Innovation: Why steam ovens are hot stuff

Steam ovens rely on steam rather than the dry heat of an electric oven.
Steam ovens rely on steam rather than the dry heat of an electric oven. Photo: Supplied

Cooking with steam is not new, and thanks to advancements in technology, steam ovens are now within the price range of the home market. These types of ovens are similar to ordinary ones but use pressurised steam (more than 100C) to cook. They can be used just with steam or in combination with convection heat. 

Food stylist Caroline Velik is a fan. "It's fast, food keeps its shape and texture, and it retains nutrients because steaming is gentle," she says.

The process is similar to steaming food over a stacked saucepan but with more control and with the larger capacity an oven provides. 

Steam ovens are perfect for dishes you typically steam, such as broccolini, dumplings, seafood and puddings. But they're fine for most foods.

Roasted meat stays moist and can be browned using combination heat and they're also great for soft-boiled eggs and large quantities of rice.

Chef Mark Best likes them for proving bread and baking. "Full steam at low temperatures is also great for fish," he says. 

Cleaning is also easier: the moist environment means it's less likely food will encrust or spit.

If you're in the market, consider the following. Most ovens are not plumbed in and water chamber size varies so ask how long you can steam before needing to top up the water.

An ability to alter the proportion of steam is common but get your retailer to explain the differences between models or, better yet, demonstrate using real dishes. A big differentiator is whether the oven generates steam externally then injects it into the oven, or sprays water into the hot oven to create steam. The former is more accurate. Also ask about condensation; some ovens capture it, while others require a manual wipe down.

Steam ovens account for about 30 per cent of the domestic market, up from around 5 per cent five years ago. Be aware they also tend to be about 25 per cent more expensive than traditional ovens. "Once people realise what a steam oven can do, they see the value," says Best. "You're using a significant piece of kitchen real estate. Why not have the functionality?"