Secrets of the steam oven

Secrets of the steam oven
When you add steam to convection cooking, it tenderizes food while rationing moisture. (Photo/Rory Callaghan)

By Rory Callaghan |

Technological advancements make our lives easier: cars, air conditioning, cell phones and the internet. Would you ever want to go back to not having these conveniences? This is how I feel about my steam oven. I’m so reliant on it for everything, from toasting bread to roasting meats and vegetables, that when my first one failed after three years of daily use, I immediately replaced it. I cannot live without a combi-steam oven.

I’m not a trained chef, but I’m a very good cook. I don’t bake because that requires the precision of molecular chemistry, and such hard work is no fun. I consult recipes, butrarely follow them rigidly or even measure ingredients. I enjoy the freedom of not worrying too much, and that’s where steam ovens excel because they are very forgiving. You’ll never cook another dried-out chicken or casserole.

My countertop oven at home cost only $300. It will fit a four-to-five-pound chicken on its single rack. For $600 you get a two-rack countertop model. From there the price jumps to $2,500 – $6,000. Not only are the better models larger, but they eliminate the exchange of flavors. This means you can cook a starch, veggie meat and seafood together and they each maintain their individual flavor profile. Cleanup is simple and fast. Steam clean your oven instead of scrubbing a sink full of pots and pans.

People’s initial reaction to hearing about them is often, “Oh, I don’t need that.” Fair enough. Who needed GPS before we enjoyed it? We’d look at a map or ask for directions and reach our destination eventually. But now that you have it, would you want to drive to an unknown location again without GPS?

That’s exactly how adding steam to your quiver of cooking tools will have you thinking. It’s always an effort to learn something new but if what you’re learning is how to make food easier to cook and better tasting, why not? And learning something new is invigorating. The best steam ovens allow you to not bother learning. Enter the kind of food and its weight, and the brain inside the machine cooks it perfectly for you. There is a steam oven for every budget.

Convection cooking still confuses some people, but it just means a regular oven with a fan to move the air around for better temperature consistency. When you add steam to convection cooking, it tenderizes food while retaining moisture. Then switch to bake or broil mode to bring it to a golden brown and delicious finish. Vegetarians and omnivores alike will marvel at the ease, speed and results achieved in a steam oven.

Americans are used to large ovens. Combi-steam ovens are typically only 24” wide, though full-size ones are available. It’s natural for someone to look at a steam oven and say, “That’s too small for me,” but it’s an illusion. Most family meals are easily made in the 24” ovens, with three or four racks, though you must learn how to time what goes in when. Convection steam cooking eliminates the need for a large cavity. To cook a very large turkey or roast you will need a full size oven. Miele makes them in three sizes. The small ones handle up to a 14-pound turkey or roast. The largest is as big as a standard American oven.

There are two methods for getting the water into the oven: reservoir and plumbed. The reservoir method uses a pitcher-like vessel that holds the water. There is a valve that automatically dispenses water as it is needed into the steam generator. Beneath the oven is a drip tray that is removed after cooking for disposal in the sink.

Plumbed units have a permanent water supply like a faucet, and cost more than the smaller, non-plumbed ovens. You need a plumber to run the supply and drain lines going to and from the oven to under the sink, so these are best installed as part of a full kitchen remodel. Here are some foods that combi-steam ovens not only make easier to cook but turn out better than if cooked using a typical method.

Spare ribs. These are a mess to cook and take all day because you must first simmer them in a huge stock pot, then transfer them to the grill or broiler. Steaming helps break down the collagen, tenderizing them in the pan at low temp steam in half the time simmering takes, and retains flavor. You must get them to that state to achieve that silky, moist texture we love. Then in the same pan without removing it, broil to char your rub and/or bbq sauce. Fall off the bone tender and so easy.

Shellfish. I have a huge steamer pot that I used to use for crabs, mussels and clams. Never again. Too much to cleanup after enjoying a meal.

Risotto. I cannot personally vouch for this because I’ve never made it. But I have a friend who is a pro chef, and he swears by it. It eliminates the boredom and work of standing at the cooktop, stirring the pot from start to finish. The combi-oven moisturizes every grain of rice evenly without having to attend to it.

Bread. I’m not a baker, but real commercial bakeries always use steam ovens, both for proofing and baking.

I read an article in the New York Times headlined “Get a combi-steam oven even if you use it only to reheat leftovers.” Most of us reheat leftovers in our microwave, which is certainly fast. But that’s about the extent of its benefit. The price for hot food in one minute is dry, tough food that has had flavor leached out of it, and arguably is less nutritious.

To reheat in your steam oven, place a plate of food in the oven, and set it to steam at 225-250 degrees for seven to10 minutes. I always re-heat leftovers this way and they taste freshly cooked. You simply cannot get that result in a microwave.

The functions on even the least expensive steam convection oven include toast, bake, steam bake, broil, steam broil, proof, pure steam, keep warm and steam clean.

Remember, food feeds the body, and beauty feeds the soul.

The writer is Kitchen Planning & Cabinetry Specialist at M&M Appliances at 817 S. Washington St. He can be reached at roryc@