Buying a Stove in Mexico

Well, I finally bought a stove and what a journey it’s been. I hope that this guide might help newcomers to Mexico successfully purchase a stove here and avoid any surprises. That said, I have to include a disclaimer.

This is guide is based on my own experience shopping for a stove here and reflects my own values and biases as well as the way I cook. Your needs and experience could be very different.

Background

Mexican stoves are nothing like you’d expect in Canada or the US (I’ll used “NOB” for that from now on — north of the border.). This is interesting because it’s not the case with fridges and washing machines. Sure, you get what you pay for, but a low-end fridge here is just like what I’d expect a fridge at that price point to be in Canada. An inexpensive washer here might be semi-automatic, but good quality. So why is it that to get a stove that comes close to NOB expectations and norms, you have to shell out a lot of pesos and stay away from one of Mexico’s most popular brands?

It has to do with different cooking customs.

Mexicans simply cook using different methods and tools than we expats do and they don’t really use ovens. Instead of baking a cake, they go to a bakery and buy one. Instead of roasting meat, they’ll throw it on the grill.

This is evidenced by the fact that any expat who has shopped for cookware in Mexico will have noticed two things:

  1. Except for perhaps a cast iron comal, cookware sold in regular stores is generally very lightweight;
  2. There is a dearth of baking supplies unless you go to specialty shops.

So what’s the deal with the average low to mid-range Mexican stove?

  1. They’re very lightweight;
  2. They scratch easily;
  3. The enamelled burner grills cannot withstand regular contact with heavy duty cookware without the finish coming off;
  4. Ovens do not hold a specific temperature and have poor seals (leaking heat can mean melted control knobs!). They also never have a broiler.

I have yet to meet an expat who doesn’t have a horror story to tell about their experience with a low-end Mexican stove, be it one that came with a rental or one they purchased on a lot of assumptions and which betrayed them.

I’ve been researching my stove for months and learned how to shop for one that would meet my standards and not be a huge hit on the pocket book. I did consider going the Mexican route and moving to a cooktop, outdoor grill, and toaster oven, but knew I’d be unhappy. I’ve been cooking a certain way for 30 years and am all equipped to cook that way. The last thing I want after over a year of cooking in other people’s kitchens and on a crappy hot plate is to have to relearn how to cook using new methods.

Questions to Ask Before You Buy

Gas or Electric?

This is an easy question to answer because the standard here is gas, namely propane. I don’t recall seeing a single electric range, but I have seen electric cooktops in higher end stores. So keep that in mind if you decide to bring a stove here from NOB — if you come down with a natural gas stove, make sure you have the conversion kit to run it on propane.

Cooktop or Range? Ie. Do You Actually Need an Oven?

If you don’t really use an oven, you can get a much better cooktop for the price of a range.

Ovens is where I got quite an education. The low-end average oven in Mexico works a bit like cooking over an open fire. You control the heat by opening and closing the door. There’s no actual thermostat. To get an oven that operates more like you’re used to up north, you have to make sure that there are degrees marked on the oven control knob, but even then, you’re more likely to hit a range than an actual exact temperature. This doesn’t bother me much because I’ve been cooking for almost ten years in an RV oven where temperatures are quite approximate, but I know it can be an issue for bakers.

Another thing is that a broiler (asador) is a luxury item here. This feature was a must for me and put me in a different class of stoves on its own. As is typical with gas stoves, a broiler is on the very bottom of a stove, either behind a door or in a drawer.

Narrow or Wide — How Many Burners Do You Need?

Stoves here come in two widths, 20″ or 30″. The skinny ones have four burners. The wider ones have six burners! On these wider stoves, a very common feature is for there to be a comal, griddle, to set over the middle burners and which is meant to be used on low heat, mostly to reheat tortillas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a higher end 20″ stove but then again, I wasn’t looking for one since I have a 34″ space for a range and really wanted six burners and a comal!

Enamelled or Cast Iron Burner Grills?

Low-end stoves in Mexico have enamelled burner grills, which are very suitable for the average cookware here. They are no match for my heavy cast iron pots and pans, the finish coming off after just weeks of daily use. So I knew I would go with cast iron burner grills. These aren’t nearly as much of a luxury as they seem and are the first “higher end” feature you’ll encounter as you go up in price and quality. Just because the stove has cast iron grills doesn’t mean you have a good oven or a broiler.

How Much Do You Use an Oven?

