Choosing Kitchen Countertop Materials: A Scientific Approach

Elements of Stones and Synthetic Materials

Whether one is in the market for a new home or just conducting research on how best to update the one they have, a lot of planning and decision-making goes into getting the kitchen just right. At some point, most homeowners will ask themselves: "What is the best kitchen countertop material for my needs?"

It's the heart of the home, and a lot of time is spent in this room. It's also one of the first places homeowners make improvements. While everyone should certainly do their basic due diligence when it comes to countertop material trends, opinions and aesthetics, there are some who like to go the extra mile in their investigation. If that's you, welcome: This piece was written with this attention to detail in mind, so whip out the notepad and get ready to learn.

Let's take a look at each type of countertop material, talk about its properties and then dig into why it offers the benefits it does. By the end, you'll have improved not only your design trend knowledge, but your understanding of chemistry and geology as well.

Granite Countertops

What is the best material for kitchen countertops? Granite is often the go-to whenever it fits into the budget. Because kitchens have large swaths of flat surfaces – countertops, islands, tables, the tops of appliances – adding visual interest can go a long way. Granite does the trick handily, with eye-catching patterns in a stunning variety of colors. With thousands of different hues and combinations, there's probably a granite countertop for everyone.

Granite's lovely variegations form when magma cools slowly beneath the Earth's crust, allowing for the aggregation of particular minerals. The most abundant of which are quartz and feldspar, with smaller amounts of mica and crystalline amphiboles veining throughout. This composition is what gives granite its glittering and uniquely organic-looking appearance.

Because amphiboles and quartz are composed mainly of silicates (the same compounds found in glass), they are highly nonreactive. That means unless you cook with industrial strength hydrochloric acid on your granite countertops, you are unlikely to ruin it with typical kitchen ingredients. It's important to remember that sealants aren't as hardy, though, and may degrade if acidic substances are regularly spilled on them.

Granite is quite scratch resistant, but it is not the hardest rock out there, which means owners should exercise at least a little caution to avoid scuffs. While knives typically wont scratch the surface, they'll get dull pretty quickly, so a cutting board is still recommended. Because granite isn't super dense, one can also fix it fairly easily by buffing off the top polish and scratches, then filling in with a polish or sealant available in any hardware store. The ease of fixing issues makes for a kitchen countertop material that stays sound for decades in return for its upfront investment.

Engineered Stone Quartz Countertops

As perhaps the most talked about material on the market these days, engineered stone recreates some of the look of granite and marble, with variegated stones suspended in a binding medium. Often the adhesive is a polymer resin, which is clear and allows for beautifully clear viewing of the stones within. Sometimes, cement mix may also be used, giving a more rustic effect.

Resins are modeled after the sticky fluids plants form that harden over time. They can be mixed and poured, then harden permanently into a stone-like substance. Resins are incredibly tough because its reactive agents bond strongly to one another during the curing process. Strong bonds mean they are less likely to react with other chemicals or compounds with which they later come into contact.

The same goes for quartz. It is made up of silica tetrahedra, each of which contains four oxygen atoms and one silicon atom. The oxygen atoms are shared between multiple tetrahedra, allowing the tetrahedra to organize into complex structures known as frameworks. Because the atoms are shared, their electrons are "spoken for," meaning they are not available for reaction with other substances. A chemical reaction is simply a rearrangement of atomic and molecular structures to form new structures, and because quartz isn't available for reaction, it resists the degradation that acids, bases and other compounds that might otherwise engender.

Quartz FormationMany aren't aware that strong, scratch-resistant and clear precious gems – such as amethyst and chalcedony – are actually types of quartz as well. This exemplifies quartz's ability to resist reaction, maintain hardness and structure, and look beautiful for extended periods of time.

Laminate Countertops

Your first memories of lamination may come from grade school. The teacher took a piece of otherwise flimsy paper, ran it through a lamination machine to coat it in plastic, and out came a sturdy, waterproof resource. Plastics used in countertop applications are quite non-porous and therefore very water- and oil-resistant, as well as resistant to steam and heat.

