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What’s a steam oven and how does it work?

Looking to make healthier, better-tasting food? Invest in a steam oven.

A wall oven with its door open revealing steamed foods. Credit: Bosch

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Looking for a way to create healthier, fresher, better-tasting food? It might be time to install a steam oven. Steam ovens can do almost anything an oven or a microwave can do while retaining more nutrients and cooking your food more quickly. They’re perfect for creating juicy chicken breasts or tender-crisp vegetables, and they make reheated leftovers taste so much better.

If you’re not ready to ditch your traditional stove, you can use a steam oven in conjunction with your existing oven or range. Full steam ovens are a great alternative to having a microwave in the home! Of course, if you’re ready to jump in with both feet, many new steam ovens—like the Bosch Steam Convection oven—give you the best of both worlds with options to heat with hot air or steam.

What is a steam oven?

A close-up image of the control panel on a steam oven.
Credit: Bosch

Steam ovens cook food at a 212°F because this is the temperature at which water produces steam.

Steam ovens, as the name indicates, use steam to cook your food. A regular oven uses a gas or electric heating element to heat the air, and convection ovens use fans to circulate that hot air around the food to cook it more quickly. What makes steam ovens unique is that they heat water instead of air, and the water produces steam when it’s heated to 212°F. This method cooks your food more quickly than a regular oven, and the humid environment ensures anything cooked in a steam oven turns out juicy and moist.

You don’t need to change the plumbing in your kitchen for most steam ovens, either. Many models use a water tank instead of direct plumbing. That’s convenient from an installation perspective, but you’ll have to remember to refill the reservoir.

Why switch to a steam oven

Health-conscious cooks love steam ovens because of their ability to cook without additional oil. In a traditional oven, you need a protective layer of fat (i.e. butter or cooking oil) to keep the food from drying out in the hot-air environment. Steam ovens get around this by cooking with superheated steam, which locks moisture into the food as it cooks. You can add oil for flavor, if you like, but it’s not necessary to create perfectly cooked food.

Steam also sets the color of vegetables while helping them maintain their nutritional value. Water-soluble vitamins—like vitamin C and B complex—are leached out of fruits and vegetables when they’re cooked in boiling water. Steaming vegetables allows them to hold onto those vitamins, delivering more nutrition with every bite.

We also love using steam ovens for reheating leftovers. They heat food more rapidly than a regular oven, so they’ll heat leftovers just as quickly as a microwave. The humid environment is a major bonus here, too. Leftovers tend to dry out in the fridge as any starches in the food soak up excess liquid. A microwave’s dry heat doesn’t do anything to solve this problem while a steam oven injects extra moisture into the food as it cooks, helping everything turn out just as tasty as the day they were made.

Types of steam ovens

Full steam ovens

Full steam ovens can only cook with steam, and they don’t have any additional heating elements. In addition to operating at 100% steam, most models allow you to adjust the steam percentage, and they should have several built-in programs for specific dishes like melt chocolate, proof dough, or cook bacon.

Full steam ovens are a fantastic replacement for your microwave, but you may want to install one next to a regular oven because they can’t heat without water. They can cook almost anything a regular oven can cook, but they’re not great at baking desserts like cookies, muffins, cakes, or pie. Your baked goods would still taste fantastic, but they’ll lack the classic golden-brown finish you’ll find in a traditional oven.

Convection steam ovens & combi steam ovens

Credit: Bosch

Combi steam ovens like this Bosch model are our top pick for steam ovens if you've got the budget for it.

If you only have space and budget for one oven, combination ovens are the way to go. These ovens provide the best of both worlds, functioning as an oven and a steamer. Look for models that give you complete flexibility to cook with hot air only, 100% steam, and a steam cooking combination—like Bosch HSLP451UC Steam Convection Oven.

Ovens with steam cook features

Some ovens claim to have steam cooking features because they have a water reservoir tray that can inject moisture and humidity into the baking cycle. When you read the fine print, you’ll find that most of these ovens are not capable of cooking with 100% steam, so they’re not true steam ovens. They’re great for keeping food moist as it roasts, but they can’t provide the benefits of a 100% steam oven.

The best foods to cook in a steam oven

Steamed salmon with steamed broccoli and carrots on a white plate arranged next to a napkin and silverware.
Credit: Getty Images / NataBene

Beyond the traditional steamed veggies, you can also use your steam oven to cook fish, chicken, and even bread!

Steam ovens are great at cooking most foods, although they do have a few limitations. These ovens are limited to producing heating water to 212°F, so they can’t reach the same high temperatures as a regular oven. That means it’s not possible to make oven-roasted Brussels sprouts or roast a crispy-skinned whole chicken. They’re also not capable of producing a golden-brown finish on baked goods like cookies or pie.

That said, steam ovens are fantastic at cooking just about everything else. Steamed fish, meat, and poultry turn out juicier than their grilled or roasted counterparts, so you’ll never have to worry about serving a dry chicken breast again! Meats will also cook much faster in a steam oven; you can probably knock off 50% of the cooking time of a whole turkey, which makes Thanksgiving prep that much easier. It’s worth noting that steamed meat looks a little lackluster compared to a regular oven (especially poultry with skin on). You may want to pop steamed meats under the broiler of a regular oven (or use your combi-steam oven’s hot air function) to finish them off and create caramelized exterior.

When it comes to vegetables, the steam oven really shines. Vegetable dishes made with carrots, green beans ,asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower and more are steamed to tender-crisp perfection while also retaining their nutrients. Steam ovens also cook potatoes for mashed potatoes much more quickly than boiling them on the stovetop, and you won’t need to peel them first because the skins will fall right off after they’re steamed.

Steam ovens are great for cooking other foods, too. Try hard-boiling eggs in a steam oven, cooking rice, or reheating leftovers. The sky’s the limit!

Get the Bosch HSLP451UC Steam Convection Oven at AJ Madison for $3,399

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