I use my oven a lot. I haven’t moved to grilling on a BBQ yet. I like being able to pop meat or a casserole in the oven and then let it do its thing while I finish up my work day. I also like a broiler for browning cheese and meat and cooking fish. My experience with three Mexican stoves of varying quality by the same brand was that they leaked heat so much as to be unusable and even melted the control knobs. The two less expensive ones would explode at lighting and set the wall behind the oven on fire. Good times!

Built-In or Floor Model?

You will notice some stoves that seem quite short. These are the empotrable style meant to be built into your cabinetry. A regular floor model with feet is de piso. Since I was buying for a rental property, a built-in model didn’t make sense.

Vocabulary

Asador — broiler

Capelo — lid/cover (many ranges here have a tempered glass (cristal) cover to keep the range clean when not in use)

Encendido — ignition (usually push-botton electronic ignition, electrónico de botón, or with a match/lighter, cerillo or manual)

Jaladera — handle, as in for the stove. If you see toalla next to it, it’s the kind of handle that can double as a dish towel holder

Parillas — burner grills, either enamelled (alambrón — literally wire) or cast iron (hierro fundido or fundición) (The word also refers to just a cooktop or a grill.)

Perillas — control knobs

Quemadores — the actual burners (usually made of aluminium)

What To Look For

So I came into this stove buying experience with some pretty harsh biases against Mexican ovens even before taking into consideration that it’s hard to get one that reaches a specific temperature. I knew that some things I needed to look for were a better quality brand, metal control knobs not directly above the door, and a solid metal range rather than one that’s painted.

What’s confusing is that even a lower end stove can look really good at first glance, in its silvery colour, glass lid, and shiny  knobs, never mind all those burners! But then, you’ll see that range is very lightweight, parts are made of plastic, and the finish is painted on very lightly.

Brands

As I started shopping, I determined that there are three main brands of stoves here. This list is not extensive, but these are the three most common:

  1. Mabe;
  2. Acros (which becomes Whirlpool as you increase in quality);
  3. Koblenz

You can also find Frigidaire, LG, Bosch, and more, but those are the three you’ll find at any store that sells stoves. The range of quality will vary from store to store — one store might carry only low to mid-range Mabe and Acros, while another might have only high-end Acros/Whirlpool and Koblenz.

When I started shopping, I knew that the price point didn’t matter, I wasn’t getting a Mabe. I’ve cooked on three of varying quality and each one was a nightmare. I’ve also only met one expat who has anything genuinely nice to say about Mabe (and I’ve learned to take his opinions with more than just one grain of salt). I find it super telling that at no fewer than three stores I mentioned that I was looking for a good quality range with the above requirements and was told to avoid Mabe…

I have nothing against Mabe in general — I just bought one of their mid-range washing machines and absolutely adore it. I’ve also used one of their fridges for almost a year. But their stoves are made for Mexican needs and as they increase in quality, it’s the things that matter to Mexicans that improve, not their ovens.

Next step up is Acros, which at the lower end isn’t much better than a Mabe. The quality goes up exponentially, though, and I was sure that I’d end up with a high-end Acros, which is a mid-range stove here. As soon as you get to the models with cast iron grills, you get a stove that feels quite solid. Acros eventually becomes Whirlpool, a well recognized international brand.

Finally, you have Koblenz. Oh, those are lovely ranges, but pricey! I really wanted one, but their models with broilers start in around the $16,000 range. If you don’t want a broiler, though, there are real deals to be had for less than $9,000. I have heard one report of someone with a Koblenz who has had nothing with trouble with it, which brings me to best tip for buying any appliance:

Get the best basic unit that serves your needs and avoid “bells and whistles.”

I didn’t want any electronic parts on my range and would have been just fine with no light in the oven or manual ignition. The more gadgets you have, the more likely you are that something will break.

Where To Buy a Stove

Like with my fridge and washing machine, I shopped at many stores to get an idea of pricing and what brands are carried.

Online is a great way to see the range of models a manufacturer has and what stores usually stock. I haven’t found it a great place to get the best deal, though. With all three appliances, I did much better doing a ton of online research and then using that research to guide me in my boots-on-the ground search for the best deal. That deal is rarely found on a price tag — you really need to speak to a sales clerk.

Coppel had low to mid-range stoves only. Nothing with cast iron grills or a broiler.

Home Depot had the widest selection, from super low-end Mabes to the very fancy upper level Koblenzes.

Walmart and Bodega Aurrera didn’t have much when I finally got there, just some super low-end Mabes and Acros. I’m convinced I’ve seen better stoves there in the past, though, so maybe I was shopping at a time when they were due to restock.

