Appliances

The Legendary Allure of Britain's AGA Stove

These stately iron appliances have captivated cooks for more than a century.

March 20, 2021
Photo by Mark Shaw

I had always assumed the origins of the AGA stove were uniquely British, but this stalwart appliance was actually created about a century ago by blind Swedish physicist Gustaf Dalén, a Nobel Laureate. It took Dalén and his company seven years of prototyping to develop the AGA, and it was purpose-built as a solution to his wife Elma’s frustration at having to constantly stoke their cookstove and closely watch over the food she prepared.

At first glance, the AGA, while not without its throwback charm, may look like a curious relic of a bygone era to the uninitiated eye—an intimidating enameled hunk of no-thank-you, salvaged from a locomotive museum. Or something passed on from an old house’s original tenants, left in place, too heavy to extract or dismantle. Certainly it’s not something one would intentionally purchase today, and have placed in their contemporary kitchen, right? Well, guess again. The desire and considerable expense put forth to own and install this venerable tool continues seemingly unabated to this day. Never mind that it also demands users recalibrate their preconceptions of everyday food preparation techniques.

As an American, I cannot adequately describe the passionate following of generations of British chefs who adore the AGA. One famous chef is Fergus Henderson, who uses an AGA in his London eatery St. John’s to turn out an array of delicious nose-to-tail dishes.

Due to its unique design, the AGA stays on all the time, and has no knobs or settings to speak of. It is insulated, and makes surprisingly efficient use of a single, internal heating unit that distributes consistent yet varied temperatures to its several cooking zones simultaneously.

The basic components of a traditional three-oven AGA are as follows: The top two silver-domed surfaces (that resemble a steampunk DJ setup) are in fact insulated, hinged covers that lift to expose raw iron “burners” for pots, kettles, and such. Depending on the side of choice, and proximity to the center, they can simmer, boil, braise, or char. It’s a common practice to use the palpable heat, even when the covers are closed, to dry kitchen towels or press cloth napkins.

Facing front are multiple compartment doors, with the upper left providing access to the burner unit, which in this case is gas-fed. The remaining three compartments are for baking, roasting, and simmering, in order of descending temperatures. The simmering oven compartment is a perfect spot for taking the chill off serving dishes before serving a meal. A clothes-drying rack—or even a chair with a damp shirt slung over the back—is another common companion to the AGA. The cast-iron construction radiates a gentle, welcoming warmth, especially vital in the cold and damp seasons.

In an attempt to convey the adaptation necessary to truly get on an AGA's wavelength, let’s say it's more like a musical instrument than any adjustable stove experience you’ve become familiar with. One needs to tune recipes to an AGA, and patiently practice with it in order to be rewarded with the kind of harmony that will make your recipes truly sing.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I’m not going to pretend it’s environmentally efficient but our 270 year old house cannot be left without some type of heating on all the time so it’s either the aga or other heating source. Our home heating is geothermal. On top of that it doubles as a clothes drier too. The majority of energy used for stoves is getting the appliance up to heat. Your oven uses a lot of energy every time you use it then you let that heat go. The aga is heavily insulated so the heat stays in especially if you cook in the ovens, not the tops. I bake bread everyday, cook three meals a day and especially in COVID I am either slow cooking or roasting something most days. If I tried to do that with conventional oven I’d be using just as much energy. All my food comes from local farms and I don’t get on planes, have children or eat fast food or drink bottled water. Chances are my carbon footprint not as bad as it first appears. ”
— William C.
Comment

When I asked her to detail why she covets the classic AGA cooker, renowned British food writer and Food52 contributor Elaine Lemm said, “For me, it’s the versatility. You learn to work with the AGA, get to know its sweet spots and its hot spots. You can leave your kettle simmering over there and you can pull that pot a bit closer and you’ll get a bit more simmer on it. It’s alive. When I was younger I perhaps didn’t have the time for it in the same way, but now it’s just lovely and very soulful, and brings a whole different feeling to the food."

When asked about the stove's learning curve, Lemm offered this anecdote:

"My very best friends had an AGA, and this one ran on solid fuel, so it had to be kept 'alive.' I went to house-sit for them one Christmas, and forgot to feed the AGA, which sent out this beautiful warmth all the time, whether you were cooking or not. And so in this watermill house they had, which was down in a valley I didn't realize was as damp as it was until I let the AGA go out, it took a week to get it going again. I was not very popular. They’d had this AGA alight for about 10 years, and I killed it in four days."

