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Can a steam oven really replace your microwave?
Microwave ovens have had more impact on our kitchens than any other appliance over the past fifty years. More than 90 percent of American homes own one, and I’d suspect numbers are similar in most other parts of the world.
It’s a big statement, then, to say that a combi steam oven – a relative newcomer to home kitchens – might be able to replace the speed and ease of this staple appliance.
Not sure what a combi steam oven is, exactly? Take a look at my Steam Oven 101 article and then come back here. 😉
Microwave sales vs steam oven sales
There is some weight to the argument for steam ovens when it comes to recent sales numbers.
Microwave sales have dropped steadily over the past decade, while steam oven sales are climbing year-on-year, in double digit percentages for many brands.
Actual sales numbers are a closely guarded secret by the manufacturers, but Miele, a powerhouse brand for steam ovens, rolled their millionth machine off the line a few years ago.
With at least 20 other brands also selling steam ovens and a few newer, lower priced countertop models available, it’s safe to assume there are now millions, if not tens of millions of homes around the world with a steam oven.
The pros and cons of using a steam oven instead of a microwave
The knockout speed of microwave cooking was a revolution when it arrived in home kitchens in the 1960’s.
There was a trade-off, though, which many of us ignored for years in favour of the convenience side of things: microwaved food, on the whole, doesn’t actually taste that great.
Microwaves don’t brown food like a regular oven will, and it’s easy to overcook things because the method of heating is uneven.
There has been much discussion over the years about microwave cooking destroying the nutrients in food. It’s important to note that microwave cooking itself doesn’t destroy nutrients, as many believe. Overcooking your food, something a microwave is great at, definitely will. So will putting your vegetables into an inch of water in a dish and ‘steaming’ them in the microwave. When you do this, many nutrients are leached out of the food and end up in the water.
A lot of cooks value the quality and taste of food over speed, and a steam oven can offer the best of both worlds.
With steam you’ll get faster cooking than a traditional oven (though slower than a microwave), standout taste and texture and a more even heating method. This more even heat leads to less probability of overcooking and therefore better retention of nutrients in many cases.
Moisture is, somewhat obviously, another benefit of using a steam oven to heat and cook food. While microwaved food tends to dry out easily as the moisture within the food is heated and evaporates out, a steam oven continually adds extra moisture (often at varying levels depending on the food you’re cooking). No more chicken breasts which turn to dust in your mouth, or cakes and puddings with the texture of an old tennis ball.
It’s not all good news though.
I mentioned above that a steam oven will cook and heat more slowly than a microwave. In most cases a steam oven is faster than using a conventional oven for the same job, cutting around a third to half of your cooking time on average. But it doesn’t compare to a microwave’s enormous time reductions.
Think about it this way: a dinner plate with last night’s leftovers could take 20 minutes in a regular oven, around 10 minutes in a steam oven and probably only 3-4 minutes in a microwave. This demonstrates that if speed is your major consideration the micro is still your best bet.
The other down side to using a steam oven is that it takes a little more maintenance than a microwave.
For most jobs a microwave can be quickly wiped out after use and it’s good to go again (and unless something’s splattered during cooking, you won’t even need to do that).
A steam oven isn’t hard to clean, but there’s often a little moisture to be wiped up at the end of cooking. And if you’ve cooked something really messy like a roast chicken using the combi steam settings, you’ll have to clean the oven. To be fair, though, I suspect if you roasted a chicken in a microwave (I’ve never tried), there’d also be a fairly heavy cleaning burden afterwards.
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What will a steam oven do better than a microwave?
You really can cook almost anything in a combi steam oven, which is certainly not the case for microwaves. Not if you want to cook something well, anyway.
For argument’s sake, here are a few examples of dishes you might also put into a microwave but which are better using steam.
It sounds silly that given such a highly featured steam oven, one of my favorite things to use it for is reheating, but it’s true nonetheless. The addition of a little steam to a plate of last night’s dinner makes it heat as though it were freshly cooked all over again.