It is heated to high temperatures, then applied to paper, filling paper's holes and creating an extremely even surface. Most laminate consists of several layers all bonded together. Because the plastic is hot when applied, laminate is an extremely flexible material, able to be folded down the create molding or up to create a backsplash. It may also be affixed to particle board or other substrates. This results in a surface that is easily wiped down and remains very hygienic. More porous materials, such as wood or stone, are not as uniform, meaning they can trap debris more easily. If you want to do a lot of food prep right on the countertop – like rolling out dough for bread – laminate is a great option.

Laminate countertops offer a huge variety of aesthetic options. Because they are made of layers of paper, the choices are nearly endless when it comes to color and pattern. Laminate can emulate wood or stone, be a solid color or be bright and sparkly for those who like to make a statement. Some homeowners opt to refinish these with epoxy to achieve unique looks.

Wood Countertops

Wood is made primarily of cellulose, a starchy carbohydrate molecule that forms loose, porous structures. When looking at wood under a microscope, you will see lots of rows of long, straw-like holes. These were the tree's vessels while it was alive, transporting fluids and nutrients up and down the trunk and into the branches. This gives wood its gorgeous, light and dark grain, formed from different tissues in the tree. It's important to note that just because the tree is dead and used in your kitchen counter doesn't mean those structures don't still work, however. They do, which means that a reliable wooden countertop might be well treated to withstand absorption and transportation of water and oil.

I think wood counter tops add a lot of warmth to a room and offer a natural beauty that develops with age. While wood tops do typically require more care and upkeep than other alternatives, for the right client, wood makes a fine choice for kitchen counters.

Nils Wessell —

One reliable and durable kitchen material for a home or condo is butcher block, made of strips of hardwood glued tightly together and set under pressure, then sealed. The sealant is water-resistant and scratch-resistant, and creates a barrier to protect the wood beneath. Epoxy is another common option for resurfacing wood countertops.

Wood is often easier to fix than other types of counter materials. Whereas stone that breaks may be difficult to fill, wood filler is readily available in hardware stores, bonds easily with the cellulose structure and takes to stain and sealant like a champ. Because wood scratches relatively easily one may want to lay down a cutting board whenever a knife is used. It's also a good idea to put mats under structures with sharp bottoms, appliances that move or shake (blenders, food processors), or anything that generates heat (such as a hot pan).

Marble Countertops

Marble is a metamorphic rock, which means it is formed of older minerals – mostly calcite and dolomite, often but not always in the form of the sedimentary rock limestone – that have been subjected to extreme pressures and reformed into a new crystalline structure. The result is a beautifully "marbled" appearance, with smaller flecks of other minerals scattered throughout: quartz, mica, pyrite and graphite. This gives it a similar look to granite, though it is usually quite a bit more uniform.

Marble is a reactive stone. When it comes into contact with acids, even weak ones such as vinegar, the calcite within it dissolves. A small vinegar spill won't ruin a marble countertop, but exposure to vinegars, lemon juice, etc. over time will degrade a marble countertop, so it's important to seal it well. Also, while marble appears uniform, it is actually quite a porous stone, making sealants even more crucial. They plug up all the holes that might conduct liquids into the insides of the marble, destroying it from the inside. Luckily, sealants on the market today are quite effective. Homeowners that want an "easier" material that they can more or less set and forget may want to look to other materials, however.

Cultured marble presents a more affordable option for those who would prefer to avoid the initial investment associated with marble. This is made of marble pieces and dust, combined with resin and other materials, and poured into a mold to set. The result is similar to engineered stone quartz, though it typically has a more uniform appearance, with fewer stone chunks.

"At the end of the day, the counter a homeowner chooses will reflect their personality and sense of style, and the purposes to which they put their kitchen on the daily. Like with any major home purchase or renovation, knowledge is power."

Stainless Steel Countertops

Many types of metal are highly reactive with acids, including steel (a combination of iron and carbon). Reactivity is a measure of how easily two substances interact to change the chemical structures of both. Metals such as aluminum and copper are highly reactive, whereas steel is only moderately reactive. When a reaction takes place, atoms can be broken off of the metal – resulting in the metallic flavoring tomato sauce and eggs can take on when cooked in reactive metal pots.
What does this have to do with countertop materials? Well, most metals aren't a good choice. It's a shame, since a copper countertop can be lovely. Even steel in its "natural" state isn't an optimal choice, since acids can spill on it and etch the surface.

However, there is one awesome option: stainless steel.