My first magical encounter with the enameled iron beast at the center of this story was while visiting a friend's country home in the Hudson Valley, in New York. The kitchen is the usual gathering place, with generous overhead lamps that illuminate a long central table made from lengths of the house’s original flooring. This home has truly old bones, dating from about 1750, but has been lovingly renovated to integrate all the conveniences of modernity you could desire. It strikes a charming balance between historic preservation and polished fit and finish.

Contemporary appliances, cabinetry, counters, and walls coexist with the house’s original stone slabs and ancient pine-plank flooring. A perfect, eye-comforting mix, and yet the undeniable draw of the room is their three-oven AGA. It’s built like a tank, and weighs roughly the same as a grand piano.

While visiting with the “parents” of this cream-colored beauty, I learned that their AGA is a beloved member of the family. I watched them make sourdough naan using only the top covered hot plates as makeshift tandoor ovens, and was excited to see multiple balls of dough at the ready.

After a quick rolling out, the dough went straight onto the right-hand cook surface, and the immediate aroma of fresh baked bread was intoxicating. After a brief bubbling under the covered right burner, my host deftly flipped the naan over to the left-hand burner with a spatula for a speedy char and final flip to crisp both sides. Watching his process was like witnessing a culinary magic trick, puff of steamy smoke and all, right before my eyes. This was no casual first attempt–his ease spoke volumes of the practice behind a maestro’s symbiotic mastery of his AGA. All happened in less than a minute, and the resulting flatbread was sprinkled with olive oil, cumin, and salt, then chopped into triangles.

As quickly as my host had made the naan appear, it disappeared into my hungry gullet. When an impromptu dinner invitation was offered, I gladly accepted the opportunity to sample more of my generous friend’s AGA creations. If you are lucky enough to know an AGA chef, I encourage you to embrace them dearly.

Have you ever cooked on an AGA stove? Would this appliance make it into your kitchen renovation? Let us know in the comments.


More Hot Stove Stories

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Graham Thornhill
    Graham Thornhill
  • Caroline Nothwanger
    Caroline Nothwanger
  • Christine Beveridge
    Christine Beveridge
  • sharveson
    sharveson
  • Marie Frank
    Marie Frank
Mark Shaw Studio

Written by: Mark Shaw Studio

Photographic art studio. Visual storytelling is my jam

30 Comments

Graham T. March 29, 2021
AGA is often used as a generic term and there are a few other manufacturers of heavy iron cookers. Some can run on environmentally friendly wood or pellets.
It's the weight of the cooker ovens that gives all round radiated heat that makes the cooking so good.
 
Caroline N. March 28, 2021
I learned how to cook on an AGA stove when I lived with my aunt in England in the mid-1970 in their 1754 farmhouse; it was a real workhorse and also heated the water--it had been converted to gas from coal and was on 24/7/365. Another aunt had a woodburning one that they used only in colder weather. Both of those were the smaller AGA as shown in the photo. When I went to culinary school, there was a big AGA, with 4 ovens and the warming plate at the side. It was an awesome beast to use as you could have 3 to 4 saucepans on each hotplate on top, with several different things in the ovens and plates warming in the lowest, and then already cooked things keeping warm on the warmer plate. My dream kitchen would contain one of these, in red or blue enamel (of course, I'd have to win the lottery first). I absolutely love them.
 
Christine B. March 28, 2021
I live in Australia, and we have many more options for the same type of stove, though the Aga was always recognised as being the best. I had a Wellstood, from Scotland, when I got married 45 years ago. It was fuelled by wood, which meant we had to cut, split, and cart wood supplies. It took constant attention to keep it stoked. There was also the cleaning of the ash pan, smoke stains on the walls and ceiling, and the occasional replacement of the fire bricks. Despite all that, I loved cooking on it. There was a main oven and a bottom oven for slow cooking or warming, or reviving a cold lamb, as mentioned above! You got to know the temperature regions of the hotplate, whether you wanted quick frying or simmering, or at the coolest part, making yoghurt. I used to make tortillas directly on the hotplate. We replaced it when we renovated the kitchen over 30 years ago, and while I don't miss the mess and keeping the wood up to it, I do miss what I could do with it. Oh, and it heated the hot water, too, which was good most of the year, not so good if you had a few hot days in a row in the summer and had to let it go out. We'd light it again when the water got cold! So all of you who have an electric or gas Aga, you have it easy! 😁
 
sharveson March 26, 2021
I am a happy electric TC-5 AGA owner since 2018. I love cooking on it but cannot seem to find a source in the USA for cookware with flat lids (for stacking in the ovens) or trays that fit on the runners. If anyone know where I can cookware and textiles in the US please reply!
 
