Prepping with Steam-powered Cooking

A primer on cooking with steam and convection ovens

steam convection oven
A Bosch steam convection oven in Amy and Nick’s kitchen

If you love to cook you’ve probably heard about steam cooking. This method has graduated from the vegetable steamer of the ‘70s to more sophisticated options that include:

  • The freestanding steam oven, which cooks solely with steam
  • The combination steam oven, which combines several functions: steam alone, convection and steam, or convection alone
  • The electric oven, which includes an added moisture function that injects bursts of steam into the heated oven cavity

Freestanding steam ovens take up about as much counter space as a high-end microwave, and they cost about the same—in the $300 range. This makes sense if you want to use steam cooking but don’t wish to replace your existing oven yet. However, if you regularly cook complete meals, a built-in combination steam and convection oven could make more sense. This version is available from all the major manufacturers, such as Thermador, Miele, Wolf, and Gaggenau, but expect to pay more than a conventional oven—as much as $3,000 to $8,000. The payoff? Manufacturers promise more bang for these bucks in faster, healthier results for all types of foods, along with nifty additional features, including proofing for bread, automatic boiling point detection, more than a dozen cooking modes, recipe retention, a self-cleaning function, and text display in dozens of languages.

Sweeten, a free service matching homeowners with vetted general contractors, surveys the features and attributes of steam cooking.

What are the benefits?

While steam cooking may not be right for every type of meal you prepare, it does offer many advantages consistent with the lifestyles and eating preferences of many home chefs today. These include:

  • Faster cooking
  • Healthier results
  • Reheating or refreshing food
  • Holding cooked food for several hours
  • Thawing frozen food
  • Cooking several dishes simultaneously

Common sense tells you that food cooked in steam retains moisture better than food cooked in dry heat. This translates into a reduced need for oil or added fats to prevent food from drying out. It also vastly reduces the evaporation of vitamins and minerals. Moisture is also a more effective heat conductor than dry, hot air, so steam ovens, especially when combined with convection, will cook food in less time—as much as a third or a half—than a conventional oven.

With a steam oven, manufacturers say that several dishes can be cooked together with no flavor transfer or temperature adjustment needed, shortening overall prep and cooking time.

The humid environment also does a better job of reheating or refreshing a dish that’s been held over. Since there isn’t a risk of the food drying out, it won’t lose its original texture. Steam cooking cannot brown foods so you may need to switch from steam to convection to finish a dish.

Temperatures will run from 120° to over 400° F to handle everything from a delicate fish to a tray of potatoes to a substantial roast. To get a crispy finish for fowl or fish, transfer items to a stovetop pan to sear before serving. Some of these cooking methods require more steps, so a combo steam and convection oven isn’t for the novice cook. When shopping, ask the salesperson about cooking demos for steam ovens. Many showrooms offer free classes both prior to purchase and after.

How does it work?

Steam ovens create steam from one of two sources:

  • A reservoir that must be filled with water prior to use
  • A plumbed line (like water fed to your icemaker in the fridge)

Heat from the oven turns the water into steam. The oven controls regulate the temperature in the cavity and the humidity. These sophisticated ovens come with preprogrammed modes that determine the correct setting for any type of food you plan to cook, from vegetables to meats to baked goods, rice, and soup.

What about convection?

Chances are, if you added a new oven to your kitchen in the last five to 10 years, it has a convection function. Because convection uses a fan to circulate air through the oven cavity, it’s good at keeping the temperature steady and uniform. The circulating air also serves to cook the food more evenly, and sometimes more quickly, since heat is not concentrated from a single location.

With a combination steam and convection oven, the fan moves the moist, heated air throughout the cavity. It also allows you to switch to convection alone. This option is handy for some foods such as quick breads or pies to get a nice, brown finish. Consult the user’s manual when baking for the first time.

Is it easy to clean?

After use, most steam ovens must be wiped down to remove all the moisture in the cavity. Neglect this task and you invite the possibility of mold as well as scales from minerals in the water. You will also need to remove the reservoir to let it dry completely.

The advantage is that the steam prevents most splatters from cooking that would end up on the oven walls. Some manufacturers, such as Gaggenau, include a fully automatic cleaning system for their ovens that operate with the push of a button.

Steam cooking is without a doubt the latest trend in food prep. However, with its many benefits—healthier meals, shortened cooking times, and tasty results—it’s a trend that should stick around.

Double up your kitchen’s cooking capacity with a wall oven.

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