once you have the size of the pan/pot and burner/element matched, now is the time to heat things up. If you're working from a recipe, read the directions. Most recipes will tell you how high the heat should be. Place the pan/pot on the burner and turn the heat up to the highest recommended level in the recipe. If you have a gas stove, check to see that the flames aren't curving up and around the vessel. You want the flame to be below the pot, so if they're sneaking up the sides, get a bigger pan. This may seem like nit-picking, but trust me, it's a lot easier to do it now when you don't have to figure out what to do with the hot food in the pan once you've started cooking (much less the hot pan itself).
After your final step has been tested and everything checks out, now you can come full circle and put your ingredients closest to the burner you'll be working on. Those of us who are left-handed may find it easier to work on the left side of the stove, right-handed would be the opposite. Our stove top is very nice. We have a large burner in back on the left, small burner in front on the left, small in the middle, and a small in the back right and a large in the front right. This makes choosing a burner for the right task very easy.
If you're looking for more information on choosing the right stove top for you and your family, or if you want to know more about how different power levels yield different results, visit CNet Reviews': Stove and Range Buying Guide. They have a lot of information on all types of stove tops that will help you impress the in-laws, your boss, or just make a special dinner for your family. Or, if you're like me and don't particularly enjoy cooking for a crowd, you'll find something just for yourself too.
To love, to food, l'chaim!