Marie F. March 25, 2021
My neighbor purchased an electric AGA when she renovated her kitchen. She sold her original AGA ands had difficulties with two of the ovens. She wishes she would have kept her original oven/
 
Bob R. March 24, 2021
My first expend with an AGA was doing a charity dinner for twelve donors at a friend's house. It was an overly varied menu of twelve courses, one meant to impress the eaters with the cook's masochism more than anything else. The stove came to me rescue. I knew how the stove worked in theory, but until I started the prep, I hadn't used one before. The learning curve was very flat. There was enough room on the top burners to have at least two courses going at any one time, one starting as the other finished. I managed to pull the whole thing off without breaking the rhythm of the meal, thanks to my new friend AGA! The next year I dropped the menu to a more humane (for the cook) eight courses.
 
Maurine H. March 24, 2021
Was just wondering about these because I'm starting to see them everywhere—thanks for the lowdown!
 
Fiona March 22, 2021
I had an Aga for many years, it was blue, 3 ovens and I loved it. I loved it so much that I worked for Aga for a few years. Once you get to know it , it is a very versatile oven. Cooking rice or pasta in the oven - no problem and they both come out perfect! My grown up daughters still talk about it with nostalgia. The dogs loved it as much as I did. I moved to France and yes they are very popular here (there is a shop in Paris) but I live in the south and its just a bit too hot here for one. But if I ever move to cooler climates its the first thing i will buy. Thank you for the lovely article - it made me smile.
 
Claudia T. March 21, 2021
Thanks for the AGA explanation! I've never really understood how they worked. I recently moved to England and my landlady has an electric AGA? its the AGA look but ... not the AGA. This also answered a question that's been bugging me since I was a kid, honestly- how did people have tea so often if it took time for the water to boil? Like I would see in movies and TV they'll say "oh i'll just pop the kettle on" or someone will drop in unexpected and they'll be served tea within seconds of sitting down. before electric kettles, I figured they were just... waiting around for some awkward minutes as the water was brought up to boiling, then steeped. Now I realize they had hot water going all the time on the AGA and they just needed to bring it up to boiling!
 
Margaret M. March 20, 2021
My parents had an Aga when I was a child almost 80 years ago. When I got married we had an electric range but I was determined that one day we would have an Aga, so in 1967 I got one. On a farm it is an absolute blessing, not just for cooking and hot water, but to help resuscitate lambs etc. Bottom oven open and the poor frozen lambs gradually warmed! Clothes dried on cold miserable Scottish winter days, instant heat for making hot drinks and constant hot water and heated towel rail in the bathroom. Porridge cooked overnight in the cool oven, and delicious hot meals every day. Great memories now that I live in New Zealand.
 
Author Comment
Mark S. March 22, 2021
Warming live lambs in the oven? What an incredible use for the Aga! Thank you for sharing your lovely experiences here Margaret.
 
Jenny March 25, 2021
Absolutely...I have done the same with an electric range. Raised sheep and goats for over 30 years and saved quite a few that way.
 
Marie F. March 20, 2021
I think William C.'s response on the energy question is spot on. Yes, there has to be a base prepared for the weight of the AGA, but it is not a big deal at all. Our first one was cement, and then when we renovated our kitchen it was a wood base. The carpenter had no problem constructing it.
 
gideon B. March 20, 2021
being always on, how much more gas does it use compared to a regular stove? Have always wanted one, but as i understand it, flooring etc needs to be prepped to hold the aga's weight and thats a hassle not worth going through for an oven if it is aga
 
Graham T. March 29, 2021
Other makes of iron cookers can run off a time clock as they use convection as well as conduction to distribute the energy faster.
 
Marie F. March 20, 2021
Yes, it is always on. My gas bill is not high. As for the cleaning aspect, it is imperative that after cooking, one should clean the top, inside the domes, and the doors of the oven, or you will have hard to remove build-up if you let it go. I always clean everything once I am finished cooking.
 
AntoniaJames March 20, 2021
It's burning all the time? I'd be quite interested to know more about the environmental impact of this large always-on fossil-fuel burning appliance. ;o)
 
William C. March 20, 2021
I’m not going to pretend it’s environmentally efficient but our 270 year old house cannot be left without some type of heating on all the time so it’s either the aga or other heating source. Our home heating is geothermal. On top of that it doubles as a clothes drier too. The majority of energy used for stoves is getting the appliance up to heat. Your oven uses a lot of energy every time you use it then you let that heat go. The aga is heavily insulated so the heat stays in especially if you cook in the ovens, not the tops. I bake bread everyday, cook three meals a day and especially in COVID I am either slow cooking or roasting something most days. If I tried to do that with conventional oven I’d be using just as much energy. All my food comes from local farms and I don’t get on planes, have children or eat fast food or drink bottled water. Chances are my carbon footprint not as bad as it first appears.
 
