The perfect marriage of cost, aesthetics and performance is what suits your lifestyle and budget best. In addition to their many practical contributions, countertops also make a big visual and tactile impact. The huge variety of materials—each with its own range of characteristics and cost—allows a kitchen countertop to fit neatly into just about any lifestyle.

Yearning for the good old days? Take a close look at an old kitchen. Even well-appointed houses were likely to have kitchens that look utilitarian, even stark, when compared with what contemporary cooks expect. Counter space often was provided by a built-in cabinet or dresser with a wood top, or even just a big table. Not these days. We want countertops that delight the eye, stand up to heat, keep out food stains, are easy to clean and are more durable than the deck of a battleship.

Amazingly, a variety of materials, both natural and man-made, manages to fit the bill: plastic resins, sheet metal, wood, stone, ceramic tile, concrete, even slabs of quarried French lava. Prices range from less than $5 per sq. ft. for plastic-laminate countertops to $300 per sq. ft. for granite as rare as blue Brazilian bahai.

In addition to their many practical contributions, countertops also make a big visual and tactile impact. The huge variety of materials—each with its own range of characteristics and cost—allows a kitchen countertop to fit neatly into just about any lifestyle and architectural tradition. Spending thousands of dollars isn’t hard to do, but far more economical alternatives also exist. The only trick is wading through all the options.