There are gadgets aplenty to help boil, poach and scramble eggs quickly in the microwave. I’d like to argue that in a steam oven, you need no such gadgets, just a pan or a rack. ‘Boil’ eggs by steaming them directly on your oven rack, poach either by low temperature steaming straight in their shells or cracked into a small dish, and scramble in a matter of 3 or 4 minutes without stirring more than once.
Single serves of oatmeal take only a couple of minutes in the microwave, and they’re just fine. But if you are a true lover of the rolled oat, that same bowl popped into your steam oven for 15 minutes while you get ready for work will reward you with the creamiest and silkiest oats you’ve ever tried. Plus, there’s no chance of it boiling over during cooking and leaving you with a giant mess to clean up.
Recently I discovered a method for making bacon really crispy by cooking it on a paper towel in the microwave. It works well but tastes, um, really weird.
I tried combi steam bacon a few weeks back and it was so amazing, and so low-fuss, that I’ll never go back to messy pan frying or weird metallic tasting microwaved stuff again.
Vegetables are where the potential to overcook and lose nutrients really comes into play. An unevenly cooked piece of broccoli that’s been steamed with excess water in the microwave will do the job, but it’s not going to be as nutritious as one that’s gently cooked in a steam oven until it’s exactly as tender as you like it.
Not only can you get rid of your microwave when it comes to rice, you’ll also be able to throw away your rice cooker! That’s extra bang for your buck in terms of kitchen space.
Steamed rice is something I cook at least once a week in my steam oven. It’s hard to overcook, steams evenly and fluffs amazingly well. I’ve only ever found microwave rice to be a bit mushy and clumpy.
Like reheating, thawing frozen foods isn’t a glamorous kitchen job. It is something most of us need to do from time to time, though, so a way to do it well is valuable.
Steam oven defrosting is slower but more even than microwaving. It’s so gentle on your food and you’ll never again end up with something that’s partially cooked by the time it’s defrosted all the way through.
You don’t need to cover foods when thawing them in a steam oven, either. The moisture in the oven is enough to stop them from drying out too much.
There are a couple of unexpected little ‘microwave jobs’ your steam oven can do when it comes to kitchen prep, too. If you’d like to soften or melt butter, or melt chocolate, you can do this quite easily at a low steam oven heat, so long as it’s covered to prevent the steam from getting into the food.
If you’re trying to move away from the microwave and embrace steam oven cooking, these staple recipes will get you going:
Microwave tasks a steam oven can’t do
I hear you wondering, ‘but what about my microwave popcorn and my cold coffee?’, and here’s where I say that no, a steam oven can’t do everything.
Microwave popcorn, if that’s your thing, can actually be made fairly easily on your stovetop, and it’s way more fun for your kids! If we’re honest, it’s way more fun for everyone. Plus I think it tastes better.
When it comes to warming coffee or tea, although you technically could do that in your steam oven, I can’t imagine it would be worth it. I’m going to get on my high horse here, and say that if your hot beverage gets that cold, maybe just, um, make a new one? It’ll be so much nicer to drink.
Some of us also like the option of heating a wheat or rice filled fabric pouch to help soothe sore muscles, aches and pains. I’m one of those people, and I agree that a microwave does this really well.
To overcome the fact that I can’t do the same thing in my steam oven, I recently bought a lovely hot water bottle which does the job just as well. Problem solved and now I don’t have to feel sad that I can’t heat my wheat bags in the steam oven.
The verdict: combi steam oven or microwave
In the end it’s up to you whether you ditch your microwave in favor of a steam oven, but the information above should give you a very good idea of what you can expect.
For me, given the higher quality food and its ability to do almost everything a microwave does only better, a steam oven wins hands down these days. I’ve still got my old microwave but it’s hidden away in the pantry and when it dies (which might be never given how infrequently we use it!) I won’t be replacing it.
If you’re remodeling where space is an issue and choosing a steam oven means getting rid of the microwave, I say do it! Hopefully what you’ve read here will make it much less scary.
Happy cooking, see you here again soon.
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