Chedraui, Mega/Comercial Mexicana, and Soriana had a similar range to Coppel. Still a dearth of broilers.

Liverpool is a high-end department store that I have no idea why anyone would shop at as their “deals” are regular price anywhere else. The staff were very snobby too. I had a $9,000 budget which while low for what they carry was a very high budget for a stove in Mexico, but they didn’t give me the time of day.

Similar story at Costco, which only carries super high-end expensive appliances and you can find better deals on elsewhere.

Sears had a good range of models and prices and the most helpful staff.

Narrowing It All Down

After doing so much shopping and research, I finally had a list of Acros, Whirpool, and Koblenz stoves that fit my needs and which were in a high range of prices, from about $6,000 to $15,000. It was then a matter of finding just one locally at an awesome deal. I really didn’t want to pay more than $7,000 or $8,000, dreamed of paying around $6,000, but mostly wanted to get as good a deal as I got on my fridge and stove.

I found my stove on the Sears website after visiting just about every physical store I could think of and striking out. I was surprised to be going with a Whirlpool, but by this point, I was sure this was the best deal I was going to find and I almost ordered until I saw the $500 delivery charge and 15-day delivery window. Instead, I came to my senses and apply what I knew about shopping here — I went to Sears see if what I could wrangle from a salesman.

I was a quite surprised to end up at Sears as I tend to favour Mexican stores. So this was my last stop and where I ended up getting the best customer service! I found a salesman who truly listened to what I wanted rather than pushing something he wanted to sell. He laughed at my stories about Mabe and actually said he wasn’t surprised by them. In the end, he offered me the online deal, but waived the $500 delivery cost. He was also able to show me a stove in store that was just a bit cheaper full price so that I could have an idea of what I was buying and see how the one I was ordering was better quality as it would be solid stainless steel instead of painted.

So I got a $13,000 stove for $8,000 (that is now $10,500!). I’d been shopping for so long that I knew that a $5,000 discount with free shipping, even if I was looking at 15 days for delivery, was as good as it was going to get and that I should count my blessings and pay up!

I’m so very glad I did because Liverpool was selling the same one for $15,000 on sale for $12,000 (…) and, to my immense surprise, just after I bought the stove at Sears I found it at Comercial Mexicana for $13,000 regular price (same as Sears), on sale for $10,000 ($2,000 more than Sears)!

I wasn’t looking forward to waiting the 15 days, but Sears surprised me by delivering the stove in just two days!

Installation

I was surprised that delivery only included unpacking, not installation. I went to my neighbourhood Facebook group and put out a call for a stove installer. The first guy who responded ended up sounding very competent compared to others because of the questions he asked, which made me realise that installation wasn’t straightforward like plugging in an electric stove. There are several ways of connecting the stoves to a gas supply, such as connecting to a small portable tank or, in my case, connecting to the house gas plumbing hooked up to a fixed tank on the roof. So the stoves don’t come with the materials necessary to connect them to a gas supply.

It was quite late on Friday night when I made contact with the installer and he was just around the corner from my house, so he asked if he could come over to take some measurements and get a deposit for buying materials. This is not something I would have done in Canada — let a strange man into my house and give him cash with no expectation of a receipt — but it’s just how “it’s” done here. He was super polite and respectful and put me at ease. I pointed out that the outlet near the stove doesn’t work and he said he’d do what he could with it when he came to install the stove as running an extension cord was not ideal. He also said that if Sears delivered before 3PM on Saturday, he could come by and install right away. Otherwise, I’d have to wait until Sunday.

Sears delivered at 11AM on Saturday and I texted the installer to let him know I was ready for him and would be home all day. I knew he had a job until about 1PM and he showed up right around there with a helper — his young son. First thing he did was fix the outlet (the wiring had a poor connection). Just from how he handled the electrical work, I knew I was in good hands. He then showed me the connector and hose he’d bought to hook up the stove — he’d bought the best available and the total cost for the parts was $270. Labor for the outlet and installation was a further $490, for a total of $760 (I rounded up to $800 so his helper could get a little money of his own). He said that just hooking up the stove with lower quality parts is normally around $400.

So here is my stove:

Click on the image to get a bigger version and then click again a few times to get a real close up of all the details.

What strikes me is how cheap even a higher end stove looks here. It’s obvious the stainless steel isn’t the best quality and I expect the writing on the control knobs to rub off very quickly.

But there are clues that I have a good unit that will serve me well. I love how all the burners are closed, which will make clean up a snap. The burners all have electric ignition — I turn on the gas, push a button, and they light. Let’s see how long that lasts!

