What do we ask of a tea kettle? Not too much. First and foremost, we would like it to boil water.
And that's about it. Of course, if it can boil water faster than other kettles, that's a plus. Likewise, it's nice if the handle stays cool to the touch—even when there's boiling hot water inside. That way you can pour out the water without charring your palm. (And please don't start on oven mitts. They're an added, unnecessary step, and they never seem to be handy when you're in the thick of things.)
Sure, there are other considerations. You may prefer a kettle with a larger capacity, a sleek look, or a melodious whistle. But these are minor concerns. In the end it comes down to those two main criteria: boil quickly; keep the handle cool.
Given this, I think America is living in the past. According to the tests I conducted (using a gas range at highest heat), our traditional stove-top kettles take eight or nine minutes to boil a mere four cups of water. Pathetic! What's more, the handles of these stove-top kettles—having perched above a hot flame for eight long minutes—are often quite painful and injurious to grab.
People, we are long overdue for a consumer revolution. Like Bob Dylan walking onstage at Newport in 1965, kettles are poised to go electric.
It pains me to tell you that the Brits are way ahead of us on this. It's all about electrics over there. Granted, the higher U.K. voltage allows kettles to boil at light speed. But even using the standard voltage in my U.S. apartment, I found that an electric kettle can boil four cups of water in well under five minutes. That's twice as fast as most of the stove-top kettles I tested (even the most expensive ones).
Meanwhile, the electric kettle's handle—safely shielded from the heating element—remains perfectly cool. Electrics are easier to clean (their wide mouths let you wash out their insides, while a metal kettle has a tiny mouth to help retain heat). Electrics even shut themselves off automatically.
I see only two drawbacks to plugging in. The first is that electrics take up counter space, while a standard kettle sits on your range. In a small apartment, this might be a problem. But given that most of America now has acres of granite countertop and vast kitchen islands, I don't see it as much of a problem.
The other thing is that electrics don't work in a blackout. Of course, in an emergency situation where you simply must brew tea while enduring a power outage, you could just boil the water in a pot. (Assuming you have a gas range. If you have an electric, you'll need cans of Sterno.)
So, I've sort of killed the suspense here. I think electrics are the way to go, and I won't hear otherwise. Furthermore, I see no reason to buy anything but my winning electric, the Bodum Ibis, which is both affordable and excellent. Nonetheless, certain among you (for reasons of affectation, or just a hidebound fear of the new) will insist on clinging to your primitive stove-top kettles. For you, I offer these rankings, from worst to first:
Alessi "Mami," $135 Boil time: 8:40. (All boil tests were conducted using four cups of water over a gas burner on highest heat. Your times may be quicker if you own one of those bad-ass Viking ranges with the rocket-ship burner flames.)
This is the stupidest kettle ever. Its whistle is a removable part (not a flip-up, as with most kettles). This means: 1) You could easily misplace it; 2) In order to pour out the boiling water you must first remove the whistle, thereby sticking your hand directly in front of the steam blast. Not fun, even with an oven mitt. Also, the whistle had a weak sound and was barely audible from my living room. Throw it all together—along with the highest price tag by far—and you've got a lemon. Admittedly, a stylish Italian lemon.
NEXT TO WORST
Chemex Handblown, $79.95 Boil time: 8:35
I confess I was rooting for this one. It's an elegant piece. Designed in the mid-1940s by a German-born chemist, it is housed in the permanent collection of MoMA (according to Chemex). The clear, handblown glass lets you watch your water as it rolls to a boil, which is pretty neat. Also, the Chemex looks a whole lot like a bong. You might enjoy the subversive thrill of leaving it out when guests come over. Oh, that? No, no, no (laughing slyly), it's just a tea kettle.
Sadly, the Chemex doesn't work very well. For one thing, it has no whistle. That seems inexcusable. Also, the first time I used it, I chipped the glass around its pour spout (through no fault of my own—it was really fragile). And despite the much-touted silicone stopper (meant to divert hot air and keep the handle cool), the Chemex handle got so hot that I couldn't even touch it without using a thick potholder. This once-proud kettle is in need of an update.
Chantal Classic, $110 Boil time: 7:53
This kettle has a metal handle. Metal! That makes zero sense to me. How am I to pick up a kettle safely when its metal handle has been heating over a flame for eight minutes? Ouch! Granted, Chantal supplies a mini-potholder that slips over the handle. But it's a nuisance to find this tiny thing every time you boil water (you can't leave it on while the flame's going or it will ignite), and it's cumbersome to fit it over the fiery-hot handle without scorching yourself. Dumb design.
Other than its appealing palette of colors, the selling point with the Chantal is supposed to be its polyphonic Hohner harmonica whistle. I guess the Hohner is less piercing than a traditional single-note whistle, but it's also louder, decibel-wise. My girlfriend hated it, claiming it sounded like "alien laser beams." (I'm having trouble deciding whether this says more about her or about the kettle.)
Le Creuset Demi, $49.99 Boil time: 9:30. Slowest of the bunch.
It's a cute little kettle with a few fatal flaws. For one, the whistle is meek. It sounds like a kid who hasn't learned how to whistle yet. Totally inaudible if you're more than 10 feet from the kitchen.
But the big problem is that slow boil time. It feels endless when you're waiting on it. The only reason I've ranked this higher than the Chantal is that it costs half as much.
Revere Ware Copper Bottom, $29.99 Boil time: 8:56
Your typical, regular old kettle. This is the one I had on my stove before any of my research began. Slightly weak whistle, but not piercing or annoying. Handle gets hot, but no hotter than the others. I've ranked it "Ehh, fine" because the price is nice.
CONVENTIONAL STOVE-TOP WINNER
Oxo Uplift, $49.95 Boil time: 7:45. Quickest of the conventionals.
This is a great kettle. Quick to the boil, and its handle remained relatively cool. Very comfortable to hold and to pour. The multitone whistle is harmonious, never piercing. (It sounds a bit like a distant traffic jam.)
As stove-top kettles go, the Oxo is a gem. But it can't hold a candle to …
OVERALL WINNER Bodum Ibis Electric Cordless, $35 Boil time: 4:25! And the results were identical every time I tried it. Please note that this is nearly (and sometimes more than) twice as fast as several of the other kettles.
It's no contest. Think of all the time you've wasted waiting for water to boil. You could have saved half that time by switching to this kettle. They say a watched pot never boils, but a watched electric kettle does in less than five minutes!
I needn't mention that the handle remains perfectly cool; that the pour spout is superaccurate; that it automatically shuts itself off once the water is boiling. But I will.
For less money than all but the cheapest of the stove-top kettles, you can own a device that is vastly superior. What are you waiting for? Make the leap.