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What’s a Steam Oven and do you need one?

This post was written in partnership with Signature Kitchen Suite. Huge thanks for the gift of a beautiful range featured in this post. As always, my opinions are my own.

Like many of you, I started baking bread during quarantine. Gluten-free, no less, since most of my family feels better avoiding gluten. As with most things I take on, however, I did a deep dive: I took virtual courses, found mentors, bought a handful of books, studied all the nerdy science, and tried my best to master the art of baking!

One of the things that quickly became apparent was the power of steam. It’s invaluable in getting the lift you need for a beautiful loaf, as well as that desired crispy crust (more on that later). But cooking with steam can do so much more than improve your baking output, and I’ve grown to love and lean on the steam oven I have now, thanks to my partnership with Signature Kitchen Suite. Their Steam-Combi oven is one of two found in their flagship 48-inch Dual-Fuel Pro Range (pictured below). It’s got a couple of different modes that let me cook so many things with the assistance of steam, and after only a few short months, it’s changed how I cook just about everything. 

If you’ve been eyeing a steam oven, either a countertop or built-in model, and want to know more, read on. 

What is a steam oven, and how does it work? 

Simply put, a traditional oven cooks with a heating element and circulates hot air around your food. A steam oven cooks by circulating hot, pressurized steam around your food, which results in a faster cooking time and food that retains its moisture. 

Water turns to steam at 212 degrees, so cooking with steam alone means you can’t reach your usual 350 or 400-degree cooking temperatures. That said, steam transfers heat 100x more efficiently than air, so cooking with steam at that temperature is perfect for many things like vegetables, fish, and desserts.

What kinds of steam ovens can you buy? 

Generally, there are three kinds of steam ovens on the market: 

The first is a steam-only or pure steam oven that ONLY cooks with steam. 

The second is a combination steam oven (or combi-steam), which cooks with steam, or convection, or a combination of the two. This gives you the best of both worlds: the power of steam plus the ability to turn on convection cooking for browning, roasting, or crisping. 

The third option is a standard oven (which can bake, convection bake, broil, etc.) with an added moisture function, steam “assist” or steam “puff” that injects steam into the oven at intervals during a regular cooking mode.  

Signature Kitchen Suite’s Steam-Combi oven is a combination of the latter two: You can choose to cook in “steam” mode (steam only) or in “steam assist” mode (combi-mode) to get your desired effect. 

Where does the water come from?

Just in case you were wondering how all this steam is made, steam ovens will either have a reservoir that needs to be filled manually or have the option of a plumbed water line, so you never need to worry about it. 

What are the benefits of a steam oven? 

The fun part of having a steam oven has been discovering all the ways that it improves my meal preparation, making it easier and faster to get dinner on the table. Here are a few examples of some of the steam oven perks:

Food tastes better

Let’s start with the most important one: Food cooked in a steam oven tastes better. Why? Cooking with steam locks moisture into the food. Say goodbye to dried-out chicken and Thanksgiving turkey! 

Meals are healthier and vibrant

Food cooked in steam has more nutritional value because it retains more vitamins and minerals than food that is boiled. And because you’re cooking at a lower temperature, you’re not destroying heat sensitive nutrients, like vitamin C and B, for example. Plus, the food looks better, because it keeps its color better compared to traditional ovens or boiling (don’t forget that we eat with our eyes as well). 

Dinner is cooked faster…

Steam ovens cook faster (and with less energy). You can expect to shave off 20 to 30% of a recipe’s cook time by using a steam oven. For example, a piece of salmon that might take 20 minutes at 400 degrees only takes 5-8 minutes in a steam oven. And since the steam oven cavity is often smaller than a traditional oven, you save time on preheating too. 

… and risk of overcooking is lower

If you have a habit of forgetting about dinner and burning things, a steam oven might be a good fit for you.  In a regular oven, the bottom of your food is browns first while the top cooks through— if it’s too hot, you’ll have burnt bottoms before the top is ready. In a steam oven, your food cooks more evenly and there’s no browning, so you have more leeway with overcooking. 

Replace your microwave

A steam oven is genius at defrosting and reheating, two of the things I use my microwave for the most. It won’t dry things out or give you a mushy texture, and you won’t have those microwave-signature hot spots either. It can’t do microwave popcorn, though (no love loss there). 

No cross-flavoring

You can cook weird things together. You wouldn’t dream of cooking a chocolate souffle beneath a salmon flank in a traditional oven… unless you think fishy desserts are delectable. But steam ovens prevent cross-flavoring, so you can cook things together and not worry about any flavor contamination. 

Better bread and baking

Think of a steamed bao bun— fluffy, puffy and soft. Steaming yields a moist and tender crumb, and makes your brownies fudgy and cakey. And if you make homemade bread, you’ll see a marked difference— your crusts will be crispier and your lift will be loftier. 

Anything else I need to know? 

My steam oven has been used to cook a range of things, all with fantastic results. But here are some things to be aware of: 

Not suitable for everything

Steam cooking isn’t ideal for any food you want to be browned or crispy— no browned chicken skin or crispy edges on your home fries. Delicate cakes and pastries also can’t handle the steam environment. This is why a combi- or steam-assist oven is the best of both worlds— steam when you want it, and browny-crispy heat when you don’t. 

You’ll have to experiment with timing

Your recipes were made to work in a traditional oven, so you need to know that you’ll be experimenting a little when you cook because the cooking time will be so much faster. You’ll need to be committed to checking on your dinner every few minutes to avoid overcooking until you get the hang of it. Thankfully, there are many steam recipes on the internet that you can lean on while you’re starting out. 

You have to commit to some maintenance

You should really regularly clean and maintain any oven you use, but many of us haven’t cleaned our traditional ovens in a looong time. Steam ovens need a bit more attention— when your dinner is done, it will be soggy (due to the condensation that builds up when cooking), so you’ll need to wipe it down after each use. Failing to do so will result in a stinky oven and a future meal that tastes like the last one. An occasional descaling is needed too (as easy as it is to descale your coffee machine). 

Thankfully, the Signature Kitchen Suite range has a couple cleaning modes that will pull moisture out of the oven to give me a head-start. A simple wipe down is all that’s required after that. It lets me know when it’s time to be descaled, which is as easy as tapping its touchscreen. 

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