And this is by far the nicest comal I’ve seen on a stove that cost less than $20,000! I also like how the metal knobs are above a “lip” so that even if heat wicks out of the top of the door, they are protected.

It was then time to try out the stove and I had the perfect dish for that as it would need high heat on the stove as well as the oven and the broiler. It’s something I concocted myself and call “basil chicken,” a super simple pasta and chicken dish that unlike most pasta and chicken dishes seems to improve with age and is even better as leftovers.

I’ve been cooking on a cheap hot plate since July that couldn’t even heat my cast iron pans enough to properly caramelise onions and sear chicken. So I was happy to see a lovely Maillard reaction happen in no time at all on my stove top. I was just a little disappointed that my “jumbo” burners are on the right side when they would be more convenient on the left since I have counter space there.

Once the chicken was done, I added the other ingredients and popped my pan in the oven at the setting that claimed to be equivalent to about 350F. The stove has manual ignition, so I used a BBQ lighter to light it, something that is like a secondary reflex to me as that’s what I had to do with my RV oven.

The stove has a light, a luxury I’ve done without for a decade, so I decided to turn it on. To my surprise, the mirrored finish on the door turned see-through!

I quickly ascertained that, as expected, the temperatures on the knobs are complete bunk. I had to put the knob at a much higher setting than expected to get my casserole to actually cook. This dish comes out a bit gummy if it wasn’t cooked at high heat that allows the sauce to actually boil. I finally got there, but the slow start meant that the end result wasn’t quite perfect. It was however, close enough to make me believe that like with my RV oven, I’ll figure out the best setting on this one. The only thing that really disappointed me was how much heat leaked out of the oven — the door handle was almost too hot to touch!

Finally, it was time to test the broiler, which is the pull down door at the very bottom of the stove. I knew this was going to be a pain since I have such bad knees and the cast iron is very heavy, but I really loved browned cheese and will do what I need to do to get it. I was a bit worried that the cheese wouldn’t brown since it was so far from the flame, but my broiler worked its magic!

I actually preferred how this broiler worked compared to others I’ve tried in the past because, being further from the food, it took its time instead of incinerating the food — I didn’t have to stand there and constantly check it.

Based on this one test, I’m optimistic that my new Whirlpool range is going to serve me well. If I was a baker, I’d have a lot of reservations, but for the type of cooking I do, I should be just fine. I worked really hard to find a range that would suit my lifestyle and believe I got the best that would suit my needs within my budget. I hope this (admittedly very long) post will help you do the same.

Errand Day

Work was going to be slow today since everyone’s closed so I decided to take the day off that I was supposed to take off on Saturday after doing a surprisingly full day yesterday. So I had a very sloooow morning as I planned out my day. On the list were returning my guests’ rented wheelchair, picking up the bag that was being muled in from Playa around 4PM, paying all my utility bills and my rent, and checking out a few stores to start actively shopping for a stove.

So here is a map of the first part of my day so you can follow along…

I headed out to return the wheelchair first. I was nervous when I saw a centro address, but it wound up being a super easy location to get to — once I knew where it is was I didn’t even need navigation help to get there or to go on to my second destination across town. There was even ample parking for Moya right on site (and a couple of cute guys to guide me in and out).

That done, I headed off to Plaza Dorada (with a stop en route next door at the Plaza Las Americas Scotiabank to make a withdrawal). I’ve determined that Plaza Dorada is the most convenient place to pay my bills and rent, all of which come and are due around the same time. The water bill is supposed to be payable at a number of grocery stores, but whenever I’ve tried that, I’ve been told they can’t accept payment for whatever reason. Plaza Dorada has a water office (JAPAY) that accepts payments. It also has a HSBC where I can withdraw money and pay my power (CFE) and internet (Izzi) bills and also direct deposit my rent into my landlord’s bank account. This is all so convenient that I don’t mind that I have to pay a fee for the utility payments, which would be free at their respective offices.

That done, I went into Coppel to look at stoves, but they only had low-end ones so that was a pass and I decided to go check out the nearby Home Depot, a location I hadn’t been to yet. But first, I had lunch at the excellent Chinese stand in the food court and choose noodles with chicken and this steamed bun thing that has a filling with flavours I’ve never tasted in my life. Really yummy!

Home Depot had at least a half dozen stoves that met my criteria, in a wide variety of prices, but I realised that I missed their December sale, which was a bit shattering. I decided to check out the other location “just in case.”

