What Is a Steam Oven?
Whether you've seen mesmerizing videos of steam ovens in action on TikTok or simply heard a food-loving friend rave about their own, there's no denying that these appliances have been having a bit of a moment. But what, exactly, is a steam oven, and why are they so popular right now? Ahead, we'll explain what a steam oven can do and why home cooks love them so much; plus, we'll help you decide if you need one in your own kitchen.
What Does a Steam Oven Do, and Why Does Everyone Want One Right Now?
"Steam ovens look like traditional wall ovens. When we talk about steam ovens, we mean wall ovens designed to cook specifically with steam. Ranges can have a steam functionality, where they add steam to the oven cavity," says Metin Ozkuzey, president of Designer Appliances, an independent appliance retailer based in New Jersey. He adds that an oven with this feature can be useful for cooking things like bread, but this isn't the same thing as a steam oven because they have a heating element that does most of the work. Instead of using a heating element for cooking, a steam oven brings water to a boiling-hot 212 degrees Fahrenheit—that's the point at which water turns into steam—and injects moist heat into the oven cavity, explains Ozkuzey, who uses a steam oven at home. "That might not sound that hot, but trust us, it is. Water is a much better conductor of heat than air is. I'm sure you've reached your hand into a 400 degree oven to pull out a baking sheet and been fine. But you'd never stick your hand into a pot of boiling water!" he adds.
As for why steam ovens are having their time in the sun right now, Ozkuzey speculates it's because of an overall cultural shift in the U.S. toward healthier eating (and thus, healthier cooking methods being employed). The trend goes along with other popular cooking appliances like air fryers, personal blenders, and juicers. "People who are renovating their kitchen are also interested in maximizing their resale value, and steam ovens are a new, in-demand feature to consider adding," he notes.
What Makes Steam Ovens So Great?
There are a variety of reasons why chefs and culinary insiders love steam ovens so much. "Steam ovens are great because they turn out healthier, more nutrient-dense food. The high heat of a traditional oven can destroy nutrients like vitamin C and folate. Steam cooking preserves them. Because steam is a more moist way to cook, you can also skip the oils you'd need to use in a traditional oven. That also allows it to reheat food more evenly than a microwave—your food won't dry out or lose its texture," says Ozkuzey. "And since the oven cavity is smaller than a typical oven, steam ovens preheat much faster. They also cook faster [because] water conducts heat more efficiently than air," he continues, giving the example of a serving of salmon taking 20 minutes to cook at 400 degrees Fahrenheit in a traditional oven compared to taking only five to eight minutes to cook in a steam oven.
Ozkuzey calls cooking vegetables and fish in a steam oven "a slam dunk," but he also enjoys making grains in the steam oven: "You can also make any type of rice or grain very quickly with no need to monitor it to avoid burning the bottom, the way you would on the stove top," he offers. "I also like making ribs or other meat dishes that have lots of sauce," he adds. Some steam ovens, as Ozkuzey highlights, even have broil elements for searing, as well as other functions that make them a versatile second oven. Additionally, for those who like cooking several dishes at once, Ozkuzey likes that you can do so without getting a flavor transfer from dish to dish.
Of course, like all appliances, steam ovens have their limitations. As chemical engineer and cookbook author Jim Mumford concedes, steam ovens are great for baked goods, vegetables, and other wetter applications. "For example, steamed broccoli is a dream in a steam oven, cheesecakes will stay perfectly moist without cracking, and cooking white fish is plain simple," he shares. However, for true roasting and higher heat applications, he says, you're going to want to invest in a combo steam/convection oven. On top of cooking in the steam oven, Ozkuzey points to another great but lesser-known use of steam ovens: quickly defrosting foods. "Food won't partially cook the way they inevitably do in the microwave, and it's a million times faster than letting food defrost in the fridge," he says. "It's a safe way to quickly defrost something. You can start defrosting when you start thinking about dinner, and it'll be ready to go by the time you're all prepped to cook."
How to Clean a Steam Oven
Ozkuzey will be the first to admit that cleaning a steam oven requires a few extra steps compared to a traditional oven. "You need to wipe it out and dry it after every use to avoid letting condensation/water sit in the cavity and get yucky. The oven seals tightly for cooking, so it won't just evaporate if you leave it," he says. "Wipe out the oven cavity with a damp cloth (you can use mild dish soap if there's a big mess), then dry it with a clean one."
Also worth noting? Whether your steam oven is plumbed or has a water reservoir that you refill, you need to descale it after every so many hours of use, says Ozkuzey, the same way you would a coffee maker. "Miele makes its own descaling tablets for this purpose," he adds, noting that the brand also offers thorough cleaning instructions in its use and care guide.
How Much Do Steam Ovens Cost?
Countertop versions of steam ovens run the gamut from around $400 to $600. If you're low on counter space in your kitchen, this option may not be for you. By contrast, built-in steam ovens don't take up any precious counter real estate but can cost a pretty penny. We're talking from about $1,500 to $3,000 for Bosch to $5,000 for a top of the line model from Miele. Speaking of these upmarket models, the bells and whistles they offer may be worth it. "Some higher-end steam ovens, like Miele, have guided cooking and recipes, which can be really helpful when you're just learning how to use a new appliance. It can really help you get familiar with how they work," says Ozkuzey, who also recommends that customers head to Wolf or Miele customer classes to learn how to get the most out of their new oven.
A word to the wise before you make a big investment, while shopping be sure to ask if an oven you're considering buying can be plumbed or if it has a reservoir you'll need to refill. Ozkuzey notes in some cases that you might have to refill the reservoir while you're cooking, which can be a nuisance. Echoing Ozkuzey, Mumford says of shopping for steam ovens: "Look for quality brands that have easy-to-access parts (like the water tank)."