How does it work? Stainless steel contains additional elements beyond carbon and iron, including but not limited to chromium, manganese and/or nickel. While iron and oxygen will react to form unstable rust, which continues to eat away at the counter, stainless steel's extra metals help to form very thin, stable metal oxides and hydroxides. These coat the surface thoroughly, preventing other substances from reaching and reacting with the stainless steel beneath.

Therefore, stainless steel countertops much like stainless steel cookware are a beautiful option for homes that see a lot of cooking. The metal is flexible, strong and durable, and can stand up to a lot of wear and tear without showing its age, breaking or losing finish. Because metal is so malleable during its liquid stage, when it is molded at high heats, you may choose from a wide variety of finishes: wave patterns, brushed lines or a matte effect. Brushed steel hides fingerprints well, making it a good choice in homes where little hands tend to grab and smear.

Glass Countertops

Speaking of stability, glass is an extremely stable material. As mentioned when explaining quartz, silicon and oxygen form incredibly stable molecular bonds. They enjoy sharing electrons so much, in fact, that only fluorine can steal them from the oxygen – which explains why hydroflouric acid is one of the only materials homeowners have to worry about with glass countertops. Chances are, however, that you won't be cooking with this powerful reagent anytime soon, so you're probably safe.

Glass Countertop MaterialLike quartz, glass won't burn, melt or stain easily. It resists chips and scratches, even from significant force. Unless one is intentionally trying to destroy their counter, they'll have a hard time exerting significant wear and tear. As such, glass countertops require very little maintenance. They don't require sealant either, and can handle a variety of cleaners without worrying about harming the surface. Those who love to clean with vinegar have found their soulmate.

Some people opt for pure glass, free floating on metal legs or wooden supports. Others, however, like the effect of glass overlaid on wood, marble or metal. This can be a good way to enjoy the aesthetics of a more reactive material (say, copper) in your log home, without having to worry about the countertop getting destroyed or food being tainted. Glass countertops may also be cantilevered away from wooden bars or other structures to create a suspended effect.

Concrete Countertops

If you love a unique aesthetic, look to concrete. Currently one of the darlings of the home improvement world, concrete has the whole reclaimed industrial look down pat. Beyond this, concrete has also become a popular option in both outdoor and modern spaces. It may be mixed with larger or smaller aggregate materials to form a more variegated substance – akin to engineered stone quartz or granite – or very fine grains to mimic the effects of marble without the flecks and veins. With the ability to be cast in practically any shape, owners have a level of freedom with concrete that cannot be found in most other materials on the market.

Concrete is composed of sand, water and cement (itself a mix of clay and lime products), which harden and become incredibly strong once its components are mixed, poured and set. It may also contain broken stones or gravel in the mix. A interesting aspect of this countertop material is its variable cost. DIYers may be able to install these for as little as $10 per sq. Ft. Or hire a highly skilled concrete artisan for up to $200 per sq. ft. — meaning there’s an option out there for nearly all budgets.

Concrete countertops are typically made by applying a substrate to the countertop, such as concrete board, then putting forms in place to pour the concrete into. Once it hardens, the forms can be removed and the edges sanded before treating the countertop. Owners may also apply it to pre-existing counter top materials, such as laminate, as long as they have been prepared beforehand to ensure that concrete adheres to them. Some owners choose to have counters pre-cast offsite and then brought to their homes.

Concrete is porous, which means it takes stain easily, making it one of the more easily customizable options out there. Some choose to apply rich brown or mahogany hues, create a patchy effect with stains of different kinds, or even finish it with "grain" and "knots" to look like wood. Similar to other porous stones like granite, owners will want to seal this countertop and should be careful with acids. Like other stones, though, owners can always buff and reseal it when necessary.

—Special thanks to Dario Baldoni of for helping with this section.

Soapstone Countertops

Soapstone is a naturally occurring stone. It is composed mostly of talc, which does mean it can be very soft. (Remember, talc is the same mineral used to make baby powder, and is at the very bottom of the mineral hardness scale. Diamond, by contrast, is at the top … but, sadly, diamond countertops are not a thing.)

However, some soapstones contain higher percentages of quartz. This significantly ups their strength and makes them quite a bit more durable. More good news? Talc is very nonreactive, which means owners don't have to worry about spills eating away at their countertop.