But first, I took barely a detour to a used furniture and clothing store to look for a dresser. I thought I found what I wanted until I discovered the mould in the bottom drawer. Considering how badly my dressing table smells and that I can’t store any fabric items in it (something I’m working on rectifying!), I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to splurge on new storage for my master closet-room. I may end up just going the shelving + plastic baskets route as that’s probably the best solution for this climate.

The stop was worthwhile, though, since I found two nice skirts for everyday wear, something I desperately needed. Now, I need a couple in heavy cotton and then I can work on my tops. Sadly, my Mazatlán wardrobe is not appropriate for Mérida.

It was then time to go across town to the other Home Depot nearish my house. They had the same selection and prices as the first location so that confirmed that I missed the sales. 🙁 I’d seen a few months ago at Bodega Aurrera (of all places) a stove that seemed pretty good so I decided that I might as well go up there too since I had to go most of the way there anyway to get to the roundabout that would let me turn and go south to home.

Just as I was leaving Home Depot, the mule texted to say that she was two hours out, which was bang on schedule. The plan was to go drop the truck at home and bus it to centro to meet her. But first, Bodega, which didn’t have a stove worth a second look this time. Oh, well.

Truck dropped at home, I hopped on a bus and decided to ride to the end of the line so I could go check out the central market in the hope of finding some cotton skirts.

Once downtown, I found that ice cream place with the amazing vanilla and chocolate cake ice cream and ordered a small scoop. Today was our first really hot day in ages — we likely hit the mid-30s — and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more at the moment!

I finished it when I got to the area of the market, thank goodness, because even with the promises of cleaning up the market, the vicinity still reeked.

I went into the market and poked around, but it was the same as it always has been, so filthy that I can’t imagine shopping there when I can find the goods elsewhere. 🙁 It’s such a shame. I did pass a few clothing shops, but they only had blouses and Mayan style dresses, nothing suitable for me.

By the time I’d had my fill it was about 3:45 and I calculated I needed about 15 minutes to head to the bag pickup meeting point, where I needed to be around 4:00. So I started meandering my way there, looking at clothes along the way. I found some lovely cotton skirts, but they were much too thin — I don’t want to have to wear a slip in this climate!

I found the meeting point, texted to say I was there, and about two minutes later, the mule arrived. I can’t believe how well I timed that!

The bag was a bit heavy, but small, so I decided that I would bus home instead of taking an Uber. I went to Calle 60, figuring that, surely, I was north enough to be out of the absolutely stupidly huge “no pickup or drop off zone” downtown since I have been dropped at around the height before. Nope. At least a dozen buses passed me as I trudged along until one was finally able to stop. Mérida is working on both the bus system and traffic congestion in the downtown core. I’m not the only resident who has chimed in to say that prioritising cars in centro is not the right solution to either problem.

I got in and did a couple of quick jobs so that I wouldn’t have to rush tomorrow morning and then evaluated if I had enough energy left to walk to the sushi restaurant for dinner. I promised myself a sushi meal weeks ago, but haven’t been able to make it happen! In one of those perfect “the universe is listening” moments, the sushi restaurant messaged me about my comment to them a while back about how it was a shame that I was in their high minimum order delivery zone when I’m not even two full blocks out of their low minimum delivery zone. Tonight, they wanted to let me know that they’ve dropped minimum order total for my neighbourhood!

When it was around $150 (to which I’d add a tip), it made no sense to order from them when I could go to the restaurant and have a great meal for around $90, including the tip. But with a new minimum of only $98, then I could order my usual and say, what the heck, and order a second “treat” item. So that’s what I did tonight, ordering my beloved tako roll (reminder tako is Japanese for octopus!) and trying out their mango and salmon roll. I had a bit of a hard time understanding the gal taking my order (she had to repeat each question), but she understood me just fine and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to order again and get her. Delivery was super quick (as is the case when I order outside of normal eating times here) and the food felt fresh. Since the guy had to come from much further than the taco and pizza places, I gave him a bigger tip. The octopus roll was en pointe, as usual. The mango roll was so-so. I’m glad I tried it, but I’ll order something different next time.

What a full day it has been! I’m disappointed about the stove, but now that I know it could be had for under $6,000, I’m loathe to spend the $9,000ish I’d budgeted. There are a few other places I want to check. Buying a stove in Mexico is going to warrant a whole post as it’s been a really interesting experience and one where Mexicans have validated my (and other expats’) opinions about Mexican stoves and revealed a set of different customs and even values.

Don’t get used to my posting like this regularly again — I just did so much today and covered so much ground I had to record it!