Are steam ovens worth it?

By far the most frequent questions I get from ‘pre-purchase’ demonstration clients about steam and combination steam ovens are these:

  • 'what is a steam oven exactly?' Or, sometimes, 'what is a combi steam oven?'

and

  • 'are steam ovens worth it?'

Before I answer those questions, a quick history for you: domestic steam oven technology has been around for almost 20 years - French brand De Dietrich lays claim to selling the first in-home steam ovens in 1997, with Gaggenau launching the first fully plumbed versions in 1999. The German manufacturer’s technology and performance is still widely regarded as the benchmark for this category. Since then, most of the world’s major kitchen appliance manufacturers have added steam and combination steam ovens to their ranges.

At last count (in June 2017), ALL of these brands had at least one steam oven appliance in their range (and I'm sure I've missed a few):

AEG

Asko

Baumatic

Blanco

Bosch

Cuisinart

Electrolux

Fisher and Paykel

Gaggenau

Ilve

Jenn Air

KitchenAid

Maytag

Miele

Neff

Samsung

Siemens

Smeg

Steel Cucine

Technika

Thermador

V-Zug

Wolf

Zanussi

So what is a steam oven? And how is it different to a combination steam oven?

Essentially, a steam oven cooks using wet heat, through the input of steam to the oven cavity. They steam food in the same way as a stovetop steaming basket which sits on top of a saucepan, but with greater ease, efficiency and control.

A combination steam oven goes one step further than a steam oven and combines the functions of a traditional convection (dry) oven with a steam oven, which can then produce dry heat, wet heat or a combination of the two. Combination steam (or convection steam) ovens are truly multi-functional; using the dry and wet heat in combination produces food which is golden brown and crunchy/crispy on the outside, and incredibly moist on the inside.

Some steam and combi steam ovens work via a water tank in the side or top of the oven which runs into a small reservoir (evaporator) at the bottom of the oven - the tank is manually filled, and the evaporator heats up to produce the steam. Others create the steam outside the cavity before injecting it in. You can also buy fully plumbed combi steam ovens, which have the added bonus of not needing to be refilled or emptied by hand. Both ‘tank’ and plumbed versions are efficient and should be easy to use once you know the basics.

Why buy a steam/combination steam oven?

Wondering whether you should blow the kitchen budget and put a steam or combi steam oven on the must-have list?

Before we go too far into their many benefits, I feel I should say straight up that the initial cost of these ovens can put some people off. That said, if you’ve found your way here you’re probably thinking about buying one (if you haven’t already done so), and you might have had a look at a few different models. Combi steam appliances are generally more expensive than steam-only ones, but they offer far more versatility and I really believe that if you’re trying to decide between them, unless you steam just about everything you eat the extra investment in a combi steam oven is well worth it. Steam-only ovens in Australia currently cost anywhere from $1600 to $7000 and combination steam around $2200 to a huge $14000. It’s a sizeable investment in what will be, for most people, an addition to a traditional larger oven rather than a replacement, though worth noting in our house the combi steam is used a LOT more than the full sized main oven despite its smaller size – or sometimes because of it.

For me, the combi steam oven has fundamentally changed the way we cook and eat at home and has been worth every cent. There are lots of reasons, but the main one? The food I cook in it tastes better. I love cooking, I love sharing that cooking with others, and I love eating. So no matter what else might be great about these appliances, that’s what clinches the deal. I can’t make absolutely everything in my combi-steam oven, but I’m ok with that. No matter what a sales rep will tell you, NO single appliance can do every kitchen task and do it well (ahem, Thermomix, I’m looking at you. Not that you aren’t lovely, or that I would turn you away if you appeared on my benchtop). That’s why I have another oven, a food processor, a KitchenAid mixer and myriad other little appliances and gadgets to help out (ummm, so I might be a kitchen junkie. Out and proud).

In most cases, steam and combination steam ovens are smaller than traditional wall ovens. Don’t be put off by this, as you can ‘stack’ the food you cook in them much more efficiently than in a traditional oven. For instance, you can cook enough protein (chicken, fish, prawns, meat, tofu etc), plus vegies and rice for a family of 5-6 people, all in one hit – you achieve this by using three shelves of the oven, rather than using one shelf (or maybe 2) to cook a comparable amount of food in a larger oven. Their smaller size is great for a quicker heat up time, and is more efficient to run. Note: there are a couple of newish products on the market which offer regular sized ovens with combi-steam functionality (AEG are the first brand which come to mind, though I think there are a couple of others – I am unsure, though, whether the humidifying capacity of the AEG ovens is enough to use them for steam-only dishes as you can with all the smaller steam and combi-steamers). It’ll be interesting to see how many manufacturers follow suit with larger capacity steam appliances in future.

Cooking-time savings are another bonus. Different foods vary slightly, but overall you can expect to cook things 20-30% faster using steam or combination steam than in a traditional oven, without sacrificing texture, flavour or nutrients as you do in a microwave. Yay. I and my 5pm-dinner-eating toddler thank the combi steam oven nearly every day for the speedy arrival of his evening meal.

Want to be a healthier cook (who doesn’t)? Though you can make pretty much anything unhealthy if you try hard enough, cooking with steam or combi steam, for me at least, means I use less added fat in my meals. That’s not to say I never use fat on or in food which goes in my combi steam oven – far from it – just that I can make a decision to have a healthier dinner quite easily and without feeling like I’m missing out taste or texture-wise. A tray of roasted veg done ‘naked’ in the combi steam will yield moist, flavour-packed vegetables with golden brown outsides. To achieve a similar result in my regular oven I have to coat everything liberally in olive oil to help with browning and prevent the outsides becoming leathery. Similarly, steaming or combi steaming chicken, fish and meat will give moist and juicy results even if you don’t coat it with oil or butter before cooking as you would in a frypan or oven. Lastly on the health topic, steaming food locks in its nutrients more effectively than baking, frying, grilling or boiling, so you’re winning on the vitamins and minerals side, too.

I want to buy one – how do I choose?!

If you’re in the market to buy a steam or combi steam oven, start by checking the websites of brands you like and compare what’s out there (it changes all the time), then go and look at the options in person. Press buttons, open and close doors, flick switches - don’t be shy, that’s what display models are for. Make sure it’s comfortable to use and sturdy enough in terms of build quality. Finding a good salesperson who knows what they’re talking about is key, so shop around a bit. Steam and combi steam appliances require more complex knowledge than a lot of other ovens, so if your salesperson doesn’t actually know how to describe the benefits and differences between models, find one who does.

Be guided by your budget, but also think about functionality and how an appliance should work for you: if you hate the idea of soaking up water in the bottom of the oven after cooking, look at a plumbed or ‘steam injected’ model; if you just love steamed food and don’t use an oven much, maybe a steam-only model is best. There are lots of practical considerations and sometimes you can whittle down the options quickly just by figuring out where and how it needs to be placed in your space.

Also, don’t be swayed by a salesperson touting ‘all the fancy things you’ll be able to make in your new oven’ if those fancy things are not actually what you like eating or making. New kitchen appliances should help you improve the things you already like to cook and eat; they’re unlikely to change your basic nature! A lot of brands now offer assistance by way of in-depth product demonstrations (yep, that’s what I do when I’m not here), so it’s well worth going to a couple of these before you make a selection. They are generally run by each brand/manufacturer, rather than by the retailers (though you can often book through a retailer), and most are free or will reimburse the cost of the demonstration if you buy their brand.

Right, I hope that helps those of you who wanted some more information. I could go on boring you for another thousand words, but you’ve probably had enough for now!

See you soon. :)

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