Steam ovens 101: What are steam ovens and how do they work?

Full steam ahead: The Electrolux 60cm multifunction 16 steam oven.
Full steam ahead: The Electrolux 60cm multifunction 16 steam oven.  Photo: Supplied

Cooking with steam is hardly a new technique. Steamers were being used as far back as 5000BC and their modern-day cousins have been used in commercial kitchens by high-profile chefs for decades.

In recent years steam ovens have started catching the eye of home cooks, too, especially those keen to make healthy and convenient everyday recipes, no doubt inspired by TV cooking shows featuring the latest technology and gadgets.

How do steam ovens work?

It's quite simple. Most steam ovens contain a water canister inside the oven cavity. The water is injected into the boiler through a pump and the heat from the oven turns the water into steam. This means moisture is kept at optimal levels, reducing the need for oils and seasoning. Some models connect to a water line. 

Steam cooking tends to be healthier.
Steam cooking tends to be healthier. Photo: Supplied

What's the fuss?

Cooking with steam tends to be a healthier alternative than baking or frying in oil or fat. The natural textures, colours and flavours of the food are retained, as well as more nutrients and vitamins.

It's also faster, significantly reducing cooking time, particularly when preparing large quantities. You can bake, brown, roast and grill food, as well as defrost and reheat leftovers. Parents can even disinfect baby bottles. 

Most importantly, the humidity helps prevent the meal from drying out, so the final result is tastier.

Before rushing out to buy a steam oven, however, keep in mind that steam functionality adds about $800 to a standard oven purchase.

If you currently own a pyrolytic oven and want to upgrade to a steam oven, have your cleaning tools handy because most options on the market are not self-cleaning.

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And remember, most steam ovens contain a canister (size and location varies depending on the brand) that you need to fill with water, which means more maintenance than a regular oven. 

What foods can I cook in my steam oven? 

Basically anything - from vegetables, meat, fish, rice, pasta, bread and dumplings to desserts such as puddings, souffles and creme brulee.

Depending on which model you buy, you can also use the oven in steam-only mode if required, or use the conventional oven without the steam function.

What is available on the market?

Major brands such as Bosch, Electrolux, Asko, Smeg, Miele and ILVE all sell steam ovens. They are often sold in compact 45-centimetre models or the standard 60 centimetres. As a general rule, there are three types of steam ovens.

The first category is steam-only or pure steam ovens that only provide steam-cooking functionality, which are ideal for fish, vegetables, breads and desserts. 

Secondly, combination steam ovens or combi-steam ovens offer dedicated steam or dedicated convection, or a combination of the two. Different dishes can be cooked at the same time as there are no flavour or aroma transfers. This option is ideal for those who like to steam regularly, while enabling crisp browning for roasting and baking.

The third option is a standard oven with an added moisture function, steam assist or steam "puff", which injects steam into the oven at intervals during a regular fan-forced mode. 

Prices start from about $2499, with pricier models running to $12,999. As with any appliance, the final cost will depend on your budget, the brand and which oven features you need. 

Stewart Wesson's chocolate souffle cake.

Photo: Supplied

Stewart Wesson's chocolate souffle cake

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Serves: 6+

Ingredients

340g dark chocolate

120g butter

1 vanilla bean

200g sugar

5 eggs, separated

125g plain flour

Method

1. Preheat the steam oven to 150C using the steam function.

2. Melt the butter and chocolate on a saucepan under low heat. Once melted take off the heat and whisk in the vanilla bean seeds and a pinch of salt.

3. Add 1 egg yolk at a time, making sure the yolk is whisked quickly until combined.

4. Sift in the flour then fold the flour into the chocolate mixture with a spatula until combined.

5. Whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer until it froths, then gradually add in the sugar.

6. Continue whisking until it reaches soft peaks.

7. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, adding a quarter at a time, mixing well after each addition.

8. Pour the mixture into a greased 16cm spring-form cake tin and bake for 30 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

9. Cool for 10 minutes before turning out of the cake tin.

10. Serve with mascarpone or vanilla ice-cream.

Stewart Wesson is an Electrolux ambassador and chef of Whistle & Flute in Adelaide.