On the other hand, talc is organophilic, which means it is attracted to organic compounds such as oils, and will bond with them – a potential source of staining. For this reason, one must ensure their soapstone countertop is well treated to create a buffer against spills. Because talc is so dry, curing soapstone against water is quite important, otherwise it will suck up liquid easily, potentially ruining the structural integrity of the stone. That said, it is a gorgeous material of a lovely natural gray, easily sanded and retreated, and soft to the touch. Because it is cool and nonreactive, it's also a great surface for pastry.

Travertine Countertops

Travertine Stone KitchenA sedimentary rock, travertine is a type of limestone formed when rivers, hot springs and other bodies of water deposit calcium carbonate (or other carbonate minerals). In hotter conditions, the main mineral that precipitates out may be aragonite. Either way, these build up and solidify over time, subject to high heat and pressure over eons, eventually becoming travertine.

Typically exhibiting concentric or fibrous patterns, travertine brings a touch of organic charm to counters. The purest forms are white, while impurities in the stone may lend coloration such as gray, gold, rose, cream, brown and even light purple.

Travertine is becoming more and more popular due to the fact that it looks a lot like marble, without costing nearly the same amount due to the fact that it is widely available in quarries. Also, while some types of limestone are quite soft, travertine is very durable – obviously, since the Roman Coliseum is built largely of travertine. It is load-bearing, so it can be used on floors as well as counters in your Anchorage luxury home, if you like the matching look.

The most notable drawback to travertine is its significant reactivity. Because the molecules comprising it are relatively weakly bonded to one another, electrons may jump from travertine to an acid if one is spilled on it. This means owners must be very careful to keep this countertop well sealed at all times. Travertine is forgiving, though: If an accident does occur, scratches can be buffed and resealed.

Ceramic Countertops

Ceramics are deeply rooted in the human lifestyle, if not our very cultural psyche. To mold clay and turn it into a stone-like vessel – one which can take on glaze of almost any color – has appealed to artisans since before the wheel was invented. The wheel rolled out around 3,500 BCE, while ceramics were in evidence as early as 18,000 BCE.

Ceramic is highly nonreactive, once glaze is applied. As the term suggests, glaze is a type of glass; it's usually made from mixed silica components, which then melt, turn to glass and harden in the kiln. Again, glass is about as resistant to reaction as you can get, so it's a good option for those who like to be free with their acids.

Ceramic Tile SamplesCeramic countertops may be purchased in large slabs or, to save money, as tiles. Note that, depending on the type of grout used, countertops may not be entirely nonreactive if the tile option is chosen. In fact, grout is notorious for soaking up water and oil, shrinking and expanding, cracking and staining. If opting for a ceramic countertop, you may be happier with a full slab for this reason. On the other hand, grout isn't terribly hard to replace, and some people adore the geometric look it lends.

Porcelain Countertops

Porcelain is a fairly unique substance. It is formed like ceramic by molding clay. However, the inclusion of the mineral kaolinite in the clay causes it to react interestingly to heat, "vitrifying" or turning to glass. And, as noted before, that whole silica-oxygen combo is amazing when it comes to countertops.

Suffice it to say, the formation of a glass-like substance – notably the mineral mullite – creates a sturdy and nonreactive surface. By way of proof, porcelain is the material overlaid on cast iron pots and pans made by companies such as Le Creuset, giving them their nonreactive finish. Porcelain countertops are perfect for making pastry, are agnostic to spills, and complement old-fashioned porcelain stoves nicely.

Typically, porcelain also contains other minerals, including feldspar, which strengthens it and makes it a good option for busy cooks who aren't easy on their surfaces. Despite the fact that porcelain is the substance comprising fine china, one needn't worry about it in the same way. The thicker slab used for a countertop, as well as the additional minerals, make for a perfectly durable kitchen surface.

The Perfect Counter? It's Your Call

What is the best countertop material? At the end of the day, the counter a homeowner chooses will reflect their personality and sense of style, and the purposes to which they put their kitchen on the daily. Like with any major home purchase or renovation, knowledge is power. Even if a counter looks lovely, it still has to work for your needs, and those needs may be different from a friend or neighbor.

For the best results, go back over this piece carefully and pick a few materials you think might work for your lifestyle and aesthetics, then speak with an Anchorage real estate expert to narrow down your choices. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure – and understanding the finer details right from the outset will lead any homeowner in the right direction.

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