The science of steam: A look at how convection steam ovens work

The power of steam has been harnessed to do everything from power locomotives to cook vegetables. And while steam is certainly a versatile form of heat, it may not be enough to accomplish everything you need to do in your kitchen. A steam oven remains one of the healthiest ways to cook a meal, sure, but the method is limited by its temperature range and lacks the capability to brown meats. A convection steam oven, on the other hand, gives you the same healthy benefits of a steam oven, but brings a little extra heat into your kitchen. Here’s how it works.

How it works

A convection steam oven combines the unique capabilities of a steam oven with the cooking efficiency of a convection oven. These modes can be used separately or in conjunction with one another.

A steam oven has a reservoir that needs to be filled before you start cooking. On some ovens, this reservoir needs to be filled manually, while others can be hooked up to your home’s plumbing so that you always have water ready for steaming.

“Steam ovens are popular among cooks who have a special interest in preparing healthy meals,” according to Atherton Appliances. “Heat from the oven turns the water into steam. Food cooked in steam retains moisture better than food cooked in a convection oven. Steamed food also tends to retain more vitamins and minerals than food that is boiled.”

A convection oven uses fans to propel the heat around the inside of the oven. This ensures that your meal is cooked quickly and evenly.

“A true convection mode use a cal-rod heating element that is wrapped around a fan… and of course the fan itself,” Chef Nicole Parmenter of Yale Appliance and Lighting told Digital Trends. “The heating element heats up and the fan pushes the hot air around the oven cavity, basically to prevent hot spots.  The reason why convection is more effective is because the forced hot air feels more intense. At higher temperatures, you can get a better oven sear in less time.  The fan helps excess moisture evaporate.”

A convection steam oven uses both of these methods. Steam gives you a healthy cooking option, while the convection mode allows you to hit higher temperatures and brown meats. Some ovens, such as the Wolf Convection Steam Oven, use digital sensors to determine how much steam or dry heat is needed, then seamlessly switches between these two methods to give you a perfect cook.


bosch steam oven

Steam ovens have long been billed as the healthiest way to cook a meal, but these calorie-conscious cookers also have a few drawbacks. They simply can’t cook the same range of meals you can make in a traditional oven. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), which hinders the temperature range of these appliances.

A convection steam oven, on the other hand, is capable of using both steam and dry heat. This means that in addition to the unique cooking qualities of a steam oven, you can also bake and roast in these ovens, as they can heat up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (232 degrees Celsius).

“(A convection steam oven) has the ability steam, bake and roast,” said Parmenter. “Because it offers a steam mode (using 100-percent steam), a convection mode (using no moisture), and a combi-steam mode (a combination of steam and heat that uses about 50-60 percent steam).  Steam cooking is highly touted for its nutritional benefits and is extremely advantageous in reheating leftover foods. Cooking with steam allows the ability to retain all vitamins and minerals in vegetables, and requires less fats or oils when cooking proteins.  It is also great for making grains, rice, breads and custards that require a ‘water bath.’

“Because the steam oven has the ability to steam and bake/roast on convection, many people think that you cannot brown/roast meat in a steam oven. If you are only using the steam mode, then no, you cannot expect meat to brown; the moisture and temperature will prevent any browning since steam is capped at 212 degrees.  You would have to turn the oven to the convection mode to roast meat. Using the convection mode implies that dry heat only will be used to cook the food and that mode will allow you to go up to 450 degrees.”

A convection steam oven gives you the best of both worlds. Cooking with steam ensures that your meals are juicy and vitamin rich, while the circulating heat speeds up the oven time and provides an evenly cooked meal.

A kitchen staple or a fancy add-on?

A convection steam oven may give you everything you’re looking for in a kitchen appliance, but there is one major drawback: Price.

While ovens have a pretty wide price range, it’s not too hard to find a quality range oven for under $1,000. A full-size convection steam oven, on the other hand, will easily run you three times that. Chef Parmenter said that the price could fall a little as these ovens become more popular, but it’s unlikely that convection steam ovens become household staples.

“Steam ovens and combination steam ovens have been in existence in the culinary industry for a long time, probably since the 1960s,” Parmenter said. “As people started to become more conscientious about food production and preserving nutrients, that’s when you started to see luxury brands producing smaller versions for residential use. At first they were expensive to manufacture, but I believe the more the market grows for this item, the more the price will come down.  But not too far down. Bosch is a base-line luxury appliance and sells their steam oven for about $3,000. I’m not certain that these oven will ever make it to Target or Walmart, but Best Buy now has a Pac-Sales section that offers Thermador, Viking, and other high-end brands.”

If you’re intrigued by the idea of cooking with steam, you could always try out a steam microwave. Whirlpool sells one for $569.