Amber March 28, 2021
Some of the newer models aren’t always on. They seem to be popular in the U.S. In places with warm summers, some people also turn them off for the season.
 
Rory March 20, 2021
36 years ago I was thumbing through a British gardening magazine. I came across an advertisement for an AGA stove. Never having seen nor heard of one before, I was curious how this beast could possibly be used in the kitchen! We were about to redo our own kitchen, and somehow I managed to talk my husband into buying one. 36 years later it has been my favorite purchase. There is very little “learning curve “when transitioning from a conventional oven to an AGA, most food is cooked at either 450, 350, or 250 degrees. Because an AGA stays on 24/7, there is no need to wait while you preheat an oven - it’s always ready to cook! It’s not unusual for me to have 30 people for Christmas dinner, and “Agatha” (of course I had to name her) cooks everything effortlessly . She is a four oven AGA, and I frequently use the 150 oven to warm up the children’s clothing on a cold day! There really aren’t any moving parts, so there’s nothing to break and there are very few nooks and crannies, so keeping it clean is a breeze. Yep, “Agatha” is a beautiful hardworking beast !
 
Author Comment
Mark S. March 22, 2021
Hi Rory, Thanks for sharing this delightful story of your dear "Agatha".
 
Asaracoglu March 20, 2021
I have been using an AGA for 9 years. It's great for people who love to cook - you can cook and bake and roast a staggering amount of different things at the same time! I do have trouble keeping it clean though. It is always on, and any splatter just seems to bake onto the enamel instantly. If anyone has any tips for keeping the enamel and the stove lids' inside surface clean I would appreciate it. Other than that, it brings me joy every single day!
 
Rory March 20, 2021
I’m not sure my technique would be recommended by the manufacturer, but every time there is a splatter on the inside dome lids, I get after it with steel wool in a circular motion. I’ve found there really is no other way to keep them clean. I actually replaced both inner domes last year because they had gotten so grungy with cooked on food. I’m going to avoid ever having to do that again by keeping them clean! As far as the enamel, I just take a damp cloth and let it sit on top of the spot until it softens up a bit, then it’s easy to just wipe off.
 
May March 21, 2021
Are you cooking in, or on, your Aga though? Typically I cook everything I can in it, not on it. Quicker, less messy, more efficient. Pretty much the only stuff we cook on it are scrambled eggs.
 
Rory March 21, 2021
Yes, we cook almost everything IN the ovens too. Except for the occasional grilled cheese right on the simmering plate with the lid closed, Or that occasional slice of pizza reheated the same way. I bring all of my soups and stews to a boil on the stove top, then pop them in the simmering oven (250) to finish. I find that they can stay simmering for several hours while developing their flavor. The hot plate is always handy for keeping food warm Well my family serves themselves.I have never heard of an electric AGA, does it have the same versatility?
 
msjonesnyc March 20, 2021
I've been lucky enough to eat that steaming puffy crisped naan bread above (insert mouth watering here) and seeing William create culinary creations over the years with the Aga, making it look so easy. It certainly is intimidating to think of cooking without numbers or traditional parameters of other ovens/stoves, but letting all that go and trust yourself seems so liberating. It truly connects all the senses...the sight, smell, feel and even the sound of the flip of a simple round of bread was lovely note to a great symphony.
 
Marie F. March 20, 2021
I have had an AGA for 26 years, and I can easily say it is a no-brainer to transition to AGA cooking. You use whatever oven is the temperature of what you are cooking requires. Once you have cooked with one, it is easy to modify your cooking needs. I love it! The radiant heat in the ovens develops amazing flavors.
The two cooktops are used for sautéing and frying, or bringing soup or stew up to a boil before transferring to the correct oven to finish cooking. I have never had an issue with the AGA breaking down-it is a workhorse!
 
Author Comment
Mark S. March 21, 2021
I like how you mention the Aga’s radiant heat develops amazing flavors. I appreciate you taking the time to share this aspect Marie.
 
Nancy M. March 20, 2021
I ordered an AGA several years ago. Color: cream. Made the downpayment. I went to a meeting where a rep demonstrated how to use it, baking and frying directly on the burners, inserting metal sheets to adjust the temperatures in the ovens. I was so excited about this beautiful new appliance. Then one night a few days later, luckily before the thing arrived, I woke up in cold sweat realizing that I have no interest in re-learning how to cook just so I can have a conversation piece in my kitchen. I cancelled the order and bought an induction range instead. Whew. Close call.
 
Author Comment
Mark S. March 21, 2021
Hi Nancy, thank you for taking the time to share your experience. No doubt the Aga is not an appliance for everyone!